Now It’s Europe’s Turn To Broker a Libyan Ceasefire

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Last week Turkey and Russia brought the leaders of the warring factions in Libya to the table in the hopes of reaching a deal for a permanent ceasefire. The effort was unsuccessful.

Now it’s Europe’s turn.

Germany will host a conference in Berlin on Sunday aimed at bringing about a ceasefire, and constructing a roadmap to eventual political reconciliation in Libya. Europe is finally opening its eyes to what has been going on in Libya and the implications it has for Europe. The civil war currently underway in Libya, aided and funded by a number of nation-states on both sides, is destabilizing North Africa, a region historically considered to be Europe’s backyard.

The most surprising aspect is that it has taken so long for Europe’s geopolitical interest in Libya to rekindle. Libya has always been there, and since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, it has been playing a role in European Union politics to varying degrees. Migration, energy, and security are three of the main aspects that have been adversely affected by the fighting, and political chaos in Libya. However, none of the above-mentioned issues are responsible for the sudden European interest in Libya. It’s all about geopolitics, and the growing influence of Turkey, and Russia in the conflict has set off alarm bells in European capitals.

Unfortunately for Europe, its renewed interest could be coming a bit too late. The extended period of inaction prior to the upcoming conference puts Europe out of position to influence events, and paints it as ineffectual. The European Union is already split on Libya with Italy supporting the Government of National Accord (GNA) and France backing the Libyan National Army and Khalifa Haftar.

Outside of Europe, expectations for the conference in Berlin are tempered. Turkey and Russia’s positions regarding Libya are firmly entrenched with the Turks backing the GNA, and Russia firmly in Haftar’s camp. If these two most-influential parties were unable to broker a permanent ceasefire agreement in Moscow last weekend, the chances of the UN, and Europe pulling it off this weekend are not great.

Ceasefire Talks End. Haftar Departs Moscow

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Discussions between the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) and Libyan National Army (LNA) leader General Khalifa Haftar have ended in Moscow without both parties coming to terms on a formal ceasefire. The talks held Monday came after a temporary ceasefire between LNA and GNA forces went into effect. Russia and Turkey were responsible for bringing it about, as well as setting up the indirect talks between the leaders from both sides in Moscow. Unfortunately, the discussions have failed to produce a permanent ceasefire. Haftar departed for Libya Tuesday morning without signing the ceasefire, complaining the draft of the ceasefire did not address most of the LNA’s demands. It remains unclear if Haftar’s grievance is legitimate or was simply used as a pretext to end the talks.

Turkey was not at all pleased with the outcome, which comes as no surprise. The failure to reach a diplomatic solution will test Turkey’s commitment to the defense of the GNA. Turkish President  Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to teach Haftar a lesson if he resumes his offensive against Tripoli. Last week Turkey started deploying troops to Libya following the Turkish parliament’s approval of two agreements between Ankara and the GNA. One was on the maritime border demarcation issue, and the other on increased security cooperation between Turkey and Libya.

It is safe to assume that the forces commanded by Haftar will resume the offensive against Tripoli in the coming days. Although Haftar has been coming under increased pressure from some of his backers to find a solution that does not destabilize Libya any further. There are also competing interests among the nation-states that support Haftar, and some of these could begin playing a role in the near future.

The next 5-7 days should at least reveal some clues as to what the future holds for Libya. A second diplomatic effort to bring about a ceasefire is certainly possible but if Haftar’s forces resume their drive into Tripoli, diplomacy will likely take a backseat for an extended period of time.

Potential 2020 Flashpoints: Libya

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The proxy war going on in Libya has deepened in recent weeks and the trend shows every sign of continuing in the early days of the new year. The prospect of overt foreign intervention hangs over the conflict now with Turkey preparing to deploy troops and naval vessels to support the internationally-recognized Libyan government. The Turks intend for its navy to help defend Tripoli and the Government of National Accord (GNA) as the forces of  Khalifa Haftar continue to pose a threat. Turkish troops on the ground will help train and coordinate GNA forces similar to the manner in which Turkish troops aided anti-Assad rebels in Syria. On the subject of Syria, Turkey will also send Syrian rebels to fight against Haftar’s Libyan National Army.

Turkish President Erdogan appears to be regarding the GNA as a high-value investment worth protecting. Its certainly in Turkey’s best interest to prop up the Libyan government after the lucrative maritime deal signed between the two nations which creates a Turkish Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) from Turkey’s southern Mediterranean shore to Libya’s northeast coast. This move has shaken the region and helped crystallize opposition to Turkey’s intervention.

Libya’s neighbors Tunisia, and Algeria are concerned about the events taking place to their east. The most direct worry is that the fighting will spillover into their territory. Algeria, which has experienced a somewhat volatile political year, and is enduring economic difficulties as a result, is rumored to be considering throwing its support behind the GNA. Tunisia’s intentions are not clear although it has mobilized its military and placed forces on its border with Libya as a precaution.

