The North African oil producer has been gripped by conflict since the 2011 ouster and death of longtime ruler Moammar Gaddafi. In April, Hifter’s forces launched a surprise offensive in an effort to topple the U.N.-installed Government of National Accord in Tripoli.
On Monday, Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Serraj signed the cease-fire agreement drafted by Russia and Turkey. But Hifter, who is aligned with a rival government in eastern Libya, had asked for until Tuesday morning to make his decision, according to Russia’s state-operated Tass news agency. By early Tuesday, however, reports emerged that Hifter had left Moscow without signing the document.
The collapse of the cease-fire effort is a major blow to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and their aspirations of becoming the main power brokers in Libya. For Putin, who supports Hifter, and Erdogan, who backs the GNA, a cessation of hostilities in Libya would deepen their countries’ influence in North Africa and across the Middle East. Both Moscow and Ankara also stand to gain from oil and construction contracts in Libya, worth billions of dollars.
On Tuesday, a frustrated Erdogan did not mince his words. Speaking to members of his party in Ankara, he said both Turkey and the Tripoli government had shown a “constructive attitude” in the peace initiative.
“We stood behind our promise, but putschist Hifter left the table,” Erdogan said. “These conditions show his real face. We were not at all surprised that he rejected the cease-fire.”
Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, told reporters in Ankara that “if Hifter continues like this, then there will be no point for the Berlin process,” referring to a peace summit scheduled for Sunday in the German city to which both sides in the Libyan conflict have been invited.
Russian officials, however, were reluctant to declare the mediation a failure. “We will continue our efforts on this track, because no definitive result has been achieved so far,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters during a visit to Sri Lanka.
Alexei Chepa, a Russian senator and deputy chairman of the State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee, downplayed Hifter’s refusal to sign the agreement.
“This is not a failure; it does not mean that the talks have been unsuccessful,” Chepa told the Russian news agency Interfax. “The fact that the sides have held negotiations is important, considering that dialogue is the only way to decide anything and to achieve a result.” Further talks between the two sides are possible, he added.
It was unclear why Hifter declined to sign the pact. One reason may be that it did not include a deadline for the disbanding of the disparate militias aligned with the GNA, according to a Libyan military official cited by Interfax. Hifter has claimed that his Tripoli offensive is partly intended to “cleanse” the capital of those militias, which he describes as terrorist and criminal groups.
Hifter is also backed by powerful regional players, especially the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which view Libya as significant to their own strategic and economic interests.
“Competing theories why Haftar didn’t sign,” tweeted Wolfram Lacher, a Libya analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, using an alternate spelling of Hifter. “For some, he has too many masters to answer to. For others, he refuses to do what his masters want. The answer may be both: having multiple backers allows Haftar to play them against each other.”
Nevertheless, European and United Nations officials expressed hope Tuesday that the cease-fire agreement could be salvaged. As of late Tuesday, the Berlin summit was still scheduled to be held next week.
The U.N. mission in Libya on Tuesday urged both sides to adhere to the cease-fire and give the diplomatic efforts a chance “for the sake of the civilian population in Tripoli, the hundreds of thousands who fled their homes and the 116,000 children who are unable to go to their classes.”
Kareem Fahim in Istanbul and Isabelle Khurshudyan in Moscow contributed to this report.