In Libya, the first days of June seemed like years for the number of significant events that occurred. In about a week, the forces loyal to the Tripoli government (General National Accord or GNA) pushed back the Libyan National Army (LNA) and its allies, led by General Haftar and linked to the Tobruk House of Representatives. Except for Sirte, their military advance roughly rolls the clock back to early 2019, when Haftar’s forces had virtually no presence in the Tripoli area.
The new developments will probably lead to a new phase, characterised by more localised fighting (area of Sirte and some parts of Fezzan) and fewer changes in the control areas among the contenders. Moreover, it is now equally unrealistic that pro-GNA militias could conquer Cyrenaica and LNA-led forces take Tripoli. Turkey on the one side and Egypt and Russia on the other could utilise this situation for closed-door negotiations to define their shares in the country’s influence. However, the exact lines of this de facto partition of Libya and its timing have still to be determined. Besides, such prospected agreement would not necessarily lead to a long-standing political solution, as the three above-mentioned powers might simply settle for freezing the current conflict and, in the case of Turkey and Russia, implementing a negotiation mechanism for future crises in Libya. A political solution would also require the local actors to embrace a peace process and those states which were less directly involved in the conflict to pursue a diplomatic initiative.
To support these two claims, the first part of the article explores the reasons for Turkey on one side and Egypt and Russia on the other to privilege freezing the conflict rather than escalating it at this stage. The second discusses why the timing and the characteristics of this de facto partition have yet to be defined. The third looks at the challenge of finding a long-standing political solution for Libya and how the situation might evolve in coming months.
When looking at the reasons for Turkey on the one side and Egypt and Russia on the other to freeze the conflict, it is useful to point out two highly symbolic images from recent days. The first is that of Fayez al-Serraj, the head of the internationally recognised GNA, announcing the liberation of Tripoli from Ankara. The location of the al-Serraj announcement is a symbol of Turkey’s role as kingmaker in the Libyan conflict. Now Turkish policymakers find themselves faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, they can escalate the conflict to win a decisive victory for the GNA. On the other, they can seize the opportunity to let the Tripoli government negotiate from a power position. The first decision is highly problematic because while the Turkish forces can do much to help the pro-GNA forces gain victories, they can do little to ensure that they would control the conquered territories. The pro-GNA forces are still a heterogeneous coalition of militias, which are mostly bound together by the economic benefits deriving from hydrocarbon revenues, even if some armed groups show a generic Islamist orientation. It follows that their capacity for controlling new territories relies mostly on their local legitimacy, namely their ability to obtain support from the local armed groups. This support is still missing in a large part of Cyrenaica, where some local forces might be unsatisfied with Haftar’s failure to retake Tripoli, but still are not willing to accept the GNA’s authority. Eastern Libya factions who have supported Haftar (e.g. secular nationalists, eastern tribes, Qaddafi loyalist, makhdali salafists) might fear that the long-standing hostility towards pro-GNA groups would exclude them from future national power and resource sharing. In other words, the GNA does not have the military capacity to control a vast territory without local notables and popular support in the east. It follows that it is in the GNA’s and Turkey’s interests to freeze the conflict to consolidate their positions, protect their assets and shorten a potential resource-depleting conflict in a time of economic crisis for both Ankara and Tripoli.
The second powerful image is that of the press conference in Egypt to present Cairo’s plan for a diplomatic solution to the Libyan conflict. The conference was held jointly by Egyptian President Abdelfattah al-Sisi, General Khalifa Haftar, and the President of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives, Aguila Saleh. The presence of Saleh was unusual for international diplomatic meetings, where Haftar has usually directly negotiated the Tobruk position. The Libyan general has worked hard to carve a political role for himself along with his military leadership in recent years. The message could be, therefore, that Cairo is ready to support figures other than than Haftar in carrying out the next phase of negotiations. In other words, Egypt might be willing to sacrifice Haftar, who has been strongly endorsed by al-Sisi in the past, in return for a long-standing truce that preserves its interests.
