Putschist Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s western front in Libya collapsed last week as the Turkish-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) captured the strategically important al-Watiya air base to the southwest of Tripoli. The liberation of Tarhunah, a town some 65 kilometers (40 miles) to the capital’s southeast, will completely break the siege of Tripoli.
Since 2014, the situation at al-Watiya had been mounting pressure on Tripoli; therefore, its capture by the Libyan government marks both a symbolic victory and a fresh opportunity to tilt the military balance of power.
A recent pledge by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg to support the government in Tripoli represented a diplomatic sea change. Likewise, Haftar’s threats against Turkish operators in Libya speak to the significance of his defeat at al-Watiya to the Libyan conflict’s future.
Having lost on the western front, the Libyan warlord could attempt to escalate violence, possibly by carrying out a heavy air bombardment, to hold onto Tarhunah and Sirte. As a matter of fact, Libya’s interior minister, Fathi Bashagha, announced that eight Russian warplanes had been relocated from Khmeimim, Syria to Haftar-occupied Libyan territories. That move could encourage the Libyan government to use al-Watiya, arguably the most significant military installation in North Africa, actively under its military cooperation agreement with Turkey.
Is it time for diplomacy?
Diplomatic efforts come to the forefront in Libya as the military balance of power changes. Everything from the NATO secretary-general’s remarks to a joint call by U.S. President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron for de-escalation, to the United Arab Emirates’ call for a cease-fire and the Turkish and Russian foreign ministers agreeing on the need to jumpstart the United Nations-sponsored political process, supports this view. Yet the GNA, for the first time, feels the urge to control all of the Libyan territories as the country’s U.N.-recognized, legitimate government.
Despite the most recent developments, Haftar cannot be expected to simply give up. Nor would the GNA forces suspend their military operation unless Haftar’s militias withdraw from all lands that they have occupied since April 2019. Media reports about Russian and Egyptian intentions to replace Haftar, too, are merely intended to discipline the putschist general. Although Haftar has lost significant power since January, when he didn’t even care to sign the Berlin conference’s final communique, countries like Russia, France, the UAE and Egypt are still unlikely to withdraw their support. As the military balance of power changes to the GNA’s advantage, Haftar’s foreign sponsors will either move to escalate violence or call for diplomatic talks in an attempt to win at the negotiating table.
Russia will play a key role in this process. UAE-sponsored air defense system and the Wagner Group’s mercenaries proved unable to stop the Libyan government forces. Would Moscow want to play a bigger role in Libya after everything that happened in Syria? Is the Kremlin likely to deploy more advanced weapons, such as the S-300 air defense system, or even maintain an official military presence there? Such moves would ring alarm bells in the United States and Europe. To be clear, there is no entity in Libya akin to Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria to extend a formal invitation to Russia.
It already became clear that Sudanese, Chadian or Syrian militias – or the Wagner Group, for that matter – won’t yield results. At the same time, the decline in oil prices, coupled with the failure to launch a political process in Syria despite vast Russian support for Assad, would encourage Russia to reach a negotiated settlement with Turkey instead of doubling down on Haftar’s coup attempt. European governments, too, are likely to favor diplomacy. Even though they want the Libyan warlord to be contained, they are not eager to let the Turkish-backed GNA control all of Libya. Although Italy is happy that Turkey managed to do what it could not, France remains committed to Haftar’s campaign. Germany realizes that the GNA’s accomplishments will make it easier to implement the decisions reached at the Berlin conference but fears Turkey’s growing influence over Libya negotiations.
Either way, the Turkish government must prepare for an escalation by Haftar’s forces. Even if negotiations were to restart in diplomatic circles, there is no reason to assume that military operations will stop until a return to the status quo antebellum. The Libyan conflict has thus reached a new and challenging stage.
[Daily Sabah, 27 May 2020]