Analysis

ANALYSIS - New balances in Libya crisis

At this point, key players are increasingly willing to engage in political solutions and have expressed such a desire

Deniz Citak   | 22.01.2021
ANALYSIS - New balances in Libya crisis

Deniz Citak is a DC-based freelance analyst and researcher who focuses on Turkey, the Gulf, and Iran. He holds a Master of Science in Comparative Politics from the London School of Economics and a Bachelor of Science in Foreign Service from Georgetown University.

ISTANBUL 

Entering its tenth year, the conflict in Libya continues but developments in the last year highlight changes and the possibility for steps toward a more united country. On Jan. 19, participants of the United Nations-led Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) agreed on a mechanism [1] to choose a temporary executive authority. Several events in the past year have signaled a move towards greater dialogue and diplomatic solutions to the conflict that has plagued Libya since the fall of strongman Muammar Gaddafi.

In October 2020, the UN-recognized and Turkish-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libyan National Arab Army (LNA) led by the warlord Khalifa Haftar agreed on a UN-brokered ceasefire [2], which was lauded [3] as a “fundamental step toward peace and stability” by UN Secretary-General António Guterres. Just a month before that, GNA deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Maiteeq met with Haftar in Moscow and announced [4] the end of the Haftar-led eight-month blockade on the oil production of the National Oil Corporation of Libya.

In 2019, Haftar launched an offensive [5] on the Libyan capital Tripoli, held by the GNA. Turkish involvement [6] in Libya has been critical in changing the dynamic of the conflict in favor of the GNA. [7] Turkey’s presence helped the GNA with regaining control of Tripoli after Haftar’s offensive to take the city as well as with seizing a Haftar-controlled airbase [8] May of last year. Haftar has enjoyed unwavering support from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and strong but less enthusiastic backing from neighboring Egypt and Russia through the Wagner Group [9], a private military company.

Currently the primary supporter of the GNA is Turkey. Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar stated [10] of Turkey’s role in Libya that, “we will not give up on it… Our task here [in Libya] is providing military training, cooperation and consultancy. We try to contribute to our Libyan brothers in these areas as much as we can.” A watershed moment for the conflict was Turkey’s official military intervention, backed by the Turkish Parliament at the end of 2019. This strengthened the position of the GNA and eventually led to Haftar’s forces being pushed out of Western Libya. Turkey’s support of the GNA was initially a gamble but it has proven very successful for both parties. Turkey has several motives for intervention in Libya. Jalel Harchaoui, a senior fellow at the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, told Anadolu Agency that Turkey also seeks to secure its economic interests in Libya, namely pre-2011 business deals worth billions of dollars. The GNA and Turkey signed a maritime deal in November 2019, which boosted Turkey’s position regarding the crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean. Foreign policy-wise, Turkey’s role in Libya is consistent with its pivot towards Africa, which has focused on Somalia and West Africa. A friendly partner in Libya will be in favor of Turkey’s interests in the region.

The three main backers of Haftar, the UAE, Egypt, and Russia, do not view him the same way. The UAE’s support for Haftar has been absolute—Abu Dhabi sees Haftar as the only way to further their counterrevolutionary regional foreign policy. According to Anadolu Agency, Abu Dhabi has spent millions of dollars [11] bankrolling Haftar, breaching an international arms embargo on Libya to provide Haftar with Chinese, Russian, and South African heavy weapons and drones, and paying the salaries of a significant number of Russian mercenaries, Sudanese militias, and Chadian rebels. Abu Dhabi fears a peaceful solution because it would inevitably put the internationally-supported GNA in a higher position and thus make Haftar irrelevant. The UAE’s aggressive foreign policy has led it to support militarist governments under the guise of fighting the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Emiratis consider a terrorist organization. In Libya, the UAE’s objective is to subvert Turkish efforts at any cost necessary. As political analyst Ali Bakeer reported [12], this strategy includes ambassadors provoking [13] military conflicts between Egypt and Turkey, lobbying against Turkey [14], and persuading former United States President Donald Trump to support Haftar [15]. For Egypt and Russia, however, the story is more complicated. For Cairo and Moscow, Haftar is not indispensable—their support for him is out of pragmatism and not ideology.

