Despite ceasefire pledges, little chance of peace soon in Libya

Despite the promises made by the outside powers backing the two sides in the Libyan conflict to stick to a United Nations arms embargo, analysts believe a Berlin peace conference made little headway and there is scant chance it will lead to a lasting ceasefire. 

“We have not come to a point when we can speak about a ceasefire yet,” said Karol Wasilewski, the head of the Middle East Programme and Turkey analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs. 

“It will be hard to achieve a lasting ceasefire unless the EU decides to commit more,” he said, referring to EU foreign policy chief Josep Borell’s suggestion to revive Operation Sophia, a naval mission to stop human trafficking from Libya and enforce the arms embargo, and signals that Germany was considering committing troops to safeguard a ceasefire.

Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Du Maio said Operation Sophia needed to be “dismantled and reassembled in a completely different way” and focus on “monitoring the embargo and nothing else”. 

The increased focus on Libya has come as Turkey began to send small numbers of troops, and thousands of Syrian Islamist proxy militiamen to the North African country in support of the U.N.-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in the capital Tripoli. 

The leader of the rival Libyan National Army (LNA), General Khalifa Haftar, backed by Egypt, the UAE, France and helped by Russian mercenaries, launched in December what he said would be a final and decisive assault on Tripoli.

“Turkey took a big gamble by putting all its eggs in the GNA’s basket,” Wasilewski said. Turkey may prolong the conflict through its support for the GNA, he said, but could not win the war.

“It can certainly buy some more time to look for a diplomatic solution, which later Turkish decision-makers will try to sell to the electorate as a win,” he said. 

Jalal Harchaoui, a research fellow at the Conflict Research Unit of the Clingendael Institute who focuses on Libya, was struck by the absence of any substantive document or proposal following Sunday’s conference in Berlin. 

“There was marked intent on making sure that there is no procedure or mechanism that could tangibly engender unpleasant consequences on whomever, whether Libyan or foreign actors, would contravene the arms embargo, violate any ceasefire, or commit war crimes,” Harchaoui said. 

“Sunday was clear and very easy to summarise; no substance, nothing,” he said.

At the closing press conference, the leaders of the summit, he said, kept referring and deferring to the United Nations Security Council. That was “really problematic because the very reason Germany went into this game in a very genuine and neutral fashion is because it knew full well that the UNSC was not the place to do that,” Harchaoui said. 

“You had a refusal on Sunday to try and determine or sketch out those mechanisms, so when you say ‘we’ll do this at the level of the UNSC’ basically we’re back to square one,” Harchaoui said. 

Given the failure of the Berlin conference to establish a clear mechanism for resolving the conflict, Harchaoui said there was no reason to think the number of the Syrian proxy fighters that Turkey is sending would not increase, which could prove problematic for Haftar and his backers. 

But, he said, the various armed groups fighting under the GNA banner had never requested these Syrian fighters, and had just wanted additional equipment and other support. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan “imposed this for political reasons, and now that they are there, everyone is forced to incorporate them,” Harchaoui said.

The Turkish intervention in Libya is resented by a lot of Libyans who “are ashamed and embarrassed, especially by the presence of Syrian mercenaries,” he said. 

Yousuf Eltagouri, a Libyan conflict analyst for the Foreign Policy Research Institute, anticipated that Erdoğan’s decision to send the Syrian fighters, who are primarily from Idlib, could backfire. 

“The idea of bringing in Turkish troops, played upon the idea of legality and legitimacy,” Eltagouri said. 

If Turkey deployed troops publicly and through all official channels, it could have provided “some degree of legitimacy to the GNA’s authority in the country, and set the groundwork for long-term Turkish influence in Libya,” he said. 

But by sending Syrian proxy fighters instead, Turkey had angered many Libyans who perceived the move as a violation of their sovereignty 

“Sending Syrian rebels in fact played in Haftar’s favour, as it provided cover to his claims that he was fighting the militias and terrorists that were controlling the country and had the GNA in their pocket,” Eltagouri said. 

While there are Turco-Libyan descendants of the Ottoman Empire in Libya, Harchaoui stressed that there was not any correlation between their ethnic origins and their stance in the conflict. 

“A lot of politicians that actually happen to be close to Turkey from a broad perspective have been criticised because of their ethnic origins,” he said. While GNA Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha is a Misratan of Turkish descent, there is “an entire tribe in Zawiya of Turkish descent that deeply opposes Turkey’s intervention,” Harchaoui said.

Eltagouri believes Erdoğan’s claims of Turco-Libyan ties are largely unfounded. 

“There is likely a large community of Libyans who are Ottoman descendants as a result of their reign over Libya, but for Erdoğan to suggest that this group of ‘Turco-Libyans’ have been actively united as an ethnic minority and have collectively been supportive of his intervention due to their ethnicity is a stretch,” he said. 

© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.