The task to unify the Libyan army and integrate all the battalions under one command has become the most serious and controversial issue for discussion in light of ongoing efforts to settle the Libyan crisis, amid attempts by the renegade General Khalifa Haftar to impose a loyal candidate.
Haftar's absence from the scene, under international pressure, will facilitate the process of unifying the Libyan army, but his insistence on heading the unified military establishment will make matters more complicated.
The new Presidential Council, headed by Mohamed Al-Menfi, along with council members Mousa Al-Koni and Abdullah Al-Lafi, represents the supreme command of the army. However, the decisions emanating from this body can only be taken unanimously, as stipulated in the political agreement supervised by the United Nations' mission.
This is the first time since 2014 that Libya's three regions (Tripoli, Cyrenaica and Fezzan) have agreed on a commander in chief, but selecting the field command of the army remains a thorny issue.
The dispute over the leadership of the Libyan army, specifically the authority of the civilian government over the army, stood as a real problem facing settlement efforts prior to the 2019 military operation launched by Haftar on Tripoli, flouting the efforts of the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who visited the Libyan capital at that time in preparation for holding the international conference to sign a road map reached by the warring parties.
But when Haftar suddenly launched an attack on Tripoli, these efforts collapsed.
Former head of the Presidential Council Fayez Al-Sarraj agreed in principle to Haftar's appointment as the army chief – before the attack on Tripoli. He also called for maintaining the sovereign institutions' unification process and refraining from separating this process from the aspired comprehensive political solution, which Haftar rejected categorically.
Today, after the failure of Haftar's offensive against Tripoli and despite his growing influence in eastern Libya, the commander of the eastern forces will probably never run for the position of army chief. However, this does not mean the end of his influence and intervention in the plans to unify the Libyan army or the possibility that he will work on hindering the process of selecting a new military commander.
In fact, there is an emerging struggle over the defence minister portfolio in the new Libyan government, as all parties in the east and west want to take over this ministry in order to control the Libyan army. This prompted the head of the National Unity Government Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh to personally manage the defence ministry temporarily, pending the selection of an appropriate figure for the post, and in consultation with the Presidential Council as stipulated in the political agreement.
Since the formation of the Government of National Accord (GNA) in 2016, the Libyan army has been led by two defence ministers; Al-Mahdi Al-Barghathi (2016-2017) and Salah Al-Namroush (2020-2021), in addition to four chiefs of staff; Abd as-Salam Jaballah Al-Ubaidi (2014-2016), Abdul Rahman Al-Taweel (2017-2019), Mohamed Al-Sharif (2019-2020), and Mohamed Haddad (from 2020 until today).
The aforementioned army leaders were appointed by a civilian authority, represented by Al-Sarraj. Hence, some of them were removed without causing a political crisis.
However, the situation in the Libyan east is different. Since 2014, Haftar has remained commander in chief of the army, along with his militia's Chief of Staff, Abdul Razzaq Al-Nazouri, and the defence minister. They have ruled the eastern region for about eight years.
This is why the task of integrating the militias loyal to Haftar into the unified Libyan army is challenging.
The crimes committed by Haftar's militias during their aggression on Tripoli (2019-2020) and the assassinations and kidnappings taking place in Benghazi reflect a state of insecurity and the failure of competent parties to hold the factions accountable legally and judicially.
This article first appeared in Anadolu Agency on 29 March 2021 and was edited for MEMO