A Cairo initiative for Libya as GNA forces aim for Sirte against Russian, French objections

Russian-Turkish understandings reported about the limits of military operations and their red lines.
Sunday 07/06/2020
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (C), Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar (R) and the Libyan Parliament speaker Aguila Saleh arriving for a joint press conference in Cairo, June 6. (AFP)
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (C), Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar (R) and the Libyan Parliament speaker Aguila Saleh arriving for a joint press conference in Cairo, June 6. (AFP)

CAIRO –Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi presented, on Saturday, a new political initiative to solve the Libyan crisis, in which he called for a cease-fire, starting this Monday.

It also called for the formation of a presidential council, the goal of which is to lift any  cover from Turkey’s activities in Libya, at a time when the militias allied to Fayez al-Sarraj’s Government of National Accord (GNA) seemed to be aiming to attack Sirte, despite French and Russian objections, with Russia said to be ready to use its warplanes to stop the militia’s advance.

Sisi’s initiative calls for forming a new presidential council that includes a president, two vice-presidents, and a prime minister, all of whom would be appointed for a term of a year and a half, which can be extended by six months. It also urges the United Nations to compel foreign actors to remove mercenaries from all Libyan territory, and disarm and disband the militias, so that the Libyan National Army, in cooperation with Libyan security forces, can assume its responsibilities and tasks in the country.

The head of the consultative Supreme Council of State in Libya, Khaled al-Mishri rejected the Egyptian initiative soon after its announcement, saying that there was “no need for any new initiative” and that “Haftar has no place in any upcoming negotiations.”

Observers of Libyan affairs said that Sisi’s initiative puts the ball in the court of the Sarraj government and its allied militias, which have consistently declared that they were all for a political solution to the crisis. That desire was repeated recently in Sarraj’s telephone conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The same observers indicated that this step could set off internal disputes within the Government of National Accord since it relies on diverse militias and armed brigades, and that it could also open the way to a return to settling military scores between Misrata, Tripoli, Zintan and Tarhuna, especially now that Misrata’s militias have the upper hand in many issues.

The initiative would make it possible to address the dysfunctional economic conditions and impose an oversight on the performance of the Libyan Central Bank and the Libyan Oil Authority, something that may not please Sarraj, the militias, and the Muslim Brotherhood organisation in Libya, all of whom have their hands on the country’s wealth and refuse to share it fairly.

Diplomatic sources confirmed to The Arab Weekly that Egypt has had discussions with the United States, France and Russia about the importance of such the Cairo initiative, and has secured political support for it, especially regarding reviving the path of political dialogue on the basis of the outcomes of the Berlin International Conference, instead of expanding the scope of the war that led to inviting Turkish intervention and embarrassing the international community.

Last Wednesday, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, Commander of the Libyan National Army arrived in Egypt. He was followed two days later by Counselor Aguila Saleh, Speaker of the Libyan Parliament.

The two held meetings with Egyptian officials in charge of the Libyan file and were informed of the Egyptian proposal for a way out of the current stalemate.

Then on Friday, Haftar and Saleh, still in Cairo, met to iron out their differences and join forces. The meeting saw both leaders agree to support the Egyptian initiative and strengthen their political alliance, in preparation for a difficult political confrontation with the GNA, which includes disparate parties.

Sources close to said the Libyan National Army said the LNA’s withdrawal from the vicinity of Tripoli and its positions in western Libya was a premeditated move and came within the context of the army’s agreeing to coordinate with regional and international powers to pave the way for political dialogue, and not because of any intense military pressure.

Observers believe that the initiative will increase the pressure on the GNA and might push the militias to take refuge in the military option, starting with attacking the city of Sirte in defiance of the countries involved in the crisis, especially Russia, which is believed to be unwilling to tolerate the militias’ advancing on the oil fields.

Various reports have indicated that there was a Russian-Turkish agreement that allows Ankara and its Islamist allies in the GNA to take control of the capital Tripoli and the surrounding area up to its administrative borders. They also mentioned that Russian fighter planes are stationed at the Jafra Base, ready to intervene when the time comes.

It was also reported that Russian jets had staged airstrikes two days ago on suspicious militia movements in the Al-Saddah area between Sirte and Misrata. It was a warning message to the militias who had become too eager for further advances following their recent ground gains in Tarhuna and the vicinity of the capital. These reports said that the fact that the Russian air force has not targeted the militia sites in western Libya is further evidence of Russian-Turkish understandings regarding the limits of military operations and their red lines.

Moreover, should the militias decide to move towards Sirte, they will have to contend with France’s reaction as the latter will certainly not tolerate Turkey’s move to lay hands on French interests in the area.

In recent days, Paris has moved in different directions to confirm its extreme displeasure at the recent developments in Libya. French President Emmanuel Macron has had phone conversations with Algerian Presidents Abdelmadjid Tebboune and Tunisian President Kais Saied, in an effort to help forge a Maghrebi position opposed to the Turkish expansion in North Africa.

France politically supports the Libyan National Army, led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, in its war on militants and armed militias loyal to the GNA. The French position was evident from Paris’s efforts to block any European decision condemning the army or Haftar. The Islamists in Tripoli have accused Paris of supporting the army militarily as well, which Paris denies.

France wants through these efforts to withdraw the Libyan file from Turkey and Russia, as there are persistent speculations that the latter two have concluded a deal on sharing influence in Libya in total disregard of the reactions of the international community.