The worst is yet to come in Libya
Two factions have been battling for power in Libya since 2015. Like all regional wars, this war started as a simple domestic conflict, then escalated as it became entangled in regional and international agendas.
The developments in the country during the past few days are important on a number of levels. In a move of a kind not seen since the fall of the Ottoman Empire 100 years ago, Turkey crossed the Mediterranean to fight in Libya under the flag of the Government of National Accord (GNA).
The GNA, which is effectively an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood, recently began to record military victories after a long string of defeats. Indeed, its forces managed to break the lines of the Libyan National Army (LNA), led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, which had besieged them in Tripoli for a year, and then defeated the LNA in the neighboring city of Tarhuna and advanced east toward Sirte.
As a result, the area under GNA control has doubled. Even with that, however, it controls less than 20 percent of the country, while the army controls more than 60 percent, including the oil fields.
Time will tell whether the Turkish troops — who will lead air and ground forces, supported by militias they brought from Syria — can make advances and take control of eastern cities and other areas.
The Cairo Declaration might be the final chance to save Libya before a new and more dangerous phase of the war begins
If the Turks seize Sirte and Benghazi, their victory would be dangerous and might change the rules of the game, not only in Libya but throughout the region. For the time being, however, although they have seized neighborhoods on the outskirts of Tripoli, Tarhuna and Bani Walid, the war is far from over.
Haftar and Aguila Saleh, the speaker of the Libyan House of Representatives, participated in the Cairo Declaration this week in the Egyptian capital. It was a conciliatory initiative that included a proposed cease-fire agreement. Some observers dismissed it as the actions of the defeated, but in fact it represents the best chance for a peace process that would bring all parties together. The initiative included proposals for a government that features a president and two vice presidents, a transitional phase for its implementation, a new constitution, and elections. However, the Turks and their allies quickly rejected it.
Is the Cairo Declaration really just a tactical maneuver imposed by recent military developments? The truth is that it is a necessary diplomatic step ahead of the next stage of the conflict — which is expected to be the worst, militarily — and represents the foundation for any future resolution. It has found acceptance with Western and other international institutions but, without any power to promote it and without the defeat of the Turks, it will not be feasible.
Does the Turkish invasion of Libya have the blessing of the West — or at least the absence of any objection? Perhaps, because Ankara could not have transported this amount of troops and military equipment so publicly without running the risk of being intercepted by European or, in particular, American warships.
Is this apparent Western apathy a response to what is considered the vanguard of Russian forces? Moscow, too, has for the first time established a presence in the region, which is an important development for the world, because of the oil and for the security of Southern Europe.
After months of denial, Ankara finally admitted its military involvement in North Africa a few days ago. “Our soldiers, along with their brothers in Libya, have recently been marching toward achieving the targeted plans,” said President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He added: “The Turkish military has control in Libya, whether in Tripoli or in Tarhuna and the surrounding airports, where they have cleared all these areas, and they are now marching toward the desired goals.”
What are these desired goals? These are words with vast meanings. The war in Libya is no longer only a conflict between Libyans.
Much like Iran before it, Turkey is going through an insane proliferation stage. It has deployed military forces throughout the region, including in northern Iraq, a military base in Qatar, Libya, Syria, and Somalia.
The Turkish intervention in Libya will achieve one thing, which is not to take control of the country and provide the GNA with full authority over it, but rather the escalation of a conflict that has plagued this war-torn country since the Arab Spring.
That is why the Cairo Declaration might be the final chance to save Libya before a new and more dangerous phase of the war begins.
- Abdulrahman Al-Rashed is a veteran columnist. He is the former general manager of Al-Arabiya news channel, and former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat. Twitter: @aalrashed