Despite call for ceasefire, fighting to continue in Libya

Turkey is looking for a major share of the more than $1 trillion in reconstruction contracts when the fighting in Libya ends.
Sunday 12/01/2020
Unchanged course. Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte (L) and Libya’s military strongman Khalifa Haftar at Palazzo Chigi in downtown Rome for a meeting as part of Europe’s accelerating diplomatic efforts to seek ways to ease crisis, January 8.             (AFP)
Unchanged course. Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte (L) and Libya’s military strongman Khalifa Haftar at Palazzo Chigi in downtown Rome for a meeting as part of Europe’s accelerating diplomatic efforts to seek ways to ease crisis, January 8.

TUNIS - When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin called for a ceasefire in Libya, it was not clear that either of them believed their respective clients in Libya — the UN-recognised Government of National Accord led by Fayez al-Sarraj and the Libyan National Army of Khalifa Haftar — would agree.

There were suspicions that Erdogan and Putin were making initial diplomatic gestures ahead of a very different plan for Libya, one that would see them as its future power brokers.

The call for a ceasefire as of January 12 was a serious rebuff for Haftar because Russia had been a major ally. Without fighters from Russia’s Wagner Group it is unlikely that the Libyan National Army (LNA) would have made the advances towards central Tripoli that it has in recent weeks after months of stalemate in the city’s southern suburbs.

A ceasefire would stop Haftar from taking Tripoli and save the Government of National Accord (GNA) from defeat. It might also undo the alliances Haftar made with various tribes, communities and military groups in western and southern Libya, alliances that delivered much of the country into his hands.

It was unsurprising that the GNA welcomed the Erdogan-Putin ceasefire. Unsurprisingly, too, Haftar rejected it.

While thanking Putin for his initiative, Haftar insisted that, before any political process could be revived, “terrorist groups” in Tripoli had to be eradicated and the militias there disarmed and dissolved.

By rejecting the call, he ensured that the LNA might have to face far superior Turkish forces (and allied mercenaries and jihadists) in battle. He was probably also aware that whatever he decided, militants in Tripoli would almost certainly carry on fighting as well, regardless of what Sarraj wanted.

The Turkish deployment — a combination of regular forces and Arab mercenaries transferred from Syria and former Turkish soldiers employed by the Istanbul-based SADAT security company technically acting in Libya in a private capacity — could present a massive threat, especially if they focus on capturing Tarhouna, the LNA’s prime base south-west of Tripoli.

Haftar gained a major strategic success with the capture January 6 of Sirte, although that was achieved almost entirely because the 604 Infantry Battalion, the only wholly local force in the town, switched sides.

Many of its members are from the Qaddadfa tribe of former dictator Muammar Qaddafi or the Ferjan tribe to which Haftar belongs. The capture of Sirte prevents Turkish forces from moving into the town and reinforces Haftar’s prestige.

It was not clear whether Putin would withdraw Russian combatants from Libya. Neither he nor Erdogan want clashes between their fighters, whether official or unofficial. They achieved de-confliction in Syria and may do so in Libya. Closer ties with Turkey and a common regional policy — and, as a result, a weakening of ties with NATO — are far greater prizes for Putin than Libya.

It is not clear whether Erdogan has sent Turkish Army soldiers, despite announcing that troops had been dispatched. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said military experts and technicians were being sent but there have been Turkish military experts in Tripoli and Misrata for some time.

The Turkish parliament specifically approved the deployment of troops to Libya on January 2. Approval would not have been needed for military experts or for the other group Turkey has been sending, Arab jihadists and mercenaries previously in Syria.

Turkey is also providing major weaponry, including air defence systems and probably new air strike capacity but, without troops in the country, any offensive against the LNA would be protracted.

With no ceasefire and more fighting a certainty, Haftar can rely on Egypt for help. However, the scale of Egyptian support may be limited to defending LNA positions in eastern Libya. Like Russia, Egypt will not want a direct confrontation with Turkey.

As to other outside players, their ability to stabilise a dangerously escalating situation is limited. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia will continue to support Haftar but the backing is likely to be largely moral and financial.

With the crisis in the Gulf far from over, following the killing of Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani and Iran’s retaliation with missile strikes in Iraq, they will be primarily focused on their own security. The United States will likewise remain focused on the Gulf region.

As for the United Nations and UN Special Envoy to Libya Ghassan Salame, their credibility and capacity to influence events in Libya are at a low and they have no meaningful political role to play.

The same goes for the Europeans. They may express concern about Libya, as did the French, Italian, German and British foreign ministers January 7, calling on “external actors” — primarily a reference to Turkey — to stay out of the Libyan conflict but no one in Libya is taking notice.

Two days earlier, the GNA summarily postponed a meeting scheduled in Tripoli with the French, Italian and German foreign ministers along with the European Union’s foreign policy chief.

At a January 8 meeting in Cairo, the French, Greek, Cypriot and Egyptian foreign ministers dismissed the controversial maritime boundaries agreement between the GNA and Turkey. The Italian foreign minister, who was at the Cairo gathering, did not sign the declaration.

France continues to try to influence events in Libya but with little success. After leaving Cairo, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drain stopped in Tunis to try to persuade Tunisian President Kais Saied not to take sides in Libya but it is unclear whether his entreaty worked. The Islamists who are forming the next Tunisian government advocate dealing with the GNA as the only “legitimate” faction.

Algeria, too, seems pro-GNA, although that is largely because of sensitivity towards Haftar’s links with Egypt. Algiers is traditionally nervous about Egyptian influence in Libya.

Looking to build on this in yet another fast move in the quest for potential regional allies, Sarraj and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu were in Algiers on January 6 to attempt to persuade new Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune to back them.

The one exception in European irrelevance in Libya is Greece. It actively backs Haftar and Egypt. There is a serious possibility that it and Egypt may close their airspace to prevent Turkish military support going to Libya. It is likely also to provide naval support but that could escalate into a Turkish-Greek confrontation.

Because of their hands-on military involvement, Turkey and Russia are the dominant external players in Libya. They are actively collaborating. It is not a balanced relationship, however: Russia is the lesser partner in terms of what it wants in Libya.

Turkey is looking to a major share of the more than $1 trillion in reconstruction contracts expected when fighting ends in Libya. Russia, reports indicate, would be satisfied if its outstanding Libyan military bills are paid, receives new arms orders and has other commercial deals reactivated, such as the $4.5 billion Sirte-Benghazi railway.

Libya is on a more dangerous trajectory than ever. With the Turkish presence, the conflict is intensifying and doing so in the interests of outside powers. An even bigger danger is that with Turkish, Egyptian, Greek involvement and that of other outside players, the conflict could spread beyond Libya’s borders.

There were unconfirmed reports that three Turkish soldiers had been killed in the Tripoli fighting. Erodgan had announced that Turkish forces were being sent to support the GNA but it was not clear whether any had been deployed.

It was thought that any casualties would have been among foreign militants recently transferred to Tripoli from Syria by Turkey. A number of fighters, speaking Arabic with a Syrian accent, were said to be operating in Ain Zara, Tripoli’s southern suburb, which is partially occupied by the LNA. 

2