Talks between leaders of Libya's two warring sides wrapped up Monday in Moscow, with Russia's foreign minister noting some progress, a day after a fragile cease-fire brokered by Russia and Turkey came into force.
Russia and Turkey are emerging as key arbiters in the war-torn country, trying to push Fayez al-Sarraj, head of the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), and his rival, renegade General Khalifa Haftar, to start agreeing to the outlines of a longer-term political settlement, one suiting both Ankara and Moscow.
On Monday, before talks started, al-Sarraj urged Libyans to “turn the page” on the turmoil of the past,” saying all Libyans should “reject discord and close ranks to move toward stability and peace.” He said the GNA had entered the cease-fire to end the bloodshed and that his beleaguered government is in “a position of strength to maintain national and social cohesion.”
The latest phase of the long-running violent turmoil that followed the 2011 ouster of then-dictator Moammar Gadhafi has been bogged down in stalemate for months.
The warring factions failed to sign the truce as scheduled Monday, and adjourned for further discussions Tuesday. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in the Russian capital he was confident they would ink the document, saying they viewed the document “positively.”
More than 280 civilians and about 2,000 fighters have been killed and 146,000 Libyans displaced since Haftar launched an assault last year on Tripoli, according to monitoring groups. Formerly one of Col. Gadhafi’s most trusted lieutenants, Haftar, since 2014, has been waging a campaign against the GNA, which is recognized by the U.S. and most Western states as the legitimate Libyan government.
Last week, his forces seized the coastal town of Sirte, Gadhafi’s birthplace and the scene of the ousted autocrat’s brutal death.
Both Russia and Turkey have much invested in Libya — Russia in terms of reputation, clout and potential oil deals, and Turkey with even more wide-ranging commercial interests, say analysts. They have been backing opposing sides in Libya, posing a risk to their fledgling, albeit competitive, partnership in northern Syria, where Moscow has accepted, at least temporarily, a Turkish military intervention against the Kurds. Moscow has also been working with Ankara to try to forge a post-war future for Syria that works for both the Turks and Russians and balances out their interests and influence.
The Libya cease-fire followed a joint call by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — who backs al-Sarraj and has deployed troops to help the GNA — and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, who has been supporting Haftar. Hundreds of military contractors from Russia's Wagner Group have been fighting alongside Haftar. The Wagner Group is a Kremlin-tied private military contractor whose mercenaries have been identified fighting in Syria and other hotspots on the side of Moscow's allies.
Last week, President Putin said he was aware of the presence of Russian mercenaries in Libya, but denied they were they on his command. “
If there are Russian citizens there, then they are not representing the interests of the Russian state and they are not receiving money from the Russian state,” he said.
Pro-Haftar forces are supported also by the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. French officials have denied a charge by Sarraj that it has been tacitly supporting Haftar’s siege of the Libyan capital, Tripoli.
In December, Russian energy companies signed contracts with Libya’s National Oil Corporation for exploration. Turkey also is determined to establish a long-term partnership with Libya, formerly part of Turkey’s Ottoman empire. Turkish companies, which moved into Libya aggressively after the ouster of Gadhafi, are owed millions of dollars in unpaid business they conducted prior to 2014.
And in November, Erdogan signed signed memorandums with the GNA on security cooperation and maritime boundaries. The latter agreement, which Brussels says violates international law, secured in principle oil shale deposits in the Mediterranean Sea for Turkey. The memorandums between the GNA and Ankara prompted alarm in Moscow. Kremlin officials warned the deals — along with Erdogan’s announcement he would send troops to Libya to buttress the GNA — could derail peace negotiations scheduled for later this year in Berlin.
The increasing involvement of foreign forces and rival outside powers in Libya prompted German Chancellor Angela Merkel last week to warn that the country risked sliding into a Syria-like civil war.
The German leader has been supportive of the arbitration of Moscow and Ankara. And during a joint press conference Saturday with Putin in Moscow, she said, “We hope that the joint efforts by Russia and Turkey will lead to success, and we will soon send out invitations for a conference in Berlin.”
Analysts say the Europeans, the largest donors of humanitarian aid to Libya, have increasingly become bystanders as events unfold in the north African country — and are eager for someone, or anyone, to secure a resolution to a conflict that’s helped facilitate the movement of sub-Saharan migrants to Europe.
The European Union has been anything but united on which side to support in Libya, say Karim Mezran and Emily Burchfield, analysts with the U.S.-based research group the Atlantic Council. “
The main rift is between France, which claims to support the GNA, but has been linked to military and financial support to Haftar; and Italy, which aligns with the United Nations in backing Sarraj. The clash between Italy and France over Libya has contributed to the failure of international efforts to develop a political solution for the conflict, they say.
Without European leadership on Libya, Russia and Turkey have found it easier to insert themselves into the conflict,” they added.