Diplomatic activities between Moscow, Ankara, Tripoli and Benghazi finally yielded some kind of lull in the nine-month war over control of Tripoli, the Libyan capital. On Sunday 12 January, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Vladimir Putin called on Libya’s warring sides to declare a ceasefire, which they did.
On Monday 13 January Moscow hosted both Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) and Fayez Al-Sarraj, head of the United Nations recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) to sign the terms and conditions of the ceasefire. While the GNA accepted the proposed deal and signed the document, drafted by the Turkish and Russian negotiators, Mr. Haftar left Moscow on Tuesday morning, 14 January, without signing. The ceasefire is still in place but its terms and conditions remain a mystery!
In wars, usually, the terms and conditions of the cessation of hostilities are agreed to before any formal lull is announced but in this case things happened the other way around, meaning both sides accepted to stop shooting each other but yet to agree on what that means on the ground.
Awkward as it may sound both Russia, which backs the LNA, and Turkey, which backs the GNA, appeared certain that both Libyan warring sides will accept whatever was presented to them, but this has not been the case.
So why did Field Marshal Haftar refuse to sign the document? He first asked for more time to consider its content through Monday night but at some point he decided not to sign it and left Moscow altogether, angering his hosts while cheering his supporters back home.
Very little is said about the details of the ceasefire terms. Neither the Russians not the Turks gave any details about their joint proposal. However, it is very easy to guess what is not acceptable for Mr. Haftar.
First, any troop withdrawal from southern Tripoli, where LNA forces have been camping since 3 April, 2018, means defeat for the LNA, which Mr. Haftar would never accept. Doing so would risk anger among his troops and civilian supporters too.
Under enormous pressure, coupled with some political threats by the Russians and his other backers like the United Arab Emirates, he might agree to a partial withdrawal from his current positions. He could, with difficulty, swallow repositioning troops some 50 kilometres away from LNA current locations. Any further moving back of troops will make Tarhouna, LNA’s main command, control and logistical base, vulnerable to the GNA.
We have to remember that after Gharian, 300 kilometres southwest of Tripoli, fell to GNA forces last June, the LNA moved further west to Tarhouna, just 80 kilometres southeast of the capital. Tarhouna is not only the LNA’s main base in western Libya but it is home to Mr. Haftar’s main Ferjan tribe, and leaving it unprotected after welcoming it, is something he will never do.
Should the LNA resume operations, which is bound to happen at some point, keeping Tarhouna well-defended is a must. The town has become even more strategic for the LNA since it took Sirte, which fell without a fight earlier this month. Sirte, serving as back logistical station, is now linked to Tarhouna and this provides wider LNA reach to almost the entire west of Libya.
Second, Mr. Haftar cannot sign any document that does not include a specific timetable to dismantling the different militias and armed groups nominally allied to the GNA in Tripoli. From the start of his offensive against the GNA, Mr. Haftar has always insisted on disbanding all “militias and terror groups” that control the capital as he repeatedly said. It is certain that such a clause was not in the proposed ceasefire document because the GNA, on the other hand, can not sign up to it in that case!
Politically things are a little complicated. Since Germany announced its intentions to organise an international meeting on Libya three months ago, the idea has been somewhat vague. Who is to be invited to such a gathering remained unclear until this week. The Berlin conference is now slated for Sunday 19 January according to the German government’s announcement.
Mr. Haftar, as well as Fayez Al-Sarraj, are both invited to the meeting which was not the case for the original German initiative. Originally Germany only wanted to invite major powers to commit them to respect UN resolutions on Libya particularly reinforcing the arms embargo imposed on Libya since February 2011
Germany has stayed away from the mess in Libya from the start as NATO member Berlin was committed to playing a limited role in toppling the Gaddafi regime in 2011. In recent years Germany remained almost neutral on the conflict while supporting the UN mediations led by Ghassan Salame. It was Salame who first asked the German Chancellor Angela Merkle for help last summer.
Last week’s direct Turkish military intervention in Libya in support of the GNA and the sudden link up between Ankara and Moscow, on Libya, forced Berlin to review its position and its criterion for the upcoming conference. That change included inviting the two Libyan protagonists. While Mr. Haftar does not have high hopes for Berlin he does not want to be absent. Signing the surprising Russian-Turkish ceasefire initiative could have meant that Mr. Haftar, seen as the aggressor, would not take part in Berlin. It is very likely that the ceasefire will remain in place but its future depends very much on what happens in Berlin on Sunday.
While all eyes are on Berlin, each Libyan side is contemplating its next move. If the countries gathering in Berlin produce a workable, political plan it is likely to centre around the UN-proposed, inter-Libyan conference originally announced for April 16, 2018, but aborted after the LNA started its attack on Tripoli. This is not something commander Haftar can easily accept.
The question is, how long could the ceasefire hold if the Berlin meeting fails to produce tangible results? It is hard to predict but the pessimists, not optimists, still have their strong reasons!
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.