Despite talks, more fighting likely in Libya

Ratcheting up the tension, Erdogan said Turkey would continue to back Sarraj and the GNA until it gained full control of all Libya.
Sunday 23/02/2020
Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) meets with Libya’s Government of National Accord Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj in Istanbul. (AFP)
Escalation. Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) meets with Libya’s Government of National Accord Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj in Istanbul. (AFP)

TUNIS - The sight of some 3,000 camels being evacuated from Tripoli port and herded along the main road towards Zawia, 40km away, was unusual, even in an overcrowded city that has become used to the unusual while under siege for the past 10 months.

Traffic was halted February 20 as police blocked roads to ensure the safe and steady progress of the camels. Camels used to be a common enough sight in and around Tripoli but that was long ago and even then not 3,000 at one go.

The camels arrived in Tripoli port February 17, the ninth anniversary of the Libyan revolution and the day before the Libyan National Army (LNA) attacked the port.

The LNA said it hit a Turkish vessel carrying weapons to the Government of National Accord (GNA). After port officials said that no vessel had been hit but that a warehouse had, the LNA said that it had carried out a “defensive operation,” targeting a building used to store arms and equipment that had recently arrived on a Turkish ship.

Turkish officials were quoted as saying the LNA targeted a Turkish vessel but missed.

Turkish ships have continued to deliver arms and equipment to Tripoli the past five weeks despite promises January 19 at the Berlin Conference on Libya by Turkey and other countries not to do so.

That resulted in the scathing comment from UN Deputy Special Representative Stephanie Williams at a Berlin follow-up meeting February 16 in Munich that “the arms embargo has become a joke.”

Like Berlin, the Munich meeting was little more than a talking shop even though German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told his counterparts from 11 countries that “words agreed in Berlin now must be followed by deeds” and that violations of the arms embargo had to stop. There were no hard-hitting deeds, just more words.

There was an unwillingness on Maas’s part and that of most others to condemn Turkey and the other violators or take measures against them. The sanctions busters were not brought to heel. On the contrary, Maas said Turkey would be an important partner in turning the truce into “a permanent and effective ceasefire.”

The sanctions busters were given the unmistakable message that nothing meaningful would be done to stop them from flooding Libya with weapons.

It was left to EU foreign ministers meeting February 17 to come up with plans to monitor possible arms shipments to Libya. To satisfy Austria, which threatened to veto the idea because migrants would head straight towards European navy vessels so as to be rescued and taken to Europe’s shores, it was decided to mount the new operation at arms’ length. Monitoring is to be done at least 100km from the Libyan coast, which raises the likelihood it would be ineffective because sanctions busters may be able to sail around monitoring vessels.

Questions were also asked whether the European Union would challenge and board ships suspected of taking arms to Libya, especially if those vessels are Turkish.

Italian authorities halted a cargo ship in Genoa at the beginning of February following allegations by a crew member that the vessel had been used to smuggle tanks and military vehicles from Turkey to Libya but the ship was already in an Italian port and its current ownership is Lebanese. Detaining a ship on the high seas would be a very different matter.

Unlike the Munich talks, the Tripoli port attack has changed a great deal. Not only did it expose the truce as a sham, it threatened to unravel the international community’s diplomatic efforts to end the Libyan conflict.

The GNA responded by pulling out of the second round of 5+5 military talks, which had begun in Geneva the same day as the attack. There were also threats that members of the Tripoli-based High Council of State would pull out of UN-mentored political talks starting February 26 in Geneva.

After what was believed to have been outside significant pressure on Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, the GNA recommitted to dialogue. However, the disconnect between international efforts for peace and what the two sides and their respective backers do on the ground in Libya has become wider.

Responding to the announcement of the EU arms monitoring plans, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused the European Union of “interfering in the region.” It did not have the right to make any decision concerning Libya, he insisted.

Erdogan also said Turkey would continue to back Sarraj and the GNA until it gained full control of all Libya. That is significant. Previously the Turkish promise was to ensure full GNA control of the greater Tripoli area.

The stage appears set for more bitter conflict. Sarraj was in Istanbul February 20 to coordinate with Erdogan, just hours after Libyan National Army Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar was in Moscow to coordinate with Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoygu.

The Russians said Shoigu and Haftar stressed the importance of the talks in January, mentored by the Russians and Turks, which had established the now vanishing Tripoli truce, suggesting there needed to be more of the same.

In an interview in Russia’s Sputnik News, while he was in Moscow, Haftar said he was losing patience with the GNA and that it was using the truce as cover to transfer Syrian mercenaries, Turkish soldiers as well as terrorists and weapons to Tripoli. In doing so, the GNA was violating the ceasefire, he claimed, not the LNA in hitting out at the violations.

The Russians indicated that they may try for another attempt to bring the two sides together.

The same day as the Tripoli port attack, Russian and Italian foreign and defence officials were in Rome talking about Libya. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced that the two countries would have further “special consultations” on a possible solution to the Libyan crisis.