Cairo is expected to host Aguila Saleh, the Speaker of the Libyan House of Representatives (HoR), on Thursday. Saleh’s arrival in Cairo ends a tour that included Russia, Switzerland, Algeria, Morocco and Jordan, during which he promoted his initiative to resolve the Libyan crisis.
Meanwhile, in its efforts to restart the stalled Libyan political process against the backdrop of the Tripoli war and Turkish military intervention, the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) has organised senior level follow-up committee meetings in the framework of the Berlin Process in the hope of bridging the gaps between the warring parties. Unfortunately, an array of obstacles stands in the way of such efforts, not least the absence of the necessary will to resolve the conflict diplomatically given the complex interweave of divergent positions among regional and international stakeholders. As a result, a number of initiatives have surfaced in an attempt to break down the complex problems into more manageable chunks.
The most salient effort in this regard is Washington’s partial initiative to defuse the standoff over the Sirte-Jufra line. According to Libyan sources and press reports, a high-level US delegation recently held a secret meeting with Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA), in order to propose a ceasefire plan. According to leaked information on the plan, LNA forces would withdraw to Ajdabiya and the militias fighting for the Government of National Accord (GNA) would pull back by an equal distance on the other side. This would create an 80km wide buffer zone that would be manned by international observers to monitor the ceasefire.
Cairo would probably prefer the concept of a demilitarised zone, with certain publicly declared conditions. These would be the same as those identified by Haftar in his address to LNA troops late last week in which he stated that he can’t agree to changing the situation on the ground in Sirte before Turkish-backed mercenaries and GNA militias withdraw. If LNA forces and the Petroleum Facilities Guards withdraw without guarantees they risk leaving the field open to a Turkish-backed assault. They have solid grounds for being suspicious. Numerous statements by GNA political and military officials echo Ankara’s aggressive posture. Most recently, on 3 August, Abdel-Hadi Drah, the spokesman for the GNA’s Sirte-Jufra Operations Room, reiterated that GNA forces were ready to invade Sirte and Jufra should negotiations fail. He indicated that the negotiations sought not only to eliminate the LNA from Sirte, but also the Russian Wagner Group that allegedly supports LNA forces. There is a division of labour between the GNA and Ankara, which fears open confrontation with Moscow, fears compounded by the dynamics surrounding Russian-Turkish understandings in Syria.
The Americans have not offered reassurances over eastern Libyans’ central demands for the equitable distribution of oil revenues and reform of the Tripoli-based Central Bank. Officials in Benghazi and Tobruk accuse the GNA-run Central Bank of funnelling oil revenues into Turkish coffers in order to pay for Turkish arms and military presence in Libya.
Although media attention has focused on the Syrian mercenaries in Libya, officials in Cairo maintain that the mercenary situation is far more complicated. There are at least 10 different foreign nationalities fighting on Libyan battlegrounds, and a simple breakdown in numbers offers a gauge of Turkish intentions. Turkey’s amassing of mercenary militias in Libya speaks of a relentless determination to immerse the country in violence and anarchy. More ominous, Ankara has been supporting the return to Libya of Al-Qaeda commanders, including the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group’s main ideologue Sami Al-Saadi, and its military commander Khaled Al-Sherif. In addition, the group’s leader, Abdel-Hakim Belhaj, has been playing an increasingly prominent role in the transfer of jihadists and mercenaries to Libya via his personal airline Wings.
Another indicator of Turkish intentions are the Turkish-led assaults against Sabrata, Surman and Al-Ajailat west of Tripoli where prison breaks were staged to release hundreds of extremists held by the LNA before GNA forces drove the LNA from the coastal towns. Evidently, Ankara is set on creating a Libyan version of Idlib as part of its bid to establish a permanent military presence in Libya.
In light of such assessments, it could be that the visit by the US delegation to LNA General Command headquarters in Al-Rajma, outside Benghazi, to discuss the situation in Sirte independently is a sign Washington is also wary of Turkey’s escalatory designs. At the same time, it is also a sign there still exists a channel for dialogue with the LNA which continues to prevail in eastern Libya, and could herald a potential clash between Washington and Ankara. This is one reason why observers believe Turkey will take advantage of the run-up to the US elections to launch an assault on Sirte, just as it took advantage of the world’s preoccupation with the Covid-19 pandemic to flood Libya with weapons and mercenaries.
Ankara’s promotion of Islamist extremists in Libya cannot sit well with the US, especially given how the US ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed in a terrorist attack there in 2012. The need to fight extremism and terrorism is one area where Cairo’s and Washington’s views on the situation in Libya overlap. Cairo, too, supports a ceasefire and a return to the peace process. But it also insists that the mercenaries must be removed from Libya where they pose a direct threat to Egyptian national security.
Cairo sees Aguila Saleh’s political initiative as a means to advance the political process in the framework of the Cairo Declaration. During Saleh’s visit to Egypt, Cairo will have a chance to be briefed on the outcomes of his recent tour of Arab capitals, Moscow and Geneva. His visit to Morocco may be of particular interest since it coincided with a visit by Khaled Al-Mishri, head of Libya’s High Council of State. Although Al-Mishri did not meet with Saleh, it is likely he made an overture through back channels. The GNA, after all, sees Saleh as a political player who might have a project with which it can engage, while it refuses to have any dealings with Haftar.
While Egypt continues to invest as much effort as possible into promoting the prospects of a political settlement to the Libyan crisis, it is simultaneously committed to strengthening the Libyan military establishment. Cairo sees this as the key to reconstructing the Libyan state, restoring stability, and dismantling the network of chronic extremism and anarchy in western Libya.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly