Libya - The Future Looks Bleak
Is Libya’s partition imminent?
Since the death of former dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 , in an armed uprising backed by the west, Libya, once a leading producer and exporter of oil, has been convulsed by internal fighting that has left thousands dead; the economy destroyed; and armed militias being treated as legitimate players backing different blocs in the internecine fighting.
The country has become a playground for many countries-adjacent and distant from Libya- each with its own specific agenda sought to be fulfilled by arming, financing and backing one of the two main players seeking to control the whole country and its resources. The question being asked is whether with so many players in the field will the country remain one or is Libya’s partition imminent?
The past years have seen two governments effectively exercising power in Libya. The internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, backed primarily by the United Nations and Italy had, till this month, remained largely confined to Tripoli.
In Benghazi in the east of the country, Field Marshal Khalifa Belqasim Haftar, a one time member of Gaddafi’s army, had established a parallel government and started looking to take over Tripoli on the grounds that he alone could restore order in the country and end the mushrooming of armed gangs and Islamist fighters.
In fact in July 2017, Haftar said his forces had seized Benghazi after a bloody three-year battle against Islamic militants. Haftar who had lived in exile for many years in the USA was often considered a CIA asset and subsequent to a meeting with him in April 2019 President Trump was said to have commented that he recognized Field Marshall Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources, and had discussed a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system.
This was shortly after Haftar had launched his offensive to capture Tripoli on April 4 leading his fighters, who he had named the Libya National Army and who were said to number nearly 85000, including a large number of Salafists despite his claims of fighting Islamists. Haftar had also been received in Saudi Arabia and apparently been promised Saudi Arabia millions of dollars to pay for the operation to take Tripoli including payoffs to tribal leaders and to recruit new fighters. Egypt and the United Arab Emirates had also given support to Haftar because they suspected the GNA of having ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group they strongly opposed.
This was all in 2019.
In 2020 the game changed with the entry of a new powerful player- Turkey. President Erdogan who had always been sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood decided to throw Turkey’s weight behind the GNA Government in Tripoli. Last September Russian mercenaries, reportedly deployed by from the Wagner Group, controlled by Yevgeniy Prigozhin, a businessman with close ties to the Kremlin, had appeared around Tripoli to bolster Haftar’s forces.
Putin did not deny their presence but said in January 2020 that they did not represent Russia or its interests.. Though Haftar’s LNA had very swiftly captured strongholds in the south, it had been bogged down since April 2019 when the first onslaught against Tripoli failed because of the armed militias siding with the Fayez Government.
Responding to the obvious Russian support for Haftar, the GNA Government entered into an agreement with Turkey to allow it access to Mediterranean Sea gas fields in exchange for military aid that included drones, Syrian mercenaries and armored vehicles. This rapidly changed the scenario in the fighting. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said in February 2020 that fighters from the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army were in Libya, as well as Turkey’s own military.
The Russian reaction was to recruit more mercenaries for Haftar with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, reporting that more than 900 Syrians were recruited by Russia to fight in Libya in May.
The advent of Turkish troops and its Syrian proixies and armament appeared to have changed the game completely. The GNA had secured a number of victories in the west of Libya and around Tripoli. GNA forces had captured the LNA’s last western stronghold in Tarhouna, some 40 miles southeast of Tripoli.
Tarhouna had been held by the LNA-aligned Kani family, which controlled a powerful local armed group known as the Kaniyat. The Kaniyat were said to have fled in the face of the bolstered GNA forces who discovered mass graves in the region. Then the GNA launched an offensive to capture Sirte in order to wipe out all the LNA’S successes since April 2019. Air strikes, reportedly by Russian planes, were used by Haftar to repulse the attack on Sirte.
Meanwhile Turkey’s President Erdogan had set the agenda for the fighting to come by stating that the goal was to take over the whole Sirte area with the oil wells and the Jufra airbase. Abdelmenaam al-Draa, a military spokesman, had told the media that “...We will enter Sirte. This isn't a battle for cities like Tripoli or Sirte. It is a fight for Libya, for freedom and democracy,"… "We will continue east until we liberate all of Libya from the war criminal Haftar."
