The “Cairo Declaration” and Egypt’s Response to Shifts in Libya: Likely Scenarios

EPC | 15 Jun 2020

The initiative to solve the Libyan crisis, which was announced by Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo on 6 June 2020 in the presence of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA), and Chancellor Aguila Saleh, Speaker of the Libyan House of Representatives, comes in a context that is characterized by events of increased momentum, whether in terms of the field developments of the conflict or the international interaction with the developments, which is considered the highest in momentum since the Berlin Conference that was held in January 2020. The Cairo Declaration does not put forward a new proposition compared to the propositions in circulation or the ones internationally supported with regard to the peaceful settlement of the conflict. It can be said that the importance of the Declaration lies in what it reflects in terms of the Egyptian interaction with the current new balances in the Libyan arena.

The present paper seeks to review those new balances from Cairo’s perspective, explore the features of the Egyptian response to those shifts based on what has been revealed by the Cairo Declaration, review the determinants and considerations governing the positions of international actors, and touch upon the most prominent scenarios of the peaceful settlement or military escalation based on this Declaration.

The pre-Declaration balances

The balances between the external parties involved in the Libyan conflict have experienced a number of shifts since the start of the Tripoli war in April 2019. The most prominent features of those shifts, up to the moment of launching the Cairo Declaration, can be indicated as follows:

1- The first months of the war experienced a relative superiority by Haftar in light of the support he got from the White House which described him as a partner in the war against terrorism. However, this US support gradually receded due to three factors: first, the Libyan conflict is not among the priorities of the US administration in view of the predominance of the isolationist trend of the Trump administration; second, the start of the gradually increasing Russian role in supporting Haftar’s forces; and third, Haftar’s failure to demonstrate his capability to decide the war in his favour.

2- In parallel with the White House’s vanishing support of Haftar and the increasing support by US institutions of the Government of National Accord (GNA), reference could be made to a corresponding disappearance of French support which is now limited to diplomatic support without the assumption of a military role (except for the flight of French Rafale jets over Misurata in late April 2020 and over Sirte in the second week of June 2020) after the loss of the city of Gharyan in June 2019 and the emergence of the signs of a crisis, that were soon contained, with regard to the arming by France of Haftar with US-made Javelin missiles.

3- Resort by the GNA to Turkey for support has led to a gradual shift in military power balances, the beginning of which has been Turkey’s success in neutralizing Haftar’s air force and assuming air superiority over the theatre of operations. With the disruption of the negotiation process launched by the Berlin path, especially in light of the preoccupation by European countries with the coronavirus crisis, the pivotal shift started in the development of military operations with the launch by the Tripoli government of Operation Peace Storm in the last week of March 2020.

4- Operation Peace Storm has led to a series of military drawbacks for Haftar’s forces. Within two months of the launch of the Operation, Haftar had lost all the areas that were under his military control in western Libya, including those that he gained since the beginning of the war and those that were previously under his control. The only exception is his continued control over the city of Sirte which he captured from the GNA forces in January 2020, although Turkey has announced that it intends to drive Haftar’s forces out of the city of Sirte and the al-Jufra Airbase in central Libya.

5- Thus, as far as Cairo is concerned, there is a Turkish Russian presence in support of the two belligerent camps with a clear absence of the European sides in the military dynamics of the conflict. While the Turkish threats get increasingly closer to the Libyan eastern regions, the Russian presence includes possible margins of cooperation to narrow the gap of conflict between Egyptian and Russian interests, despite the negative consequences of cooperation with Russia in general, especially in light of the US desire to curb the growing Russian influence in Libya.

6- Therefore, according to Cairo, it is important to keep the Turkish threat away from Libya’s eastern region that is close to the Egyptian border and strive to reduce the level of conflict between the Egyptian and Russian interests through integration with the tools with which Russia operates in Libya. This Egyptian response is based on realpolitik and tactical adaptation to short-term shifts over the remaining months of the current year pending the outcomes of the US moves after the presidential elections are over.