Egypt is primarily concerned with maintaining safety at the Western border and balancing its relationship with US President Joe Biden and the de facto leader of the UAE, Mohammed bin Zayed. Recently, this has forced Egypt to adopt a more pragmatic approach to Libya than before. Egyptian President Abdelfettah al-Sisi argued in June that Egypt has a right [16] to participate militarily in Libya. In December, however, Egyptian officials met with members of the GNA in Tripoli—the first time Egypt engaged with the GNA in years. Cairo has declared that the cities of Sirte and Jufra, which are currently under LNA control, are a “red line” [17] not to be approached by the GNA. Fearing a GNA advance towards Sirte, Sisi called on Turkey, saying, “Let’s stop at this (current) front line and start negotiations to reach a political solution to the Libyan crisis.” This highlights Egypt’s increasingly pragmatic outlook. On Dec. 27, a historic meeting [18] between Egyptian officials and the GNA took place, becoming the first official meeting between Cairo and Tripoli since 2014. Anas el Gomati told TRT World that Egypt predicts hardship for Haftar especially in Sirte, where Cairo wants the ceasefire to be upheld. If the ceasefire were to be broken, Cairo fears that Turkey and the GNA together would defeat the LNA. “Normalizing ties with the GNA is an attempt to incentivize peace & maintain the LNA’s integrity through the ceasefire in the process… [It is a] costless exercise for Egypt.”

Russia has a different approach from that of its peers. Russia’s main representation in Libya is private military companies [19], rather than its own military. These private companies, such as the Wagner Group led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, which has provided thousands of mercenaries and the RSB group, which provided Soviet-era weapons, warplanes, and security, and demining in the East, act as extensions of the Russian state. Russia seems to be utilizing a double-pronged approach, whereby it publicly encourages diplomacy [20] and political solutions while also providing military support [21] to Haftar’s forces. According to Mr. Harchaoui, Russia was not an integral factor in two major events—Haftar’s siege of the capital in 2019 and Turkey’s intervention in 2020. Russia’s role in Libya is rooted in foreign policy aspirations to have military presence near the southern border of NATO and thus have easier access to Africa. Economic factors are also vital for Moscow, which wants to secure its billion-dollar business contracts, which have been on hold since the start of the conflict in 2011. Moscow wants to make sure that it is a respected player by both sides and thus has conducted meetings with the GNA, some of which are high-profile, such as the 2019 meeting [22] between Russian President Vladimir Putin and GNA Prime Minister Fayez el Sarraj in Sochi.

NATO and European Union support for the UN-backed government has decreased dramatically since the NATO-led operation against Gaddafi in 2011. In an interview with Der Spiegel, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio lamented [23] the lack of a united policy in Libya. “Europe and Italy lost ground in Libya for one simple reason: We were not willing to supply weapons to the belligerents,” he said. Following the ceasefire of October, NATO and European leaders have made statements that point to a desire for a diplomatic solution under UN guidance. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg expressed concern [24] about increased Russian military and mercenary presence in Libya, stating, “For NATO, it just highlights the importance of supporting the UN-led efforts to find a negotiated solution to the Libyan crisis.” Additionally, there is no unified EU position. France officially supports the GNA but has been following the orders of the UAE and aiding Haftar, which has provided no benefits to Paris [25]. On the other hand, Italy [26], Germany [27], and Malta [28] all cooperate with the GNA.

Despite the fact that Haftar threatened to attack [29] Turkish forces and restart violence in December, it is unlikely this will happen. The UAE just suffered a foreign policy blunder with the end of the Qatar crisis [30] and the Biden administration may not immediately get involved in Libya, but it will not be courting the UAE like Trump did. Russia and Egypt’s meetings with the GNA officials legitimize the position of the GNA and Turkey and substantiate their calls for diplomatic solutions. French President Emmanuel Macron and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have begun an attempt to reconcile [31] following very harsh comments against Turkey, but Mr. Harchaoui told AA that even a Franco-Turkish détente will not change [32] the situation in Libya, “Turkey will not tone down, it has no desire to restart conflict, but assumes that no one questions its presence.”

Prospects for more political cooperation look positive. At this point, key players are increasingly willing to engage in political solutions and have expressed such a desire. What is necessary for any peaceful end to this conflict is guarantee of territorial integrity—something all major forces support, political focus on GNA and LNA forces and their concerns, and a minimum consensus for foreign actors. Pragmatism and diplomacy will be driving forces of solutions looking forward.

* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.


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