CAIRO – Libya’s warring factions entered into a fragile cease fire Sunday, their first in nine months of conflict, but within hours both sides were accusing each other of violations, underscoring the challenges in restoring peace to the North African oil-producing country.
Though few expect the agreement to last, the cease fire has been the most positive development in a grinding war that has involved more than a dozen nations in violation of a United Nations arms embargo, caused thousands of casualties and displaced more than 300,000.
The cease fire signals the new influence Russia and Turkey are wielding in Libya, as American and European clout wanes. In backing rival forces, both nations see an opportunity to revive billions of dollars in oil and construction contracts derailed by the war, while deepening their economic and political presence in North Africa, the Mediterranean and the Middle East.
For months, the Trump administration, the European Union and the United Nations have called for the clashes to stop. But the UN-installed Government of National Accord (GNA) and the forces of eastern warlord Khalifa Hifter, who launched an offensive on the Libyan capital Tripoli in April, repeatedly rejected those calls.
Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan proposed a cease fire to begin on Sunday. Both sides agreed.
“Even with intermittent clashes ongoing since last night in Tripoli and the prospects for a sustained cease fire dim, the widespread observance of the cease fire until now is a stunning demonstration of newfound Russian and Turkish influence in Libya,” tweeted Wolfram Lacher, a Libya expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
On Sunday, the GNA said in a statement that it had recorded gunfire in some front line neighborhoods of Tripoli while a Libya National Army (LNA) commander also claimed a few violations by the GNA. Turkey’s defense ministry said both sides were trying to abide the cease fire and that the situation was calm save for “one or two separate incidents,” according to Reuters.
In a war that has seen little positive turns, the news of the cease fire was welcomed by the United Nations on Sunday, as well as by Western nations. In a joint statement, the United States, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy and the European Union urged “the parties to seize this fragile opportunity to address the key political, economic, and security issues underlying the conflict.”
The truce arrives at a pivotal moment. Last week, Hifter’s LNA seized control of Sirte, a strategic coastal city 230 miles east of Tripoli. The city, dominated by powerful tribes, is the birthplace of late dictator Moammar Gaddafi, who was ousted and killed by rebels during the 2011 Arab Spring revolts and NATO intervention.
Fighting in the capital had intensified following the arrival of Russian mercenaries working for Hifter and the increasing use of drones and warplanes. Turkey’s parliament last week authorized a troop deployment to aid the Tripoli government, after already having sent drones, armored vehicles and military advisers to bolster the GNA.
Ankara decided to deepen its involvement in Libya after signing a controversial maritime deal with the Tripoli government over oil and gas drilling rights in the Mediterranean Sea.
Qatar, Italy and other nations have also been backing the GNA, while Hifter has received considerable military and diplomatic help from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and France. If it holds, the cease fire could pave the way for a planned summit in Berlin to curb the growing internationalization of the war and resume a peace process that was upended by Hifter’s April offensive.
With their growing diplomatic and military role in Libya, coupled with the failure of American and European engagement, Russia and Turkey are poised to play outsize roles in influencing the future of Libya, analysts said.
“Libya’s civil war could have been resolved by Americans &/or Europeans months ago w/minimal effort,” tweeted Emadeddin Badi, a Libya analyst with the Middle East Institute. “The newfound clout of Russia & Turkey is owed to their inaction. Now, Abudhabi, Ankara, & Moscow will be the actors that will determine the relevance of the Berlin meeting.”
Any attempts at a lasting truce will be a challenge. Both sides are made up of disparate militias – nominally aligned but with different agendas and outsized ambitions. Extraordinary amounts of hate speech and disinformation on social media have deepened divisions between communities and tribes, making reconciliation difficult.
“All foreign states and parties operating illegally must fully exit Libya, and Haftar’s campaign of terror must be ended in its entirety,” said Mohammed Ali Abdallah, a senior adviser for the GNA, referring to conditions it expects from the cease fire.
As of Sunday, there was no sign of Hifter’s forces withdrawing from Tripoli.