The same is true for Russia, which has also supported Haftar. In the previous month, Moscow invited Saleh to discuss a political solution for the country. This initiative might indicate that Russia is willing to prioritise diplomacy and not a new military intervention to ensure its influence in Libya. These elements suggest that Russia and Egypt might push their Eastern allies to sit at the negotiation table, even in the case of a request from the GNA to negotiate without Haftar. It is probably too early to speak about Haftar’s demission from military command, since the general has been able to unite a heterogeneous coalition of supporters, but signals suggest that the strongman of Tobruk will likely play a less prominent political role in the future. An exclusion of Haftar might help in finding more stable assets for Libya in coming months.
These elements suggest that Libya is going toward a stalemate scenario, with more localised fighting and small territorial gains rather than by a political solution of the current conflict. However, it is not yet clear when this scenario will precisely emerge and what the features of a freeze of the conflict will be.
First, the exact geographic location of the frontlines is yet to be defined. In this context, the current fighting in Sirte will tell whether the region of the oil crescent, where 80% of Libyan oil reserves are located, will ultimately fall under LNA or GNA control. For the GNA, which can sell the oil on the international market, unlike its eastern counterpart, controlling this area would help to secure and expand its support base by distributing oil revenues.
Second, it is not clear if and how external powers, like European nations and the US, will intervene on a diplomatic level. An assertive stance by these actors would likely facilitate a ceasefire, and its timing would influence the GNA’s chance to take control of the oil crescent. Third, the decision to reopen the oil and gas fields retaken from the pro-LNA forces, whose closure was motivated by the will to weaken the GNA government when trying to retake Tripoli by lowering its income, would likely facilitate a freezing of the conflict. In this sense, it worth mentioning that maintaining the blockade would likely fuel resentment also in the LNA-controlled east in the upcoming future, where many public workers still depend on the wages paid by the Tripoli-based central bank, and therefore such policy cannot be maintained indefinitely.
The previous explanation shows that some guidelines have yet to be established in order to reach a stable ceasefire. To obtain a political agreement is an objective even further away. As Wolfram Lacher correctly observes, the powers that are currently deeply involved in the conflict (Turkey, Egypt, the UAE, Russia) might even prefer partition rather than a strong and unified government that would reduce their influence by forcing foreign troops to leave. However, some conditions might emerge in the next months to favour this outcome.
First, Haftar’s setback should make the European position more coherent, as France is set to align with Italy and Germany and the US to mediate between the two sides to preserve its interests in Libya. A diplomatic coalition of these states cannot solve the conflict in the current scenario, but might still have a say in mediating on the timing and conditions for a stable ceasefire.
Second, Haftar’s setback opens a space for some politicians from both sides to discuss the most crucial issues in Libya. Some influential figures will likely open new channels of dialogue on issues like the distribution of the hydrocarbon revenues, the disbandment of the militias and their eventual integration into a future unified Libyan army. To discuss these questions and eventually find some points of agreement would be a much-needed premise for the success of any upcoming international conference. Third, European states might finally define a clear-cut and unified policy towards Turkey’s ambitions in the Mediterranean, including the issue of gas in the eastern part of the sea. The choice of policymakers is the following: including Turkey in the regional framework or actively working to reduce its regional influence. Neither of the two decisions has been taken yet, and it is currently detrimental for European nations to devise a coherent strategy based on this specific issue.
 Noha Elhennawy, Tripoli Forces say the have ended siege of the Libyan capital, Associated Press, 4 June 2020
 Makhdali is an ultraconservative brench of salafism, close to Wahhabism.
 Emma Graham Harrison, Egyptian president announces plan for ceasefire in Libya, The Guardian, 6 June
 Kirill Semenov, Is Russia pulling support from Libyan strongman Hifter?, Al Monitor, 13 May
 Wolfram Lacher, The Great Carve Up, SWP, June 2020