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Russia and Turkey failed to mediate peace in Libya. What happens now?

Will Western countries play a leading role in future talks?

- January 15, 2020

This week, Libyan cease-fire talks brokered by Russia and Turkey addressed the country’s latest bout of conflict, which has claimed more than 2,000 lives and displaced hundreds of thousands of Libyans. Negotiations took place between the Government of National Accord (GNA) and rival Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF).

Russia and Turkey’s involvement represented a change in international engagement with Libya’s conflict, as they asserted their leadership in the political process and attempted to sideline Western countries and the United Nations. It looked as if it was set to pay off. The prime minister of the GNA, Fayez Serraj, agreed to the deal, but commander of the LAAF, Khalifa Hifter, left Moscow without signing. Attention will now revert to the Western-led conference in Berlin scheduled for Sunday.

How did we get here?

On April 4, the LAAF launched an offensive on the Libyan capital, Tripoli. The move came days ahead of a planned U.N.-brokered National Conference. This conference was designed to bring rival Libyan actors together to agree on a political deal to address the governance crisis that emerged in 2014.

The LAAF offensive was launched against the GNA, the internationally recognized Libyan government, while U.N. Secretary General António Guterres was in Tripoli. The response from the international community was, nevertheless, muted. No Security Council cease-fire resolution emerged.

Initiated in September, German-led efforts to achieve a cease-fire and internationally agreed parameters for political negotiations through the “Berlin process” struggled to make progress. Hifter’s international backers continued to provide military support and diplomatic cover, in the belief that the LAAF would be able to make headway on Tripoli.

The LAAF was dominant in air power through the United Arab Emirates’ support, and Turkish support to the GNA was dwindling. An influx of mercenaries by the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group to fight in support of the LAAF further tilted the balance in the LAAF’s favor and led to rising confidence that the LAAF take control of Tripoli.

Backed into a corner, and with few other options, the GNA agreed to deals on expanded security and military cooperation, as well as maritime boundaries with Turkey on Nov. 27. The deals unlocked further Turkish military support, enabling the GNA to redress the imbalance on the ground as Turkish military support soon arrived, along with a reported 300 Syrian rebels.

Turkish intervention raised the prospect of direct confrontation between Turkish and Russian-linked forces. Even though Moscow officially distanced itself from the Wagner Group, the group remains closely connected to the Kremlin. Monday’s meeting in Moscow followed a bilateral meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Jan. 8, in which the two leaders agreed to support a cessation of hostilities that started on Sunday to prepare for a cease-fire.

The ability of Russia and Turkey to enact the cessation to hostilities over the weekend, albeit with complaints of violations made by both sides, indicates the extent of their leverage. Putin is believed to have called Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, a longtime backer of Hifter’s military campaign, to request his adherence to the cease-fire. It is not clear what was offered in return.

What does this mean for international dynamics over Libya?

With Hifter failing to sign this week’s deal brokered by Russia and Turkey, Western countries have another chance to cement their leadership of the Libyan negotiation process with the conference in Berlin, now slated to take place Sunday. It remains the only forum that includes all external backers of all sides. The conference is likely to make fresh attempts to agree to a sustained cease-fire wedded to U.N. leadership in the following stages.

It is unclear where Moscow will go from here and how it will react to Hifter’s snub. Russia and Turkey had appeared able to achieve the primary goal of the Berlin process themselves, namely, halting external military support to Libyan actors. Moscow and Ankara may still view the Berlin conference in the context of legitimizing their own track of negotiations.

Think Libya’s warring factions are only in it for the money? Think again.

What does this mean for intra-Libyan dynamics?

Hifter’s stalling and eventual refusal to sign political deals has become well known to negotiators from many nations. Yet, he would have struggled to frame Moscow and Ankara’s proposal in terms other than defeat, given his stated objective of capturing Tripoli. This would have been difficult to sell to his constituency.

Divisions and internal competition among Libyan groups run deep. A number of armed groups engaged in the fighting are openly hostile to cease-fire efforts.

International dynamics will, however, have a major impact on the power dynamics within these blocs. For example, on the GNA side, elements of the northwestern city of Misrata and members of the Muslim Brotherhood have strong relations with Turkey, while many other elements of the GNA alliance do not.

Russia, on the other hand, is believed to have been engaging figures from the former Libyan regime. It does not appear as invested in Hifter’s leadership as other backers have been. Hifter does, however, have more supporters in the international community that make him less reliant on Moscow than the GNA has become on Turkey. He can turn to Abu Dhabi, Cairo and Paris to help him secure his interests.

More broadly, with shifts in international negotiations, players in Libya’s conflict will fear being cast aside as deals are cut, and others will continue to fight. All will be looking for guarantees.

While next steps in the conflict and negotiations are unclear, the external powers that have intervened during the latest bout of conflict in Libya — the UAE, Turkey and Russia — will have a major role in determining its outcome. The failure of the negotiations in Moscow has given Western countries and the United Nations, perhaps, a final chance for Berlin to reassert leadership in the negotiations.

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Tim Eaton is a senior research fellow for Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa program focused on the political economy of the Libyan conflict.