Features of the Egyptian response

In light of the above-mentioned shifts and the map of international balances in Libya during the current stage, the Cairo Declaration constitutes an interim response to those developments at the level of both the peaceful and military paths. Based on the content of the Initiative and the context of its announcement, it can be asserted that the Egyptian approach is characterized by three main features:

1- Temporarily giving up the military decision path in favour of openness to consensual political solutions. The adoption of this approach comes against the accelerating military drawback for Haftar’s forces in the western region in view of the continued Turkish support. This makes the chances of military decision in Haftar’s favour at their lowest level since the start of Operation Flood of Dignity.

2- Underlining that the Barqa region remains, for national security considerations, a red line that may not be messed with by Turkey.

3- Raising the level of coordination between Cairo and Moscow in an attempt to reduce the potential conflict in the considerations of each side, benefit from Russia’s tools in west Libya, particularly the joint employment of the card of the advocates of the former regime (with whom both Egypt and Russia maintain good relations), and thus strive to pull the Russian role away from the considerations of common interests with Turkey in Libya.

Within this context, there are multiple considerations that drive Cairo towards restoring the balance in the relationship between the political and military leaderships in east Libya in favour of a greater role for Chancellor Aguila Saleh, thus breaking the pattern of Haftar’s sole leadership of this camp in the manner that had been prevailing during the past years. Particularly, the following two specific points are noteworthy:

a- The need to enhance the role of Aguila Saleh in view of his international recognition and therefore legal legitimacy that will be necessary to pass any formula of direct Egyptian intervention or military support as required.

b- The worsening relations between Haftar and a major portion of his supportive tribes in the eastern region in parallel with the tension in the relationship between Haftar and Aguila Saleh who is considered the closest representative of those tribes. Therefore, preserving the cohesion of the domestic front requires the assumption by Saleh of a greater role at the leadership level.

The new Egyptian approach coincides with an international approach that aims to resume once again the talks path. The UN mission has announced the preparation for the resumption of the ceasefire talks along the military path of the 5+5 Commission. The Cairo Declaration also constitutes a re-introduction of the initiative that had been adopted by Chancellor Aguila Saleh, that was supported by Moscow in May 2020. Lastly, the US embassy in Libya has explicitly called for making room for the “political voices” in eastern Libya.

Therefore, it can be asserted that the Cairo Declarations partially seeks to match the current international dynamism to resume the political path and to frame this dynamism through an initiative that is hardly different from the Berlin outputs over which an international consensus has been reached and which has acquired international legitimacy through its adoption by the Security Council. In addition, the Declaration represents the re-introduction of the mainly Moscow-backed Chancellor Saleh’s initiative.

However, this identification with the international approach is not enough considering that every one of  the more influential sides on the current conflictual scene has its own considerations, which in turn entails challenges regarding the chances of the success of the Declaration as an introduction to achieving a peaceful settlement of the conflict over the upcoming stage.

Considerations of the parties in the conflict

It is important in this context to review the determinants and considerations governing the positions of the main parties in the conflict:

1- The United States

Curbing the growing Russian military role in Libya is considered the main determinant governing the US position at the current stage. This is manifested in the critical statement issued by the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) in the last week of May 2020 regarding the transfer of Russian fighter jets to Libya and the role played by the Wagner Group during the combat operations. On the other hand, the US seeks to avoid a direct military confrontation between two of its regional allies, namely Egypt and Turkey.

Achieving those two goals requires striving to de-escalate the conflict, which amounts to favouring the political tools to the military tools. This renders the US one of the parties that tend to support the Egyptian move and commit Turkey to halting military operations towards eastern Libya. The problematic aspect here with regard to the US position relates to the extent the US will permit Turkey to proceed before a serious US intervention takes place to impose a ceasefire, and specifically with regard to control over the city of Sirte and the al-Jufra Airbase in central Libya.

