The Turkish military intervention has prevented General Khalifa Haftar and Russia’s Wagner group from seizing control of Tripoli and therefore paved the way for a political settlement in Libya, the United States’ envoy to Libya has said, calling on the countries who are unhappy with the Turkish presence to question their support to Haftar and Russian mercenaries.
U.S. Ambassador to Libya Richard Norland held talks with the senior Turkish officials in Ankara last week and evaluated the latest situation and the role Turkey has been playing in the war-torn country in an exclusive interview with Hürriyet Daily News.
“From a historical, analytical, and chronological point of view, the game changer was back in November last year when it became clear that the Russian presence was escalating dramatically through the Wagner mercenary group. And supported by Wagner, Haftar was really on the verge of seizing Tripoli and the Turkish military intervention prevented that and has now pushed Haftar forces and supporters back to the central part of the country, Sirte and Jufra,” Norland explained.
The Turkish intervention created an opportunity for the political negotiations between the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli and Tobruk administration as a result of a stalemate around Sirte and a de facto truce, the American diplomat stressed.
“The atmosphere in Tripoli was transformed when the bombardment, the artillery, and the shelling stopped; the siege was lifted and Libyans in the West really never want to go through that again. To the extent that the Turkish presence can help ensure that there is not going to be another attack on Tripoli, that’s a positive development,” he suggested.
Turkey and Libya signed two agreements on Nov. 27, 2019, one on a maritime demarcation and the other on security cooperation for the protection of Tripoli against the Haftar offensive which began in April 2019 and later backed by a number of countries including the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, France, and Russia via Wagner mercenaries.
“It was the introduction of the Wagner forces and large-scale military hardware last fall that completely destabilized the situation in Libya and led to the arrangement by which Turkish forces intervened. So those who are unhappy about the presence of the Turkish forces in Libya should ask themselves why they supported and engaged with Wagner in making that deployment last fall by the Russians,” Norland said.
Norland declined to name these countries, but said, “They know who they are. But in general, those who supported the Haftar offensive need to recognize that what’s led to Tripoli almost falling to Russian-backed forces and that’s what led to the Turkish intervention.”
The Libyans increasingly want to restore their sovereignty and they don’t want foreign troops on their soil permanently, he stated, adding this will take some more time.
Turkey plays extremely important role
Norland has said his visit to Ankara follows a phone conversation between U.S. President Donald Trump and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan with the purpose of exploring ways to defuse the tension in Libya and to lead to a political settlement.
“It’s been interesting to see how important role Turkey has to play on the issue of Libya. I would not have necessarily thought of that based on what I knew earlier, but it’s clear that in the year I’ve been doing this [job] Turkey is playing an extremely important role,” he said on Turkey’s role.
His talks with the Turkish colleagues have focused on exploring some of the possibilities for tangible, specific steps towards the de-escalation, Norland underlined, specifying two primary issues to this end as the situation around Sirte and the resumption of oil production.
As the fighting has almost stopped and Haftar’s offensive ended, there emerged new political voices, particularly in the East, informed the envoy, suggesting, “I think the first thing that is happening is the Libyans themselves are starting to say, ‘We need to find solutions here’. It’s Libyans who are pursuing the idea of a demilitarized zone around Sirte. We are encouraging that development and helping through the U.N. to explore these ideas further.”
US in favor of small-scale confidence-building measures
There are differing views on how to proceed with the political process in Libya as some countries suggest there needs to be a political solution before an agreement on a de-militarization zone around Sirte and oil resumption.
“I think this is one of the fundamental debates in the whole situation. It’s a kind of a chicken and egg situation; which comes first: The broad settlement which leads to steps on the ground or can we not find some specific smaller-scale steps, confidence building measures, the de-militarized zone around Sirte, resume oil production… Things that can build confidence and make it easier to come to a political settlement on the big issues,” the American envoy elaborated.
The U.S. is supporting making some progress on some specific things like Sirte and oil resumption, he added, but also underlining that Washington is trying to play a facilitator role in Libya by not picking sides.
“I think the fundamental tenet of the American policy is to try to help Libyans regain control of their sovereignty and their own fate,” Norland stated.
Haftar’s role in future Libya
On a question about a potential role of Haftar in the future of Libya as a military leader who is blamed for the attacks against the civilians, Norland said, “Well, it’s certainly true for those who experienced the siege that the idea of having Haftar on the other side of the negotiation table is not something they would welcome, to say the least.”
Norland drew the attention on the fact that the political focus has shifted onto other actors in the east but that Haftar is in a position to control certain armed groups with the big question of dismantling the militias in the course of political settlement.
“It’s possible and one hopes that he plays a constructive role in helping to shape and build a new Libyan security construct. That’s something centrally that Libyans are going to have to decide. This is not something for us to decide,” he said.
‘Partition of Libya a nightmare’
Norland also commented on the concerns expressed by experts that Libya can be divided permanently as a result of the ongoing conflict with multiple foreign actors.
“There is a concern that this kind of a military stalemate around the central part of the country could lead to a de facto partition of Libya and possibly a formal partition of Libya. That’s of course a nightmare for the Libyans and certainly not something we support. That’s another reason why it’s important to begin to take steps to defuse the situation and keep it from being permanently locked in his kind of de facto partition,” he urged.
That’s why it’s important that the warring sides agree on the resumption of oil production under the proposal voiced by the National Oil Company of Libya, Norland said. “I think that’s why it’s especially important that oil production be resumed. Because if you have normal operations in the Oil Crescent, it removes the intensive for military forces to try to move in.”
Hurriyet Daily News