East and West Libya remain divided since 2014, and the chasm is growing due to political stalemate and diplomatic initiatives that failed to reach a truce, halt the conflict and bring local forces back to the negotiating table and political dialogue sponsored by the UN.
The latest fissure was in reaction to Egypt declaring its red lines and determinants of the armed conflict in Libya, as well as battleground frontlines among combative forces. Meanwhile, pressure from the West is escalating to force involved parties to stop fighting and restart political talks instead of investing in the war effort. The US is also pursuing its own course of mediation and de-escalation.
Since the withdrawal of the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by General Khalifa Haftar from the outskirts of the capital Tripoli and the city of Tarhunah southeast of the capital in late May, the battlefront has moved to the centre of the country, specifically the line extending from the coast where Sirte is located until Al-Jafra, which is home to a strategic air base in central Libya.
Russia deployed fighter jets there weeks ago, according to a statement by the US army which is concerned about Russia’s ambitions to establish a foothold on the southern coast of the Mediterranean.
On Saturday, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi said Egypt has a legitimate right to intervene in Libya and he ordered the army to prepare for any mission overseas if needed. Al-Sisi noted that Cairo will not allow the Libyan conflict to go beyond the Sirte-Jafra axis, which “for Egypt is a national security red line that we will not allow anyone to touch”.
Al-Sisi, who was speaking in Marsa Matrouh near the border with Libya, said Egyptian forces were prepared to intervene in Libya “alongside Libyan tribal leaders” and would “immediately exit after completing their mission”. He reiterated that Cairo is committed to the ceasefire, relaunching talks and the peace process sponsored by the UN, as stated in the Cairo Declaration and tracks launched at the Berlin conference to reach a political settlement.
Al-Sisi’s statements were warmly welcomed in East Libya by the LNA, House Speaker Aquila Saleh, who is also commander in chief of the army associated with the parliament in the East, and tribal leaders who are allied with and support the LNA.
Saleh said the statements came in response to his invitation while speaking at Egypt’s parliament in January, calling for the Egyptian army to intervene to aid the LNA “in its war on terrorism and confronting foreign invasion”. He praised Al-Sisi’s serious stance and efforts for a truce. He also called on his Libyan brothers to end fighting and bloodshed, and to close ranks to protect their revolution by launching a political dialogue that will result in acceptable solutions. He added that Egypt played a key role in pushing for a political solution in Libya, and never encouraged discord, fighting, animosity or deepening divisions among Libyans.
Meanwhile, the Presidential Council of the Government of National Accord (GNA), which has Turkish military support, rejected Egypt’s position and described Al-Sisi’s statements as “interference in Libya’s domestic affairs” and “violating its sovereignty”. It added: “This is hostile and blatant interference, equivalent to a declaration of war,” and reiterated that it welcomes “mediation when it is unbiased and able to bring Libyans together under the umbrella of the UN, not unilateral initiatives that are biased to outlaws and completely ignore the realities and nature of the Libyan crisis”.
GNA forces and their Turkish allies are persistent in regaining control of the Sirte-Jafra region before returning to the negotiating table, as intense diplomatic efforts continue to urge warring parties to return to dialogue, negotiations and the political process. Turkey’s intervention in Libya and its open support of GNA forces led to sharp escalation on the ground and intensified disputes within NATO, in which Turkey is a member, especially with Greece and France due to maritime borders in the East Mediterranean and Ankara’s support of terrorist groups and transporting mercenaries from Syria to Libya, as claimed by Paris.
French President Emmanuel Macron once again accused Turkey of violating its commitments made during international discussions on Libya, especially the summit-level conference in Berlin on 19 January. Speaking at a news conference with Tunisian President Kais Saied in Paris Monday, Macron said he informed US President Donald Trump of his objections to Turkey’s actions within NATO. Last year, Macron triggered a controversy inside NATO when he described the organisation as “clinically dead” and repeated this phrase again, using Turkey’s actions as proof of his assessment.
Since intervening on the side of the GNA, Turkey has been an agitator, rejecting international proposals for de-escalation, a ceasefire and a return to talks. This has led to sharp disputes and criticism of Ankara in Western and Arab capitals. “I see Turkey playing a dangerous game today in Libya,” said Macron, “that contradicts all the commitments it made at the Berlin conference.” He added that Turkey’s actions in Libya are “entirely unacceptable” and that “some countries retreated from the Libyan scene in recent weeks in accordance with their commitments in Berlin, but Turkey did the opposite.”
Fayez Al-Sarraj, chairman of the Presidential Council, along with several GNA military leaders met with General Stephen Townsend, commander of AFRICOM, and US Ambassador to Libya Richard Noland to discuss the possibility of a strategic pause of military operations by all sides. The US embassy said the meeting took place in Zuwara municipality in western Libya and was held “due to increasing foreign intervention in Libya”. It added that Townsend presented “his military view on the dangers of escalation, risks caused by Russia’s support of Wagner operations and the strategic importance of ensuring free navigation on the Mediterranean Sea”.
Townsend said AFRICOM provided needed security to facilitate communication between the US State Department and Al-Sarraj, noting that he told the Libyan delegation that all sides need to return to a ceasefire and political talks led by the UN, because this tragic conflict denies all Libyans their future.
Noland gave a briefing about US support of ongoing UN diplomatic efforts in support of a ceasefire and political dialogue, noting that “current violence rates increase the likelihood that [the Islamic State group] and Al-Qaeda will return to Libya, and exacerbates divisions which benefits foreign parties and extends human suffering.” Noland stressed the need for “foreign parties to stop fuelling the conflict, respect the weapons ban ordered by the UN and fulfill their obligation at the Berlin summit”.
At the end of the statement, the embassy said: “The US will increase its participation with interlocutors from across the country to support Libyan sovereignty, political stability, security and economic prosperity.”
A GNA source told Al-Ahram Weekly that the US side advised the GNA at the Zuwara meeting to accept the ceasefire and return to talks, warning against repeating Haftar’s mistake of choosing a military solution and failing. “They also advised them to negotiate with Saleh and stop the war in the East because it is unguaranteed, increases the likelihood of Russian incursions, causes undesired regional alarm and the outcome can be achieved through options that are less destructive and grave,” the source said.
The source added that the Americans told the GNA they are “worried about Turkey’s expansion in Libya and that Ankara’s interests are not necessarily beneficial for Libya and its unity”. They also informed them of Egypt’s concern and consternation about militias in Tripoli and Islamists taking control of centres of power in the state.
The source said the US suggested a solution for the closure of seaports and oil fields, most likely previously proposed to the Americans by Mustafa Sanalla, chairman of the National Oil Company of Libya. The proposal, which the US appears to support, entails opening a parallel account at the Central Bank of Libya through which oil revenues are allocated for the eastern region for three months after restarting oil production, until there is a solution for the dichotomy at the Central Bank, unifying its board of directors, appointing another governor or finding another solution later after the designated period.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly