Beginning on the 4th April this year, the conflict in Libya has undergone the most serious escalation since the outbreak of the second civil war in 2014 as its strongest warlord, Khalifa Haftar, began his assault on Tripoli, the internationally recognised capital. The launching of ‘Operation Flood of Dignity’ by Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) was met with the mobilisation of Government of National Accord (GNA) forces backing the Prime Minister, Fayez al-Sarraj. An UN-sponsored ‘national dialogue’ conference had been due to take place on the 14th April but has been postponed. The UN Secretary-General had arrived in the capital on the 4th April to prepare for the conference, which the Tobruk based House of Representatives (HoR), the LNA’s political masters, would have joined from a position of strength: Field Marshal Haftar’s forces control the oil fields in the east and have taken a swathe of territory in the south with relative ease. To the surprise of many, he appears to have chosen to pursue a final military solution over diplomacy and a canny, if opportunist, anti-Islamist political stance that has promised to deliver security and stability. This is likely to prove a grave error that delivers neither promise and has torpedoed peacemaking in the near future.
The international response to Haftar’s escalation has been largely negative, even from his allies and supporters. Foreign forces and diplomats have been quickly withdrawn in anticipation that the situation may worsen. Nor is the battle going to plan as initial successes that can be attributed to the suddenness of the offensive have been followed by a sustained counterattack. Haftar’s LNA and Sarraj’s UN-backed GNA are currently punching it out but they are not what can be described as coherent armies when in fact both of them consist of loosely allied militias. Nor are they the only forces active in Libya: the National Salvation Government, the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries and ISIS are still present (amongst others). In the south, tribesmen and militias hold sway independently (A notable example being the Tuareg). Field Marshal Haftar himself is nominally subject to the HoR, which has promised elections should the LNA actually take Tripoli. Less the observer forget, while the LNA and GNA are holding the most territory, have their own airpower, and each has strong international support also, other actors also have a major influence. The two big hitters are conspicuously vulnerable to fracture due to their dependence on militias and tribes, which are truly loyal only to themselves and will only work under the auspices of either of the LNA and GNA as long as it benefits them and their people. The politics of Libya are hideously complex, and in the wake of the first Libyan civil war the influence of the militias on a political spectrum that included liberals, nationalists and Islamists undermined attempts to form a representative Libyan government.
Whatever the reasons for the assault on Tripoli, whether it is a genuine attempt to take the capital or a half-baked attempt to influence the UN conference, the outcome is that the conference has been postponed and the conflict has re-escalated. A battle for Tripoli is an entirely different prospect to that of advancing across southern Libya and leaves the LNA exposed in the areas it currently holds. In an alarming development ISIS attacked the central town of Fuqaha on April 9th. The UN has consistently held the position that only a political solution will end the current conflict, although its impartiality is undermined to some degree by its backing of the Tripoli based GNA. As is usually the case, both the GNA and LNA have influential foreign backers (the GNA’s include Qatar, Turkey and Italy, the LNA’s include Egypt, the UAE and France), some providing military equipment that includes warplanes, others financial, and the all-important political support that can paralyse the UN Security Council. The degree of their commitment to either side is variable, with some of the LNA’s backers aghast at the new developments. The combination of politics dominated by the gun, the influence of myriad tribes and militias, foreign support for the rival sides and a politics divided along liberal, nationalist and Islamist lines is a combustible brew that feeds the violence. The space for dialogue has narrowed but it is still there and needs to encompass more than the interests of the two rival governments. Previous success at the local level has occurred due to the involvement of local elders and notables, whom have earned their legitimacy through their involvement in civil society in the long term, although the circumstances on the ground and external support were also contributing factors. To break the impasse in Libya, and enable effective mediation and negotiation, a multi-level approach is needed that creates the space for dialogue to take place. The UN and the international community have a critical influence on the creation of this space but this is dependent on the situation on the ground and the major actors in the conflict being willing to talk and compromise. As it stands, the prospects for peace have been critically undermined.
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Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator.