An unprecedented drive involving Europe, Russia and Turkey has been launched to broker a Libyan ceasefire, and end the risk of the country collapsing into total all-out war.
However, it is unclear to which extent the joint Russian-Turkish call for a ceasefire by 12 January should be seen as complementary or in competition to an intensified Italian-led European push to end the fighting.
Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin – who have each backed opposing sides in the Libyan conflict – together called for a ceasefire by midnight on 12 January.
At the same time, the Italian prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, hosted the two warring leaders – Fayez al-Sarraj, the prime minister of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), based in Tripoli, and General Khalifa Haftar, the leader of the eastern military forces – in a summit in Rome.
But it appeared the initiative was running into difficulties even before it had begun: late on Wednesday it was reported that Sarraj refused to meet Conte because the Italian prime minister had previously met his rival, Haftar.
Haftar has been fighting to seize Tripoli since April and this week made a military breakthrough when his forces, known as the Libyan National Army (LNA), captured the coastal town of Sirte. His spokesman said the LNA was extending a no-fly zone immediately to include Mitiga airport.
Turkey recently announced it was sending military advisers to support the GNA while Russian mercenaries have been fighting on behalf of Haftar.
The Turkish military intervention, backed by the Turkish parliament, has been heavily criticised by Russia and the European Union.
A Turkish presidential spokesman, İbrahim Kalın, said Turkey only wanted to engineer a ceasefire, and called on the parties to return to the positions they held before Haftar mounted his attack in April.
“In Libya, our priority is to stop the clashes as soon as possible, the declaration of a ceasefire and all parties, particularly Haftar, to return to their positions of April,” Kalın said after a cabinet meeting on Tuesday.
“The Haftar side, which violates the agreement between Tripoli and Benghazi that was signed in April, continues its attacks recklessly. If this is not stopped, a political process in Libya will not be possible and more blood will be shed,” he said.
“Haftar gets away with any kind of attack in Libya, the international community even does not condemn [him],” he added.
Italy, which has historically been seen as a leading player in Libya where it has substantial energy interests, has been caught out by the unexpected Turkish intervention. Rome is facing criticism over its inability in more than two years to bring about a settlement in a country that has been ravaged by political and military disputes between east and west of the country ever since the western intervention to remove Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
The Italian and Russian initiatives are not necessarily in conflict, but reflect the extent to which outside parties are intervening in the country, and are probably making it more difficult for the two internal warring parties to reach a settlement.
Haftar is strongly supported by the United Arab Emirates and Turkey claims it is acting as a necessary counterweight.
Sarraj expressed his frustration at Europe’s failure to describe Haftar as the aggressor. Sarraj said: “The suffering of the Libyan people must end instantly. We do not want Libya to be a land of escalation or war by proxy. The international community must take responsibility for ending this suffering.”
Mohammed Ali Abdallah, the GNA adviser for US affairs, said the withdrawal from Sirte was temporary and designed to avoid pointless bloody conflict.
“Let it be well understood, however, that the government will not allow Sirte to be overrun by Haftar and his army of Russian mercenaries,” he said. “Just as we liberated Sirte from Isis three years ago, we will again – and we will end Haftar’s self-declared ‘jihad’ against our country.”