Turkey’s move towards intervention is bringing about diplomatic backlash. Many nations are cautioning against the dangers of foreign intervention in Libya, although it should be mentioned that most of the nations cautioning about foreign intervention are in fact supporting Khalifa Haftar and his forces. As 2019 comes to a close, Libya seems poised to become a larger proxy war involving a constellation of ideological, political, and economic interests. Some observers have pointed out similarities between Libya in 2019, and Syria in the early days of its civil war. Personally, I think that Libya is nothing more than a shining example of the consequences brought upon the Middle East by Arab Spring. Even nine years later the region continues to feel the effects.

Tunisia’s Military Forces Mobilize

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With forces of the Libyan National Army (LNA) under the command of Khalifa Haftar preparing for a decisive assault on Tripoli the Tunisian government has grown wary of the situation to its east. Fearful of a spillover of fighting onto its soil, the government announced a mobilization of the nation’s military and security forces. These forces will deploy to Tunisia’s southeastern border with Libya in the coming days. As the prospect of fighting looms around Tripoli, the Tunisian move comes as no surprise. Along with preventing violence from spilling over, Tunisia’s military and security forces are also preparing for the anticipated surge of refugee families into their country.

On Thursday Haftar announced the start of a final LNA offensive aimed at capturing Tripoli and deposing the Government of National Accord (GNA). “Zero hour has come for the broad and total assault expected by every free and honest Libyan,” Haftar said in a speech on Thursday. It is yet uncertain if the planned offensive has commenced yet or not. Judging from government reports, and dispatches and tweets from journalists on the ground there the fighting has not yet begun in earnest. That could change at any time though.

Tunisia is not the only nation-state in the Mediterranean eyeing events in Libya closely. The other day we spoke about Turkey and the stake Ankara has in the continued survival of the GNA. Greece has been outspoken in its opposition to the controversial agreement between Turkey and Libya over maritime boundaries. Since its signing on 28 November, the US, Egypt, Russia, Israel, and the European Union have come out against the agreement too. As Athens moves to drum up more diplomatic support from nations in the Persian Gulf area, it is also reinforcing Greek military forces on Crete.

If Haftar’s LNA does seize control of Tripoli and the GNA collapses, the deal will be dead in the water. This reality is understood by the Turkish government, and at least partly responsible for Turkey’s recent offer of military intervention to the GNA.

Turkey Considers Sending Troops to Libya

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Earlier this week Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hinted that his government is considering the possibility of sending troops to Libya to prevent Russian-supported forces from capturing Tripoli. Erdogan was quick to point out that such an intervention would not occur unless the UN-recognized Libyan government requested it.

Erdogan’s comments indicate just how much the position of the Government of National Accord (GNA) has deteriorated. Forces under the control of militia leader Khalifa Haftar, heavily backed by Russian weapons, and advisers, have tightened their siege of Libya. Haftar is publicly claiming his forces will be inside of Tripoli by the end of the year, a realistic probability given the present situation on the ground.

Libya, at the moment, keenly represents the mishmash of competing interests, and actions by powers in the region. In the past three months Russia has thrown its lot in behind Haftar, contributing a considerable number of mercenaries, and equipment. These moves has enabled Haftar’s forces to successfully resume the drive on the Libyan capital. Government forces opposing them are reaching the breaking point. If they are unable to prevent Haftar’s troops from entering Tripoli, it will likely mean the collapse of the GNA. Libya could once again descend into a long period of fighting between militias opposed to Haftar, and his forces. This turmoil will inevitably bring on a fresh exodus of refugees looking to escape the fighting. The most likely destination of these people is Europe, a scenario the European Union can hardly afford.

Russia is not the only nation backing Haftar. Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia have provided weapons, and material support in the hopes Haftar and his authoritarian style can restore stability to Libya. The US, and other Western powers have publicly supported the Tripoli government and UN efforts in Libya, but very little military support has been provided, on the surface at least. Behind the scenes is another matter entirely.  Earlier this week the US claimed a Russian air defense system was responsible for bringing down an American UAV in Libya.

Turkey’s support for the GNA is partly due to the continuing rivalry between it and the Saudi-led bloc. It has become the major provider of military hardware for the Tripoli government, though its motivations are not confined to Ankara’s desire to counter the Saudis. There is an economic element as well. Just days ago Turkey signed a deal with the GNA giving Ankara drilling, pipeline, and maritime rights over a wide area of the Mediterranean between the two nations. That particular move has set off a firestorm in Greece, and across Europe, however, it has not deterred Erdogan. For better or worse, Turkish involvement in Libya appears ready to escalate now that the survival of the GNA is directly tied to Turkish economic and geopolitical fortunes in the region.