Experts uncertain of strength of Libyan cease-fire

Demonstrators hold up a poster of their leader Gen. Khalifa Hifter at a rally in Benghazi against Turkish intervention in Libya. (Reuters)
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Updated 10 January 2020

Experts uncertain of strength of Libyan cease-fire

  • Withdrawal of Turkish troops and Syrian mercenaries from the country in doubt

ANKARA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin have called for a cease-fire to end the civil conflict in Libya, following their talks in Istanbul on Wednesday.

The cease-fire is expected to come into effect at midnight on Sunday.

However, there is uncertainty about whether the cease-fire will lead to the withdrawal of Turkish troops and Syrian mercenaries from Libya.

After deploying its allied Syrian fighters, Turkey recently sent military advisers and special operations forces to the North African state to support the Government of National Accord (GNA) against the recent gains of military strongman Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA).

But Ankara accused Moscow of having thousands of Wagner Group mercenaries in Libya on Haftar’s behalf. Russia denies the allegation.

Ariz Kader, an independent researcher on MENA conflicts, said that “the cease-fire will allow Turkey to save face through Russian diplomacy as the GNA seems to be militarily collapsing and sending trainers wasn’t going to turn the tide.”

According to Kader, the GNA is losing regardless of the support it is given.

“The advantage Haftar has is an available air force and thus air superiority. Because of Egyptian and UAE support, Turkish drones have not been able to reverse that advantage,” he told Arab News.

“Haftar has been using his last few months to shore up alliances and use his control of oil fields as well as good relations with major tribes in Libya to win over groups from the GNA to the LNA.”

The LNA announced on Monday that its forces had captured the coastal city of Sirte.

“With taking Sirte, Haftar has the advantage of both creating two front lines as to advance on Tripoli as well as a much larger advantage: Diverting the powerful Misratan brigades to defend Misrata,” Kader said.

According to Kader, Misratan brigades are far more territorial and loyal to their city than they are to the GNA. If Misrata is seriously put under threat, then those brigades will likely disperse, leaving the GNA in a rush to protect Tripoli from Haftar’s advance.

“The logic behind any cease-fire would be an Astana-like template. It is a measure for Turkey to save face and receive some diplomatic gain, however minute. But I severely doubt the momentum built up by regional forces like Egypt is going to allow such an easy scenario for Turkey at this point unless it offers larger concessions,” he said.

Dario Cristiani, a fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the US, doubts that Erdogan will recall troops in Libya, adding that the cease-fire will be difficult to implement.

“What Erdogan and Putin said yesterday in Istanbul was more of a political message, especially as the EU countries were hosting Sarraj in Brussels and Haftar in Rome: ‘It’s us who matter in Libya, not others,’” Cristiani told Arab News.

According to Cristiani, Turkey realized it was becoming increasingly isolated within the emerging competition for the eastern Mediterranean. Ankara, he said, saw that Egypt was warming to Haftar because of the likelihood of him supporting Cairo’s view on maritime border delimitation.

“Erdogan is well aware that his position at home depends on his capacity of revitalizing the economy. A strong economy was the actual reason that better explains his political longevity. Turkey has significant business interests in Libya, in several sectors, and a takeover from the forces of Eastern Libya might put these interests at risk,” he added.

Hagia Sophia prayers ‘sparked Turkey’s new COVID-19 cases’

Updated 5 min 32 sec ago

Hagia Sophia prayers ‘sparked Turkey’s new COVID-19 cases’

  • Government figures disputed by health professionals who warn that several provinces bearing brunt of pandemic

ISTANBUL: Prayers at Hagia Sophia sparked new coronavirus cases in Turkey as preventive measures were not strictly followed during the congregational worship, according to health professionals.
Around 350,000 people swarmed the Hagia Sophia on July 24 and the area around it after the Byzantine-era landmark became a mosque again after functioning for decades as a museum.
Some of the 500 guests inside the mosque, including parliamentarians and journalists, have been diagnosed with the disease. There was a lack of social distancing and mask wearing.
The number of new daily COVID-19 cases began rising and exceeding 1,000 just after the Eid Al-Adha holidays. The government’s decision to withhold figures about the number of patients in intensive care and those who are intubated has increased concern about the country’s coronavirus reality.
Health professionals contacted by Arab News said the pandemic had worsened in the last month, and that the opening of Hagia Sophia for prayers without appropriate and tough precautions in place was a reason for the surge.
“Following the opening of Hagia Sophia, we also heard of many cases among politicians,” a doctor who preferred to remain anonymous told Arab News. “But it is because they go through a regular screening every three days in order to make sure they are healthy.”
The doctor, who works in a hospital in the central Anatolian province of Sivas, added: “If ordinary citizens also get a similar test, the real case rates will be higher. If things go on like this, there will be nobody in the hospital who is not infected … There might even be a shortage of medical personnel who either resign from the job or become sick.”
A “long list” of Muslim and Christian world leaders, including Pope Francis, were invited to the inaugural prayer at the Hagia Sofia, according to Dr. Ergin Kocyildirim, who is a pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon and an assistant professor in the Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Medicine. “It seems like none of them attended the prayer, but coronavirus did,” he told Arab News.
Kocyildirim said that a visit from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the Hagia Sophia the following week made it look like social distancing rules were hard to uphold inside the landmark due to the large crowds who wanted to see the president or take pictures.
“I believe those images made many health care professionals feel upset, as a sudden step like this might ruin the months-long efforts to contain the virus. While trust takes time to be established, it can be lost quickly,” he added.
Health professionals warned that several Anatolian provinces were bearing the brunt of the pandemic with a sharp rise in local cases since the beginning of June, when anti-contagion measures were relaxed and intercity travel as well as crowded wedding ceremonies were permitted.
Government reports of daily cases have been disputed by some health professionals and the Turkish Medical Association (TTB), claiming that the actual daily figure is more than 3,000. The Health Ministry has also been criticized for ignoring the filiation method as a form of contact tracing among close relatives in order to artificially decrease the number of cases and open the way for tourism and the normalization of economic activity.
“When thousands of health professionals are fighting against the disease, and when dozens of citizens lose their lives because of the pandemic, everyone and especially public authorities should have been much more responsible,” Murat Emir, a parliamentarian from the main opposition Republican People’s Party and a doctor by profession, told Arab News.
“Unfortunately, during the opening of the Hagia Sophia Mosque, thousands of citizens gathered without respecting social distancing measures and wearing face masks. Various municipalities from Anatolia organized bus tours to this opening, and nobody knows whether they got an official code from the Health Ministry for domestic travel or sat with social distancing during transit.”
Emir warned that such gatherings where social distancing measures were not applied were enough to fuel the spread of COVID-19.
To date 5,858 people have died from the virus in Turkey, according to official figures, and the country is not yet on the list of safe travel countries regularly updated by the EU.