Forces of the Government of National Accord (GNA) are surrounding the city of Sirte in central Libya on the western flank since the beginning of June, after the city became a stronghold for the Libyan National Army (LNA) when it withdrew from areas in western Libya at the end of May. The city is now on the brink of a third war after two previous ones in 2011 and 2016, as it waits for the outcome of international wheeling and dealing about the city, especially between the US and Russia who are competing to use the Mediterranean military base there. Meanwhile, pressure and local mediation continue between the GNA and LNA to convince the latter to withdraw to the east. GNA forces are adamant on regaining control of Sirte.
A meeting scheduled for Sunday in Istanbul for the Russian and Turkish ministers of defence and foreign affairs to discuss the Libyan crisis and the situation in Sirte was cancelled due to disagreement on the ceasefire and the GNA in Tripoli insisting on recapturing the city and Jufra Airbase. Turkey supports this position, as does the US which rejects Russian presence in Libya and establishing a Russian military base there.
Turkey and Russia unexpectedly took centre stage in Libyan affairs at the beginning of the year when the GNA signed a security and maritime agreement with Ankara in late November 2019. Moscow, meanwhile, infused LNA ranks with Wagner Group fighters (a private Russian military company) during the campaign to seize control of Tripoli, and this advanced role came at the expense of regional and international powers that had been more involved in Libya over the past six years.
Despite reports about a quarrel between Moscow and Ankara on the ceasefire in Libya, as reported by Turkish media, Foreign Minister Mouloud Jawish Oglu denied disagreement with Russia regarding the “main principles” in Libya, and stressed the importance of avoiding another failed truce. He said it would be “unrealistic” for Turks and Russians to take decisions without conferring with the Libyans, “especially the legitimate government” — meaning the GNA — that is resolute in reconquering Sirte and Jufra Airbase. Oglu told the press in Istanbul that “we decided it would be more beneficial to continue talks on a technical level” in reference to downgrading the cancelled ministerial talks.
Turkey and Russia are raring to establish military bases in Libya. Turkish newspaper Yeni Safak said Thursday that Ankara is talking to the GNA about using Misrata Naval Base east of Tripoli and Al-Watiya Airbase southwest of the capital after revamping them, to establish itself south of the Mediterranean. Reuters news agency confirmed the news, quoting Turkish sources on Sunday. Al-Ahram Weekly reported as early as last December that Turkey is planning to build a military base in Libya.
Russia, meanwhile, also wants a military base in eastern Libya after receiving a request two years ago from Haftar. Lev Dengov, head of Russia’s contact group on Libya, revealed this request to the press 18 February 2018. Libyan sources previously told the Weekly that Russia wants to build a large military base near Ajdabiya, close to the main oil fields and ports. In 2016, the US published reports that Russia wants to procure a military base near the eastern city of Derna. The US army reported that Russia deployed 14 fighter jets to Jufra Airbase, and with Wagner Group combatants and a few forces from the Russian army in Benghazi and Tobruk since mid-2016, it seems Russia is keenly eyeing Jufra Airbase, especially since it is close to the southern Mediterranean coast and the heart of the African continent.
The US and Western powers are opposed to Russia’s overtures because they threaten the southern border of the NATO alliance. They also differ on strategic priorities in Libya, such as migration, war on terrorism and energy, as well as Turkey’s advanced role in Libya due to the geo-strategic situation in North Africa. In 2018, US officials discussed with the head of the GNA’s Presidential Council, Fayez Al-Sarraj, the possibility of using Ghardabiya Airbase south of Sirte in the war against terrorism, which is the same request made by France years earlier to the Libyan interim government.
Washington objects to Russia’s presence in Libya, but not as much as Europe and the Middle East which are also opposed to a Turkish presence more than the US. Washington could view Ankara’s role as “beneficial”, decisive and practical, unlike European powers who have failed on the Libya issue since the US delegated it to them nine years ago.
France and Greece object to a Turkish presence in Libya for separate reasons. France believes a Turkish presence will undermine its influence in North Africa based on the understandings of the 1942 Operation Torch by the US army, which France employed post-World War II. Greece believes Turkey encroached on its rights during the demarcation of the GNA maritime borders.
On both Sunday and Monday, the French presidency issued statements condemning Turkish intervention in Libya and accused Ankara of taking advantage of NATO for its own gains. It said this is unacceptable and called for a NATO meeting to discuss Turkey’s role in Libya and urged the Turkish Foreign Ministry to end interference in Libya. This escalation by Paris is expected since it supported Haftar.
A source in the GNA told the Weekly that Turkey and the Tripoli government are intent on recovering Sirte and Jufra, as confirmed by GNA Interior Minister Fathi Pashagha in earlier statements, as well as the southwest region which is historically known as Fezzan province.
On the local level, there are domestic considerations that make it urgently necessary for the GNA to regain control of Sirte. Misrata residents believe they made many sacrifices in Sirte since the 2011 rebellion against the Gaddafi regime, including recapturing Sirte from Islamic State group control, when 700 Misratans died. Also, a substantial number of the 65,000 Sirte residents are originally from Misrata. Political and security leaders in Misrata view Sirte as an advanced line of defence for their city.
Along with Misratans, most forces in western Libya prefer that the GNA regain control of Sirte and Jufra since they are on the eastern and southern border of West Tripoli province. This is the reason that fuelled mobilisation and media campaigns during the past nine years of war, as well as ideas for a political settlement, including regional and international initiatives (most recently the Cairo Declaration and the UN-sponsored Berlin Process).
At the outbreak of war in Tripoli, some key players in Sirte such as the Gaddafi and Warfala tribes tried to distance the city from the conflict to avoid the ravages of war and destruction, so they struck a deal with the leaders in Misrata. However, once Haftar’s LNA forces entered the fray, the tripartite agreement signed by social, security and political leaders in Sirte and Misrata in April 2019 faltered.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly