International momentum over Libya intensifies as do questions about Turkey’s role

“When will the Turks leave?” is a question asked by Libyans, including officials in Tripoli. 
Sunday 19/01/2020
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis (2nd R) meets with Libyan National Army Field-Marshal Khalifa Hafter (2nd L) in Athens, January 17. (AP)
Complicated chessboard. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis (2nd R) meets with Libyan National Army Field-Marshal Khalifa Hafter (2nd L) in Athens, January 17. (AP)

TUNIS - Ever since the Libyan National Army began its offensive last April to seize Tripoli from the UN-recognised Government of National Accord, the near stalemate on the military front has been accompanied by paralysis on the political side.

Recently, however, there has been an almost frenetic international movement to bring about a ceasefire and a settlement. This time it was not the French or the Italians or the United Nations or the Americans who pushed the political restart button, it was the Turks and Russians.

Because of their active involvement in the conflict — Russian mercenaries fighting for the Libyan National Army (LNA) and Turkey’s military backing for the Government of National Accord (GNA) — the two have become the main external players in Libya and the chief arbiters of the country’s future.

Triggered by significant LNA advances in October and then by a military support agreement between the GNA and Turkey, as well as their maritime boundaries agreement that turned an infuriated Greece into a close ally of the LNA, momentum gained speed almost as soon as 2020 started.

The Turkish parliament decision January 2 to authorise the deployment of Turkish forces in Libya was followed six days later when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin called for a ceasefire to start January 12.

LNA Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar initially rejected the call but then accepted the ceasefire deal, following what is believed to have been intense pressure from Moscow.

On January 13, Haftar and GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj travelled to Moscow to negotiate ceasefire terms. It was also announced that the much-delayed Berlin Conference, proposed by Germany last summer and scheduled for November would happen on January 19.

Germany wanted to maintain the momentum, fearing that delay could derail international efforts to bring about peace. It did not want to allow either the Libyan or the international players time to make alternative plans.

That the Moscow meeting failed because Haftar refused to sign any deal was inconsequential. He did not want a ceasefire because it would put a stop to his military objectives. He also would not accept the demand by Sarraj that the LNA withdraw to its positions prior to April 4 — tantamount to an admission of military failure — or Sarraj’s refusal of Haftar’s demand that the militias and militants in Tripoli be disbanded.

Haftar was reportedly furious at the presence in Moscow of other Libyans invited by the Russians, specifically the Tripoli-based High Council of State Chairman Khaled al-Mishri and Sadiq al-Kahaili, the head of the breakaway House of Representatives also in Tripoli.

The Russians invited them and Aguila Saleh, president of the Tobruk-based official House of Representatives and an ally of Haftar because they wanted to ensure that a ceasefire would be accepted by all Libyan factions.

However, for Haftar, Mishri and Kahaili are militants who represent everything he is fighting. He regards both as members of the Muslim Brotherhood, although Mishri formally resigned his membership a year ago.

Haftar, while refusing to join Sarraj in signing the truce accord, agreed to go to Berlin and continue with the ceasefire. While there have been small violations, there have not been missile strikes or bombings. An uneasy calm had returned to Tripoli.

Neither side has changed its demands in the past nine months. Sarraj wants the LNA to withdraw. Haftar wants the militias and the various militants and Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood, to be crushed. Both have also determined supporters who will not willingly accept any compromise.

The difference between now and the first days of January is that the international community has seized the moment in hopes of building on it in Berlin.

Bigger issues are expected that go way beyond the Berlin Conference. Russia and Turkey, by acting in concert, have established themselves as the dominant foreign players in Libya. Will other powers, especially the United States, accept that?

Questions are being asked as to what Turkey’s future role will be. What will Russia’s role be? What does either of them want from Libya?

“When will the Turks leave?” That question was asked January 16 by a senior Tripoli official who did not want to be named but who was strongly opposed to Haftar. That day Erdogan had stated that Turkish forces were going to Libya in support of the GNA.

The official welcomed Turkish intervention if there was no ceasefire or dialogue. He wanted Haftar to be defeated but he said he was concerned the Turks might overstay their welcome.

Proud of his country and jealous of its independence, his said his fear was that Turkish forces would not leave if they forced the LNA to retreat. He disliked Erdogan’s neo-Ottomanism and did not want Libya to slip back into Turkish control.

Others in Tripoli have been saying the same.

Another question he and others asked was how, if there was a deal, could Sarraj work with the Tripoli militias or the militants? “He does not have the power to disarm them. Who is going to do it?  Someone else will have to do it,” the official said.

A growing worry for the future is the position of Libyans descended from those who settled in what is now Libya during the period of the Ottoman Empire.

Concerns have been growing that they, especially those in Misrata, are being singled out as an issue in the conflict, either being blamed for supporting the GNA and the Muslim Brotherhood and accused of trying to control the country or seen as a reason to intervene.

Erdogan has further complicated the issue by saying that Turkey had to defend “Turkish” Libyans. “It is our duty to protect our kin in Libya,” he said. The Turkish leader has sparked a debate about a newly perceived minority in Libya, one that is seen by some as alien and a controversial issue to an already nearly intractable debate.

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