The Arab boycott of Qatar has not yet ended, with Doha refusing to adjust its regional policies especially with regard to the issue of providing financial support for terrorism. The effects of the diplomatic crisis have also been regressive towards other Arab conflicts, especially in the case of the ongoing violence in Libya. Since the fall of Colonel Gaddafi in 2011 the Mediterranean country has witnessed regional polarization, with each internal player influenced by an external player whose choices affect the possibility for peace or war within the country.
Qatar, Turkey and Sudan all sought to empower the political and armed religious factions and militias in Libya as part of their bet on the rise of political Islam in the post-revolutionary phase of 2011. Egypt and the U.A.E. have faced the repercussions of this since the summer of 2014, alongside the Libyan National Army led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, with the aim of restoring state institutions and combating the spread of terrorist groups whose influence has crossed the regional borders of Libya.
Hence, the decision of the interim government in eastern Libya (supported by the House of Representatives in Tobruk and Khalifa's Libyan National Army) to align itself with the four Arab states in its decision to boycott Qatar on June 5, can be understood as part of a dynamic management of conflicts with the Islamist alliances, as well as, the Government of National Accord (GNC). The GNC was produced by the Sokhirat Agreement of December 2015, where he relied mainly on the alliances of militias since entering Tripoli in March 2016.
In parallel with these four states issuing a list of terrorist actors associated with Qatar, which included the Benghazi Defence Brigades and five Libyan Islamic leaders, a parliamentary committee from the House of Representatives proposed a list of Libyan domestic terrorists, including the names of 75 militants and nine terrorist entities linked to Qatari funding. The domestic list included former officials and ministers, leaders from the Supreme State Council, the Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm the Justice and Construction Party in western Libya, alongside other armed militias such as the Benghazi Revolutionary Shura Council and the Al-Samoud Brigade.
Impact of the crisis
The eastern Libyan alliances that exert pressure on Qatar and its allies, as well as the overall regional recession in Doha's policies, are a potential sentence of restraint on the Gulf country not only internally, but also in terms of regional and international interactions with the Libyan crisis. The most notable of these potential declines in Qatari influence can be presented as follows:
First, the possible weakening of Qatari policy towards regional issues, including Libya, may weight the internal balance of power in favor of the Libyan National Army and its alliances in the East, compared with their opponents in the West and South of the country, many of whom receive political support and funding from the Doha regime.
This possibility is reinforced in light of the recent victories of the field forces of the Libyan National Army, which developed its control from the East and the oil crescent areas in 2016, excluding Derna, to the center and South, especially Jafra and Sebha, where Haftar's forces have captured several strategic positions and bases by early June 2017.
These advances come at a time when the alliances of the Libyan West are experiencing internal disintegration. The capital, Tripoli, has been witnessing a conflict of control between militias and alliances loyal to the Al-Wifaq government, the Supreme Council of the State and the former National Salvation Government, which emerged from the National Conference that has been divided since the approval of the Sokhirat agreement. In addition, Misrata's relative strength has recently declined, especially with the withdrawal of its Third Force army from the South following the crisis of the Brak Al-Shati airbase in southern Libya last May.
The crisis was followed by disagreements between Misrata and the Benghazi Defence Brigades, with the former refusing the return of the second’s elements to the city for fear of retaliation by the Libyan National Army, especially after the killing of more than 100 fighters at the base, although it was subsequently seized. More importantly, the U.S. and European-backed Al-Serraj government did not succeed in transforming last year's victory over Islamic State in Sirte at the hands of U.S. air support and militia alliances into building a unified security force in the Libyan West.
Second, the siege of Qatar is inextricably linked to the Islamist forces and armed militias in Libya. If the decision to boycott Qatar to cease its funding for terrorist elements in western and southern Libya succeeds, this means weakening the sources of these forces in their political and field interactions.
Regarding the list of terrorist entities associated with Qatar issued by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, it included Libyan leaders opposed to Haftar and the eastern alliances in general, such as the former Mufti Sadeq al-Ghareani, Abdul Hakim Belhadj, head of the Salafist Party and one of Qatar's main men since the fall of Qaddafi, Sheikh Ali al-Sababi, who represents the most important and financial link between Doha and the militias and streams of political Islam.
Alongside his brother Ismail al-Sababi, the pair founded several terrorist armed militias including the Benghazi Defence Brigades, Raf Allah al-Sahati, and the 17 February Battalions, or as the Libyans jokingly call them, "17 Ferrari", due to their generous Qatari support. In addition, Mehdi Al-Harati, the deputy head of the military council in Tripoli, was accused of coordinating the transportation of terrorists from inside Libya to Syria to fight against the Assad regime.
