Establishing a “Demilitarized Zone” in the Libyan City of Sirte: Conflicting Positions and Likely Scenarios

Shereen Mohammed | 06 Sep 2020

During the past few weeks, some international and regional powers, such as the US, Germany and Turkey, as well as the United Nations (UN), have called for the establishment of a demilitarised zone in Sirte, as an introduction to de-escalation and the settlement of the conflict in Libya. This gained importance after the announcement by Fayez al-Sarraj, head of the Government of National Accord (GNA) and Aguila Saleh, Speaker of the House of Representatives (Parliament), of a ceasefire between the two parties to the conflict. However, there is a divergence in the positions of the local, regional and international parties towards this call, in addition to the existence of a set of issues that impede reaching an agreement between the parties to the conflict regarding the establishment of a demilitarised zone in Sirte. This opens the door to multiple scenarios regarding the dynamic geography of the Libyan conflict.

This paper deals with the concept of the demilitarised zone in the political and legal literature, and analyses the conflicting positions regarding the establishment of a demilitarised zone in Sirte by some international parties, and the possible scenarios for the establishment of such a zone in the short term.

The concept of a "demilitarised zone"

There is a trend in the literature indicating that a demilitarised or weapon-free zone (DMZ) is "the area in which the presence of any combatants or military weapons, equipment or facilities is prohibited, and from which no hostile acts or activities that support or are associated with military operations may proceed". This situation often applies to the areas located along the international borders between the disputing states to ward off the spectre of war between them. This applies to the situation in the demilitarised zone between the two Koreas at the end of World War II, or between Israel and Syria after the 1973 war, and others.[1]

Another trend refers to the DMZ as "a specific region over which the state exercising sovereignty is bound, in accordance with an international agreement, and within a certain period of time, to refrain from stationing military or security forces or establishing military installations or fortifications in that region".  The establishment of such a zone may be agreed in periods of peace or armed conflict, both through actions on the ground or written agreements.[2] This definition largely applies to the situation in the Sirte region in Libya, except that the GNA considers it a "safe" area that does not require disarmament and removal of fighters.

Conflicting positions

There have been many positions regarding the issue of establishing a DMZ in Sirte, depending on the vision of all the local, regional and international parties involved in the conflict, in addition to the pending issues raised by the establishment of such a zone, as illustrated by the following groups of positions:

First group (local): as stated by Major General Ahmed al-Mismari, spokesman for the Libyan National Army (LNA),[3] the LNA argues that it does not have to withdraw from Sirte because it is a safe zone and not a conflict zone. Furthermore, that development, if it does occur, would weaken the LNA’s field position, especially after its faltering campaign to regain Tripoli, in addition to giving the Turkish-backed militias of the GNA an opportunity to reposition and fill the vacuum created by the withdrawal of the LNA from the areas under its control. On the other hand, the GNA supports the establishment of such a zone on a conditional basis, namely the repositioning and redeployment of the LNA forces led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. Fayez al-Sarraj said that "any ceasefire must ensure that the aggressor does not remain in any location that allows the threat of a new aggression".

Second group (regional): the positions of some regional powers that support the LNA, most notably Egypt, are predominantly fearful of the possibility of establishing and enhancing the Turkish presence, not only in western Libyan, but also in central Libya, especially that Turkey provided the GNA and its loyal militias with a group of fighting mercenaries whom it brought over from Syria, and established its own bases in western Libya, pursuant to the Memorandum of Understanding on Security and Military Cooperation that was signed in November 2019. The visit by the Director of Egyptian Military Intelligence Major General Khaled Megawer and his meeting with Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar may be related to the ceasefire and the proposal to convert Sirte into a DMZ, especially in light of Ankara's expansion in western Libya.[4]

In addition, as expressed by the statements of the Turkish presidential spokesman İbrahim Kalın to Bloomberg on 25 August 2020, Turkey set the condition that the cities of Sirte and Jufra be handed over to the GNA to accept turning them into a DMZ. He said that "in principle, his country does not oppose the idea of demilitarising the cities of Sirte and Jufra". At the same time, he added that "the Tripoli government is strong on the ground and at the negotiating table", affirming that "the oil resources in Libya should be utilised for the benefit of the people" and that their proceeds should be in the custody of the GNA-controlled Libyan Central Bank (LCB) in Tripoli. [5]

