With the Turkish deal with the Tripoli-based government, a new military escalation appears likely while a political solution recedes farther.
The Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) has received air defense weapons, personnel, and drones from Turkey.
Russian mercenaries are fighting on the side of Libyan warlord Haftar, who has just received a large shipment of weapons from the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Meanwhile, there are almost no efficient movements on the political front, at neither regional nor global levels. Given the circumstances, Libya may soon be consumed in another military escalation, and policy options will therefore need to be drawn up accordingly.
A push for a dialogue on the Libyan issue was on the horizon just recently.
Regional efforts have so far included an initiative started in March 2020 by the Congolese government, in tandem with the African Union, that is aiming to provide some form of political solution to the ongoing Libyan conflict.
Algeria has also expressed its desire to host internal negotiations among different Libyan governments and groups.
These initiatives come against the backdrop of almost a dozen or more other initiatives that have tried similar approaches but failed, including the most recent efforts:
Moscow’s direct dialogue in the beginning of this year (both GNA Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj and Khalifa Haftar were invited by Russian President Vladimir Putin but failed to come to a ceasefire), a major conference in Berlin (which invited both leaders, though they did not attend the larger conference), and the recent negotiations in Geneva, shortly followed Moscow dialogue.
Added to this matrix are the previous attempts led by many earlier dialogues on governmental levels; for example, the UN led process in Skhirat, Morocco, which lasted a few years until 2019, efforts in Tunisia, as well as multiple non-governmental endeavors led by mostly Europe-based dialogue institutions and think tanks in the past few years.
All of these efforts have proved ineffective in bringing any political solution to the conflict.
This stalemate is due to a number of factors: chief among them being multiple foreign interventions, proxy warfare in Libya, complete lack of strategic foresight by the foreign powers involved as well as the Libyan rival governments; and internal strife on ethnic, religious, ideological, and tribal lines.
All of which have caused over a dozen internal and external initiatives to fail and continue to fail. At a more human level, egos play a big part.
Governments are run by people, and both governments in Libya seem to be prone to significant egos. This dictates, or rather overshadows, their quest for recognition and legitimacy.
Leaving multiple factors aside, if we were to generalize and ask the simple question of why Libya is still at war, the relatively easy answer (despite the fact that there never are easy answers) is that peace does not suit anyone so far, including internal and external actors.
The threshold of having enough conflict, has not yet been crossed and each side believes that they can win or at least delay an outright victory for the other. Typically, this is how existing conflicts protract.
From human to economic levels, things are even more problematic on internal and external fronts.
Internally, the fight for Tripoli is not just about legitimacy, ego, and power; it has much more to do with money. Libya has one of the largest offshore installations of oil and gas.
All of these installations are currently guarded by private security companies and contractors.
However, they belong to the government in Tripoli. So, in essence, whoever controls Tripoli controls the offshore reserves.
Moreover, one of the most strategic regional pipelines also runs from Tripoli to Sicily in Italy. This is why Haftar is so intent on taking Tripoli and Al-Sarraj is so unyielding on power-sharing and continuing his hold on Tripoli.
Externally, Turkey’s deals with Libya have considerably more economic justifications than ideological ones—almost $1.2 trillion USD, to be precise.
The agreement signed in November 2019 between Erdogan and Al-Sarraj is of significant strategic importance to Turkey and Libya as it guarantees Turkish control of a major chunk of known oil and gas reserves in the East Mediterranean.
It means the former ensures continued economic benefits, which will be a crucial factor for Erdogan’s hold on power, and the latter, which cannot survive the ongoing onslaught by Haftar forces (together with a few other western and regional countries) on Tripoli.
If Tripoli falls, the Turkish strategy is literally dead in the water (in the Eastern Mediterranean) and it will cause a major shock to all those opposing forces of Haftar and his allies.
To protect its interests, Al-Sarraj’s government as well as Turkey will have to ensure that Tripoli and Misrata do not fall.
In military terms, it will mean going on an offensive to create a bigger buffer around Tripoli. Whereas on the other hand, if Tripoli does not fall to Haftar and his western and regional allies, the whole idea pushed by Haftar of a unified figure purging disunity and strife in Libya, falls with it.
In short, both sides feel that they have no other choice but to escalate.
In retrospect, the mediation efforts that have failed numerous times, will likely fail again.
The political solution pushed by regional countries such as Algeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo, or those pushed by European and global powers, such as Germany and Russia, can do very little when the wind is blowing towards military escalation.
Under such circumstances, only a two-tier approach may work:
Tier one – “De-escalate”: If at all possible, efforts should be focused on de-escalation rather than starting yet another internal dialogue to find a political solution. An important thing to note is that “finding a political solution” is not synonymous with “de-escalation.”
Where the former is long-term, the latter is more immediate and urgent and largely more specific in terms of taking certain Confidence Building Measures (CBMs).
Tier two – Manage Escalation: If escalation cannot be avoided then focus and attention should be directed towards managing it. This is typically different from conflict management approaches as it is much more focused on a particular set of events.
In managing escalation, efforts could be directed towards minimizing civilian casualties, disallowing or refraining from anti-human weaponry, better preparing for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and so on.
While global attention seems to focus solely on the obvious – i.e. a “political solution” – let us remember the words of Roman emperor and philosopher, Marcus Aurelius: “The secret of all victory lies in the organization of the non-obvious.”