“How quickly confidence-building measures or any tangible progress toward demilitarizing Sirte begins will be the real measure of its significance,” tweeted Tarek Megerisi, a Libya analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, referring to the cease-fire. Aguila and Serraj, he added, “are experts at having a process for the sake of a process, cooperating only to blunt all progress.”
But at a time when Libya is in the grips of the Middle East’s biggest proxy war and a battle over Sirte threatens to bring more chaos, the United Nations, Libya’s neighbors and Western powers embraced the declarations by the two rivals.
“The two initiatives have created hope for forging a peaceful political solution to the long-standing Libyan crisis, a solution that will affirm the desire of the Libyan people to live in peace and dignity,” said Stephanie Williams, acting head of the U.N.’s Mission in Libya.
The U.S. Embassy to Libya also welcomed the cease-fire agreement, calling it “an important step to all Libyans,” as did European powers such as Germany and Italy.
Perhaps most significantly, Egypt and Turkey welcomed the decision. Both nations have militarily supported rival sides, raising concerns in recent weeks that two U.S. allies could end up fighting each other in Libya. “This is an important step on the road to achieving a political settlement,” Egypt’s President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi said in a tweet Friday.
The cease-fire agreement comes after more than a year of chaos and insecurity that have transformed Libya into a global battleground. Hifter, who is aligned with the eastern government, sought to overthrow the western-based Tripoli government in April 2019, only to see his forces get bogged down in a military stalemate in the capital for months.
A dual U.S.-Libyan citizen and a former CIA asset, Hifter is backed by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Russia and a handful of other nations. The U.N.-installed Tripoli government is backed by Turkey and Qatar as well as Italy and other European nations. The United States ostensibly supports the Tripoli government but also has contacts with Hifter.
By the fall of last year, hundreds of Russian mercenaries were aiding Hifter, prompting the Tripoli government to seek Turkey’s help. Ankara, after signing lucrative oil and gas deals with the Tripoli government, dispatched weaponry, advisers and Syrian mercenaries.
In June, pro-government militias, with Turkish support, pushed Hifter’s forces out of Tripoli and other western towns. The militias then set their sights on Sirte and Jufra, home to a key Hifter military base. A possible battle for Sirte was expected before Friday’s cease-fire announcement, though there has not been any fighting in several weeks.
The support from Turkey, a primary foe of Egypt, prompted Sissi to threaten to send troops across Egypt’s border with Libya. On Friday, some analysts said Egypt and Turkey’s welcoming of the cease-fire decision was significant, but it remains to be seen whether Hifter’s other backers will agree to a demilitarization zone.
Wolfram Lacher, a Libya analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, tweeted that “rhetorical support from Egypt and Turkey is noteworthy — but the DMZ proposal runs counter to UAE & Russian interests.”
Already, there appears to be some disputes. While Sarraj called for the demilitarization of both Sirte and Jufra, his rival Saleh only mentioned Sirte in his statement. The UAE’s foreign ministry welcomed only Saleh’s proposal, according to the nation’s state-run news service.
Saleh’s proposal also calls for the “expulsion of mercenaries and dissolving the militias to achieve comprehensive national sovereignty” — a challenging task by any measure. Thousands of Russian, Syrian and Sudanese mercenaries remain in the country. And powerful militias on both sides are highly unlikely to disarm without significant incentives.
Both Sarraj and Saleh called for an end to an oil blockade and for oil revenue to flow through Libya’s National Oil Corp. But that hinges on whether Hifter and tribes loyal to him who have closed off oil terminals and pipelines will allow oil production to resume.
And while Sarraj called for elections to be held next year, Saleh insisted that Sirte be the temporary seat of a new government, a move unlikely to be accepted by the Tripoli government.
“No reason to get your hopes up,” Lacher tweeted.