Libya’s GNA makes more gains near Tripoli as Erdoğan welcomes prime minister

Turkish-backed forces of Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) have made more battlefield gains south of Tripoli from rebel militias, Anadolu news agency said.

The Tripoli-based GNA, led by Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, announced on Wednesday that they had retaken the strategically important Tripoli International Airport from forces allied to rebel general Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), Anadolu said.

The GNA’s forces also announced on Wednesday that they had recaptured the Ayn Zara and Vadi er-Rebi regions from the LNA which is backed by Russia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt, among others, Anadolu reported.

The latest gains come as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was due to meet al-Sarraj in Ankara on Thursday to discuss the latest developments in Libya and consolidate recent gains on the battlefield ahead of a new round of talks on a potential ceasefire. 

Al-Sarraj's visit to Ankara comes after a flurry of diplomacy on Wednesday, as al-Sarraj's deputy Ahmed Maiteeq and the GNA’s foreign minister Mohamed Siyala travelled to Moscow, while his rival Haftar was in Egypt to meet defence officials, Reuters said. 

Turkey stepped up its military support to the GNA in December 2019 after signing a military cooperation pact alongside a maritime demarcation deal, intended to give Ankara hydrocarbon drilling rights in the eastern Mediterranean that Greece and others have condemned as illegal.

Before Turkey’s military intervention in Libya, Haftar’s LNA had been gaining the upper hand in its bid to capture Tripoli, which it launched in April 2019. 

Last month, GNA-aligned forces - backed by Turkish firepower - won a string of victories over the LNA in the west of the country, recapturing a major base and ousting Haftar’s forces from Asaba, a key town south of Tripoli.

Reports of the arrival of Russian fighter jets late last month were interpreted by some analysts as Moscow signalling to Turkish-backed forces that they had advanced far enough and as a move to cement Russia’s position ahead of possible peace talks.   

On Monday, the United Nations said both sides had agreed to resume ceasefire talks, but warned that weapons and fighters still entering Libya threatened a major new escalation.

A senior Turkish official told Reuters that the Tripoli airport seizure had been critical ahead of potential peace talks, and that Turkey would reject any proposal to divide Libya between the warring factions.

"Everyone wants to sit at the table without losing territory, but the territory you hold strengthens your positions at the table," Reuters quoted the official as saying.

United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke with his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian on Tuesday to discuss the situation in Libya.

A State Department readout of the conversation said the pair discussed “steps to reduce violence and advance a negotiated political solution to end the conflict in Libya.”

Libya has been without a central government since 2011, with towns and cities controlled by factions fighting for rival governments in the east and west since 2014.

Previous attempts by Russia and Turkey to broker a ceasefire in Libya failed in January when Haftar refused to accept the terms and pressed ahead with his offensive. 

While the GNA has said that it will not negotiate with Haftar now, Turkish columnist Semih İdiz told Al Jazeera this week that the country's vast territory means that it is unlikely for Turkey to keep pursuing a military strategy.

"It [Turkey] will find itself in a similar position to that which it is facing in Syria, where Ankara does not recognise Assad despite more and more countries coming around to acknowledging that the Syrian president is part of the equation," he said.

"Eventually, Turkey will have to accept this, and it already has. There are indirect talks between the government and the Assad regime."

İdiz said that Turkey wants Haftar out of the equation to secure a controversial maritime border demarcation agreement it signed with the GNA that expanded its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the eastern Mediterranean to support its hydrocarbon drilling projects.

It would also grant it a strategic position near Egypt, with which ties have been strained for years.

"The whole world recognises that Turkey changed the balance" on the ground, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on Wednesday. "We have interests here (and) in the Mediterranean."