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Rauf RAJABOV: "Libya - stalemate turns into an endgame"

Photo: AFP

Following the restoration of the power of the Government of National Accord (PNS) in western Libya, led by Fayez Sarraj (PNS), a stalemate has developed in the country. Neither the PNS nor the Libyan National Army (LNA), led by Marshal Khalifa Haftar, is able to win a final victory over the enemy without outside support.

In other words, military-political events in Libya are developing in the direction of the actual division of the country. This is evidenced by the statement of the Minister of Internal Affairs of the PNS Fathi Bashagh. The most influential PNS politician noted that, given the stalemate in Libya, the government is ready to divide the country into the western part, which Tripoli intends to keep, and the eastern, controlled by Benghazi.

The intensification of hostilities by the internationally recognized PNS or LNA will only worsen their current situation. Foreign geopolitical players are using their military and political resources in the Libyan direction. In this situation, the warring parties of the Libyan civil war are doomed to resume negotiations on the basis of the decisions of the Berlin Conference held in January 2020.

West - East

Russia and Turkey are considered to be the main players in the Libyan negotiation process. This is indicated by the following symbolic events: April 8 this year. Russia has blocked a UN Security Council resolution calling on Haftar to end its offensive in Tripoli, which began on April 4, 2020; Wagner's Russian PMC helped the LNA forces reach the borders of Tripoli.

In turn, Turkey transferred to Libya from Syria more than 10 militants of anti-government groups ("Al-Mutasim Division", "Sultan Murad Brigade", "Sukur al-Shamal"). Four Turkish URO frigates in a powerful anti-aircraft configuration took up positions along the Mediterranean coast (they blocked Libyan airspace along the inhabited coastal zone near Tripoli). During the recent fighting, Turkish air and radio reconnaissance monitored LNA formations. A Boeing E-7T long-range radar detection and control command of the Turkish Air Force was deployed in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Libya. Using data obtained from him on the objects of H. Haftar's army, Turkish Bayraktar TB2 UAVs were struck, plus heavy long-patrol drones in the Anka-S strike version.

The active use of Turkish UAVs began to change the balance of forces on the ground and in the air in favor of the PNS due to massive air strikes, primarily on the rear communications of H. Haftar's troops.

PNS armed formations on June 5 this year took the strategically important city and air base of Tarragona. LNA forces left it almost without a fight. Thus, the battle for Tripoli is finally over, the loss of Tarhuna was a major defeat of Haftar's army, which lost a strategically important air base in Tripoli.

Paradoxically, however, this event does not lead to a radical change in the balance of power between the warring parties. The PNCs do not have sufficient resources to take the Libyan region of Cyrenaica loyal to the LNA. The PNS is supported by the militias of Misurata and Zaviya, which allows F. Sarraj to hold the Tripoli metropolis against the background of Turkish support, but obviously does not create real opportunities for establishing real control over the whole of Libya in the future.

In Libya, the goal of both the PNS and the LNA is obvious - full control over the entire territory of the country. But, despite significant military and technical external assistance from geopolitical actors PNS (Turkey, Qatar, as well as partly Italy and the United States) and LNA (Egypt, UAE, KSA, Jordan, Russia and partly Israel, France), F. Sarraj and Haftar will not be able to unite Libya and become the sole ruler of the country.

As a result of the 10-year civil war, relations between the various tribes in Libya have deteriorated to the limit, so the unification of the country purely militarily will be bloody with all the ensuing negative consequences for all direct and indirect participants. Therefore, there are no special preconditions for further escalation of the civil war in Libya, as France, Germany, the United States, Russia and Turkey are not interested in implementing such a scenario.

The prospect of the resumption of talks between Tripoli and Benghazi is indicated by the fact that Russia and Turkey have managed to reach some compromises on the Libyan crisis. As part of maintaining the balance of power on the West (Tripoli) - East (Benghazi) line, Russia, under pressure, effectively brought the LNA's Wagner PMC strike group to the oil-bearing south, removing the threat of a direct military clash between Russia and Turkey in Libya.

