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How Are The Latest Changes On The Battlefield In Libya Affecting International Diplomatic Efforts?

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How Are The Latest Changes On The Battlefield In Libya Affecting International Diplomatic Efforts?

Map of Libya and neighbouring countries

After 14 months and hundreds of lives lost, military commander of the ‘Libyan National Army’ (LNA) Khalifa Haftar’s attempt to seize Tripoli is over, for the moment at least. On June 5, forces of the ‘Government of National Accord’ (GNA) captured the city of Tarhuna, the LNA’s last major stronghold in western Libya, a day after the GNA announced that it had retaken the Greater Tripoli area in its entirety.

General Khalifa Haftar’s military campaign to capture Tripoli, the seat of the GNA since early 2016, began in April of 2019. The military base at Tarhuna had served as a key launch pad for the offensive against Tripoli.

As the offensive stalled in the face of strong resistance, the battle lines remained largely unchanged until a series of military victories in recent weeks by the GNA’s forces, made possible by a large influx of weapons, supplies and fighters from Turkey.

In March, the Libyan government launched ‘Operation Peace Storm’ to recapture the areas held by the LNA around the capital and other strategic locations, including the Al-Watiya airbase and most recently Tarhuna city.

While it will be difficult for the LNA to regroup following the succession of major battlefield defeats, it remains to be seen how far the GNA will carry their counter-attack as they move further from their bases of support and their supply lines become more extended.

Most analysts have concluded that the GNA’s recent military gains do not mark the beginning of the end of the war in Libya but a return to the status quo that existed before the launch of the Tripoli offensive.

An agreement signed in December 2015 in Morocco’s Skhirat, based on the UN peace plan for Libya, recognized the creation of several entities, including the Government of the National Accord (GNA) and the Presidential Council (which serves as the collective head of state). Both entities are based in Tripoli and are headed by Fayez Sarraj.

Currently, however, Libya has two supreme executive authorities, namely the internationally-recognized Tripoli-based Government of National Accord headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, and the interim government of Abdullah al-Thani, seated in the east of the country (in Tobruk) along with an elected parliament, which is supported by the Libyan National Army led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

Apart from the fighting between the GNA-LNA, large parts of the country are still under the control of, or subject to conflicts between, dozens of tribal or other local militias, and an assortment of domestic and foreign terrorist groups and criminal gangs operating throughout the war-torn country.

In terms of future developments, much will depend on what happens with respect to the respective groups’ access to international support, perceived ‘legitimacy’, and in particular their access to more weapons and supplies.

While Khalifa Haftar’s LNA has been widely identified as receiving support from the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Russia, the Tripoli-based administration of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj’s GNA is openly supported by Turkey.

France officially supports the GNA but has, in the past, blocked a European Union statement calling on the LNA to halt its offensive against Tripoli.

The United States has sent inconsistent and vague signals of its official position on the conflict, with President Donald Trump initially praising Haftar for his role in combatting ‘terrorism’.

More recently, however, Washington, appears to be moving away from its position of calculated ambiguity, with the US Africa command recently accusing Russia of deploying fighter jets to Libya in support of the LNA to expand its ‘military footprint’ in Africa. At the same time, AFRICOM announced that it was sending military forces to Libya’s neighbour Tunisia, presumably to further increase its ‘military footprint in Africa’… (LINK)

At 46.4 billion barrels, Libya possesses the largest proven oil reserves in Africa. Turkey stepped up its intervention after signing a maritime demarcation deal with the GNA late last year to begin oil and gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean.

But beyond the energy resources, at least some of the foreign countries involved in the Libyan conflict are also pursuing their own geopolitical interests and objectives based on their assessment of which of the belligerent parties is most compatible with advancing their own interests (and/ or their assessment of the likely consequences of a victory by one of them, as opposed to a continuation of the armed conflict and social and political turmoil).

Many analysts think that the involvement of the UAE and Egypt is in large part because they consider that Khalifa Haftar could be capable of restoring order and blocking the spread of political Islam, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, which they view as a threat to their domestic rule.

Another factor is their mutual rivalry with Turkey, both as a key support base for ‘political Islam’ (as opposed to the fanatical Wahabbi Islam exported by the Saudis in particular), as well as in more secular geopolitical terms.

