Cautious optimism over prospects of Libya ceasefire talks

There is, however, speculation that the real aim of belligerents could be to buy more time to reverse the military situation on the ground.
Wednesday 03/06/2020
A militiaman loyal to the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) in the south of the Libya capital. (AFP)
A militiaman loyal to the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) in the south of the Libya capital. (AFP)

TUNIS –The UN Support Mission in Libya’s (UNSMIL’s) announcement that rival parties to the conflict agreed to return to the 5+5 talks in order to implement a permanent ceasefire raised cautious optimism about the prospects of ending the war.

Ongoing military mobilisation by both sides, however, indicates that the agreement could be just a manoeuvre to circumvent pressure from the international community to steer the conflict away from Russian and Turkish control.

The agreement by the Libyan rivals to return to ceasefire talks came after a series of recent military setbacks suffered by the Libyan National Army (LNA), the last of which was the loss of control of al-Watiya airbase and a number of cities and towns on Libya’s western coast, following direct Turkish intervention in support of the Government of National Accord (GNA) of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj.

Many Libyans hope that negotiations can successfully end the war, and that recent developments have shown Libyan belligerents that there is no choice but a political solution. Libyans also see continued fighting and mobilisation as an attempt by both sides to improve conditions for negotiations, no more.

The negotiations of the 5+5 Committee started at the end of February, and two rounds of negotiations took place before they stopped in March. The committee was formed according to international understandings reached during the Berlin conference held in January.

The committee, comprised of ten military leaders — five representing the LNA and five from the GNA — is expected to continue discussion on a draft agreement previously presented by the UN mission to rival parties.

The Islamist-led GNA is setting conditions described as “unachievable” to accept a ceasefire, including the return of the LNA to its positions before April 4, 2019, and the exclusion of the army’s commander, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, from any expected settlement. The LNA, however, wants the GNA to resolve the issue of expanding influence of militias and the proliferation of weapons. They are also calling for Turkey to withdraw from the conflict and for the country to have its wealth recovered from the Misrata Alliance and Islamists.

The West, led by the United States, is betting that negotiations could be successful after it gave Turkey the green light to recapture parts of the territory the GNA previously lost to the LNA. Turkey’s intervention restored some  balance to the conflict, which the West now hopes can persuade Haftar to accept a settlement that does not meet the LNA’s conditions.

However, there are concerns that Russia, an ally of the LNA, could use Turkish intervention as an excuse to establish a permanent presence in Libya.

These concerns were echoed by a recent US accusations that Moscow had sent fighters and weapons, including  MiG 29 and SU-24 fighter planes, to support the LNA.

Recent developments in Libya highlighted European divisions and American confusion, opening the door for Turkey and Russia to reproduce their strategies in Syria in Libya.

Apart for US accusations and the presence of some Russian-made weapons in Libya, there has so far been no evidence of Russian involvement in support of the LNA.

In the case of the GNA, however, there is strong evidence of foreign meddling in its favour, including videos of pro-Ankara Syrian mercenaries and extremists from ISIS and the Nusra Front, fighting in the ranks of the GNA forces.

The UN mission’s statement June 1 carried indirect warnings to some countries who would be tempted to try to thwart negotiations, which constitute a final chance for western countries to revive their initiative in Libya.

In this regard, the UN mission expressed its hope that “all parties, Libyan and international, will respect the wishes of Libyans for an end to the fighting.”

The UN mission also expressed doubts about the Libyan rivals’ commitment to reaching a settlement, saying it is necessary for the two parties’ to commit themselves “to fully delegating their representatives to the negotiations so as to enable them to finalise the ceasefire agreement.”

A Libyan source said the upcoming talks were unlikely to be successful, and that the competing sides were only participating to give the appearance that they are flexible and open to a peaceful solution.

The real aim, however, is to buy more time to reverse the military situation on the ground by preparing for a major battle as continuing military mobilisation shows.

The source expected that there will be a long battle in southern Tripoli due to LNA forces’ commitment to thwarting GNA-backed militias and Turkey there.

The LNA’s steadfastness will spur it to prepare for a larger attack aimed at recapturing the city of Gharyan and al-Watiya air base as well as well as clearing the west coast from militias currently in control.

On May 1, the LNA regained control of the city of al-Asabaa, nearly two weeks after GNA militias seized it. The LNA has also been trying to seize control of the strategic city of Gharyan.

If the LNA regains control of Gharyan, which it lost about a year ago, it will be able to open major supply lines for the its forces on key frontlines, especially at Tripoli Airport, Khallet Al Furjan, Salahuddin, Ain Zara and Wadi Al-Rabi’.