It should be noted that the PNS forces were able to develop their success in western Libya and move the fighting to the east of the country. After all, Turkey could launch air operations in the territories controlled by the LNA. These are missile strikes at H. Haftar's rate and LNA facilities in Benghazi and Tobruk. However, official Ankara has not taken the above steps.

In this regard, the following point is noteworthy. For example, the African command of the US Army reported that official Moscow had organized the sending of 14 MiG-29s and Su-24s (a chain of intermediaries and affiliation is not essential here) to support Wagner's PMC from the air. Russian planes are a message from the Kremlin to Turkey that official Ankara, on the one hand, should not change the balance of power along the West-East line, and on the other hand, it is expedient to launch direct talks between Tripoli and Benghazi. Especially since there are historical preconditions for this: at one time the Ottoman Empire divided Libya into two parts, one of which was subordinated to Tripoli, the other, the eastern - Benghazi. A division that largely reflects the current dividing line between the PNS and the East Libyan Provisional Government.

The end of the game?

It can be stated that Russia and Turkey have decided to restart the Berlin Process in such a way as to play a leading role in it. It is worth recalling the telephone conversation between the presidents of Russia and Turkey in mid-May, in which the parties noted "the need to resume the indefinite truce and inter-Libyan dialogue as soon as possible on the basis of the decisions of the Berlin Conference."

After the liberation of Tripoli airport from the LNA, H. Haftar went to Cairo, and the head of the PNS, F. Sarraj, went to Ankara. Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his deputy Mikhail Bogdanov held talks at the Russian Foreign Ministry with a delegation from the PNS represented by Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Maitig and Foreign Minister Mohammed Tahir Siali.

The visit of the PNS delegation means that official Moscow seeks to maintain its role in eastern Libya without tying it to H. Haftar. In turn, RT Erdogan at a joint press conference with F. Sarraj on June 4 in Ankara pointed out that H. Haftar cannot take part in the negotiations on the Libyan conflict.

After a series of military failures by H. Haftar in April-May, it became clear that Russian influence over the LNA commander was limited. H. Haftar places more hopes on the President of Egypt Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Turkey's military-political presence in Tripoli is a threat to Egypt. However, H. Haftar, having become toxic in Tripoli, Ankara, Europe and to some extent in Moscow, is not considered as such in Cairo. It was in Cairo that H. Haftar demanded that the provisions of the agreement on the collective defense of the Arab states be applied to counter Turkey's military intervention in Libya. He also demanded the lifting of the arms embargo on the LNA, as well as international monitoring to prevent weapons from entering Turkey from Libya.

And the President of Egypt AF-Sisi announced a new "Cairo initiative" to a ceasefire in Libya, which provides for a cessation of hostilities from June 8 throughout Libya and the conditions for a political settlement of the conflict.

The announcement was preceded by a meeting between the President of Egypt and H. Haftar and the Speaker of the Parliament in Tobruk Aguila Saleh.

According to the Cairo Initiative (already rejected by the PNC), the LNA must play an important role in "fighting terrorism and defending Libya's sovereignty, along with other security forces and the police." The presidential council will be able to make the most important decisions in the field of defense only together with the commander-in-chief of the LNA (ie, H. Haftar), the document states.

"We warn all parties in Libya against intending to continue resolving the conflict in the country by military means," the Egyptian president said. And in order to put pressure on Tripoli and Turkey, the Egyptian Armed Forces are sending troops to the border with Libya. This is happening against the background of the announcement of a new "Cairo Initiative". Thus, Egypt is showing support for the LNA and H. Haftar, which recently suffered a series of defeats. Official Cairo stated its rejection of foreign interference in Libyan affairs and assured Haftar that Egypt "would not allow any threat to its western borders."

It should be noted that in a telephone conversation with AF-Sisi, Putin supported the initiative of the President of Egypt, which demonstrates the split among geopolitical actors in the Libyan crisis. RT Erdogan and Trump had telephone conversations and reached certain agreements on Libya. Earlier, the United States called on Turkey to stop drilling at a gas field in the exclusive economic zone of Cyprus.

In other words, Egypt has begun to form an alliance against Turkey, which includes Greece, Cyprus, the UAE and France, to counter Turkey's actions in Libya and the Mediterranean. The declaration of the union was made during a virtual meeting with the foreign ministers of these countries on May 11, 2020. During the meeting of the African Union Contact Group on Libya on May 19 this year. AF-Sisi stated that "stability in Libya is a determining factor in Egypt's national security and it will not tolerate terrorist groups and those who support them."