Third group (international): the US supports the idea of ​​establishing a DMZ in Sirte, as a gateway for resolving or at least deescalating the Libyan conflict, after it intensified and experienced an increase in regional intervention through importing mercenaries and supporting the establishment of permanent military bases to ensure control of resources. The Trump administration has considered that those developments "pose grave threats to regional stability and global commerce . . . [and] undermine the collective security interests of the United States, our allies and partners in the Mediterranean region".[6]

The Trump administration has proposed a solution that includes evacuating the LNA forces from their current positions in the cities of Sirte and Jufra, and separating the oil issue from the political and military conflict in the country. National Security advisor Robert O'Brien called on all the relevant parties to enable the National Oil Corporation loyal to the GNA to "resume its vital work, with full transparency, and to implement a demilitarized solution for Sirte and al-Jufra … [and] respect the UN arms embargo…".

Germany supports the US proposal to deescalate the Libyan conflict. This was evident during the talks of German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas with Fayez al-Sarraj on 13 August 2020. Sarraj said that "Germany seeks to advance the settlement process in Libya within the framework of the Berlin outcomes", stressing that "the beginning would be with a permanent ceasefire", and suggesting that the Sirte and Jufra areas be demilitarised. He also stressed that "everyone should make concessions to solve Libya’s crisis".[7]

In her briefing on 2 September 2020 before the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the Chargé d'Affaires of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) Stephanie Williams called for the establishment of a demilitarised area in Libya, starting with Sirte, supported by a comprehensive truce, and the establishment of a joint international-Libyan mechanism to monitor the ceasefire, and work to fully lift the oil blockade, instead of the partial lifting announced by the LNA forces. She stressed that the support of the Council members "not only in words but most importantly in action will help determine whether the country descends into new depths of fragmentation and chaos, or progresses towards a more prosperous future".[8]

Williams revealed that "an uneasy standoff continues around the city of Sirte, imperilling the lives of the city’s 130,000 vulnerable inhabitants as well as the country’s vital oil infrastructure which comprises its economic lifeline", adding that "while the frontlines have remained relatively quiet since June", the forces of both parties to the conflict "continue to benefit from the . . . assistance of foreign sponsors to stockpile advanced weaponry and equipment . . . [where] 70 resupply flights landed in eastern airports in support of the [Libyan Arab Armed Forces, LNA] LAAF while 30 resupply flights were dispatched  to airports in western Libya to support the GNA."

Williams also mentioned that "around nine cargo vessels docked in western ports in support of the GNA, while a reported three cargo vessels arrived in support of the LAAF", which constitutes a violation of the UN arms embargo, not to mention the commitments undertaken by the Berlin conference participants. UNSMIL’s concern is compounded by the large-scale deployment of foreign mercenaries which were brought over from Syria as a hotbed of fighting, as well as a number of African countries, which increases the intensity of the conflict.[9]

Fourth group (pending cases), which contribute to obstructing the conversion of Sirte into a DMZ on the ground, including the internal security arrangements in both Sirte and Jufra (the size of the police forces on both sides), as well as the military deployment map between the 5+5 Joint Military Committee which resulted from the Berlin Conference in January 2020 and comprises five military representatives from each side, and the specific points to which the forces must withdraw.

Another disagreement centres around the mechanism for the exit of foreign fighters and mercenaries from Libya, the arrangements for securing oil installations (which include wells, pipelines, and export terminals that are under the control of the LNA forces), the mechanism for sharing oil revenues and the mechanism for depositing them, especially in light of the dispute over depositing them in the LCB or the Libyan Foreign Bank (LFB) in accordance with the agreement between Aguila Saleh and Fayez al-Sarraj, how to address potential violations of the DMZ, and the extent of Russia's involvement in it with the US and the EU countries.[10]

Possible scenarios

There are two possible scenarios in this context:

First scenario: the establishment of a DMZ in Sirte: it is based on a "window of hope" whose features were defined by the current state of calm between the two parties to the conflict, when the head of the Presidential Council Fayez al-Sarraj and the Speaker of Parliament Aguila Saleh issued two separate statements on 21 August 2020 in which they called for a ceasefire, lifting the oil embargo, and returning to the political process under the auspices of the UN.[11] According to this scenario, this may encourage consideration of the calls for the conversion of Sirte into a DMZ, through a set of measures and actions to build confidence between the local parties.

The chances of the materialisation of this scenario are reduced by Turkey’s military presence in Libya and its support for mercenaries, even as some regional powers concerned with the Libyan conflict, such as Egypt, demand resolute response to all transfers of terrorists and fighters to Libya and reject foreign interventions.

