Libya's Future Seema to Rest on Arrangements Between Russia And Turkey
Since the death of former dictator
Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 , in an armed uprising backed by the west, Libya, once
a leading producer and exporter of oil, has been convulsed by internal fighting
that has left thousands dead; the economy destroyed; and armed militias being
treated as legitimate players backing different blocs in the internecine
The country has become a playground for many countries-adjacent and distant
from Libya- each with its own specific agenda sought to be fulfilled by arming,
financing and backing one of the two main players seeking to control the whole
country and its resources. The question being asked is whether with so many
players in the field will the country remain one or is Libya's partition
The past years have seen two governments effectively exercising power in Libya.
The internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) of Prime
Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, backed primarily by the United Nations and Italy had,
till this month, remained largely confined to Tripoli.
In Benghazi in the east of the country, Field Marshal Khalifa Belqasim Haftar,
a one time member of Gaddafi's army, had established a parallel government and
started looking to take over Tripoli on the grounds that he alone could restore
order in the country and end the mushrooming of armed gangs and Islamist
In fact in July 2017, Haftar said his forces had seized Benghazi after a bloody
three-year battle against Islamic militants. Haftar who had lived in exile for
many years in the USA was often considered a CIA asset and subsequent to a meeting
with him in April 2019 President Trump was said to have commented that he
recognized Field Marshall Haftar's significant role in fighting terrorism and
securing Libya's oil resources, and had discussed a shared vision for Libya's
transition to a stable, democratic political system.
This was shortly after Haftar had launched his offensive to capture Tripoli on
April 4 leading his fighters, who he had named the Libya National Army and who
were said to number nearly 85000, including a large number of Salafists despite
his claims of fighting Islamists. Haftar had also been received in Saudi Arabia
and apparently been promised Saudi Arabia millions of dollars to pay for the
operation to take Tripoli including payoffs to tribal leaders and to recruit
new fighters. Egypt and the United Arab Emirates had also given support to
Haftar because they suspected the GNA of having ties to the Muslim Brotherhood,
an Islamist group they strongly opposed.
This was all in 2019.
In 2020 the game changed with the entry of a new powerful player- Turkey.
President Erdogan who had always been sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood
decided to throw Turkey's weight behind the GNA Government in Tripoli. Last
September Russian mercenaries, reportedly deployed by from the Wagner Group,
controlled by Yevgeniy Prigozhin, a businessman with close ties to the Kremlin,
had appeared around Tripoli to bolster Haftar's forces.
Putin did not deny their presence but said in January 2020 that they did not
represent Russia or its interests.. Though Haftar's LNA had very swiftly
captured strongholds in the south, it had been bogged down since April 2019
when the first onslaught against Tripoli failed because of the armed militias
siding with the Fayez Government.
Responding to the obvious Russian support for Haftar, the GNA Government
entered into an agreement with Turkey to allow it access to Mediterranean Sea
gas fields in exchange for military aid that included drones, Syrian
mercenaries and armored vehicles. This rapidly changed the scenario in the
fighting. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said in February 2020 that fighters
from the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army were in Libya, as well as Turkey's
The Russian reaction was to recruit more mercenaries for Haftar with the Syrian
Observatory for Human Rights, reporting that more than 900 Syrians were
recruited by Russia to fight in Libya in May.
The advent of Turkish troops and its Syrian proixies and armament appeared to
have changed the game completely. The GNA had secured a number of victories in
the west of Libya and around Tripoli. GNA forces had captured the LNA's last
western stronghold in Tarhouna, some 40 miles southeast of Tripoli.
Tarhouna had been held by the LNA-aligned Kani family, which controlled a
powerful local armed group known as the Kaniyat. The Kaniyat were said to have
fled in the face of the bolstered GNA forces who discovered mass graves in the
region. Then the GNA launched an offensive to capture Sirte in order to wipe
out all the LNA'S successes since April 2019. Air strikes, reportedly by
Russian planes, were used by Haftar to repulse the attack on Sirte.