On the other hand, Turkey’s insistence on controlling the city and the airbase serves the US approach that opposes the Russian presence in al-Jufra that is considered the main base for the resumption of any attack on the country’s west or south, in addition to keeping Russia away from the areas of concentration of its closest allies who are advocates of the former regime. On the other hand, however, Ankara’s insistence on controlling the two targets will be countered by a greater role by the Wagner fighters and Russian planes which may lead to the likely failure by the Turkish-backed GNA forces, but also to an increased Russian influence in east Libya.

Indeed, the days following the issuance of the Cairo Declaration witnessed the participation by the Wagner operatives in combat operations around Sirte as well as participation by the MiG-29 fighters that were transferred by Russia to the al-Jufra Airbase in the last week of May 2020.

2- Russia

It can be asserted that the Russian approach in the current stage aims at materializing two main targets: first, establishing the Russian presence in Libya through driving Haftar’s forces towards an increased demand for a bigger Russian role in view of the military pressures exercised by Turkey and its allies. This would contribute to achieving the second goal of re-structuring the Libyan army through the gradual integration of advocates of the former regime into the military establishment under the General Command.

The Russian position intersects with the Egyptian position in the short run in terms of seeking to enhance the role of the political leadership of the Barqa region represented by Aguila Saleh to benefit from the international backing for the Tobruk-based House of Representatives in legitimizing any new steps. In this context, it is worth mentioning that influencing Saleh’s decision will be one of the areas of Egyptian-Russian competition in the upcoming stage, which is something that Cairo seeks to avoid by enhancing the level of coordination with Moscow.

On the other hand, the integration of the military commands loyal to the former regime into the Libyan National Army may constitute one of the areas of coordination between Cairo and Moscow over the upcoming period. In this respect, Moscow may benefit from the increased military pressures by Turkey on Haftar’s forces in case of Turkey’s insistence on shifting the confrontations beyond Sirte (which depends on the existence of a US green light) to establish Russia’s role in protecting the region. This would drive Haftar and his supporters towards more compliance with the Russian vision with regard to managing the conflict and re-structuring the armed forces.

3- Turkey

As expected, the Turkish position, and consequently the GNA position, were opposed to the Egyptian initiative, insisting on the persistence of the military operations aimed at taking control of the city of Sirte.

Turkey seeks to achieve a twofold target by continuing to advance eastward: first, taking control of the oil crescent card, or at least depriving Haftar and his supporters of this card by shifting the military confrontations to the east of the country; and second, exercising security and political pressure on the Egyptian regime through raising more security troubles in eastern Libya. Thus, the spectrum of the Turkish options leans towards continuing to advance eastwards. However, in case of the existence of serious US pressures to prevent this escalatory Turkish path, the minimum level of military targets would be at least to continue the attempt to capture the city of Sirte.

Field developments with regard to the city of Sirte so far indicate that the Turkish-backed GNA forces have failed to make any progress and have sustained heavy losses in men and military equipment. This has forced Ankara, and consequently the GNA, to accept to take part in the military talks to reach a ceasefire, according to what was announced by the UN mission on 10 June 2020.

Lastly, the Turkish position on the Cairo Declaration is inseparable from the considerations of military escalation between Turkey and Egypt in the Mediterranean basin regarding the exploration for gas in light of the practical steps already taken by Turkish companies in this direction in conjunction with the use of Turkish warships to strike Haftar’s forces off the Libyan coast. However, the Turkish considerations in this respect are prevented by the new development related to the announcement on 9 June 2020 of a new demarcation of the maritime borders between Greece and Italy.

4- The European Union

Despite the damage sustained by the European Union (EU) as a result of the growing Turkish and Russian roles over the past period, the EU position continues to lack the requirements of assuming an active role in the current stage of the conflict, not just in light of the EU preoccupation with the coronavirus crisis, but also due to the continued Italian-French division that limits the effectiveness of the EU. Nevertheless, the common EU interest continues to lie in striving to utilize the current dynamism to buy time, get involved in the settlement paths, and delay the next wave of escalation till the end of the more urgent crises resulting from the coronavirus, and pending also the completion of the US elections and the emergence of the position of the forthcoming US administration on the Libyan conflict.

