This past Friday, the warring parties in Libya’s long-running civil war signed a United Nations-brokered ceasefire. While details of the accord were not released at the signing, the UN’s envoy to Libya indicated to the press that key elements of the accord involved the warring factions moving back from front-line positions to bases and for foreign forces to withdraw from the country within three months. The warring factions in Libya have agreed to reductions in hostilities and ceasefires before, and none of them have held. This one appears to have greater support, and the conditions in the broader region may foster a lessening of foreign, direct military involvement. The UN envoy was buoyant but cautious, noting that there was a long way to go to begin to implement the details of the accord. A ceasefire that holds, however, could see the resumption of Libyan oil production and exports. Such a move could be critical to finance moves toward longer-term peace and reconciliation, including the resettlement of large numbers of internally displaced persons.
The “permanent” ceasefire was agreed to in Geneva at a meeting of the “5+5 Joint Military Commission.” This group, negotiating under UN auspices, consists of five senior officers from the two major military groups fighting in Libya – the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) and Khalifa Haftar’s eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA). The situation on the ground may have led to a willingness of both sides to reach this accord. Haftar’s forces began an offensive earlier in 2020, but they were countered by a large number of militias coming to the support of the GNA when Haftar’s forces advanced on Tripoli. Pushed back by this grouping, Haftar’s base of the city of Sirte was under siege. This reversal of fortune, and the possible bloody battle over a city, may have contributed to both sides being willing to agree at the negotiating table – at least for now.
In addition to the situation on the ground, the outside governments supporting the two warring factions may have begun to see the limits of their influence, or at least the limits on the blood and treasure that they were willing to spend, particularly when considering other priorities. Turkey, which has been backing the Tripoli government, may not have been willing to provide the extra support necessary to take Sirte. Ankara is in the midst of providing military support to Azerbaijan in its war with Armenia. Turkey has been utilizing Syrian fighters in both its support for Libya and for Azerbaijan. There is also reporting that fighting may again pick up in northern Syria near the Turkish border. All of this may have served to constrain Ankara’s ambitions. Haftar has been supported by outside entities such as Egypt, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates. The UAE has already pulled out of its close alliance with Saudi Arabia in the war in Yemen, and it may see that its limited support here is not helping its interests. Once Haftar’s forces were pushed back from Tripoli, Egypt may also have considered that it was backing a losing horse, at least for the moment.
None of this is to say that the ceasefire will hold. They have not in the past. Civil wars last an average of ten-plus years. Libya has been in the throes of its civil war since 2014, and the ongoing interest of outside powers does not help – even if the Libyan people wanted to make peace. At the moment, this is a positive and promising step, but implementation of promises will be key to see if it is lasting.