Hope for peace in Libya advanced after new United Nations (UN)-brokered Libyan 5+5 Joint Military Commission talks took place last month, aiming to establish a long-term ceasefire to the war-torn country. The agreement was signed in Geneva on October 23. 75 UN selected delegates joined talks in Tunisia on November 13 and “agreed that national elections should take place on December 24, 2021.”
Delegates from rival governments again met for negotiations from November 10 until November 13 in the city of Sirte, a previous red line for warring parties.
While these are certainly welcomed developments, their successes would require greater understanding between rival factions and a military withdrawal from external forces.
However, distrust remains between Libya’s rival governments, and countries involved in the conflict can still attempt to leverage peace initiatives to secure their own geopolitical aims in the country, creating significant risks for the agreement.
The UN called the October ceasefire a “historic agreement,” once again showing optimism towards bringing about a better agreement that would entail political stability in the country. Recent negotiations also aim to prevent further violence after leader of the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), Khalifa Haftar’s offensive to capture the capital Tripoli in April 2019 which effectively disrupted previous peace negotiations.
“I am honored to be among you today to witness a moment that will go down in history,” Stephanie Turco Williams, the top UN envoy for Libya who led mediation talks, said at the ceasefire signing in Geneva. However, she warned a “long and difficult” road remains ahead.
The agreement states that all military units and armed groups must pull back from the front lines and return to their camps. All foreign fighters and mercenaries must also leave Libya by January 23.
The two sides agreed to establish a “joint police operations room” that will help secure areas following the withdrawal of armed groups. The rivals also agreed to form a “joint limited military force” of personnel who report to the UN’s Joint Military Commission.
It follows an initial ceasefire agreement in August between the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) and the House of Representatives (HoR) based in Tobruk with parliamentary speaker Aguila Saleh at the helm. Saleh has been tipped to overtake Haftar as the more dominant figure in the eastern government. Moreover, Egypt and France have shown more receptivity towards Saleh, following the failed Egypt-backed peace initiative last June, after Cairo and Paris previously backed Haftar alongside the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, and Russia.
The agreement’s success rests upon the establishment of a security arrangement to ensure that the clauses are upheld, while cohesive international cooperation between international actors who have backed opposing sides is also vital. However, the nature of the conflict has shown that achieving this would be a struggle.
“We don’t trust the success of any peace process that treats the criminal and the victim the same,” GNA army spokesperson Mohammed Gununu wrote on his Twitter account in a thinly veiled criticism of Haftar.
Referring to Russia, he added “We don’t trust Haftar militias’ ability to force over 5,000 mercenaries from Russian Wagner, Syria, Sudan and Chad out of Libya.”
Trust is low between the different sides. While Haftar’s forces reportedly committed small violations of the ceasefire in August, LNA’s spokesperson dismissed it as a “marketing” stunt in September, indicating Haftar’s refusal to abide by it.
Violence has been minimal since June after Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli faltered, owing to the Turkish-backed GNA counter-offensive. While the LNA is still a strong military force in eastern Libya, three of his main backers— Russia, Egypt and France— have explored an alternative option, namely Saleh, thus limiting Haftar’s chances of playing a substantial future role in Libyan politics.
Should the UAE continue supporting Haftar, this could lead to his forces violating the ceasefire further and unravelling any potential progress in peace negotiations. The GNA also accused Russia’s Wagner Group of blocking its delegation at the Sirte talks from landing at the nearby Qardabiya airbase.
With Aguila Saleh vying to become the figurehead within an eastern government, this could create more friction between Haftar and Saleh, as they already had tense relations. The European Union wavered sanctions on Saleh, and Turkey also prefers him to Haftar, showing that he is favoured to become a more dominant leader. This would work in favour of negotiations.
There are more domestic concerns from some other Libyan groups. The Social Council of Tuareg tribes in Libya warned that the selection of members from the Political Dialogue Forum could lead to the prejudice and marginalization of certain tribes. This relates to previous flaws within UN peace initiatives of not providing enough of a voice to local factions, ignoring the reality that decentralization would be an ideal outcome.
However, this would be difficult due to the internationalized nature of Libya’s war. One of the key factors that need be considered is that foreign forces must leave the country in order to achieve a breakthrough in the deal.
GNA foreign minister Fathi Bashaga showed scepticism for the deal’s success while foreign intervention continued. While Bashaga correctly observed that Haftar could not survive without external support, his comments indicate that distrust will continue unless the foreign intervention scales back.
Meanwhile, the GNA still values its ties with Turkey, as its survival has depended on Turkey’s intervention. Ankara will also not want to see the GNA marginalized after signing the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Tripoli government in November 2019, which granted Turkey permission to explore Tripoli’s shores for oil. It showed that GNA is a crucial partner for Ankara’s Eastern Mediterranean objectives.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s continued presence would likely attract counter efforts from countries that oppose Ankara’s influence in the country, particularly the UAE, France, and Egypt.
There is still a risk that France and Egypt, with the UAE’s backing, will try to marginalize Turkey by trying to influence the eastern government and exhibit their control there. This lack of cooperation may make it more difficult to create a unified solution, as external countries seek to satisfy their own geopolitical concerns.
The UN lacks the necessary leverage to counter this. Its arms embargo has not been enforced and this has allowed the conflict to continue. Russia also blocked the publication of a report to the UN security council naming the countries and firms in breach of it, showing how international powers are in control of Libya’s political future.
Russia and Turkey, however, have shown more willingness to compromise and mediate compared to other rival countries. This would mean that Moscow could eventually outmanoeuvre France, Egypt, and the UAE’s influence in eastern Libya.
Should domestic parties fail to see eye-to-eye with one another, this could lead to more fragmentation between rival governments and consolidate a de-facto partition.
As Libyans and other observers have noted, a withdrawal of foreign forces would be necessary to uphold any political solution. However, as there has been, so far little real pressure to achieve this, there is good reason to be sceptical over solidifying these latest measures.