GLOBALIST | 20 MAY, 2019
War Has No End in Libya
The Citizen’s foreign affairs primer
A ceasefire, talks, a political arrangement and possibly elections remain elusive in Libya- an oil rich country that has been in turmoil since the death of former dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
Today the internationally recognized government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj is besieged in the capital Tripoli by the forces of Field Marshal Khalifa Belqasim Haftar, a one time member of Gaddafi’s army, who has established a parallel government in the east with Benghazi as his stronghold.
UN resolutions and efforts; statements by the European Union and G7 calling for an end to hostilities and a political solution have had no impact. The conflict for Tripoli has displaced more than 55,000 according to the Organisation for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. As is often the case in situations of civil strife, both protagonists have their own foreign supporters. Their differing agendas are possibly one reason for the inability to restore stability to the country. The Tripoli based government has the backing of the United Nations and primarily Italy, while Haftar has enjoyed the support of the USA, France, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE who have helped train his soldiers.
Haftar’s proclamation that he is the strong hand that Libya needs to restore stability after years of chaos, which have transformed Libya into a haven for armed groups and a major conduit for migrants bound for Europe, has been endorsed by President Donald Trump.
After Trump spoke to Haftar in April 2019 the White House put out a statement that the President “recognized Field Marshall Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources, and .. discussed a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system.” The General had recently visited Saudi Arabia where according to the Wall Street Journal he had been promised millions of dollars to pay for the operation including payoffs to tribal leaders and to recruit new fighters.
With this kind of endorsement it was not surprising that just as United Nations envoys believed they were on the verge of striking a deal that would have brought the country’s factions together at a conference to agree on a unified government and a plan for elections, Haftar launched an offensive on April 4, to capture the capital Tripoli. The offensive has been blunted and the government’s forces were said to have pushed the Libyan National Army of Haftar south west of the capital after hand to hand fighting in the southern parts of the capital.
The Tripoli government had used air strikes against LNA fighters. Many believe that the standoff will continue as Haftar is unlikely to face pressure from backers including the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and France, who still see him as the best bet to end the chaos that has reigned in Libya since 2011. In fact coinciding with Ramadan Haftar urged his troops trying to take Tripoli to battle harder and teach their enemies an even bigger lesson, because the Muslim month of Ramadan was a month of holy war. His comments almost coincided with an appeal by the United Nations for a week-long humanitarian truce.
There is some apprehension that the continuing stand off and any resulting power vaccum could be exploited by Islamic militants. Haftar who had lived for decades in exile in the USA, courtesy the CIA, returned to Libya in 2011 taking part in the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi. In 2014 he had launched his “Operation Dignity” campaign, naming his forces an “army” to try and distinguish from “militias” elsewhere. In July 2017, Haftar said his forces had seized Benghazi after a bloody three-year battle against Islamic militants.
Haftar’s rationale for his offensive against Tripoli has been that the Government of National Accord has given safe haven to terrorists as it is paying militants for their support including Salah Badi, a commander from nearby Misrata port who has Islamist ties and possible ambitions himself to take Tripoli. Aguila Saleh, head of the House of Representatives allied to Haftar has said that it was necessary to get rid of militias and terrorist groups referring to the forces supporting the Tripoli Government. In response the Tripoli Government has accused Haftar of creating a conducive atmosphere for the revival of Islamic State in Libya.
Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj’s government has said that ever since the offensive against Tripoli, it has been warning that the only beneficiaries would be the terrorist groups and the current developments would provide a conducive environment for them to restart their activities after their earlier defeat at the hands of the Tripoli government.
There could be some truth in the Tripoli government’s charge as the LNA which boasts of a strength of 85000 men includes hundreds of Salafists, and one of his commanders is wanted by the International Criminal Court for the alleged summary execution of dozens of people in Benghazi. Fayez Fayez al-Sarraj, Prime Minister of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord has appealed to President Donald Trump to stop aiding Haftar as backing the General could turnLibya into a proxy battleground, risking a war with global implications and further mass migration to Europe.
In an effort to blunt foreign support to Haftar, the Government of National Accord has asked 40 foreign firms including France’s Total to renew their licences or have their operations suspended.
Economic interests have so far been determining the positions taken by Italy the ex-colonial power with extensive oil holdings, and France, with major companies including Total, aerospace company Thales and others operating in Libya. French President Macron has been seeking to position himself as a major intermediary. France has long provided military assistance to Haftar. Macron had called for a ceasefire but with the condition attached that all armed groups — including those helping the PM defend the capital Tripoli— be monitored. Haftar also would not have to withdraw his troops east, allowing him huge territorial gains.
France had reportedly blocked a European Union statement calling on Khalifa Haftar to halt his offensive in Libya much to the chagrin of the Italians who have been supporting the Tripoli based government. According to media reports the statement would have said that the military attack launched by Haftar on Tripoli was “endangering the civilian population, disrupting the political process and risks further escalation with serious consequences for Libya and the wider region, including the terrorist threat.”
The British Government had moved a draft resolution at the UN which blamed Haftar for the latest flare-up in violence. Interestingly Russia objected to it and the USA also did not support it without giving any reason. Both countries said they could not support a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire in Libya at this time.
Meanwhile the Libyan economy and its people are suffering. Tripoli’s revenue comes from oil and natural gas production, interest-free loans from local banks to the central bank, and a 183 percent surcharge on foreign exchange transactions conducted at official rates. The renewed conflict threatens to disrupt oil supplies. The Tripoli government has stopped subsidising food and bread, which used to be cheaper than drinking water. With centralised tax collection greatly diminished, public debt has increased to 68 billion dinars in the west, including unpaid state obligations such as social insurance.
PM Fayez al-Sarraj’s government has budgeted up to 2 billion dinars ($1.43 billion) to cover costs of the fight for the capital, such to be funded without new borrowing. The public wage bill for both the western and eastern administrations has been burdened as fighters have been made public employees to buy their loyalty.
The government in the east has sold bonds worth 35 billion dinars outside the official financial system as the Tripoli central bank does not fund the parallel government set up by General Haftar.
So what next?
There appears little scope for any kind of negotiated solution with most players tacitly looking to General Haftar winning the battle. Saudi money and American support would count for much in the final outcome as the well intentioned UN which supports Fayez al-Sarraj’s government can only issue statements when the American President’s disregard for the UN and his love for strongmen like President Orban of Hungary makes headlines. In the coming days one would likely witness increased migration across the Mediterranean to Europe, and various U.N. plans for an election completely stymied.