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Turkey escalates in Libya

The meddling of outside powers continues to set Libya on the path of military escalation and polarisation, frustrating UN efforts at peace-making, writes Kamel Abdallah

Kamel Abdallah , Tuesday 12 May 2020
Turkey escalates in Libya
Smoke fumes rise above buildings in the Libyan capital Tripoli, during reported shelling by strongman Khalifa haftar’s forces (photo: AFP)
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Portions of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, sustained an intensive missile barrage from the Libyan National Army (LNA) last weekend. On Thursday evening, two missiles struck the park area between Al-Shatt Road and Zawyat Al-Dahmani, the district in which are located the Libyan National Broadcasting Company, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Mahary Hotel, the Turkish Embassy and the Italian ambassador’s residence. The bombardment resumed on Saturday and extended to the vicinity of Matiga International Airport, which has been closed since the beginning of the Tripoli offensive that LNA Commander Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar launched in April 2019. The airport suffered considerable damage according to airport officials, the Ministry of Transport and the National Oil Company (NOC) which said that some of its facilities were hit.

The UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) and the Ministry of Health under the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) documented 15 deaths and more than 50 wounded as the result of the weekend strikes. UNSMIL condemned what it described as “indiscriminate attacks on civilian-populated neighbourhoods in Tripoli.” Italy and Turkey, whose diplomatic buildings are near the locations that LNA missiles struck, vehemently condemned the strikes. Italy denounced the LNA’s “disdain for the rules of law and human life” even though Rome has recently drawn closer to Haftar whom has been a guest at Palazzo Chigi, the Italian prime minister’s residence, on a number of occasions. Ankara, which backs the GNA militarily, warned that it would consider Haftar’s forces as “legitimate targets” if its interests on the ground in Libya come under attack. Turkey also criticised the UN for failing to act, even though the UN mission in Libya strongly condemned the attack and called for those responsible to be brought to account.

The LNA shelling of parts of the capital and the vicinity of the airport comes two weeks after Haftar announced a halt to military operations during Ramadan in response to appeals from friendly nations for a humanitarian truce. The Turkish-backed GNA did not reciprocate. It stated that it did not trust Haftar and called for an internationally monitored ceasefire.

The GNA has been bolstered militarily after signing a maritime border memorandum of understanding and a military cooperation agreement with Ankara in November 2019. Ankara has used the controversial agreements as a pretext to send in large shipments of advanced military hardware, Turkish military advisers and thousands of mercenaries from Turkish-backed militias in Syria to help GNA forces repel the year-long LNA drive to wrest control of the capital.

According to some analysts, the LNA’s shelling of Zawyat Al-Dahmani district where the Turkish diplomatic mission is located is a sign that Haftar failed in his attempt to open a backchannel line of communication with Turkey. Towards this end he used scrap iron dealers with connections to the LNA general command, informed sources told Al-Ahram Weekly. “It was an attempt to test the pulse in Ankara, but it stopped,” they added. Although Haftar was in Moscow at the same time as senior Turkish officials in January when Russia and Turkey tried to broker a ceasefire, there were no direct communications between them. Haftar refused to sign the draft ceasefire agreement in Moscow which may have complicated his relations with allies at home and abroad.

As the fighting in and around Libya escalates, UNSMIL has renewed its call on Libyan parties to resume the military and political tracks of the Berlin process that were initiated following the international conference on the Libyan crisis that convened in Germany on 19 January 2020. Although participants in these tracks met a few times in February and early March, no progress was made and the process quickly ground to a halt against the backdrop of mounting foreign military interventions that have been described as more flagrant than ever and that have generated fiercer military escalation.

Around the time he called for a humanitarian truce two weeks ago, Haftar repudiated the Skhirat Agreement, a UN-brokered accord between Libyan factions signed in 2015, and announced that he had “accepted a popular mandate” to govern Libya. Shortly before this, the Speaker of the Libyan House of Representatives Aguila Saleh announced a new political dialogue initiative.

While these steps elicited divergent local and international responses, UNSMIL seized the chance to call on both sides to “immediately halt all military operations and resume the Joint Military Committee (5+5) talks — via video calling, if necessary”. The JMC (5+5) is one of the military tracks initiated by the Berlin Conference on Libya in January. UNSMIL hopes that its participants will resume discussion of the draft ceasefire agreement UNSMIL had submitted to them in their second meeting in Geneva in March. As of time of writing, neither side has taken UNSMIL up on its call to restart the military track.

Following last weekend’s attacks, UNSMIL’s task is likely to be harder yet, as the Tripoli faction digs in its heels. The Tripoli-based group of House of Representatives members who have boycotted the house’s meetings in Tobruk, and the members of the High Council of State, an unelected body that emerged from the Skhirat Agreement, issued statements stressing that they would not enter into talks “until after the aggressor (Haftar’s forces) withdraws to its positions before 4 April 2019”. Pro-GNA groups have reiterated this stance frequently during the past year.

According to political sources in the Libyan capital, UNSMIL sent out invitations to numerous political figures in the hope of resuming the political track. There have also been reports of unpublicised communications between Saleh and the eastern based Libyan Chief of General Staff Abdul-Razek Al-Nadori, and officials affiliated with the GNA. The sources believe that the communications were encouraged by influential outside powers who want the political dialogue track to conclude its business as quickly as possible.

As hopes turn to reviving the political process, many in Libya are speculating as to who might succeed Fayez Al-Sarraj, who serves as both chairman of the Presidency Council and prime minister of the GNA. Names of numerous political activists and prominent businessmen have been mooted as possible candidates for the three-member Presidency Council and the new GNA cabinet that could emerge as part of the political process. Nevertheless, there remain many impediments.

One problem relates to the regional power-sharing approach to the Libyan crisis that the international community has followed since 2011. This determination to distribute government positions and authorities on the basis of affiliation to Libya’s three historic regions (Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan), as opposed to on the basis of ideological/political affiliations as is commonly believed, has contributed to weakening government institutions because of the consequent tensions and rivalries within and between them.

Another major impediment is increased foreign meddling in Libyan affairs which makes any progress (or lack thereof) contingent on the will of outside powers and their determination to position their local proxies in positions of authority. A related problem is the tendency to include saboteurs in the process, rewarding certain parties for violating the international sanctions and arms embargo regime, and enabling them to undermine peace-making efforts. The ongoing warfare, of course, works to entrench the cycle. Negotiating under the conditions of continued military conflict strengthens the hand of outside influence which works to aggravate polarisation and frustrate peace-making efforts.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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