Libia, Tripoli (La Presse)

Glimmer of Hope for Peace in Libya, but Fear Lingers

On Friday, August 21, Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) issued a statement saying its leader Fayez al-Sarraj had given instructions to “all military forces to immediately ceasefire and all combat operations in all Libyan territories.”

Temporary Ceasefire

The Tripoli-based government’s plead for a truce was unexpected and soon received a similar call for a truce from Aguila Saleh Issa, the leader of an eastern-based parliament aligned to Khalifa Haftar and the Libyan National Army (LNA).

The two sides mentioned the growing spread of the coronavirus in Libya as grounds for bringing the armed conflict to a temporary halt. Although with scarce testing, daily Covid-19 cases across the country rose by the hundreds in recent weeks, reaching a total of over 8,000 confirmed cases and more than 150 confirmed deaths.

The ongoing Libyan conflict has left the North African country with impaired infrastructure, not least its healthcare system, after almost a decade of relentless fighting. On Thursday, August 20, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) warned that the humanitarian crisis in Libya has deepened, amid the country’s abrupt cuts in oil production, blockades of its ports and, more recently, the spread of the coronavirus. The Red Cross also called for negotiations between the warring factions.

Skepticism in Sirte

Although the mutual call for peace shed some hope in the ravaged country, adding to the Libyan National Oil Company statement that same day that it was ready at last to resume oil operations at a rate close to the pre-COVID-19 rate, many people in Sirte were still skeptical.

The call for a ceasefire itself came in a time where the two belligerents’ armed forces were both heavily settled near the central city of Sirte. The coastal city, which also nears the country’s major oil terminals, became the conflict’s point of focus recently, bearing the new frontlines as Haftar’s forces settled around the city after the Turkish intervention pushed the LNA back from Tripoli in June.

Haftar’s forces, backed by Egypt and the UAE, among others, were attempting to seize Tripoli, where the GNA is based, for over a year since April 2019. Although recognized by the United Nations, the GNA mainly benefits from the support of Turkey and Qatar.

‘Deceptive Calm’

During a visit to Tripoli last week, Germany’s foreign minister Heiko Maas warned of a “deceptive calm” and noted that both sides were still arming themselves “on a massive scale” although there hadn’t been much confrontation in recent months. Maas also reiterated the United States’ call for a demilitarized zone in Sirte and Jufra.

Although there has been relatively little fighting since June, Turkey and the GNA seem poised to make further advances, even after Haftar’s forces withdrew to Sirte.

The LNA did not quickly respond to Sarraj’s call for peace on Friday, but on Sunday it said it deemed the new ceasefire attempt dubious.

“The initiative that Sarraj signed is for media marketing,” said Ahmed Mismari, the LNA’s spokesman. “There is a military build-up and the transfer of equipment to target our forces in Sirte.” Mismari even noted that the LNA was “ready to respond to any attempted attack on its positions around the coastal city of Sirte, and Jufra, to the south,” according to Reuters.

Too Many Actors

Observers have long argued that the conflict of Libya could not be solved by military means. But given the level of foreign meddling in the country, it has proven even harder to resolve diplomatically.

Turkey, who is at odds with its Mediterranean neighbors over energy reserves in the basin, soon sided with the Tripoli-based GNA, who promptly signed a maritime boundaries contract in favor of Ankara, while the United Arab Emirates and Egypt openly back Khalifa Haftar’s military rule. Other major powers, such as France and Russia, have also been accused of meddling in favor of Haftar.

In June, Egypt was among the first to warn the GNA —and Turkey— that attacks on Sirte and Jufra constituted crossing a “red line” that would systematically trigger an Egyptian military intervention.

Many Unsuccessful Peace Attempts So Far

All attempts to bring about peace to the Libyan people after almost a decade of war —most recently, the Berlin Summit earlier in January— stalled so far, not least because of the pressure exerted by foreign actors, on whom either factions heavily depend, to further their geopolitical and sometimes economic interests.

No longer than the following weekend, however, on Sunday, August 23, guns were fired in Tripoli to disperse hundreds of protesters who had gathered near the headquarters of the GNA to demonstrate over their squalid living conditions amid the current sanitary and economic crises.