The UN-backed Libyan government will agree to a ceasefire to end the conflict in the north African state only if renegade general Khalifa Haftar withdraws his forces from key central and western regions, Turkey’s foreign minister has said.
Mevlut Cavusoglu told the Financial Times there was a “determination” within the Tripoli-based administration, which is militarily backed by Turkey, to resume its offensive against Gen Haftar’s forces if they do not retreat from Sirte, a strategic port city, and Jufra, home to a large air base in the centre of the country.
He hinted that Ankara may support any offensive, describing the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord’s “preconditions” as “legitimate and reasonable”.
His comments underline the threat that the conflict in Libya, which has morphed into a proxy war, could enter a new phase even as diplomats warn that an escalation would risk triggering a direct confrontation between foreign powers backing rival Libyan factions.
Turkey openly intervened in Libya at the request of the GNA and after securing an agreement that could enable Ankara to explore for oil and gas off Libya’s coast. Ankara’s deployment of air defence systems, warships, weapons, military advisers, trainers and troops, including Syrian militias, to support the GNA dramatically shifted the balance of the 15-month conflict this year.
The war erupted after Gen Haftar, who has controlled eastern Libya since 2015, launched an offensive on Tripoli in April 2019 to topple the UN-backed administration.
The GNA was under siege in the capital for months as Gen Haftar enjoyed the backing of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Russia and, at least politically, France. The UAE, Egypt and France tout Gen Haftar as an ally in the fight against extremism, while Russia’s involvement is seen as more opportunistic. But after Turkey stepped up its intervention, Gen Haftar’s forces were driven from Tripoli and surrounding areas, emboldening the GNA and strengthening Turkey’s role in the country.
Diplomats hope to use the shifting dynamics to revive a UN-led political process to end the fighting. But while the Libyan factions’ foreign backers insist they are committed to a ceasefire, diplomats worry that all sides are mobilising.
António Guterres, UN secretary-general, this week said the UN was “very concerned about the alarming military build-up around” Sirte.
The risks were underlined when fighter jets — suspected to be foreign — launched an attack against the al-Watiya air base at the weekend where Turkish military personnel and air-defence systems are deployed, analysts say.
Mr Cavusoglu said there was an investigation to determine who was responsible, but vowed that whoever it was “will pay”. Turkey had “trainers and technical staff” at the base, which Turkish-backed forces captured from Gen Haftar in May, but none were harmed, he added.
The situation is exacerbated by regional rivalries, with the UAE and Egypt viewing Turkey as a malign force meddling in Arab affairs. Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi last month threatened to send troops to Libya if Turkish-backed forces captured Sirte, a gateway to important oil terminals in the east and considered a “red line” for both sides.
Separately, the US military in May accused Russia of deploying at least 14 MiG-29 and several Su024 fighters jets, via Syria, to Libya as Moscow bolstered its support for Gen Haftar.
Mr Cavusoglu said Russia presented a ceasefire offer during talks in Istanbul last month with a “concrete date and time”. But when Ankara consulted with the GNA, the Libyan officials stated their preconditions on Sirte and Jufra and for Gen Haftar’s forces to return to “lines” they held in 2015, the foreign minister said.
“Now it depends on the other side, they should accept these preconditions for a lasting ceasefire,” Mr Cavusoglu said.
Wolfram Lacher, senior associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said too many competing interests were in Libya to secure a durable ceasefire.
“We have a military build up from both sides, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there will be an escalation, because an escalation in Sirte and Jufra would mean a direct confrontation between Turkey and Russia, and I don’t think either wants that,” he said. “But even if Russia and Turkey agree on a demarcation line, the question is whether Haftar will agree, because he has greater room for manoeuvre with the backing of Egypt and the UAE.”
A western diplomat said a stalemate could take hold, but would not be sustainable. “All the ingredients are there for it to go bad,” the diplomat said.
Asked if he was concerned that Turkey risked being sucked into a wider conflict, Mr Cavusoglu said: “We are not for any kind of escalation in the region, or war, but their [Gen Haftar’s backers] engagement is with a putschist, Haftar.”
Can Kasapoglu, director of security and defence studies at Edam, an Istanbul-based think-tank, said Turkey’s ultimate strategy was to deliver a clear defeat for Gen Haftar that would give Ankara a strong hand in negotiations over Libya’s future.
“This is clearly an offensive mission and, from a military-geostrategic standpoint, it differs from what has been achieved up until now,” he said. “Overall, it is risky but can be accomplished.”
Additional reporting by Laura Pitel in Ankara