Turkish-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) forces are continuing their advance in Libya, strengthening their authority across the country. Recent significant GNA gains have pushed the intractable leader of the Libyan National Army (LNA) Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar to hold back from military action for a while and instead seek a solution through diplomatic means.
Recapturing the Tripoli Airport, as GNA’s Strategic Gains Increase
On June 3, GNA forces recaptured Tripoli’s main International Airport in Qasr Bin Ghashir, which has been held by Haftar’s Libyan National Army for over a year now. The Libyan armed forces under the command of the UN-recognized Tripoli government then launched a major counter-attack operation to retake vital points across the administrative districts of the Libyan Capital. The GNA has achieved several successes obtaining strategic points in the country, reverting the balance of the ongoing conflict. After the recapturing of the Al-Watiya airbase last month, the GNA Army scored another strategic victory on Wednesday. Securing the Tripoli International Airport, entails that the Tripoli government will not be relying on the inferior Mitiga International Airport, located approximately 8 miles east of Tripoli. This development significantly enhances the operational and logistical capabilities of the GNA’s military and represents another crucial setback for the Libyan National Army.
As of June 4, the GNA also controls Ain Zara and other key areas south of Tripoli, consolidating the dominance of the UN-backed government all over the administrative district of Tripoli. The Turkish support to Prime Minister Fayez al Sarraj has been vital for these advances and created a new status quo on the ground that has brought LNA forces to a stalemate.
Sarraj in Ankara and Maetig in Moscow
At the same time, the GNA side is seeking to capitalize on the recent strategic gains on the ground. With a boosted presence in the battlefield that has been built up over the previous months — with Turkish support being the catalyst for this GNA recovery — top officials of the Tripoli-based government are seeking to turn their military successes into diplomatic and political milestones through their presence abroad.
Al Sarraj, the Prime Minister of the Government of National Accord, is meeting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on June 4, for further coordination on the ongoing cease-fire talks, amid these increasing GNA achievements. Even though Sarraj and GNA officials are seeking to keep a modest approach in their public statements, taking into account the current fragile context and the ceasefire efforts, the Turkish side is purposefully not being that considerate. In a recent televised interview, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu stated that Haftar — who is backed by Russian mercenaries — does not seek a political solution and will be eventually defeated by the Turkish-supported GNA forces.
By supporting the GNA and establishing a key presence in Libya, Ankara is pushing its own foreign policy objectives. This is being done at the expense of the rival neighbors, namely Cyprus, Greece and Egypt. So far, the top Turkish priority in this direction is the beginning of drilling activities south of the island of Crete, covering parts of the Greek and Cypriot EEZ and creating a harsh de facto situation for Athens and Nicosia.
At the same time, Ahmed Maetig, Deputy Prime Minister of the Government of National Accord also visited Moscow on June 3, declaring the intentions of the Tripoli-based Government to restart the negotiations. The fragile ceasefire proposal has been put forward again recently, after the major LNA losses. This new situation on the ground has pushed the uncompromising LNA leader Haftar back into making concessions.
Talks between the UN delegation and representatives from Haftar’s side took place on June 3; UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric has been optimistic about the latest talks pointing that both sides are moving to the right direction. According to Dujarric all parties, under the pressure of the UN and the international community, are taking steps to mitigating the scope of the conflict and putting an end to the agony of the Libyan people. The UN highlighted that the most worrying factor amidst the negotiation process, is the violation of the arms embargo from both sides. This very violation has prompted the escalation of the conflict during the previous months, and is currently posing a considerable risk, that could turn the situation out of control instantly. However, Dujarric clarified that the return of the opposing parties in the table of negotiations, alongside the UN efforts, could eventually bring a solution, as per the February 2020 UN ceasefire plan.
Following the most recent events, it is apparent that the chief foreign players in the Libyan field are Turkey and Russia. Especially after the wide-scale deployment of Russian jet fighters in the country — amid international controversy and US criticism — the Kremlin no longer seems focused on making the Russian footprint in the country go unnoticed. Through the combination of military and diplomatic means Moscow has gradually built a remarkable presence across the Mediterranean that could be seen as a substantial strategic victory if examined alongside Russia’s successful policy in Syria.
The leading role, which Kremlin and Ankara have achieved respectively, is seemingly worrying other foreign actors with vested interests in Libya. French Minister of Europe and Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian warned last week that there is the risk of seeing a repeat of the Syrian play in Libya. Le Drian’s concerns of a potential “Syrianization” of Libya, are rather controversial, considering that Libya still constitutes a failed state, while Damascus managed to end a bitter decade-long conflict and get back to the state-building process. The most appropriate interpretation of French concerns only fits in the context in which Russia and Turkey will be the central foreign players in a potential truce between the conflicting parties. French worries can be summarized in a scenario where the negotiating power of Paris and its overall role in Libya would be seriously downgraded.