Two weeks ago Russian President Putin invited the heads of the two warring parties in Libya to initiate a cease-fire jointly-sponsored with Turkey ahead of the Berlin conference. This was a part of Putin’s plans to edge out the Europeans and Americans in Libya and carve out a bigger role for Russia (and Turkey) when the fighting stops. According to Bloomberg news, Putin did not take into account Haftar’s legendary stubbornness. Having sat in a waiting room in Russia’s foreign ministry, rather than receiving a presidential welcome, Haftar reportedly lost his temper, refused to sign the cease fire document and left for Amman.
Thinking he can coerce his supposed proxy into falling in line, Putin may have underestimated Haftar’s confidence and just how unpredictable the Libyan conflict as become.
Putin is said to be losing his tolerance for Haftar. According to Kirill Semyonov, a Russian expert on foreign affairs, “This won’t be forgotten by Putin…Haftar practically ran away when he was expected to sign the document. This showed a lack of respect to his hosts and is a blow to Russia’s reputation.”
Although relatively minor actors in Syria and Libya when those conflicts began, Russia and Turkey have managed to take over, or at least carve out significant roles for themselves, edging out a disinterested US and uncommitted and divided Europe. Sometimes coordinated and sometimes adversarial, the two have shown they can work together to secure their interests in a changing region. Bringing a peace deal to Libya will secure much prestige for both countries and billions in energy and reconstruction and infrastructure projects.
However these plans seem to be stalled and delayed by the various competing interests in Libya also. The Bloomberg article notes that Arab and Western diplomats familiar with Haftar and Libya are not surprised. Haftar has, time and again, shown himself to be unpredictable and often a destabilizing force, such as when he launched his move for Tripoli during a visit by the UN and ahead of scheduled peace talks.
The question is, will Putin and Erdogan allow him to get away with this? Haftar was useful to Russian interests so long he played his role and could serve as a strong leader in the midst of the chaos. However, now Haftar seems to be upending Putin and Erdogans plans – whereby the two edge out the Europeans and push for a ceasefire in which they are dominant, much as they did in Syria.
The surprising Turkish- Russian ceasefire announcement was reportedly, a surprise. The sides did not consult with the Libyans themselves, nor with the UAE, Egypt, the UN or any of the parties involved. Only later did the two work to get everyone on board, but this had little success. Most of the parties are aware of what Turkey and Russia are trying to achieve. Only the GNA and Sarraj play along due to their desperation for allies and arms. Sarraj’s backing for Turkey’s eastern-Mediterranean moves are linked to this.
Russia seems to have over-estimated its ability to influence Haftar and the conflict, for now. A few outcomes can result: