Libya ceasefire points to rising Turkish and Russian influence

Sunday marked the first day of a fragile ceasefire in Libya that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin hope can steer the conflict toward a political resolution, and on Monday Libya's warring factions made progress toward a peace deal during talks in Moscow, though no agreement was reached. 

General Khalifa Haftar, head of the Libyan National Army (LNA) under the Tobruk government, ultimately decided against signing the deal with  Fayez al-Sarraj, head of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), that would have cemented the ceasefire that began at midnight on Saturday. 

Since Haftar launched an assault on Tripoli in April 2019, U.S. and European leaders have done little more than express concern and call on both sides to stand down.

Russia has been backing the LNA, while Turkey has supported the GNA, and last month approved a military intervention. After their talks in Istanbul last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin called for a ceasefire. Within days, Sarraj and Haftar had committed to the truce.

“Turkey & Russia jointly called for a ceasefire - which worked - that Putin is now flying Libyan officials to sign a few days later. This is after 10 months of EU/U.S. idly watching Libya w/ concern. Humiliating is an understatement,” Emadeddin Badi, a Libya analyst with the Middle East Institute, tweeted on Sunday.

The United States, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy and the European Union issued a joint statement on Sunday, urging both sides “to seize this fragile opportunity to address the key political, economic, and security issues underlying the conflict”.

Despite the warring Libyan factions accusing the each other of already violating the truce, the ceasefire has mostly held and could pave the way for a political resolution that would turn Turkey and Russia into peace brokers.

“The widespread observance of the ceasefire until now is a stunning demonstration of newfound Russian and Turkish influence in Libya,” Wolfram Lacher, an analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, tweeted on Sunday.

“I badly misjudged just how ambitious the Russian-Turkish push in Libya is, how they would strongarm their Libyan clients into painful concessions,” Lacher tweeted early Monday. “Still, I struggle to see how they would move from a ceasefire to a political deal, with or without the Berlin process.”

Last September, U.N. Special Representative Ghassan Salamé and the German government launched the Berlin process, a series of talks between the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and the states intervening in Libya, which also includes the UAE, Egypt, France and Italy.

The initial aim was to persuade these states to discontinue their support for the warring parties and respect the U.N.-placed arms embargo. But this agenda was later expanded to include the outlines of an intra-Libyan political settlement, and all key players are expected to meet in Berlin later this month.

“It appears Russia and Turkey will leave the Berlin process to define outlines of political talks. This is a way of broadening support for their initiative, but also outsourcing costs. RUS & TUR would have to step in if things don't work out,” Lacher said in a Monday tweet.

Alexander Clarkson, lecturer in German and European Studies at King’s College London, wondered if Russian and Turkish influence would be strong enough to halt a possible renewal of violence.

“The question is whether Russia and Turkey can step in if things don't work out and GNA or LNA factional coalitions start fragmenting,” Clarkson said on Twitter on Monday.

In March 2011, Western states led by the United States, Britain, France and Canada used air power to help rebels topple dictator Muammar Ghaddafi. But Libya’s factions then turned on each other and the same Western states did not act to end the violence, leaving the door open to emerging regional powers.

“Libya’s civil war could have been resolved by Americans &/or Europeans months ago w/minimal effort,” Badi tweeted. “The newfound clout of Russia & Turkey is owed to their inaction. Now, Abu Dhabi, Ankara, & Moscow will be the actors that will determine the relevance of the Berlin meeting.”