Why the GNA’s Recent Advances in Libya Mean the Conflict Will Worsen

The beginning of June has marked an unprecedented series of victories for Libya’s internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), as it recovered most of the country’s northwestern territories that had been previously controlled by forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA). The Turkish-backed GNA even advanced in the coastal city of Sirte but were driven out again. In Tarhouna and Bani Walid, Haftar’s forces left a substantial amount of weaponry and ammunition as they were forced to retreat.

On Saturday, June 6, the same day that the GNA was advancing toward Sirte, Haftar was already in Cairo, where he met with Sisi, who soon proclaimed a new plan for a ceasefire agreement. Haftar, who launched an offensive against the GNA in April 2019 to seize Tripoli (having already control over most of Libyan territories in the east and south, as well as most of Libya’s oil fields), hadn’t known such a defeat before. The GNA’s new advances are now likely to bring about new settings into future peace talks, observers said.

Appearing at a news conference in Cairo alongside Sisi in Saturday, Haftar, who had long been reluctant to resort to talks, agreed to the new political initiative proposed by Cairo, which included a ceasefire starting as soon as Monday, June 8. But the GNA soon objected to the initiative, saying Haftar attempted to return to negotiations only after the military defeat. Tarhouna was Haftar’s most important stronghold near Tripoli, having served as the LNA’s closest Launchpad against Tripoli.

The UAE, Haftar’s major supporter alongside Egypt, Saudi Arabia, France and Russia, promptly supported the Cairo initiative. Haftar also called on Egypt to make “urgent and effective efforts to compel Turkey to completely stop the transfer of weapons and mercenaries to Libya.” But critics said the heavy weaponry Haftar’s forces left upon their retreat (likely to have come by land through Egypt) should also be investigated by the United Nations, after an arms embargo was implemented in the country.

Is Turkey Gaining the Upper Hand?

Turkey, which had also breached the arms embargo after it provided arms and other resources to the GNA, is deemed to be the bigger beneficiary of the recent developments in Libya. The GNA’s expansion of territories in the Mediterranean country also means further interests for President Erdogan’s Ankara.

On Saturday, June 6, Greece openly said it was ready for a military confrontation with Turkey, after tensions over sea borders and offshore oil fields flared up recently between the neighboring countries.

Sharing maritime borders with Turkey, the Tripoli-based GNA had signed maritime deals with Ankara, favoring the latter over Greece and Cyprus relating to exclusive economic zones in the gas-rich east Mediterranean Sea. Turkey’s support for the GNA has since been on the rise.

The Cairo initiative, which called for “dismantling militias and handing over their weaponry so that Libyan National Army would be able to carry out its military and security responsibilities and duties,” also urged the withdrawal of “foreign mercenaries from all Libyan territory.”

Too Many Actors

Although Haftar’s side seems to resort to talks at last, the GNA’s eastward advances, with an unrelenting support from Turkey, are highly bound to rekindle the conflict, which has grown to become a proxy one since 2011.

Analysts say that there are too many actors involved in the conflict to reach a near compromise. Turkey, whose cross-border military action has significantly increased in the past months, notably in northeast Syria, is probably the least likely to settle for ending the conflict soon.

The United Arab Emirates, which provided important military and logistical aid (mainly through Egypt) to Haftar throughout his April 2019 Tripoli offensive, would even upscale its support. Hundreds of Syrian mercenaries were sent by Russia to fight alongside Haftar’s forces in May only, hired by the Wagner Group, which previously said it first sent Syrians to fight in Libya in 2019.

Both the LNA and the GNA aspire to take over the integrity of the Libyan national territory. The Tripoli-based government still excludes Haftar and the LNA from a political solution needed to end the conflict, asserting the GNA’s right to national territory, whereas Haftar deems it is his LNA’s legitimate right and duty to control the Libyan soil.