Forces loyal to the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) and its rival, the Libyan National Army (LNA), backed by Egypt, the UAE, and Russia, have been posturing for a bloody flight around Sirte for eight weeks without a real confrontation. Experts believe both sides and their regional backers are practicing the brinkmanship negotiating strategy, trying to achieve an advantageous outcome by pushing dangerous events to the brink of active conflict. This maneuver could succeed by forcing the opponent to back down and make concessions but can also lead to a regional battle over the Libyan territories.
“Libyan rival forces are preparing to fight for control of the strategic coastal city of Sirte, the gateway to a key oil-producing region. The risk of conflict between major regional militaries backing Libyan factions, including Turkey and Egypt, remains high,” Muftah Al Tayyar, former Libyan Ambassador to Mexico, told Inside Arabia.
“The US and the UN mission in Libya are trying to push both warring sides and their backers to support a negotiated political solution in Libya.”
“That is why the US and the UN mission in Libya are trying to push both warring sides and their backers to support a negotiated political solution in Libya,” Al Tayyar added.
President Trump’s National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien called for a demilitarized solution for Sirte, and strongly opposed foreign military involvement in Libya including the use of mercenaries and ongoing efforts of foreign powers to establish an enduring military presence in Libya—a reference to both Turkey and Russia.
The White House said President Trump has spoken with several world leaders about de-escalation in Libya.
UN Push for a Buffer Zone
Stephanie Williams, acting UN envoy to Libya, warned that the influx of mercenaries and weapons to Libya run the risk of miscalculations around Sirte and called for a separation between the two Libyan warring sides.
Wolfgang Pusztai, a former Austrian military attaché in Libya, said creating a buffer zone between the two sides could be instrumental in paving the way to negotiations provided that both the GNA and the LNA reach a conclusion that they cannot militarily defeat the other side.
Pusztai envisions a crucial role for the European Union’s (EU) battle groups in establishing such buffer zone.
“The terrain west of Sirte is characterized as an open desert with just two major roads, so it can be an easy military task for the EU’s battle groups to establish and enforce a buffer zone.”
“The terrain west of Sirte is characterized as an open desert with just two major roads, so it can be an easy military task for the EU’s battle groups to establish and enforce a buffer zone, creating a demilitarized solution in Sirte,” he told Inside Arabia.
Pusztai added that since July a German-led paratrooper and an Italian-Spanish battle group of 4,000 troops have been on standby mode.
“Both the GNA and the LNA must give their consent to the deployment of the EU forces and agree to withdraw most of their forces from nearby this buffer zone with a no-fly zone imposed around Sirte,” Pusztai explained.
The US’ Active Role
US diplomacy has started to push both sides and their backers to de-escalate. According to the US Embassy in Libya, “US Ambassador Richard Norland spoke by phone with Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj to receive an update on efforts to finalize a Libyan solution that would consolidate a lasting ceasefire, promote transparency in economic institutions and advance the political process under UN auspices.”
On the other hand, US Ambassador Jonathan Cohen in Cairo has already discussed a de-escalation plan with Aguila Saleh, the speaker of the Libyan parliament aligned with the LNA.
Pusztai commended the US’ sudden active role in Libya.
“The US can have a key role in convincing the regional backers of both sides – Turkey, Egypt, and the UAE, being key allies – to work for a ceasefire.”
“The US can have a key role in convincing the regional backers of both sides – Turkey, Egypt, and the UAE, being key allies – to work for a ceasefire and support a negotiated political solution,” Pusztai said. “Once that happens, it would be very difficult for the GNA and the LNA to reject such a plan.”
But so far, both sides are placing maximalist preconditions to accept a ceasefire.The GNA is insisting that the LNA withdraw from Sirte, and the LNA conditioned a ceasefire on pulling Turkey and its mercenaries from Libya altogether even as the LNA itself is composed of various foreign mercenaries contracted by Russia, the UAE, Syria, and others
“This is normal, especially in the beginning; each side places conditions too tough to be accepted by the other side but once they are at the negotiating table, each side would realize the need to compromise and that it has to give something in order to gain something,” Ambassador Al Tayyar said.
Al Tayyar argued that the real pressure would come from the Libyan people, who have suffered a lot from this protracted conflict, especially during the failed LNA campaign to take over Tripoli.
The UN mission in Libya agreed with such assessment in a statement: “The tragedy that has beset Libya for more than a year has proven, beyond any doubt, that any war among Libyans is a losing war. There can be no real victor, only heavy losses for the nation and its people, who have already suffered due to conflict for more than nine years.”
“The tragedy that has beset Libya for more than a year has proven, beyond any doubt, that any war among Libyans is a losing war.”
If the two warring parties agree to resume the military and economic talks sponsored by the UN in Geneva, that could pave the way for a negotiated political solution.
Ambassador Al Tayyar said while Libyans at large would not support any attempt to partition the country, there is a wide acceptance of some sort of a federal political system.
“Similar to the one started under the late King Idris, where the three historical provinces of Libya were given fair share of the Libyan oil revenues,” Al Tayyar said.
He added that optimistically speaking, chances for a negotiated political solution versus a regional conflict in Libya are still 50-50.