Meanwhile Turkey's President Erdogan had set the agenda for the fighting to
come by stating that the goal was to take over the whole Sirte area with the
oil wells and the Jufra airbase. Abdelmenaam al-Draa, a military spokesman, had
told the media that "...We will enter Sirte. This isn't a battle for cities
like Tripoli or Sirte. It is a fight for Libya, for freedom and
democracy,"… "We will continue east until we liberate all of Libya
from the war criminal Haftar."
With Haftar's plight causing concern to the countries that had backed him,
President Sisi of Egypt had appealed for a ceasefire. Sisi said that Haftar and
other eastern leaders - including eastern parliament speaker Aguila Saleh - had
signed the "Cairo Declaration", urging the withdrawal of "foreign mercenaries from all Libyan territory" and the "dismantling of militias and handing over their weaponry so that the Libyan
National Army would be able to carry out its military and security
responsibilities and duties.
The Declaration was endorsed by some countries but rejected outright by the GNA
government which said it had not started the war but it would choose when and
were to end it. Turkey dismissed the Egypt plan as only an excuse to save
Since the fighting began UN resolutions and efforts; statements by the European
Union and G7 calling for an end to hostilities and a political solution had had
no impact. In January 2020 Haftar, believing his goal was about to be achieved,
had refused, in Moscow, a proposal by Presidents Putin and Erdogan to sign a
cease-fire which the GNA was willing to accept. A later conference in Berlin
failed to stop the fighting. Now it was the GNA's turn to refuse a ceasefire
sought by Egypt.
As the fighting continued the UN had also sought to play an effective role,
despite Covid 19,in establishing a ceasefire and peace but to no avail. It had
organized separate reportedly "productive" virtual meetings with the two sides
and said they were "fully" engaged in military talks aimed at ending
the fighting in the country.
The future for the country remains bleak and commentators have talked about the
present defacto partition of Libya giving way to a messy partition reminiscent
of the creation of South Sudan. The United States except for blaming Russia for
deploying its fighter jets to aid Haftar has remained detached with U.S.
President Donald Trump called for a "rapid de-escalation" of the Libyan
conflict during a phone call with Erdogan.
Europe has been reduced to the state of a bystander and UN exhortations for
ending the supply of weapons to the two sides in Libya have, as has often
happened in the past, fallen on deaf ears. But now with Haftar on the back foot
France had called on NATO allies to discuss Turkey's increasingly "aggressive" role in Libya accusing Ankara of thwarting truce efforts by
breaking a U.N. arms embargo.
The Russians might be content with an arrangement that lifts sanctions on the LNA
forces; gets Haftar to recognize the U.N.-installed government in Tripoli and
institutionalizes Hafter's hegemony over eastern Libya which would allow Russia
to conclude energy deals. At the same time some analysts have commented that
Russia could be willing to countenance a weakened Haftar's replacement with
another leader with the name of political leader Aguila Saleh in the east being
mentioned. Russia's interests in Libya include oil and construction contracts
but the American's believe that what the Russians want is to secure military
bases on Europe's southern flank.
The critical player would be Turkey and there is little likelihood of President
Erdogan allowing any arrangement that would legitimize Haftar. Speaking in an
interview with daily Milliyet, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said that Turkish
soldiers were providing military training, cooperation, and advisory services
to forces loyal to Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj's GNA and that had
contributed "very significantly" to the recent military success of Libya's
U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). Turkish officials have spoken
about ancient Ottoman ties to Tripoli to justify Turkey's support for the GNA
Government but what Turkey really stands to gain if the GNA rules the entire
country would be the right to explore and drill for oil in the eastern
Given these agendas peace does not seem to be imminent. Erdogan has been
holding talks with Russian President Putin but a scheduled meeting between the
two countries to discuss Libya was suddenly postponed. The Turkish
Presidential spokesperson had emphasised that Turkey wanted a political
solution in Libya but his comments clearly suggested that Turkey saw no role
for Haftar. Algeria had also entered the game now after being neutral all along
offering to mediate with Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune stating
Algerian rejection of military action and that Haftar taking Tripoli would have
resulted in an all-out civil war, leading to the collapse of the state.
It appears that Libya's future would hinge on the arrangment
that Russia and Turkey which have been backing opposite sides arrive at and
which would secure their interests in Libya. The citing of real and presumed
national interests to destroy other countries has been a historical practice
and at this juncture it appears that this is what fate has in store for Libya.