Two governments claiming power in Libya have been locked in a dispute since 2014. The western parts of Libya are under the control of Government of National Accord, led by al-Sarraj and supported by Turkey, Qatar, the US and the UK. In east of Libya, the Tobruk-based government receives backing from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Russia and France. The eastern-based government’s military forces are known as the Libyan National Army and led by General Haftar. At present, 35 percent of Libya’s population live in the areas under the control of the Tobruk-based government, while 65% are in the regions controlled by the Government of National Accord. Since the bulk of Libya’s oil resources are located in the east, the warring sides have focused efforts to conquer and control those regions, particularly the strategic town of Sirte and the oilfields situated in Al Jawf.
Last year, the Libyan National Army forces led by Haftar launched extensive attacks to conquer Tripoli and topple the Government of National Accord, and could even close in on the capital, but they were halted after facing fierce resistance from the Government of National Accord forces and their foreign sponsors.
After a January conference in Berlin failed to create peace and ceasefire in Libya, Turkey deployed thousands of Al-Nusra Front fighters and a remarkable number of Turkish troops to the battlefield in Libya, provided widespread logistical and drone supports for al-Sarraj forces, and could change the course of the war in favor of the Government of National Accord and take control of the situation. Following these victories, the National Accord forces could take control of Libya’s coastal cities which host oil resources and the main bases of Haftar forces. The victories were gained after the supporters of General Haftar, including Russia, France and Germany, did not show decisiveness. In the meantime, Turkey is trying to take advantage of the situation by signing deals on maritime zones in the Mediterranean Sea and establishment of military bases in Libya with the government of al-Sarraj. Turkey managed to play a significant role in Syria’s developments by launching a military operation in that country, and carried out the same plan in Libya, which met with success, as the public opinion in Turkey is supporting Erdogan’s measures. One of Turkey’s main motives for intervention in Libya’s developments was the Muslim Brotherhood’s infiltration into Libya and the joint efforts by France, Jordan, Israel, Egypt and Greece to stand against the interests of Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey is pursuing many goals and interests in the eastern Mediterranean on the basis of the Blue Homeland doctrine, Neo-Ottomanism, and creation of the balance of threat. Control over Libya could greatly help Turkey achieve those purposes.
On the other hand, the National Accord forces’ advances have drawn a very harsh reaction from General al-Sisi, who has threatened direct military intervention and has warned that further advances of those forces would receive a drastic response from the other side, such as direct involvement or a harsher proxy war spearheaded by Egypt, particularly given the massive support that Russians have provided for Egypt with tens of giant Ilyushin airlifters carrying various ground and aerial weapons after the National Accord forces’ advances. Considering the 60,000 Muslim Brotherhood inmates being held in the government prisons, it is natural for Egypt to show an unexpected reaction to a possible presence of a government supported by the Muslim Brotherhood in neighboring Libya. As part of its efforts to end the internal crisis in Libya, Egypt proposed a plan known as the Cairo initiative, which divides Libya into three autonomous regions. According to the initiative, Libya would be governed by the Presidency Council comprised of leaders of the three regions and by a cabinet including ministers from all three regions. General Haftar and his sponsors, such as the United Arab Emirates and France, agreed on the initiative, but it was strongly rejected by the Government of National Accord and Turkey. Initially, it seemed unlikely that Egypt would be able to successfully carry out its initiative because of the weaker position of the forces that it supported on the field, specifically after the recent victories for the Government of National Accord and the Qatari-Turkish wing. But as the Turkish-Qatari axis got closer to the red lines of the other side, namely Egypt and the Saudi-Emirati axis, and after al-Sisi threatened military action, and also given the threat to the export of Libyan oil and gas which is vital for the both warring sides at present, the domestic and foreign actors finally came to the conclusion that they should balance their demands in order to pave the way for mediation and the launch of the political process and negotiations. At present, Turkey has the upper hand in Libya’s developments, but it is well aware that the current suitable conditions may change against it in the coming months at the hands of Russia and Egypt in the military sphere and proxy wars and at the hands of France in the political arena. Therefore, Turkey has realized the international consensus on the futility of a military solution and its challenging position in the Mediterranean Sea, particularly after the escalation of disputes with Greece and France, and has given the green light to the Government of National Accord for approval to declare a ceasefire in Sirte and Al Jufra and designate those regions as weapon free green zones. The US had also offered the warring parties such a proposal a while ago. Although Khalifa Haftar accepted the plan reluctantly, it was approved immediately by head of Libya's Tobruk-based parliament Aguila Saleh Issa. Even General al-Sisi approved of the plan and tried to pretend that it has been part of his own peace initiative. The vital issue in the deal that is important for the both governments in eastern and western Libya is that the existence of both of them depends on income from Libyan oil and gas exports from the Gulf of Sirte, as the supporters of the both sides are also mindful of the losses caused by a halt to the export of Libya’s oil and gas. Although the deal, made in the form of a declaration from the two sides, is not binding without the release of any document in the presence of international parties, the endorsement from the international and regional powers could guarantee this as a first step to achieve a political solution to the crisis in Libya. Meanwhile, the common stance of Europe and the US on preventing Russia’s opportunism and further influence in the region has been an effective factor.
Since the diplomacy of the Western extra-regional actors involved in the Libya crisis has been based upon rivalry, it has been basically ineffective in such a way that the European governments have faced serious opposition even from the opponents inside the European nations. It seems the Europeans have come to the conclusion that none of the international efforts to address the Libya crisis has been effective enough. The only achievement made at the last conference in Berlin in January 2020, which was the imposition of a UN arms embargo on Libya, has been easily violated several times even with the presence of European warships, as the weapons and mercenaries are still flowing into Libya from various directions. After the intensified measures by the Turkish-Qatari and the Saudi-Emirati axes over the past months and the risks posed by a deal between Turkey and the Government of National Accord on maritime zones in the Mediterranean Sea, the European states have finally realized how painful the lack of a joint European policy would be for Europe, while the gap between northern, southern, eastern and western Europe is widening with American provocation. As a result, the European countries involved in the Libya crisis have gradually changed the strategy of full support for one of the Libyan warring parties and have adopted the policy of interaction with all actors after Haftar’s recent defeats, the possibility of a costlier confrontation between Turkey and Egypt, and the concerns about Russia’s stronger place. Europeans have recently expressed dissatisfaction with the performance of Haftar and criticized al-Sarraj, looking for new characters to set the future stage in their own favor. A number of individuals have been named as new figures, such as head of Libya's Tobruk-based parliament Aguila Saleh Issa, incumbent foreign minister of the Government of National Accord Osama al-Juwaili, businessman Ahmed Maiteeq, and Chairman of Libya's National Oil Corporation Mustafa Sanalla. Preparations have been made since last week for such changes by discharging the hardline figures, such as the interior minister and head of the army at the Government of National Accord. It appears that more serious changes in the lineup of the two governments in eastern and western Libya would be possible in the not-too-distant future, including the declining influence of Khalifa Haftar or his dismissal. The general atmosphere of face-off between the two warring parties is moving towards ceasefire and dialogue after a military deadlock.
Under such circumstances, the Islamic Republic of Iran can play a role considering the impartial stance it has adopted since the outbreak of crisis. While the countries like Russia, France and Germany have doubts and the majority of regional states are unable to play an impartial role, Iran can cooperate with even-handed countries such as Algeria and Tunisia to contribute to the establishment of inclusive peace in Libya.
The Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran has taken a very wise stance by declaring that Tehran supports the ceasefire and inclusive peace. The correct path for Iran amid the Libya crisis is to actively pursue an end to the conflict through dialogue in a peaceful manner.
(The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)