Libya: ‘I felt that Haftar had done me a dirty trick,’ says Ghassan Salamé

By Jihâd Gillon
Posted on Thursday, 12 August 2021 02:52, updated on Monday, 2 May 2022 11:10

Khalifa Haftar (R) meets with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres (L) and Ghassan Salame (R), UN Special Envoy to Libya and head of the UN Support Mission in Libya, on 5 April 2019. AFP

By the time he finally decided to throw in the towel in March 2020, Ghassan Salamé, the UN’s former envoy to Libya, was exhausted. He also has recurring heart problems and said “I've been running from doctors all my life!” as a joke; but also as a moral statement.

This is part two of a two-part interview.

Since April 2019, Libya had been tearing itself apart more than ever before, as Marshal Haftar had just launched an offensive against Tripoli, which brutally undid the efforts that Salamé had been leading ever since he was appointed in 2017.

But Salamé’s was a sham resignation. From his hospital bed, then from his Parisian flat on Avenue d’Iéna, he continued to fulfil his duties until a new government was introduced this past February, which is in charge of organising elections for December.

Salamé, Lebanon’s former minister of culture (2000-2003), explains that he has lived through one of the richest periods of an already full life and that this experience will be the focus of a book that he is working on with his former American assistant, Stephanie Williams. This front-row witness to the Libyan crisis agreed to sit down with us and answer our questions about the attack on Tripoli, the fate of the Gaddafists, mercenaries and interference from great powers.

During the second part of this interview, Salamé talked at length about Haftar’s character and ‘his’ 4 April 2019 – the day Haftar launched an offensive on Tripoli. He also talked about the accusations made against France, which is suspected of having supported the leader of the Libyan National Army (LNA).

Tell us about ‘your’ 4 April 2019, the day Haftar decided to attack Tripoli.

Ghassan Salamé: Around January, Haftar started his advance south, which sometimes went peacefully, as in [the case of] Sebha, but oftentimes resulted in quite bloody battles, like in Mourzouq. He went as far as the oil wells in the west. Two officers from within the Sarraj government warned me that he was preparing to attack Tripoli. I took them seriously. At the end of February, a tweet from Haftar’s spokesman announced that the marshal would soon be launching an offensive on Tripoli and that Gharyan would be captured. We could no longer stand idly by.

Haftar and Sarraj met on 28 February in Abu Dhabi, even though the United Arab Emirates (UAE) supported Haftar…

Don’t make too many assumptions, the Emiratis have remained very much in the background. We had initially planned to hold the meeting in Cyprus, but Sarraj did not want to bother the Turks. In the end, we chose Abu Dhabi because Haftar was having his eyes operated on there. We also tried to get him to promise that he would not attack Tripoli.

Later, I met with three of Sarraj’s ministers from the south. They told me – to my great surprise – that they were happy with Haftar’s offensive in the south: “There’s instability in Sebha, which means that you can’t go out after 5pm and the roads are uncertain. We are happy that a Libyan force, even if it doesn’t depend on our government, has gone to restore some order in this area.”

You were in Tunis during the Arab summit on 1 April, three days before the attack. Then you went to Libya with the secretary-general…

The mission called me from Tripoli and informed me that Haftar’s troops were headed towards Al-Jufra. I communicated this information to the secretary-general. The next morning, he told me that “I called two heads of state – without telling me which ones – who are in contact with Haftar. They assured me that nothing would happen while I was in Libya.” Then we learnt that the troops had left Al-Jufra and were going west.

I then notified the secretary-general once more, who decided that he would still go to Libya. On the evening of 3 April, we returned to Tripoli. On the 4th, we went to see Sarraj, who was still not sure – at 9am – if the attack would go ahead as planned.

Around midday, we were sure that Tripoli was under attack. Again, I reported back to the secretary-general, who asked me how the West would react. I told him that I thought there would be resistance, although there were rumours that Haftar had bought the loyalty of several groups in Tripolitania.

Misrata’s major figures – the Bashagha, Miitig, Dbeibeh [current prime minister] – assured us that they would not let Tripoli down. The next day, we – as well as the secretary-general – went to Benghazi to see Haftar and make him understand that the West would not back down.

This was not enough to dissuade him…

The UN’s reputation has been damaged by the fact that Libyans were not informed of a certain piece of information. On a Friday, the secretary-general invited Sarraj and Haftar to meet him in Geneva the following Monday to discuss a ceasefire. I flew to Tripoli to make contact with Sarraj, who wanted 24 hours to think [about it]. Meanwhile, I told Haftar and his son, Belkacem, that I was waiting for their reply and that my phone would stay on all night. The Swiss were overexcited and the secretary-general was waiting.

