Despite repeated calls by the United Nations in the last two months, the guns have not fallen silent in Libya. On the contrary, warring factions are as determined as ever to score clear victories over their respective adversaries, regardless the cost.
The self-styled “Libyan National Army” (LNA) under the command of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar had launched a surprising attack on the Libyan capital on 4 April 2019, with the declared aim of overtaking the city, the seat of the internationally-recognised government of Fayez Al-Sarraj, to free Libya from “terrorism”. More than a year has passed and his forces are still on the outskirts of Tripoli. The longer his forces cannot achieve their objective, the harder it gets, unless military advantage on the ground is tilted towards the LNA, something that is almost next to impossible given the present balance of power after the intervention of Turkey late last year in the international and regional struggle for Libya.
This intervention rolled back the battle lines of Haftar’s forces. In the last few months, his forces lost control over some towns and villages west of Tripoli and his main military base, Al-Wateya, is the next strategic target of the forces of the internationally-recognised government, heavily supported by Turkey. If Haftar loses control over his main military base, the chances are that his “Battle for Tripoli” will be consigned to the past. However, and despite this possible reversal in the fortunes of the LNA, the war will still rage on in Libya, unless the main backers of the Libyan warring parties come to an agreement that it is better for all parties concerned to enforce on the Libyans the main conclusions of the Berlin Summit of 19 January.
On Monday, 11 May, the foreign ministers of Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, the United Arab Emirates and France held a videoconference to discuss the overall security situation in the eastern Mediterranean with particular emphasis on the situation in Libya after the renewed fighting that erupted after the Berlin Summit. Undoubtedly, Turkish military intervention played a determining role in the outbreak of the fighting. The five powers condemned this intervention and called on Turkey to respect the independence and territorial integrity of eastern Mediterranean countries, including Libya. Meanwhile, the five condemned also the recruitment, under the direct control of the Turkish government, of Syrian mercenaries to fight in Libya. According to the latest estimates by the LNA, the number of mercenaries sent to Libya has reached 17,000 fighters. Most of them go for the money, others under pressure from the commanders of the Syrian armed groups battling the Syrian army.
The five pointed out that the presence of those mercenaries poses a direct threat to the stability of neighbouring countries, as well as Europe. And they called for the end of foreign military intervention in Libya, read: Turkey. They reiterated their support for the Berlin Declaration of 19 January and committed themselves to support the resumption of the three-track negotiations between the Tripoli government and the interim government in the eastern part of Libya, in other words Field Marshal Haftar, who has not shown much diplomatic ingenuity after the Berlin Summit. Nor has the government of Al-Sarraj demonstrated enough political will to pursue the diplomatic path offered by the international community in Berlin.
Needless to say, neither the Turkish government, nor the Government of National Accord headed by Al-Sarraj welcomed the five-power meeting via videoconference. The Tripoli government rejected what it called “unacceptable interference” in Libyan affairs, whereas Ankara, through the Turkish Foreign Ministry, called the meeting an “anti-Turkish” gathering.
Two days later, on Wednesday, 13 May, Italy headed a videoconference for the follow-up committee that was formed last January in Berlin to carry out the decisions adopted in the Berlin Summit. It was the third meeting for the group that was attended by 18 countries and international and regional organisations, such as the Arab League that is scheduled to organise the next meeting of the group next month.
In Libya, international diplomacy lags behind the fighting, while it mirrors the geopolitics involved in the Libyan quagmire. On the regional level, the battle lines are a sad reflection of regional axes that are battling for hegemony in the Middle East and North Africa. On the international level, the European powers are divided. The same situation goes for NATO which had played a very destabilising role in Libya in 2011, by destroying the Libyan army on the pretext that it was protecting “innocent civilians”. Strangely enough, with the growing military intervention of Turkey in the Libyan conflict, NATO has kept silent. The other day, the Turkish minister of defence welcomed a statement that he attributed to the secretary-general of NATO in which he said that the government in Tripoli is the party that would bear the responsibility of implementing any peace deal in Libya. The Turkish minister of defence also praised the support given by NATO to the government of Al-Sarraj.
Does this mean that NATO supports the Turkish military intervention in Libya? The question is rhetorical, but the fact remains that NATO does not endorse the entirety of the Berlin Declaration.
The United States and Russia, while both are facing serious challenges from the coronavirus pandemic, are not ready yet to put out the fire in the eastern Mediterranean. As for Arab countries, and particularly those that have joint borders with Libya, they probably agree on the endgame in Libya, but are not of the same mind as to how to translate that into a coherent strategy that could become a lever for a domestic Libyan consensus on the path forward in the context of the Berlin Declaration and UN Security Council resolutions related to the situation in Libya. Unfortunately, Turkey has benefited from present tactical contradictions among international and regional powers to gain a military foothold in Libya, with its attendant destabilising ramifications, especially as far as Egypt is concerned.
Two months back, some official Turkish sources had begun talking about pushing back against the military successes of the LNA in the western part of Libya, and at a later stage advancing towards the east in Libya — that is, getting closer to Egyptian borders with Libya.
Let us hope that wiser heads talk Turkey out of such a foolish strategy. Maybe the five-power meeting of 11 May was meant, in part, as a message of deterrence.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly