The war in Libya has become a proxy conflict between many international players.
The Government of National Accord (GNA) under Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj is supported by the Muslim Brotherhood. Its main political and financial sponsor is Qatar and its main military ally is Turkey. Italy is also supporting Sarraj. The GNA controls the capital Tripoli and Misrata in the west of the country.
On the other side is the (former?) CIA asset Khalifa Haftar with his Libyan National Army. He controls Libya’s east and most of its oil resources. He is supported by the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Greece and France.
Russia sees its involvement in the conflict as an adjudicator. It wants to reestablish its long term business interests in Libya which had fallen to the wayside after the war the U.S., UK and France waged against country in 2011.
It has sold weapons to Hafter through the UAE and has allowed Russian mercenaries to take part in the war on the side of Haftar’s LNA.
Since April 2019 Haftar attempted to take Tripoli and to evict the GNA. The fight was more difficult and went on much longer than he had hoped for. The economic situation of both sides is interwoven and makes the war complicated.
In January Russia called on Hafter to stop it. It held a peace conference in Moscow and urged him to sign a ceasefire agreement:
After hours of negotiations brokered by Russia and Turkey, Haftar on Monday evening asked until Tuesday morning to look over the agreement already signed by Fayez al-Sarraj, the head of the United Nations-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA).But Haftar, whose eastern-based forces launched an offensive to seize the GNA’s base of Tripoli in April, left Moscow without signing the deal drafted at the indirect talks, Russia’s foreign ministry was quoted as saying by TASS news agency on Tuesday.
The snub towards Russia was not forgotten.
Before the meeting in Moscow Turkey had promised military support to the GNA. In exchange the GNA had signed an agreement with Turkey that supposedly demarcates a sea border between Turkey and Libya. That agreed border ignores the rights of Greece and Cyprus and will never be internationally recognized. But Turkey uses the agreement to claim extensive rights in the eastern Mediterranean sea.
A week after the failed talks in Moscow another attempt for ceasefire negotiations, this one in Berlin, also failed. Germany again tried to talk sense into Hafter during a visit in March but without results.
Meanwhile the conflict escalated with Turkish supplies of drones and artillery and with 13,000 ‘Syrian rebels’ hired by Turkey as mercenaries to strengthen the GNA. The Turkish operation is financed by Qatar which recently also intervened to stop the drop of the Turkish Lira.
The UAE countered that Turkish buildup with more supplies of Russian made Pantsyr air defense systems to the LNA and more mercenaries hired from Russia and Sudan. Confronted with the Pantsyr’s Turkish drones dropped by the dozens and the front lines hardly moved.
On May 17 the picture changed. Turkish drones were suddenly able to hit the Pantsyrs and within a day destroyed at least six of them. At the same time the Russian mercenaries received orders to pull back from the frontline. Left without protection from air defenses Haftar’s forces mostly fled and the GNA pushed forward.
The maps show the recent changes.
Others believe that Russia had had enough of Haftar’s escapades and thought it necessary to punish him for his naughtiness.
But Russia did not completely drop him. Shortly after the Pantsyr massacre Russian fighter planes were ferried from Russia to Libya and set up at the Al-Jufra air base which is under LNA control. They will allow Russia to keep a balance between the feuding sides.
So far that plan worked well. On Saturday Egypt announced a new ceasefire in Libya starting today and Haftar has finally agreed to it:
The conference in Cairo was attended by Hifter and Aguila Saleh, speaker of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives. Several foreign diplomats, including U.S., Russian, French and Italian envoys attended. Hifter and Saleh are allies.There were no representatives of the Tripoli-based administration, or of its main backers, Turkey and Qatar, at the conference.
On Friday the GNA took Tarhuna, a city 40 miles southeast of Tripoli. The ‘Syrian rebels’ immediately started to loot the city. The move finally ends the siege of Tripoli Hafter had held for 15 months.
Russia allegedly told the GNA to not move further to the east and to stick to the ceasefire Haftar agreed to. It wants Haftar to stay in control of the east. Russia drew a line on Sirte, a city that covers the eastern oil fields that will also create profit for Moscow.
The Al-Jufra Air Base, 150 miles south of Sirte, is also supposed to stay under Haftar’s control. The country would thereby be partitioned in two halves.
But after the May 17 breakthrough the GNA and its sponsors were feeling empowered and were themselves getting naughty ideas. Turkey suddenly changed its war aims:
In light of the most recent developments, Turkey identified a new objective in Libya. Ankara no longer seeks to force Haftar to participate in diplomatic negotiations. Instead, the new mission is to put this source of instability, this murderer of Tripoli’s civilian population, out of business.
The GNA government conditioned its acceptance of the ceasefire:
Tripoli-based Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha said the government side would engage in political talks only after taking Sirte and also the inland Jufra air base, to the south. The U.S. last month accused Russia of deploying at least 14 aircraft at the base to support Russian mercenaries backing Hifter, a claim dismissed by Moscow.Taking Sirte would open the gate for the Tripoli-allied militias to press even farther eastward, to potentially seize control of vital oil installations, terminals and oil fields that tribes allied with Hifter shut down earlier this year, cutting off Libya’s major source of income.
Since Friday ‘Syrian rebels’ under Turkish command are trying to take the LNA held Sirte. But suddenly the airplanes recently delivered by Russia sprang into action. Several GNA convoys which were moving towards Sirte got smashed. Turkish drones are again dropping from the sky.
Egypt has started to position heavy military equipment on its western border. It does not want a Muslim Brotherhood controlled Libya as its neighbor. The buffer Haftar’s LNA provides is a priority for its own security.
Egypt together with France, Greece, Cyprus and the UAE also rejected the Turkish aspirations in the eastern Mediterranean.
If Russia would pull back its support and completely give up on Haftar Egypt would see a necessity to intervene in Libya. A Turkish-Egyptian war on Libyan grounds would then become likely.
The U.S. has mostly stayed out of the current game. But while it earlier seemed to lean towards Haftar it recently voiced concern about the Russian role in Libya and made some positive noises towards the GNA.
Europe is split on the issue with France and Greece on the LNA’s side while Italy leans towards the GNA. This makes it impossible for the EU to play a bigger role.
Russia is trying to achieve in Libya the same situation that it achieved in Syria (and Ukraine). It wants to freeze the active conflict by pressing both parties to stick to a line and by intervening only when that line is crossed by either side.
It will continue to push for negotiations between the two conflict parties and their sponsors.
Published by Moon of Alabama
The 21st Century
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of 21cir.