After talks with GNA, US delegation draws a ceasefire line beyond Sirte

“US Africa Command provided the security” of US-GNA meeting.
Tuesday 23/06/2020
GNA’s Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj meets with the US Ambassador to Libya, Richard Norland and commander of US Africa Command (AFRICOM) Gen. Stephen Townsend, in Zuwara, Libya, June 22. (Reuters)
GNA’s Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj meets with the US Ambassador to Libya, Richard Norland and commander of US Africa Command (AFRICOM) Gen. Stephen Townsend, in Zuwara, Libya, June 22. (Reuters)

TRIPOLI – Following the meeting in Zuwara, western Libya, between Libyan and US delegations, the US Embassy in Libya issued a statement that suggested that Washington had drawn a ceasefire line that went beyond Sirte and the oil ports, all the way to the Jafra area.

The American delegation to the Zuwara meeting was led by US Ambassador to Libya, Richard Norland, and Commander of the US Africa Command (AFRICOM), General Stephen Townsend, while the Libyan delegation was composed of the head of the Government of National Accord, Fayez al-Sarraj, Interior Minister, Fathi Bashagha, and a number of military leaders.

In the current context of escalating foreign intervention in Libya, the meeting focused on the current opportunities for “a strategic pause in military operations by all parties to the conflict,” said a statement released by the US embassy,

​​According to the statement, General Townsend presented his military perspective on the risk of escalation, the dangers posed by Russia’s support to Wagner operations, and the strategic importance of ensuring freedom of navigation in the Mediterranean.

“US Africa Command provided the security that enabled this important Department of State engagement with Prime Minister Sarraj. We emphasised to the Libyan delegation that all sides need to return to UN-led ceasefire and political negotiations because this tragic conflict is robbing all Libyans of their future,” General Townsend said.

For his part, Ambassador Norland said that “the current violence fuels the potential resurgence of ISIS and Al Qaeda in Libya, is further dividing the country for the benefit of foreign actors, and prolongs human suffering. ​External actors should stop fueling the conflict, respect the UN arms embargo, and uphold commitments made at the Berlin Summit.”

According to observers, there were two details in the substance of the meeting indicating that what the United States described as a necessary “pause in military operations” does not necessarily refer to the current lines separating the two parties in the conflict, that is to say, at the limits of the area of Misrata.

The first indication was the American vague reference to a strategic ceasefire, which means that Washington is not bound by the current lines of contact outside Sirte and that a second map has been prepared to determine the extent of the GNA’s militias’ reach before pressing for the truce.

The second sign was the presence at the meeting of the commander of the Sirte-Al-Jafra Operations Centre, Brigadier General Ibrahim Bait al-Mal. This indicates that the American side wanted to have a clearer idea of the capabilities of the GNA forces and whether or not they could carry out quick operations in order to reach the ground points set for the “strategic pause in military operations,” despite the risk of provoking Egyptian or Russian intervention.

Map showing the positions of forces fighting in Libya (AFP)

Previously and following the withdrawal of the Libyan National Army forces from the battle fronts south of Tripoli, Fathi Bashagha, a Muslim Brotherhood member, had tweeted that the GNA was determined to recapture Sirte, the oil terminals, and the Jafra base, in addition to the south, where the two largest oil fields (Al-Feel and Sharara) are located.

Bashagha is also known for his close ties with US diplomats, especially the UN Envoy to Libya Stephanie Williams, and his tweets reflected great confidence that those areas would be restored to the GNA, which suggests the existence of prior understandings with US parties about allowing Turkey’s intervention to go beyond the task of achieving a military balance on the ground, all the way to tipping the scales in favour of the Islamists.

For the record, Turkey has intervened since the end of last year to support the militias of the Islamist-controlled GNA amid a dubious international silence that was interpreted as a green light for this intervention aimed at striking a military balance that would force the Libyan army to accept the outcomes of the Berlin conference.

Washington has kept silent about Turkey’s insistence to continue the fighting after the LNA’s withdrawal from Tripoli and western Libya. In fact, the US Department of State kept finding justifications for Ankara’s intervention, which gave the impression of US indirect support for Turkey’s intervention within the context of countering French influence in Africa and Russian expansion in the Mediterranean.

It is, however, intriguing that the vague position of the State Department as represented by the statements of Ambassador Norland and General Townsend differs from that of the US National Security Council, which clearly called for a commitment to the ceasefire.

“We urge the parties to abide by the ceasefire and to resume negotiations immediately,” the NSC wrote on its official Twitter account, on Monday, and added: “We must build on the progress achieved through the United Nations 5 + 5 talks, the Cairo initiative and the Berlin process.”

These developments in the Libyan file came about two days after Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi hinted at the possibility of an Egyptian military intervention in Libya. During his inspection of military installation in Egypt’s western region, Sisi said that “any direct intervention by Egypt in Libya has international legitimacy,” noting that his country “will not allow the (current) confrontations in Libya to cross the Sirte line.” “As far as Egypt’s security is concerned, Sirte and al-Jafra are a red line not to be touched,” said the Egyptian president.

On the other side, Islamist figures inside the GNA’s Presidential Council rejected Sisi’s warning and considered it a threat to Libya’s national security.

Meanwhile, Ibrahim Kalin, spokesperson of the Turkish presidency, said that his country “understands the legitimate security concerns of Egypt about its common borders with Libya,” but considered that Cairo was “pursuing a wrong policy by backing Haftar,” in reference to Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the LNA’s Commander-in-Chief.