The Hope and Horror That Troubles Libya

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A mix of hope and concern permeates the international scene concerning Libya, following recent fighting around the city of Sirte. Specifically, such talks are intended to end the ongoing war between the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libyan National Army (LNA), the latter primarily loyal to the rogue General Khalifa Haftar. This comes after a truce was called for by the Arab League in a recent emergency session. In it, Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit declared, among other things, that “[M]ilitary action will not bring peace or establish stability on the Libyan soil.” 

Previous calls for a ceasefire were rejected by the GNA-allied Turkey, mainly over concerns regarding the LNA’s allies in Russia and Egypt. Or rather more specifically, the concerns are over the oil-rich eastern portions of the country. These are currently controlled by Haftar and the LNA at the time of writing. Control over that ensures an economic advantage in energy for the victorious combatants and their backers. 

Turkey has been the country most involved in the fighting, having provided the arms and material used to lift the LNA’s lengthy siege of Tripoli. This is to the point of prosecuting several local journalists covering Libya on allegations of espionage. Understandably, there have been concerns of Ankara exploiting this position, with the endgame of becoming the kingmaker of Libyan affairs. As a result, Russia and Egypt have backed the LNA for their own strategic reasons. The former is involved partly due to Turkey’s status as a member of NATO, in addition to conflicts between the two nations going back centuries. 

As a matter of fact, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu had been scheduled to meet with Turkish diplomats a few weeks ago; not just over Libya, but also the still-simmering conflict in Syria. That meeting was called off upon news of the GNA’s early assault on Sirte. Meanwhile, the latter backs the LNA because of an unwillingness to accept a Turkish ally bordering their country. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has stated as much, recently declaring, “If some people think that they can cross the Sirte-Jufra frontline, this is a red line for us.”

Further issues have been drawn by the discovery of mass graves in territory previously held by the LNA. Mostly concentrated in the recently liberated city of Tarhuna, at least eight have been discovered with dozens of confirmed dead. These were confirmed by the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, who “notes with horror” the discoveries in a tweet published on June 11. Though nothing official has been acknowledged (beyond the GNA’s declaration to investigate the killings), it has been suspected that the perpetrators were militias associated with the LNA. These issues have been complicated by reports of GNA forces engaging in acts of looting and revenge killings. However, it has become a struggle to differentiate between verified account and anecdotal hearsay. 

The UN is also reappraising its approach to the conflict. Specifically, this reappraisal is mostly in terms of the arms embargo it placed on Libya last year. This embargo, renewed last year by the Security Council, has been routinely criticized for its ineffectiveness. Russia in particular has advanced its interests in Libya through mercenary groups stationed in the country, some being more subtle than others. These include the infamous Wagner Group, noted for their unofficial participation in the takeover of Crimea in 2014 (among other conflicts). Other countries have also supplied weapons and military advisors to most of the combatants. 

It is also complicated by the international geopolitical situation, as other individual powers in the region have taken sides. This is best by the actions of the French government in general and recent statements by President Emmanuel Macron in particular. This past week, he has spoken out against Turkey’s actions in the conflict, calling it a “dangerous game”. Specifically, Macron pronounced that “This is a Mediterranean subject that affects us because today from Libya each day men and women are fleeing misery to come to Europe.” 

Mixed into the concerns of another Syria-style conflict is a recent diplomatic incident from earlier this month. The incident, which is under NATO investigation, alleged Turkish naval forces obstructing a French ship from inspecting a suspected weapons smuggler. 

None of this did go without notice, not the least by the Turkish government. Ankara has justified its actions in Libya by pointing out the UN’s recognition of the GNA. The criticisms from Paris, meanwhile, are seen in Ankara as bad faith arguments covering for a blatant power play. In the words of Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, “France is attempting to divide Libya. It wants to go back to old colonial times.” 

Other countries with interests in Libya have offered mixed signals. For the U.S., this is partly the result of Washington politics. The Obama administration had been a major backer of the Arab Spring uprising that deposed former dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The Trump administration has shown no such enthusiasm. As noted by the Council on Foreign Relations, “The United States officially supports the GNA but has not provided it with military support in its battle against the LNA. The primary U.S. concerns in the region are counterterrorism-related, and the United States has conducted joint [airstrikes] with the GNA against Libya’s Islamist groups.”

The conflict, which restarted in 2014 after the uprising that overthrew Gaddafi, has been defined and complicated by the influx of foreign fighters on both sides. Whether or not foreign intervention can bring it to a peaceful conclusion remains to be seen. But for now, there is no clear goal beyond negotiations and a peace deal following a ceasefire that has yet to occur. Even with the COVID-19 pandemic striking the Libyan populace, none of those things are guaranteed.

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