With Haftar’s plight causing concern to the countries that had backed him, President Sisi of Egypt had appealed for a ceasefire. Sisi said that Haftar and other eastern leaders - including eastern parliament speaker Aguila Saleh - had signed the "Cairo Declaration", urging the withdrawal of "foreign mercenaries from all Libyan territory" and the "dismantling of militias and handing over their weaponry so that the Libyan National Army would be able to carry out its military and security responsibilities and duties.
The Declaration was endorsed by some countries but rejected outright by the GNA government which said it had not started the war but it would choose when and were to end it. Turkey dismissed the Egypt plan as only an excuse to save Haftar.
Since the fighting began UN resolutions and efforts; statements by the European Union and G7 calling for an end to hostilities and a political solution had had no impact. In January 2020 Haftar, believing his goal was about to be achieved, had refused, in Moscow, a proposal by Presidents Putin and Erdogan to sign a cease-fire which the GNA was willing to accept. A later conference in Berlin failed to stop the fighting. Now it was the GNA’s turn to refuse a ceasefire sought by Egypt.
As the fighting continued the UN had also sought to play an effective role, despite Covid 19,in establishing a ceasefire and peace but to no avail. It had organized separate reportedly “productive” virtual meetings with the two sides and said they were "fully" engaged in military talks aimed at ending the fighting in the country.
The future for the country remains bleak and commentators have talked about the present defacto partition of Libya giving way to a messy partition reminiscent of the creation of South Sudan. The United States except for blaming Russia for deploying its fighter jets to aid Haftar has remained detached with U.S. President Donald Trump called for a “rapid de-escalation” of the Libyan conflict during a phone call with Erdogan.
Europe has been reduced to the state of a bystander and UN exhortations for ending the supply of weapons to the two sides in Libya have, as has often happened in the past, fallen on deaf ears. But now with Haftar on the back foot France had called on NATO allies to discuss Turkey’s increasingly “aggressive” role in Libya accusing Ankara of thwarting truce efforts by breaking a U.N. arms embargo.
The Russians might be content with an arrangement that lifts sanctions on the LNA forces; gets Haftar to recognize the U.N.-installed government in Tripoli and institutionalizes Hafter’s hegemony over eastern Libya which would allow Russia to conclude energy deals. At the same time some analysts have commented that Russia could be willing to countenance a weakened Haftar’s replacement with another leader with the name of political leader Aguila Saleh in the east being mentioned. Russia’s interests in Libya include oil and construction contracts but the American’s believe that what the Russians want is to secure military bases on Europe’s southern flank.
The critical player would be Turkey and there is little likelihood of President Erdogan allowing any arrangement that would legitimize Haftar. Speaking in an interview with daily Milliyet, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said that Turkish soldiers were providing military training, cooperation, and advisory services to forces loyal to Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj’s GNA and that had contributed “very significantly” to the recent military success of Libya’s U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). Turkish officials have spoken about ancient Ottoman ties to Tripoli to justify Turkey’s support for the GNA Government but what Turkey really stands to gain if the GNA rules the entire country would be the right to explore and drill for oil in the eastern Mediterranean.
Given these agendas peace does not seem to be imminent. Erdogan has been holding talks with Russian President Putin but a scheduled meeting between the two countries to discuss Libya was suddenly postponed. The Turkish Presidential spokesperson had emphasised that Turkey wanted a political solution in Libya but his comments clearly suggested that Turkey saw no role for Haftar. Algeria had also entered the game now after being neutral all along offering to mediate with Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune stating Algerian rejection of military action and that Haftar taking Tripoli would have resulted in an all-out civil war, leading to the collapse of the state.
It appears that Libya's future would hinge on the arrangment that Russia and Turkey which have been backing opposite sides arrive at and which would secure their interests in Libya. The citing of real and presumed national interests to destroy other countries has been a historical practice and at this juncture it appears that this is what fate has in store for Libya.