Within this framework, despite their variation, the EU positions were supportive of the Cairo Declaration with variations in the support language. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed her deep enthusiasm for the resumption of the settlement according to what has been decided in the Berlin Conference. On its part, France announced its explicit support of the Declaration. Paris was also straightforward in adopting positions opposed to the Turkish and Russian interventions. In late May 2020, French Foreign Minister Yves Le Drian expressed his country’s fears of the “Syrianization” of Libya. In addition, communication took place at the presidential level between US and French presidents on Libya. Lastly, French Rafale jets flew over Sirte during the Turkish attempts to control the city. In contrast, Rome simply released a traditional statement on the support of political solutions without adopting any positions opposed to the Turkish intervention in Libya. The more important Italian position in standing up to the Turkish role and interests came through the convention to determine the exclusive economic zones between the two countries. Hours after this development, militias from the city of Zuwara marched (probably based on Turkish instructions) towards the Mellitah Oil Complex in an attempt to stop the pumping of gas to Italy.

Potential scenarios

Future scenarios depend on the manner of interaction between the determinants and considerations of the different parties. Accordingly, the following three potential scenarios could be put forward for the forthcoming stage:

First scenario: partial success and resumption of fighting. According to this scenario, a limited success is achieved in implementing the Cairo Declaration, specifically in the aspect related to the ceasefire talks as well as the resumption of the financial and economic track of the talks. Within this scenario, the military situation will be frozen for a period that may last till the end of the US presidential elections at the latest when fighting would be resumed on a larger scale and more fiercely than before.

During the freeze period of military operations, the most significant danger of instability would remain associated with the dynamics of the Egyptian-Turkish conflict, whether in terms of Turkey’s attempt to raise security chaos close to the Egyptian border for political considerations, or in light of the dispute over Mediterranean gas.

In case the sides of both camps abide by the separation lines and the military deployment map between the country’s east and west, the areas more vulnerable to troubles and intermittent escalation during the period of freeze of military operations would be the south regions, whether in the perimeter of the al-Sharara and al-Fil oilfields, or in Sabha, or further south. Terrorist operations are also likely to get active against the pro-Haftar areas in the south and east.

Second scenario: success of the Initiative in achieving its objectives. The scenario is based on the mobilization of sufficient international support to commit all sides to the peaceful settlement of the conflict according to the three paths of the talks under UN auspices.

The scenario is contingent mainly on the availability of sufficient willingness by the new US administration and the acceptance by the EU sides to reach a consensual formula for the settlement of the conflict, driven by the state of economic exhaustion caused by the coronavirus crisis, the need by those countries to rejuvenate their economies with reconstruction contracts in Libya, and the desire to block the hegemony by Moscow and Ankara over the conflict in case of the persistence of the existing state of militarization in managing the conflict.

The chances of the materialization of this scenario remain largely weak for considerations related to the Libyan conflict itself or considerations of its interaction with other files based on the perspective of the more influential regional and international powers in Libya.

Third scenario: failure of the Initiative and the return of military confrontations, which is the more likely scenario. According to this scenario, the Libyan file will not experience any progress through the resumption of talks. Turkey will temporarily respond to international pressures but will soon resume its endeavours to take control of the oil crescent and shift the confrontation arenas to the eastern region. Among the additional factors that may increase the likelihood of this scenario is the desire to resume fighting to prevent the explosion of the internal discrepancies between the pro-GNA local parties, whether in terms of the relations between cities or between the leaders of the armed militias.

In case of the materialization of this scenario, the military confrontations are not likely to continue within the borders of Barqa for a long period as they will once again shift to the western region.

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