Libya’s internationally recognized government said on Friday it had taken the remaining stronghold of Khalifa Haftar in the country’s west, effectively ending with Turkish military support an offensive by the Russian-backed strongman to capture the capital.
The fall of Tarhouna came after a month of advances that forced the commander’s self-styled Libyan National Army to fall back from around Tripoli, along with hundreds of Russian mercenaries. After meetings in Cairo on Thursday, Haftar’s spokesman announced his forces would redeploy and rejoin United Nations-sponsored cease-fire talks with the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord.
The events cap a dramatic reversal for Haftar, who launched the war in April 2019 claiming to be best placed to unite a fractured Libya and defeat the Islamists he said propped up the government of Premier Fayaz al-Sarraj. He won backing from Russia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, and appeared poised to take the capital until a full-throttled Turkish military intervention turned the tide.
Haftar still controls Libya’s south and east, as well as its oil fields, which remain shut. But he’s been substantially weakened. An emboldened Turkey, along with Russia, will now likely take leading roles steering events in the North African country.
Libya has been fractured and often convulsed by conflict since the 2011 NATO-backed ouster and killing of Moammar Qaddafi. That’s left the nation that sits atop Africa’s largest crude reserves in an economic shambles.
With his defeat in the west, the 76-year-old Haftar’s days as a military commander may be numbered. The field marshal is holding meetings in Egypt, but Cairo has also supported a political initiative launched by the speaker of the eastern-based parliament, Aguileh Salah, who’s won interest from Russia, France and other major powers.
Salah resisted a move by Haftar last month to assume full political control of the east, underscoring widening cracks in their coalition as the offensive on Tripoli flagged and then turned into a rout.
“Haftar will face increasing pressure from his allies especially from the Egyptians and Russians to take a step back and give way to new leadership,” said Mohamed Eljarh, a Libyan analyst. “However, this is not a done deal. Haftar’s allies in and outside Libya understand the difficulty of finding a replacement for Haftar who is able to keep the LNA together.”
Turkey is now the dominant power in Libya’s west while Russia has major influence in the east, where it has moved in a fleet of jet fighters, said Wolfram Lacher, a Libya expert with the German SWP research center.
“It remains to be seen to what extent Russia will now enforce red lines to the GNA, whether Russia will now prevent GNA advances to Sirte and Jufra, where Russia has a presence,” he said.
Turkey has continued to supply weapons and fighters from Syria, shoring up its presence in western Libya. More than 1,000 Russian mercenaries who’d been fighting in Tripoli have pulled back to Haftar’s base in the central region of Jufra and to the south, two Western diplomats said. They are expected to help resist any further GNA advances.
The U.S. ambassador to Libya, while warning of a possible new escalation after Russia moved in at least 14 jet fighters to Libya’s east, on Thursday joined those saying events could open a window for peace talks.
Regional powers that back Haftar worry about the clout of non-Arab nations in Libya. Both Egypt and the UAE opposed an attempt in January by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to pressure their clients into signing a cease-fire.
A senior Arab official said “the Syrianization of Libya,” where its future is determined by a small number of foreign actors, cannot be allowed to stand.
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