By Declan Walsh
Saturday August 22, 2020
The announcement of a cease-fire was a rare positive development in a chaotic conflict plagued by foreign meddling. But skeptics abound.
Sirte, Libya, in January. The central Libyan city once famous as the birthplace of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi is now the focus of international efforts to break Libya’s tangled stalemate.Credit...Ivor Prickett for The New York Times
CAIRO — Rival political leaders in Libya announced an immediate cease-fire on Friday and called for talks to demilitarize Sirte, the seaside city that has become the focus of international efforts to break the stalemated conflict in the oil-rich but dysfunctional North African nation.
The announcement was welcomed by the United Nations, the United States and other Western countries scrambling to contain growing Russian and Turkish influence in Libya, which has been roiled in conflict since its longtime strongman ruler, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, was toppled and killed nearly a decade ago in Sirte, his hometown.
The U.N.-backed government in Tripoli and Aguila Saleh, the head of a rival Parliament in eastern Libya, simultaneously proclaimed the cease-fire in coordinated announcements. It was a rare positive development in a notoriously chaotic war made worse this year by extensive foreign interference. But skepticism abounded about any possible breakthrough.Analysts warned that, like an international conference in Berlin last January that aimed to pull Libya out of its political and military quagmire, the cease-fire’s prospects for success are deeply uncertain.
Notably, there was no immediate reaction from Khalifa Hifter, the military commander who is the main belligerent in recent fighting, or two of his most powerful foreign backers, the United Arab Emirates and Russia.
“I’m not sure I would even call this political progress,” said Wolfram Lacher, a Libya expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. “For now, they’re just statements with lots of caveats, conditions and wishful thinking.”
The acting United Nations envoy, Stephanie Williams, however, called the coordinated announcements a sign of political “courage,” adding that she hoped they would ultimately lead to the departure of all foreign forces and mercenaries.
The National Oil Company also welcomed the announcements in a statement, expressing hope that it might reopen oil fields idle since January, when Mr. Hifter’s forces closed them as part of an effort to exert pressure on his adversaries in Tripoli.
Since early July, mercenaries with the Wagner Group, a Kremlin-linked company, have moved into position around some of the country’s biggest oil fields, drawing criticism from American officials who openly worry that Russia will leverage its influence in Libya to establish military bases there.
The maneuvers are the latest messy chapter in a conflict that has persisted since Colonel Qaddafi’s demise during the Arab Spring in 2011. Within a few short years, Libya was torn between rival armed factions, organized by clan, town or ideology, most of them backed by powerful foreign sponsors.
In recent years Mr. Hifter, a onetime C.I.A. collaborator who is backed in the eastern city of Benghazi, has been the prime driver of the fighting. Besides the Emiratis and the Russians, he has also received assistance from Egypt, Jordan and France.
The U.N.-backed government in Tripoli, the capital, is led by Fayez al-Sarraj and relies mostly on Turkey, with some support from Qatar.
Fayez al-Sarraj, prime minister of the U.N.-backed Libyan government in Tripoli. Credit...Ismail Zetouni/Reuters
In April 2019 Mr. Hifter launched a concerted campaign to capture Tripoli, backed by Emirati-supplied armed drones and missile systems. But the assault stalled in January when Turkey deployed its own drones, as well as hundreds of Syrian mercenaries, in support of the Tripoli government.
In June, the Turkish-backed troops forced Mr. Hifter’s fighters and their Russian allies to retreat hundreds of miles from Tripoli to Sirte on north-central Libya’s Mediterranean coast.
In recent weeks, after months of stalemate in Sirte, German and American diplomats have been lobbying both sides to accept a United Nations proposal to establish a demilitarized zone around the city, as a first step in wider peace talks.
That initiative is also backed by Egypt and Turkey, which are otherwise bitter regional rivals.
Although President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt is firmly in Mr. Hifter’s camp, he has appeared to hedge his bets since the collapse of the Tripoli offensive in June by openly boosting Mr. Saleh, who heads Libya’s eastern-based Parliament.
Mr. Saleh has no military forces but enjoys broad tribal support in eastern Libya, where he has a reputation as an agile political operator. Western and United Nations officials, however, have accused Mr. Saleh of opportunism for reneging on promises made during previous peace efforts.
On the other side of the war, Ibrahim Kalin, a spokesman for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, has expressed qualified support for the demilitarization of Sirte.
Tarek Megerisi, a Libya analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said it was “quite a feat” to have Egypt and Turkey agree on anything. But, he added, the cease-fire announced Friday would have limited impact on the ground, because the front lines around Sirte have been quiet for weeks.
Prospects for diplomatic success, he said, would depend partly on Mr. Hifter.
“While this is a pleasant surprise, it doesn’t materially change anything yet,” Mr. Megerisi said. “Rather, it sets up the negotiations to come.”
Those negotiations will also be steered by the complex interests of the war’s foreign sponsors. While Egypt is evidently seeking a way to de-escalate the conflict, the leader of the Emirates, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, is seen as a more warlike figure.
President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has sought to distance himself from the conflict, at least in public, despite protests from American military officials who have accused him of deploying fighter jets in favor of Mr. Hifter.
For Turkey, the war is also part of a broad scramble for natural resources. Last year, as a condition for the deployment of troops to Libya, Mr. Erdogan signed a maritime deal with the Tripoli government that strengthens his claim to drilling rights in the eastern Mediterranean.
This week, Egypt’s Parliament approved a rival maritime agreement with Greece that overlaps with the sea territory claimed by Turkey and Libya, and sets out a competing set of claims.