Parties to the domestic conflict in Libya are still on alert on the ground along the coast of the Mediterranean around Sirte, extending west from the main ports of the oil crescent (Al-Zueitina, Brega, Ras Lanuf, Sidra) to the eastern town of Abugrein (138 kilometres west of Sirte) and south to the Jufra region. Rival local forces continue to receive military assistance from foreign sponsors, while Western powers led by the US are pushing for a new international plan to defuse tensions and support the ceasefire in central Libya, which is a pivotal point dividing east and west Libya. Washington is also trying to relaunch the Berlin Process which stalled after fighting escalated six months ago.
A diplomatic source as well as Western and Libyan reports revealed that a US-backed proposal suggests that the Sirte-Jufra region should be a demilitarised zone. The general command of the Libyan National Army (LNA) would withdraw from Sirte and Jufra towards Benghazi and Ajdabiya, while police forces belonging to the Ministry of Interior of the Government of National Accord (GNA) would enter Sirte to secure government sectors and institutions there, after security troops under US supervision are chosen. For over one year the US has been holding a security dialogue with the GNA in Tripoli to reform the security sector and demobilise, disarm, re-integrate and train fighters who will be chosen from armed formations.
Sources continued that the new international plan also calls for deploying military forces from Germany, Italy, the UK and France to the central region at major oil ports and Jufra Airbase, which sources believe will eventually come under NATO control. In the beginning, Qatar and UAE will fund these European forces and will later collect these funds from Libyan oil revenues. This plan is approved by European powers but is opposed by Russia.
Russia entered the fray since the battle of Tripoli by supporting LNA troops, and Washington accuses Moscow of sending combatants from the Wagner Group to fight alongside the LNA and fighter jets based in Jufra Airbase in central Libya. Europe and the US are concerned that Russia will gain a foothold on the southern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, which poses a threat to Europe’s historical influence in Libya and Africa in favour of Russia and Turkey.
The battle for Tripoli also gave Turkey an opportunity to land in Libya on a large scale after signing memoranda of understanding with the GNA on maritime mandates and security and military cooperation on 27 November 2019. The deals continue to stir controversy at home, regionally and on the international stage since they allow Turkey greater opportunity to manoeuvre on the regional and global stages, especially after sending troops, security and military consultants, as well as mercenaries to aid the GNA on the battlefield.
Russia and Turkey are coordinating and cooperating together in Libya, much as they have in Syria, which is disconcerting for regional and international players who are worried that the pair will dominate the Libyan scene, as they have the Syrian. Two weeks ago, senior diplomats from both sides met in Istanbul. On 22 July, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Moscow and Ankara agreed to look into creating “a joint working group on Libya” and holding another round of consultations in Moscow soon, since both countries want to reach a long-term ceasefire in Libya. Deputy Director of the Department of Information and Press Alexey Zaitsev said 30 July that Moscow will soon host a meeting of Russian and Turkish diplomats to discuss the Libyan matter. He said a key item on the agenda will be “deployment of military and combat forces during the truce”.
Meanwhile, Washington continues its efforts to defuse the situation in Sirte and Jufra. Joshus Harris, Chargé d’Affaires at the US Embassy in Libya, visited Misrata and Benghazi last week and urged Libyan leaders to stop fighting, return to the negotiating table, and remove foreign fighters from Libyan soil. Harris focused on the situation in Sirte and Jufra, discussing “de-escalating military action”, “re-opening the energy sector” and stepping up Libyan efforts “to disband, disarm and reintegrate violent militia groups”. This is part of a security dialogue under the auspices of Washington which began over one year ago.
In an online statement, the US embassy said Harris “reiterated US support for Libyan sovereignty and integrity of its territories”. It added there is an urgent need for foreign troops and mercenaries to leave the country, and that the embassy is willing to work with an all-inclusive group of Libyan figures from across the country who reject foreign interference. The statement also reiterated “respect for the contributions of Misrata forces in combating terrorism”.
In Benghazi, Harris discussed with officials from parliament and the LNA allowing the National Oil Corporation (NOC) to “restart its vital operations across the country, and seize the opportunity provided by the UN-facilitated dialogue to reach a final formula for a permanent ceasefire, and a roadmap for all foreign and mercenary combatants to leave the country”. The US is focused on pushing forward the Berlin Process at a time when it is being challenged by Russia and Turkey who want to play a more advanced role, after European powers, which Washington relied on heavily in recent years, failed to resolve the crisis. This caused rival domestic powers in Libya to turn to Turkey and Russia.
Although there is US, European and Arab support for a de-escalation in Libya, Turkey and Russia continue to support their Libyan allies with military materiel, according to the US Army and Pentagon. They report that arms and combatants continue to arrive on all sides of the conflict in Libya; a harbinger of certain war by proxy there, which has become more apparent since LNA Commander General Khalifa Haftar began his military offensive on Tripoli.
Acting UN Special Representative to Libya Stephanie Williams warned against the Libyan crisis evolving into a regional war due to foreign interference. Speaking to the media in London on Saturday, Williams said: “With so many external actors with their own agendas, the risk of miscalculation and a regional confrontation is high.” She added: “The Libyan people are exhausted and scared in equal measure. They are tired of war, and want peace, but they fear this is not in their hands now. They want a solution and a ceasefire. The alternative to a ceasefire and an inclusive political solution is essentially the destruction of their country. This is as much a battle between external rivals as a civil war now, in which the Libyans are losing their sovereignty.”
Williams said she is working on creating a demilitarised zone in central Libya, and disengaging forces around Sirte in preparation for a ceasefire. She said the US is determined to carry out structural reform in the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) since Washington wants the UN representative to be two envoys: one working inside and another outside Libya. European countries and the UN itself object to this proposal.
Diplomatic sources said Washington wants to appoint a European figure as UN envoy for the peace process in Libya, a post former Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt was nominated for, but she changed her mind and withdrew her name. Instead, former Ghanian foreign minister Hanna Tetteh was chosen as director of UNSMIL, and is waiting for US approval of the appointment.
The US is working on several fronts of the Libyan crisis, locally, regionally and on the world stage. Locally, it is trying to press forward in security and economic talks which it began more than two years ago with Libyans. Regionally, Washington is trying to calm tensions between its allies who are fighting in and about Libya. Globally, it is attempting to rein in Russia which creeped into Libya by taking advantage of regional and European disputes over Libya, and imposed itself as a key player on the scene.
The plan to demilitarise central Libya faces several challenges, including how responsive will US allies be to the idea, their opinion of the US’s vision of the situation and position on domestic forces in Libya, and whether European powers can unify their view on Libya, since they continue to disagree on the priority of major strategic issues such as migration, energy and the war on terrorism.
Russia’s presence will likely further burden European and regional powers whom Washington will ask to resolve this issue. At the same time, Libyan forces are more reliant on foreign supporters than ever before, which means regional and international disputes must first be addressed before moving forward in the political process.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly