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US takes lead in Libya as both sides agree to a ceasefire

Aug 25,2020 - Last updated at Aug 25,2020

For the first time in years, the United States appears to have adopted a coherent and balanced policy on Libya. Last Friday’s announcement by the head of the UN recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) Fayez Al Sarraj of an immediate ceasefire coincided with a similar declaration by the Speaker of the East Libya parliament Aguila Saleh. That was no coincidence. The GNA statement also called for holding parliamentary and presidential elections next March and for demilitarising the contested city of Sirte; considered the gateway to the oil rich region.

It was important that the Sarraj statement also referred to extending “full sovereignty over the Libyan territory and the departure of foreign forces and mercenaries”. His political rival, Saleh, said the “ceasefire blocks the way for foreign military interventions and ends with the expulsion of mercenaries and dissolving the militias in order to achieve comprehensive national sovereignty”. Both sides stressed the need to restart oil exports; an issue that the US has underlined.

The UN, Egypt, the UAE and Russia welcomed the development. The UAE, a key backer of Benghazi based Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Gen. Khalifa Haftar, also referred to the outcomes of the Berlin Summit, Cairo Declaration and the Skhirat Agreement; the latter being the bedrock of former reconciliation attempts over which a number of key principles on ways to end the nine-year conflict were adopted.

The recent US re-engagement with the Libyan issue marks a qualitative change in policy and strategy. It comes after years of failed UN and European attempts to mediate a truce between Sarraj and Haftar. Since the beginning of the year a number of major developments had forced Washington to shift gears: Direct Turkish intervention on behalf of the GNA, Russian deployment of fighter jets in Jafra airbase and the repulse of a major military operation by Haftar to take over the capital Tripoli. His forces were forced to retreat by GNA forces and allied militias backed by Turkish advisors and Syrian mercenaries flown in by Ankara.

As GNA forces prepared to march into Sirte, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah Al Sisi stepped in warning that the Sirte-Jafra axis represented a red line for Cairo and that the Egyptian military was ready to cross the border into eastern Libya. Since then, a stalemate had set in with both sides on edge. Observers believe that the US State Department as well as the US military Africa command (AFRICOM) had played a crucial role in delivering the latest ceasefire agreement.

For Washington, there were a number of incentives to take the lead on Libya: Russia’s expansion into Eastern Libya, Turkish intervention on behalf of the GNA, the deep divisions within NATO allies over the Libyan question and the preservation of naval security in the Eastern Mediterranean. The US had also realised that the de facto partition of Libya had become a realistic possibility; a scenario that would create an ideal incubator for Islamist terrorist groups.

But the ceasefire, which appears to be holding for now, is shaky. Haftar is yet to commit to the US brokered truce, which is now supported by his allies in Cairo. His ambition to emerge as the ultimate ruler of a united Libya has been buried in the desert sands. A spokesman for the LNA described the GNA’s announcement as a distraction aimed at deluding local, regional and international public opinion. But with Egypt and the UAE backing a political settlement and with Sarraj sending conciliatory signals to Cairo, Haftar’s room for maneuverability may be limited.

On the other hand, Sarraj has too much of his political stake on Ankara. Over the past few months he has given Turkey access to strategic oil interests both inland and in Libya’s territorial waters. The removal of foreign fighters in Libya will be the toughest task for the interlocutors. Neither Turkey, along with Qatar, nor Russia would like to see their influence in a key North African country cut short.

The main objective for the United States now is to create a common ground for both Libyan sides; one which paves the way for elections that would provide for a new mandate and repatriate Libya’s oil wealth so it can fuel major reconstruction programmes.

The US has the tools to put pressure on Ankara, whose agenda in Libya remains suspicious, as well as Cairo and Abu Dhabi, but Russia’s position and reaction to the emerging US role will pose a challenge.

On the other hand, any future negotiations will have to bypass Haftar, who has been accused by the GNA of committing war crimes in western Libya. At some stage Egypt and the UAE might opt to sideline him if he is seen as a major obstacle preventing a political settlement.

Of course the road towards reaching a political settlement is not easy and with so many divisions among Libyans themselves the task of sustaining an agreement poses a constant challenge. But what is hopeful is that the United States has chosen to open communication channels with all sides to the conflict, recognising that a military solution is impossible, thus giving it some credibility that is sorely needed before a genuine political process is launched.

 

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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