Determining the motivations and objectives of other third party States that are directly or indirectly involved necessarily involves a substantial degree of speculation given their vague and contradictory statements and the largely covert nature of their actions. Russia, the US, France, Italy, the UK, Germany and Israel are some of the key ‘known unknowns’ in this respect. Most of Libya’s immediate neighbours have sought to avoid becoming entangled in the conflict directly – publicly, at least.

On Friday 5 June, AFP reported:

“President Kais Saied on Friday reaffirmed Tunisia’s neutrality in neighbouring Libya’s conflict during a telephone call with his French counterpart, the presidency said.

“Tunisia, which is committed to its sovereignty as well as the sovereignty of Libya, will never be a rear base for any party” to the conflict, Saied told President Emmanuel Macron, his office said.

Libya’s UN-recognised government, heavily backed by Turkey, on Friday announced it had taken the town of Tarhuna from the Libyan National Army strongman Khalifa Haftar.

On Thursday, a stormy session of Tunisia’s parliament saw the speaker, Rached Ghannouchi, head of the Islamist-inspired Ennahdha party, accused of pursuing a parallel foreign policy that backed Turkey.

Libyan leaders in late May revealed a telephone conversation between Ghannouchi and the head of Libya’s Government of National Accord, Fayez al-Sarraj, in which the former congratulated the latter on a recent military success.

Ghannouchi pledged at the end of the parliamentary session to review his positions so to avoid any duality over Tunisia’s foreign policy, which is officially a presidential domain.”

If any or all of the foreign powers decide to send a new influx of weapons in an attempt to alter the battlefield dynamics, it is most likely that others will respond accordingly and the Libyan conflict will become much more intense and destructive for the foreseeable future. If an implicit or explicit agreement can be reached to reinvigorate diplomatic efforts and increase pressure on the main belligerent forces in Libya to renew negotiations to end the armed conflict, it may be possible to turn the latest developments and the apparent return of the status quo into the basis for a political solution.

In this respect, on Friday 5 May the UN announced that cease-fire talks began on June 3 between the UN support mission and Khalifa Haftar’s LNA forces operating in the east of Libya, Anadolu Agency reports.

At a press conference, UN Information Services Director Alessandra Vellucci answered a question from Anadolu Agency about the talks. Citing the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) communications chief, Vellucci said the initial talks were held between UNSMIL and Haftar’s delegation.

Following the January Berlin Conference on Libya, it was decided to establish three separate negotiating tracks — military, economic and political — under the auspices of the UN to try to resolve the conflict.

Political talks floundered late February in Geneva after the completion of a second round of the UN-sponsored military talks between the conflicting parties.

The Libyan Joint Military Commission (JMC) talks were in a 5+5 format with five representatives of the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), and five from the forces loyal to Haftar.

The JMC is one of the three tracks that UNSMIL is working on, in compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 2510 (2020), and it calls upon the two parties to reach a lasting cease-fire agreement. LINK

Not surprisingly perhaps following the GNA’s successes in the field, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s remarks in a press conference with Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj in Ankara on Thursday (4 May) were assertive and belligerent.

He declared that his country will never leave the people of Libya to the mercy of ‘mercenaries’ and a ‘coup’, and that, “History will hold accountable all those who drowned Libya in blood and tears by providing support for the coup leader Khalifa Haftar.” He further declared that, “Any person who poses a constant threat to the future of Libya cannot sit at the negotiation table,” in a clear reference to the LNA’s military commander.

Erdogan renewed his call to prevent Haftar from selling Libya’s oil illegally and pointed out that he has reached a consensus with Al-Sarraj on expanding the areas of Turkey’s cooperation with the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya. A solution for the crisis in the North African country, he insisted, has to be based on legitimacy and justice (as well as Turkey’s attempt to appropriate Libya’s oil and gas resources in the Mediterranean). LINK

If Turkey continues flooding the north African country with weapons, fighters and other military supplies, it may push Egypt to enter the conflict on a massive scale, perhaps the most significant ‘known unknown’ to be decided in the coming weeks. Relations between Turkey and Egypt have been strained since the military coup that toppled Mohammed Morsi from power in 2013.

While a major Egyptian military intervention would probably be decisive in the immediate military contest between the LNA and the GNA, it would also risk generating long-term hostility among many Libyans towards Egypt in the long term and this explains Egypt’s reluctance to participate openly in the conflict up to now according to several Egyptian analysts.