Second scenario: the establishment of a DMZ in Sirte falters. This is based on a legacy of mistrust between the two local warring parties and the regional forces supporting each of them. Indeed, one of the two parties may seek to breach the ceasefire decision, only to be responded to by the other party. Undoubtedly, escalation further deepens and prolongs the conflict, which complicates the chances of a future settlement.[12]

Moreover, there are differences within the individual Libyan camp. While the LNA refuses to establish a DMZ in Sirte, Aguila Saleh calls for joint security management of the two cities by forces that are to be formed from all Libyan regions. This is different from the vision of the GNA, which supports a zone that is free of weapons and armed forces. Advocates of this scenario also argue that the establishment of a DMZ in Sirte may represent a prelude to the partition of Libya.[13]

Conclusion

The second scenario is the most likely for the possibility of establishing a DMZ in Sirte, given the size of the complexity that characterizes the Libyan conflict in terms of the diversity of its parties and the multiplicity of its issues. Besides, the feasibility of establishing a DMZ in Sirte is also questioned because it serves the interests of Ankara, the GNA and its supportive militias at the expense of the LNA that seized it in January 2020, thus converting Sirte into "Libya’s Idlib", especially after the development of facilities in the coastal city of Misurata and the al-Watiya airbase near the Tunisian border, in addition to the interest of international and regional powers, based on the experience of previous years, in the oil resource and not in the country's stability.[14] What is more, there are doubts about the extent to which the parties to the conflict will abide by the ceasefire for a relatively long period of time.

Endnotes

[1] For more details on the definition of the DMZ with practical examples, see the following two links: http://www.dpmteabanhnet.org.kh/KoreanDMZ.pdf

https://www.britannica.com/place/demilitarized-zone-Korean-peninsula

[2] For more information on the second definition of the DMZ, see the link: https://casebook.icrc.org/glossary/demilitarized-zones

[3] “The Libyan army refuses to convert Sirte into a demilitarized zone”, Russian Sputnik Agency, 21 August 2020. Available at: https://arabic.sputniknews.com/radio_sputnik_world/202008211046324337

[4] “Haftar receives the director of Egyptian military intelligence in Libya”, skynewsarabia, 19 August 2020. Available at: https://www.skynewsarabia.com/middle-east/1370161 

[5] Saeed Abdulrazek, “Turkey requires handing over Sirte and Jufra for their acceptance as ‘demilitarised’”, Ashark Al-Awsat, 26 August 2020.

[6] Khalid Mahmoud, “US Administration Proposes Demilitarized Zone in Libya’s Sirte, Jufra”, Ashark Al-Awsat, 6 August 2020.

[7] “German proposal from Tripoli: Sirte and Jufra demilitarised”, alarabiya.net, 13 August 2020. Available at: https://www.alarabiya.net/ar/north-africa/2020/08/17

[8] Ali Barada, “UN Calls for Establishment of Demilitarized Zone in Libya”, Ashark Al-Awsat, 6 August 2020.

[9] Briefing Security Council on Libya, Mission Head Calls upon Parties to Establish Demilitarized zone, Reach Political Settlement through Dialogue”, UN, 22 September 2020. https://www.un.org/press/en/2020/sc14293.doc.htm      

[10] Anas El Gomati and Ben Fishman, “Beyond the ceasefire in Libya”, Washington Institute, 25 August 2020. https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/beyond-the-ceasefire-in-libya

[11] “Libya: the GNA declares a ceasefire”, skynewsarabia, 21 August 2020. Available at: https://www.skynewsarabia.com/middle-east/1370693 

[12] “Libya: The ceasefire agreement between doubts about its implementation and the hopes placed on it”, France24, 23 August 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2Fe2Ksh

[13] Fatma Lotfi, “Establishing demilitarized zone in Sirte to divide Libya, support Turkish goals: Libyan MB”, Daily News, 17 August 2020. https://dailynewsegypt.com/2020/08/17/establishing-demilitarised-zone-in-sirte-to-divide-libya-support-turkish-goals-libyan-mp/

[14] “On tanks and banks: Cessation of a dangerous escalation in Libya”, International Crisis Group (ICG), 20 May 2019. Available at: https://www.crisisgroup.org/ar/middle-east-north-africa/north-africa/libya/201-tanks-and-banks-stopping-dangerous-escalation-libya 

 

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