Saturday passed with no response from either of them. In the evening, I went to see Sarraj and convinced him to come, but there was still no news from Haftar. I called him on Sunday afternoon, but he didn’t respond as he was taking a nap. “But the meeting is tomorrow! We have to wake him up.” I finally got a hold of him. “I won’t go,” he said, without offering any explanation.

At Benghazi airport, the secretary-general did not condemn Haftar’s attack and instructed me to remain silent on the matter until Monday. Libyans drew the conclusion that the UN had refused to condemn the offensive, but the truth is that the secretary-general did not want to give him a pretext for not coming to Geneva. On Tuesday morning, I was finally able to express the UN’s position on the BBC, which was that Libya was facing a coup.

What do you think of Haftar?

He is an officer who is very concerned about his looks and formality in meetings. I have seen him a dozen times. He never disrespected me or closed his door to me, and always demonstrated a willingness to work with the mission, which helped resolve several problems: for example, the oil triangle [which] was reopened in 2018.

I passed on the international community’s message to him: that the Europeans and US would deploy their maritime forces opposite Benghazi if he tried to sell the oil himself by bypassing Libya’s National Oil Corporation. A solution was found the following day.

When the war started, I felt that he had done me a dirty trick and it took him a long time to give me the names of his officers [responsible for negotiating the ceasefire]. Our relationship improved after he changed them in the summer of 2020.

You didn’t feel any ill will?

No. He made me wait, but he stood his ground once he got into the process. I also think it is important to note that he has restored some order in the south. However, that being said, he has caused death, destruction, allowed outside interference and delayed the peace process by a year and a half; and, furthermore, he has lost. Although I have lost some respect for him, I haven’t forgotten the numerous concessions that he made.

Because of his offensive, the number of mercenaries in Libya has increased significantly…

People who are very different are called mercenaries. You have people who work in Libya: in agriculture, on building sites, etc. They have been mobilised by the militia, but they are not the only ones. They were recruited by militias that were short of men. They are just asking to return to their civilian jobs. Most of these recruits are [not just] sub-Saharans but also Nigerians and Gambians.

There is also a private company called Wagner, which has its own budget but definitely has links with the Kremlin. There are agreements to be settled: diplomatic with Moscow and financial with Wagner.

For instance, Sultan Murad’s Turkmen will need to negotiate with the Turkish government, while the Syrians that were brought back by the Turks – generally Arab-speaking ex-rebels – will engage in a different type of negotiation as they were promised citizenship and salaries that were never paid.

Finally, the pro-regime Syrians – who came with the Russians and are with Haftar – will hold discussions with either Damascus or Moscow. Don’t forget the unmanageable Darfuris, who started working for Haftar after they killed Idriss Déby Itno. African countries are right to say that they can only leave Libya once they have renounced their weapons.

France has been accused of playing a double game in Libya, and of favouring Haftar. What are your thoughts on this?

The Europeans’ role in Libya has been exaggerated, both in wartime and times of peace. Libya has emancipated itself from Europe. The UN did not refuse to hold meetings in La Celle-Saint-Cloud or Paris. We also went to Palermo in November 2018. Did I believe in all these initiatives? No.

Many Africans had their hearts in Rajma [Haftar’s HQ]. I remember an African head of state in Palermo who took me aside and said: “Libya needs a Bonaparte and that Bonaparte is called Haftar.”

As for the rest, it is true that Washington and Paris have cooperated with Haftar and still have ties with him because the US is interested in his anti-terrorism initiatives and [is] ‘immune’ to his political projects – which are [perceived] with a little more understanding in Paris. However, when the latter took precedence over the fight against terrorism, it was the Russians and Turks [who] were seen on the ground.

Advanced democracies have internal constraints, and I can understand why France was embarrassed when the Javelin missiles were discovered in Gharyan, as it did not want to be seen as [a] party to this fight.

Was it not in fact?

It [France] could have decided to cooperate with both governments – Tripoli and Haftar’s – in the fight against terrorism. This is what the Americans did. However, France used Haftar more, and it is true that Paris’ African allies pushed it in that direction.

The European Union has two major concerns regarding Libya: immigration and terrorism. These are legitimate issues to which it has been able to find solutions, unilaterally. Italy has gone to deal with the mayors of coastal towns [to control the flow of immigration] and France has tried to get Haftar to join in its fight in the Sahel.

After what happened to Itno, Turkey and Russia’s progress, and its previously failed attempts at mediation, Europe must stop thinking that it has nothing more to do in Libya. It has one thing to do, something only it can do – not the Americans and certainly not the Russians – and that is to help reconstitute the Libyan state.

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