Europe and the Arab countries will not accept the bilateral agreement concluded in December 2019 between Turkey and the PNC on the delimitation of maritime borders in the Mediterranean. For many years, Turkey has been in conflict with Greece and Cyprus over rights in the Eastern Mediterranean. While not a party to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Turkey does not recognize the extensive territorial shelf and exclusive economic zones granted to islands under the United Nations Convention.

This Turkish-Libyan agreement allows Turkey to unblock and gain support for its bid for a fairer (in Ankara's logic) distribution of marine resources in the Eastern Mediterranean. After all, in accordance with the agreement, Turkey considers the area of ​​the Eastern Mediterranean up to the Libyan economic zone to be its exclusive economic zone. For example, it is not possible today to lay a gas pipeline along the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea to Europe without consulting Ankara. By the way, the United States has already called on Turkey to stop drilling at a gas field in the exclusive economic zone of Cyprus.

In addition, Egypt, the KSA and the UAE support H. Haftar, fearing the growing influence in Libya of the military-political organization "Muslim Brotherhood", recognized as an official terrorist by Cairo. Neighboring Libya, Algeria and Tunisia, which have traditionally focused on France, have not previously allowed Turkey to send troops through its territories. RT Erdogan wants all power in Libya to be concentrated in the hands of a Turkish-friendly government that could help restore the power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Therefore, Turkey risks entering into a direct military confrontation with a coalition of Arab and European states. Greek National Defense Minister Nikos Panayotopoulos has already stated that Greece is ready to do anything to protect its sovereign rights, including military action against Turkey. In such a situation, Turkey's military, technical and financial forces are limited. Especially since France has joined the alliance in order to preserve its interests in Libya, which is threatened by Turkey and its support for the PNC. France will seek to maintain and strengthen the alliance on an ongoing basis. At the same time, for France and Germany in the Libyan issue in the first place is not oil, but the migration potential of the country's ports to transfer illegal migrants to the EU. For example, during the migration crisis of 2015, hundreds of thousands of migrants infiltrated through the territory of Libya in Germany.

France's main priorities during its presidency of the UN Security Council in June will be, including security issues in Africa. In other words, the Libyan crisis. And the UN Security Council on June 5, 2020 unanimously adopted a resolution to extend for another year the ban on arms supplies to Libya. This will allow States to inspect ships on the high seas off the coast of Libya if an embargo is suspected. This factor objectively complicates Turkey's task of further military support to the PNC.

It should also be borne in mind that the Italian government intends to approve the sale to Egypt of dozens of frigates, naval patrol boats, training aircraft and fighters. For Italy, this could be a "deal of the century", which has great commercial, industrial and political significance. Italy also wants to strengthen relations with Egypt. Although, Italy and Egypt support different sides of the armed conflict in Libya.

The international community does not have the necessary unanimity and political will to "impose peace", including the Cairo Initiative, on the parties to the conflict. There can be no question of any large-scale peacekeeping operation under the auspices of the United Nations or another international organization (UAE, LAS, NATO and the EU) in Libya today.

At the same time, Russia and Egypt, fearing the intensification of the United States in Libya and the unpredictability of Turkey, will build a dialogue with France, Germany and Italy in order to resume the Berlin political process. Accordingly, the practical task facing France, Germany, Russia, the United States, Turkey and Egypt is to stop the supply of weapons to the PNS and LNA as part of the arms embargo; a ban on PMC activities and the transfer of mercenaries from Syria. After solving this problem, the Berlin political process can be launched, as the Cairo Initiative is more focused on maintaining the status quo along the West-East line.

Meanwhile, the current Turkish-Russian talks are failing. PNS forces from Tripoli, with Turkish support, are attacking the city of Sirte in northeastern Libya. At the same time, there is another escalation in Syria near Idlib. Situational alliances, depending on the results of hostilities, will be broken more than once…

Rauf Rajabov, Orientalist, Head of Analytical Center 3RD VIEW, Baku, Azerbaijan