Recent developments in Libya are setting the ground for a renewed cycle of violence. While both sides are gradually fueling the tension, UN and international concerns are focused on the potential failure of the ongoing peace process.
Haftar Reacts Angrily to Turkey’s Libya Troop Extension
On the day marking the 69th anniversary of Libyan Independence, commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar stated that as long as Turkish Forces remain stationed in Libya, there will be no peace in the country. As predicted, Turkey’s Grand National Assembly recently approved a bill extending deployment of Turkish troops in Libya for another 18 months.
In his inflammatory remarks, Haftar stated that Ankara should withdraw its forces, otherwise the “Libyan people would by force drive out the colonizing force.” With these words, the Benghazi-based Libyan strongman indirectly passed an ultimatum to Turkey at a point where there is no chance that Ankara would back down. This highlights the fragility of the ongoing peace process.
Turkey Responds to Haftar’s Demand
Shortly after Haftar’s speech on Dec. 26 there has was a straightforward Turkish response. Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar landed in Tripoli accompanied by Turkey’s military leadership in an unscheduled visit to inspect the Turkish Forces based in the country. It was clear that at the same time Akar’s visit was intended to send a message to Haftar, emphasizing that Ankara is ready and committed to fully support Fayez al-Serraj’s Government of National Accord (GNA).
Prior to Akar’s visit, his Libyan counterpart Minister Salahaddin al-Namroush stated in a televised interview that the UN-recognized Tripoli GNA government would not let Haftar carry out another major offensive to capture the Libyan capital. He also said that the Libyan Army, under GNA command, has been following and respecting the ceasefire terms, however the armed forces would be standing by to effectively respond to any provocations from the Haftar-led LNA.
Even earlier, during an interview on Dec. 11, al-Namroush was even more critical of Haftar, calling the General a war criminal and ruling out any possibility of forming a political coalition where Haftar could play any role at all. Considering that al-Namroush will remain one of the key GNA players and his footprint -in both the political and military aspects of the process — is significant, we could assess that a new escalation between the two sides could be likely. Therefore it is understandable that while Haftar remains in the equation, some GNA key officials could hardly negotiate to reach a consensus; in this respect a realistic precondition for the successful completion of the peace process would be the withdrawal of either party, which is not expected to be easy or uneventful.
We should note that the completion of the process could be the successful organization and implementation of the Libyan elections, scheduled for December 2021.
What is UNSMIL Doing to End the Libyan Conflict?
While the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) has publicly congratulated the Libyan people in several instances, the in-country situation still remains far from optimistic. The recent exchange of prisoners between the opposing sides and the successful organizing of municipal elections in Al-Zawiya Al-Gharbia and Ar-Rajban areas in the northwestern parts of the country, are definitely positive signs.
However, the current transitioning period of the mission, will be critical for the next steps on the process. The experienced diplomat Nickolay Mladenov — who was expected to succeed Ghassan Salamé as the Head of UNSMIL — recently turned down the position due to personal and family reasons. Mladenov has previously held key roles in the UN Mission in Iraq and in the Middle East Peace Process; additionally his appointment was expected to be welcomed by Turkey as the Bulgarian diplomat built strong ties with Turkey, while serving as the Foreign Minister of Bulgaria several years ago.
For the moment, Stephanie Williams will remain the Acting Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of UNSMIL, until a new decision is reached for the permanent placement of the Head of the Mission.
Many Challenges Lie Ahead
Despite the positive signs, mainly derived from the exchange of prisoners, there are many challenges ahead, with one of the most prominent threats being related to the oil industry of the country. The LNA’s recent raid in Awbari (or Ubari) underscores this reality. UNSMIL has also strongly condemned the efforts of armed groups to intimidate the National Oil Corporation (NOC) in Tripoli. With oil exports being one of the main sources of revenue for the Libyan economy, any disruption in this sector could trigger hostilities and further destabilize the country.
Occasional skirmishes during December also indicate that the ceasefire agreement is not being fully adhered to, and an incidental unfortunate event could easily lead to another vicious cycle of violence. Finally, the harsh rhetoric and the military build-up from both sides is another worrying sign.
Turkey’s overt action and deep involvement in Libya — not only through the deployment of military forces but also through a direct intervention in the shaping of the political context — is also a critical destabilizing factor. The most telling example of this political involvement was the recent surprise resignation of al-Serraj — which rather disappointed Ankara — only to be revoked shortly after its announcement.