Haftar commenced a visit Cairo on June 3 and met with Egypt’s deputy defence minister hours. In a major development, Egypt has just announced a proposed blueprint to end the conflict following prolonged discussions with several key protagonists from Libya. Egyptian-based news agency Al Ahram reports:

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) Khalifa Haftar, and Libya’s parliament speaker Aguila Saleh have announced a new joint political initiative aimed at ending the conflict in Libya.

In a press conference in Cairo, El-Sisi announced the initiative following a tripartite meeting with Haftar and Saleh.

The initiative, dubbed the Cairo Declaration, mandates a Libyan-Libyan resolution as a basis for resolving the country’s conflict under resolutions by the UN and past efforts in Paris, Rome, Abu Dhabi, and most recently in Berlin.

The Cairo plan comes after the collapse of an offensive launched by Haftar in April 2019 to capture the Libyan capital, further extending the Government of National Accord’s (GNA) control of most of northwest Libya.

Egypt, the UAE and Russia are backing Haftar, while Turkey has been supporting the GNA.

The initiative stipulates a ceasefire should start 6 am (4 GMT) 8 June, with an adherence to all international initiatives and Security Council resolutions on the unity and territorial integrity of Libyan lands.

It also stipulates the continuation of talks by the 5+5 Libyan Joint Military Commission in Geneva sponsored by the UN, and obliges all foreign parties to “remove all foreign mercenaries nationwide, the dismantling of militias, and the handover of weapons to allow the LNA to cooperate with other security apparatuses to carry out their military duty.”

It also stipulates resolving the crisis through ensuring a fair representation for Libya’s three provinces through a presidential council elected by the nation under a UN supervision for governance in the country for the first time in the country’s history…

The initiative also sees the adoption of a constitutional declaration that governs the upcoming period politically.

Key points on 18-month transitional period

Tripoli, Cyrenaic and Fezzan shall form an electoral college with members selected from representatives of the provinces in the parliament and High Council of State and tribal elders.

The provinces shall be tasked with selecting their representative for the presidential council and a deputy prime minister to form a presidential council comprising of a president and two deputies.

The presidential council shall after naming a prime minister who will carry duties with deputies, form a government and present it to the presidential council ahead of a referral to the House of Representatives for a vote of confidence.

Every province shall receive a proportionate number of ministerial portfolios depending on capita after a consensus is reached on the members of the new presidential council and the appointment of the prime minister.

Per the initiative, Tripoli would receive four ministerial portfolios, Cyrenaic and Fezzan each holding seven and five portfolios respectively.

The six sovereign ministries would be split between the three provinces equally, with each province holding two sovereign ministries with the appointment of two deputies from the other provinces.

The House of Representatives shall be tasked with adopting constitutional declaration amendments through a legislative committee formed by parliament speaker Aguila Saleh.

The committee, which would include representatives from the House of Representatives and State, would agree on the needed amendments in the declaration for a period not exceeding 30 days from the beginning of the committee’s work.

The electoral college selected by each province under UN supervision shall form a committee comprising national figures and constitutional experts to draft a new constitution for the country and put it to referendum.

The committee shall execute duties within 90 days of its formation after the parliament’s approval.

Per the initiative, the transitional period is set at 18 months, to be expanded to no more than six additional months if needed.

‘Libyan crisis not limited to Libya alone’

… El-Sisi stressed on the gravity of the current situation in Libya, especially with the crisis’ repercussions not being limited to Libya, but spreading to neighbouring countries as well.

He warned against some actors on the Libyan scene pursuing any military action in the war-torn country…

Speaking in Cairo during the press conference, Haftar said the continued Turkish supply of arms and mercenaries to the “unconstitutional” GNA would increase the state of polarisation.

“We stress our support and agreement for this initiative, hoping to garner international support to push Libya to safety,” he said.

“Turkey wants to besiege Egypt and Libya,” Haftar said, calling on El-Sisi to exert more efforts to oblige Turkey to stop sending arms and mercenaries to Libya.

From his part, Saleh stressed that the LNA was “purging the country from terrorist and armed groups,” adding that Turkey sent 10,000 fighters and mercenaries from Syria and Turkey during its intervention.

“This initiative complies with what the Libyan people are accustomed to and with the Libyan constitution and governance in the transitional period, which I hope is not prolonged,” he said. LINK

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