LIBYA ANALYST: Hanging By A Thread

By Janet Ekstract

İSTANBUL (TURKISH JOURNAL) – Libya is the current hotbed of conflict risen like a phoenix with all eyes it its direction. Analysts and experts alike are bound to say of the Libyan conflict that it’s “complicated.” On that view, everyone can agree.

At the very least, it’s a catch-22 that threatens to unleash a barbarian thrashing that could lead to a civil war. Libyans have made it quite clear that they don’t want a copycat Gaddafi. Neither do they want an indecisive leader. What Libyans have expressed publicly is that they desire autonomy.

Libya’s oil reserves are known to be the largest proven oil reserves in Africa. Since renegade warlord Khalifa Haftar has control of the oil fields and most of eastern Libya – he’s the one holding the cards.

On January 18, Bloomberg News reported that Haftar blocked oil exports in central and east Libya forcing The National Oil Corporation (NOC) to declare a Force Majeure – a situation that allows Libya to legally suspend delivery contracts. On Saturday, the NOC reported that Haftar’s oil block  is costing $55M USD daily to the tune of an output cut by 800,000 barrels a day. Senior Research Fellow at The Italian Institute For International Studies (ISPI) Arturo Vavelli explained: “The port’s closure is an attempt by Haftar to control the negotiations in Berlin.” He added: “It could be counterproductive as it could make the Europeans who are the largest consumers of Libyan oil, very upset.”  By shutting down oil exports, Haftar is also  blocking a key revenue source to the legitimate Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli who rely on financing from oil sales.

Making matters more complicated is the fact that Haftar is beholden to Egypt, the UAE, Russia and Jordan for his weaponry and advanced warfare technology. In effect, some experts say Haftar is acting as a proxy for Egypt and the UAE which makes any prospects of a ceasefire deal that much more improbable. 

Even more worrying is the fact that Egypt resents Turkey’s defense of the UN-backed GNA led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj in Tripoli. On Tuesday evening in Cairo, Egyptian officials raided the offices of the Turkish news group Anadolu Agency and detained four employees in an unknown location.  Since then two were released but Egypt has made no move to explain its action. Egypt’s behavior was widely condemned and the international community has called for transparency in this matter.

This act appears to be politically motivated, according to some Middle East experts – given the volatile situation in Libya and Egypt’s diminishing relations with Turkey. Logic in such a scenario would suggest that unless the countries supporting Haftar and providing him with military support decide to leave Libya, peace will not be a probable outcome. Yet, the fact is that Egypt who is directing it’s wrath toward Turkey, is one of the primary instigators in the Libyan conflict.

That leads into the role Russia is taking in this drawn out debacle since its common knowledge that Russia’s Wagner Group is providing military reconnaissance to Haftar. Meanwhile, Russia claims it’s not taking sides and proposed a ceasefire a week ago, in a joint statement with Turkey.

If that isn’t enough, Greece has now jumped into the fray with Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis threatening to block any Libyan peace deal at the Berlin conference over his anger about Turkey’s maritime agreement with Libya that he views as a snub to Greece. Granted, Mitsotakis has a valid point since Greece should also be entitled to an equal share in natural resource exploration in the eastern Mediterranean.

In the meantime, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Greece is trying to derail the Libya peace process at the Berlin conference.  Greece’s Mitsotakis wants Turkey’s maritime agreement with Libya annulled and threatened to veto any ceasefire agreement to come out of the Berlin conference. Mitsotakis is also miffed that Greece was not invited to the Berlin conference.

In addition, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said a ceasefire is necessary in order for political dialogue to move forward. Di Maio commented that everyone is aware of who signed the initial ceasefire agreement and who did not.

One thing is crystal clear, both al-Sarraj and Haftar need some compelling reason to push them to the negotiation table and keep them engaged. Ahead of the Berlin conference, Libya’s Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj called on the international community to pressure Haftar on the oil situation in Libya. He also urged the international community to take decisive action rather than sitting on the sidelines. The Libyan prime minister pointed out the reason he turned to Turkey was because the rest of the world remained silent in the face of his government’s plight.

An expert on Libya and North Africa at Ankara’s Center For Middle East Studies (ORSAM), Nebahat Tanriverdi Yasar commented on Haftar: “In addition,  he sought to be financially independent of Tripoli by repeatedly selling oil he captured from the the oil facilities in eastern regions. However, his attempt ended up in failure.” Yasar’s view is that Haftar’s current block of oil exports is a ploy he expects to use during the Berlin conference.

Meanwhile,  Germany’s  Chancellor Angela Merkel who is hosting the Berlin conference on January 19 has called for a UN arms embargo in Libya and a permanent ceasefire. Merkel told the press that she welcomed Haftar’s willingness to return to the negotiating table. Though Merkel urged caution with regard to any outcomes from the Berlin conference, stressing that it’s a first step that will take time to achieve a political solution.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will be attending and plans to urge both parties for a solid ceasefire deal. Top leaders and officials from 12 nations and at least four major NGOs will also be at the conference.

In the end,  whatever happens at the Berlin conference all depends on Haftar and whether he is ultimately willing to lay down the gauntlet. The U.S. and the EU have some serious soul searching to do because as Libya’s prime minister so rightly pointed out – he was left in the lurch. It will be up to whether the U.S. prefers to deal with a despot going forward – reigniting a Gaddafiesque scenario or take the bull by the horns and reign Haftar in.

There is no question that Libya is hanging by a thread. The U.S., Turkey and the EU have the power to change Libya’s trajectory if they so choose. What’s really happening upon closer examination is that Haftar is holding the world hostage by blocking oil exports that Europeans depend on. Libya’s legitimate government backed by the UN must not be left alone to fend for itself against hostile outside interference from Haftar’s backers.

Turkey has made it quite clear that it will stand by Libya’s UN-backed government and is willing to do whatever it takes to support a democracy in Libya. It remains to be seen if the players in the West will finally put a halt to Haftar’s dangerous ploys and blatant manipulation. As Turkish President Erdogan headed to Berlin he called on the international community to stand against what he deemed the “merchants of blood and chaos.”

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