Pressed to dissolve militias, Sarraj floats idea of forming ‘national guard’
Libya's Muslim Brotherhood is planning to circumvent American and international demands to dissolve its affiliated militias, by suggesting the creation of a “national guard” and marketing it extensively, in a manoeuvre aimed at buying additional time in the face of mounting pressures.
The new manoeuvre was reflected in accelerated moves by a number of leading figures within those militias loyal to the Turkish-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. It coincided with an escalation in the GNA camp of the political rhetoric over the continued control by the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar of the city of Sirte, considered the main western gateway to the oil crescent, and the strategic al-Jafra airbase.
French intelligence reports revealed that the Turkish defence consulting firm SADAT, which is run by retired Brigadier General Adnan Tanriverdi, a former adviser to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, recently signed an agreement with a security company run by Fawzi Boukatif, a member of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood who is known for his relations with extremist organisations, in order to train its militia.
The US State Department, however, said that the meeting via video conferencing between American officials and officials from the Libyan Ministry of Interior of the Sarraj government ended with insistence on the need to dismantle the militias and impose international sanctions on armed groups working against the political process or engaging in criminal activities.
On the Libyan side, the meeting was attended by the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Minister of the Interior of the GNA government, Fathi Bashagha, and a number of security officials. From the American side there was Henry Wooster, deputy assistant secretary of state for Maghreb and Egypt Affairs, Miguel Correa, senior officer for North Africa and the Middle East at the National Security Council and Stephen de Meliano from the US Africa Command (AFRICOM).
The meeting was devoted to follow up on what was agreed to during the Zuwara meeting last week between General Stephen Townsend, AFRICOM commander, US Ambassador to Libya Richard Norland, and Sarraj, who was accompanied by Bashagha and a number of military officers.
Confirming what The Arab Weekly reported last April, namely that the American delegation had asked al-Sarraj to dismantle a number of militias, Bashagha wrote in a series of tweets that the American side “stressed during the video conference the need to seriously begin dismantling militias, demobilising them and reintegrating them in one force.”
Bashagha, however, conveniently neglected to say that the Sarraj government does not wish to dismantle the militias, and as such seeks to circumvent its commitments to the American side and to the Berlin conference, which had also emphasised the necessity of dismantling the armed militias. Instead, the GNA prefers to form a “national guard," previously suggested by former head of the UN mission to Libya Martin Kobler to absorb these militias and turn them into a formal and structured military force.
The idea of establishing a "national guard" dates back to May 2016, when the GNA’s Presidential Council announced it would establish such a body under the supervision of Sarraj that would enjoy financial and administrative independence. The guard corps' mission would be “to secure the presidential and sovereign headquarters in the state,” in addition to securing and guarding vital targets in the country, including land, sea and air entry points.
The decision stipulated at that time that this new corps would be commanded by a senior army officer with at least the rank of colonel. In fact, the suggested project was based in part on the outcome of the Skhirat Agreement signed in December 2015, but it failed to see the light, as political differences prevented its implementation. On February 8, 2017, the “Salvation Government” of the time, headed by Khalifa Al-Ghuwail picked up on the same idea and proposed the establishment of a military force under the name of “National Guard”.
At the time, the command of this new military body was assigned to Khaled al-Sharif, aka Abu Hazim, the military commander of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). Al-Sharif’s name is being floated again as a fierce Sarraj-government supporter, within the context of the current moves to respond to the American and international pressures to dismantle the armed militias, which are supported by Turkey and are active in the capital, Tripoli, and several other regions in Libya.
On Saturday night, Khaled al-Sharif appeared on a TV channel affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and defended the position of the Sarraj government. “The Government of National Accord is determined to liberate and restore Libyan sovereignty on all Libyan lands,” al-Sharif said, making an indirect reference to the city of Sirte, whose “liberation has become an urgent matter,” according to the spokesperson of the Sarraj forces, Mohamed Qanunu.
Libyan media reports revealed that al-Sharif, who currently resides in the Turkish city of Istanbul, made a secret visit to the capital Tripoli last week with a number of Turkish operations officers, where he held a series of meetings with the leading figures of the armed militias in an attempt to revive the idea of forming a “national guard” that would be independent of the security and military institutions.
These successive reports confirm the leaked news about Bashagha trying to find a formula that can circumvent American irritation, while maintaining the cohesion of the militia forces loyal to the government, in coordination with the Turks who seem to agree with his plan to get rid of about 34 troublesome militia leaders from the cities of Tripoli, Zawiya and Sabratha.
This article was first published in the Arab Weekly and was reproduced by permission.