Third, the weakening of Qatar's role in Libya will affect the policies of other regional powers, such as Algeria and Tunisia, which have close relations with Islamist factions and militias in western Libya linked to Qatari financing, particularly Belhadj.
Infographic by Ahmed Hussein
The tendency of the balance of power to be in favour of the alliances of the Libyan East in the South and West regions, which are of strategic importance to Algerian and Tunisian security, may lead to the acceleration of these regional powers to absorb Haftar within the security zone in the troubled Sokhirat agreement to ensure that it does not extend its influence towards the capital, Tripoli. The dilemmas of that agreement, which impeded the Government of Reconciliation's attainment of the confidence of the House of Representatives, were concentrated in Article VIII of the additional provisions in the agreement. This transferred the powers of the security posts of the Prime Minister's office and effected the immediate marginalization of Haftar, which was rejected by Alliances of the East.
This regional influence is heightened by the fears of both Algeria and Tunisia that the rules of the regional game in Libya will be changed for the benefit of Egypt and the U.A.E. which seek to reinforced the strength of their allies in the East, centre and South. Nowhere is this clearly than the Egyptian air strikes in Derna and Jafra in response to the Minya terrorist incident of May 26, 2017. The concern of Libya's North African neighbors manifested when the foreign ministers of Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria met in Algiers after more than a week of Egyptian air strikes in Libya, to produce a trilateral statement confirming Libya's unity, a comprehensive political dialogue and a rejection of outside interference.
Fourth, the direction of Western policies to establish the balance between Al-Sarraj and Haftar is also of note. With the weakening of the alliances of western Libya, whether through advancing of the Libyan National Army or weakening of the Qatari regime, this may reinforce Western policies to build a stronger working relationship between Haftar and Al-Sarraj. The Europeans, who have been betting on the support of the Al-Sarraj government in western Libya to form a security backbone to protect the Mediterranean Sea from threats of terrorism and illegal immigration, are now convinced that it is hard to ignore Haftar in the equation of Libyan power. The Libyan National Army's progress towards the South and the centre, and its proximity to Tripoli and the Libyan West in general, pose a threat to the centre of the weight of European interests, particularly the British and Italian. The latter entered into an agreement with Al-Sarraj in February 2017 to reduce the threat of illegal migration across the Mediterranean.
Moreover, the repercussions of political chaos in western Libya has affected the U.K. itself, most notably with the recent terrorist attack on a concert hall in Manchester, carried out by a Libyan named Salman al-Obeidi that later was discovered to have prepared for the operation mainly from Tripoli.
The European trend is backed by the Trump policy, which, despite its vagueness, indicates that the initial indications are open to the two camps in eastern and western Libya. It is true that Washington supports the Libyan National Army's progress in the fight against terrorism in eastern Libya, but it has balanced it by also communicating with Al-Sarraj government. This was evident in the visit of U.S. Ambassador Peter Bodde and General Thomas Waldhauser, commander of the United States Command in Africa (AFRICOM), to Tripoli on May 23, 2017, where the American ambassador stated that Washington was committed to the Government of Reconciliation in Libya and also praised the defeat of IS by pro-government forces.
The same is true for Russia. In spite of its inclination to Haftar as part of its policy of restoring the influence and interests it lost in the Mediterranean country following the fall of the Qaddafi regime, Moscow has also give occasional references to its contacts with the leaders of the Libyan West. Given this stance, in February 2017 Al-Sarraj demanded that it play the role of mediator, especially with its influence and contacts with the alliances of eastern Libya.
Opportunities and constraints:
The possible weakening of Qatari influence in Libya and the dismantling of its alliances in the country may represent an opportunity for the allies in the East to reinforce their strength in any future negotiations to amend the stalled Sokhirat agreement by forcing international pressure on the Al-Sarraj government and its allies in western Libya to accept the amendments to the agreement. On the other hand, fears that the expansion of Haftar's forces westward means entering the Libyan conflict into a more complex stage and a chaos that Western powers may not be able to confront, cannot be ignored.
However, the potential repercussions of Qatar's crisis on the balance of power in the Libyan conflict are ultimately linked to the dynamics of the conflict - whether the regime in Doha will be fully or partially subdued on the matter of changing its regional policies.
Dr. Khaled Hanafi Aly is An Egyptian researcher in political science, editor in charge of the website of the International Policy Magazine