Regardless of where the lines are eventually drawn, Turkey has emerged as the dominant foreign power in western Libya, and Russian military power as the principal deterrent against eastward GNA offensives.
Though supporting opposing sides, Turkey and Russia are able to cooperate – contrary to Haftar’s other foreign supporters, Egypt and the UAE, which are fiercely opposed to Turkish intervention in Libya. This raises the possibility of a Turkish-Russian arrangement to divide Libya into spheres of influence, sidelining other foreign powers.
Ramifications – east, south and west
Turkish and Russian attempts to freeze the conflict are bound to collide with the political ramifications of Haftar’s defeat in Tripoli. A wide-ranging realignment of allegiances and alliances is likely to ensue. The institutions that have served as the interlocutors for Russia and Turkey – the GNA and Haftar’s Libyan Arab Armed Forces – will come under pressure and could ultimately crumble.
In western Libya, Haftar’s offensive served as a unifying threat. While Haftar’s forces were advancing and liable to exploit divisions among his enemies, many held back their anger over corruption in the GNA and kept their political ambitions in check. These frustrations and rivalries will now come to the fore. This is not necessarily only a negative prospect.
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The impossibility of reforming the GNA without re-opening the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement that created it has long allowed unaccountable politicians with no meaningful base to pursue their rent-seeking activities. To become more effective, the government in Tripoli needs to become more accountable to the forces on the ground.
In much of southern Libya, Haftar’s influence was tenuous even at the height of his power. Politicians and armed groups in the south declared their loyalty to Haftar, expecting him to provide funds and services, and betting that he would prevail in Tripoli. Now that he can deliver neither, many will seek to mend fences with the GNA.
This process of realignment is likely to be protracted and prone to trigger conflict, since the region is divided along communal lines and between competing armed groups. Russian and Emirati military support to Haftar could dissuade armed groups in the south from shifting allegiances, or it could lead to conflicts following such shifts. Of course, if Haftar loses the Jufra region, he is unlikely to retain much influence in the area at all.
Haftar’s grip is strongest in eastern Libya, where many politicians and militia leaders will see their fortunes as being tied to his fate. Much of eastern Libyan society is wary of the instability that would come with Haftar’s demise. Yet Haftar’s strongman image has been shattered by his defeat, and many in the east are blaming Haftar for having pushed them into a costly military adventure in Tripoli. Fighters who are returning disillusioned from a lost war in Tripoli could turn against him. Benghazi militia leaders who have long been latently disloyal to him could seize the opportunity to reassert themselves.
Political opposition could coalesce around the head of the eastern-based rump parliament, Agilah Saleh, or around a movement for eastern autonomy that Haftar had suppressed for the past few years. The numerous politicians, businessmen and fighters who fled the Haftar-controlled east in the recent past could ally with Haftar’s opponents in order to return.