Russia and Turkey pushed Libya’s warring forces towards an elusive long-term truce on Monday in a sign of the two countries’ rising clout in the Middle East and North Africa and the waning influence of European powers.
Military strongman Khalifa Haftar and the country’s UN-backed prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj were summoned to Moscow on Monday to strike a deal for an unconditional and open-ended ceasefire agreement to end a nine-month battle for control of Tripoli, in a significant diplomatic coup for the Kremlin.
In seven hours of shuttling between the two delegations behind closed doors in Moscow, Russian and Turkish officials won support from Mr Sarraj for the deal, but Gen Haftar asked for more time to consider the terms.
The talks to end the fighting underscored the rising influence of Russian president Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyep Erdogan, who back opposing sides but have seized the initiative to curb a conflict which has killed more than 2,000 people.
Gen Haftar, backed by Russian mercenaries, controls vast swaths of the country’s east and south including its oilfields. In April, he launched an offensive to seize Tripoli but his forces have not managed to enter the city. Turkey has sent troops and equipment to support the besieged Government of National Accord (GNA), sparking fears of an escalation in what has become a proxy war in the north African country.
Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, said after the talks that “progress” had been made despite the lack of a deal. “There have been intensive consultations . . . They addressed a document that should help specify some points concerning ceasefire regulations,” he said.
Mevlut Cavusoglu, Turkey’s foreign minister, said: “We have worked with our Russian partners all day long for the factions in Libya to sign a ceasefire letter and we drafted a text.” He added: “We have taken into account suggestions, especially from the Haftar side, to reach a mutual understanding.”
The terms of the agreement include the designation of observers to ensure the ceasefire’s implementation.
Libya’s position as a gateway for refugees into the EU means European leaders have been desperate to find a way to end the conflict, which has already displaced tens of thousands of people. But EU leaders have been unable to make diplomatic headway and have become increasingly reliant on Mr Putin’s initiatives.
Angela Merkel, German chancellor, flew to Moscow on Saturday to discuss the peace efforts with Mr Putin, while French president Emmanuel Macron told the Russian leader in a Sunday telephone call that he supported a “credible, durable and verifiable” ceasefire.
While Russia and Turkey back opposing sides, their joint efforts to forge a truce underscores their growing roles as power brokers in the Middle East, amid a US diplomatic retreat from the region.
The two leaders came together last week to call for a ceasefire that entered into force this weekend, wresting control of the political process from traditional European powers such as former colonial ruler Italy, which has made unsuccessful efforts to stem the fighting.
The joint effort of Moscow and Ankara despite seemingly contradictory aims mimics their flexible alliance in the Syrian civil war where they also support opposing groups but have worked in partnership to increase their influence in that country.
Wolfram Lacher, Libya specialist at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said the prospects of the truce holding depended on whether Russia and Turkey are part of the ceasefire monitoring mechanism.
Any ceasefire is more likely to work to Gen Haftar’s advantage, Mr Lacher added, because it leaves him in control of most of the country and makes him a central political figure in any political settlement “The ceasefire will be a huge shock to GNA forces and there is a risk of their alliance crumbling in the competition for positions in a new settlement,” he said.
In part, the Libyan civil war is the latest iteration of the regional power struggle that has played out in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings, pitching Turkey and Qatar against Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The UAE has backed Gen Haftar, alongside Russia, providing drones that have been central to his military progress. Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati commentator, said the ceasefire would not have happened without a green light from the UAE.
“Haftar has made a tremendous advance, he’s only 6km from downtown Tripoli, he’s taken Sirte, he’s so close to Misurata so he’s going to have very strong bargaining power,” he said.
Galip Dalay, a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Doha Center, a think-tank, said the fates of Libya and Syria were now increasingly interlinked.
Russia and the ruling regime of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus appeared to escalate violence in the restive Syrian province of Idlib ahead of key Libyan negotiations. “This is not a very exciting prospect either for Syrians or Libyans,” he said.
“Just as Turkey and Russia did not solve the Syrian crisis . . . for sure they are not going to solve the Libyan crisis,” Mr Dalay said. “The idea is to freeze the crisis. But I’m worried that the freezing might turn into a legitimisation of the status quo. If so, Haftar will benefit more than Sarraj.”
Additional reporting by Andrew England in London