By Wydad El Jaouhari
LONDON - Libya's conflict has become an unsolvable impasse following a series of fights between the rival governments in Tripoli and Benghazi. In power for more than forty years, Muammar Gaddafi, a military officer, developed a regime of the masses implemented from the coup d’état of 1969, thus ending the parliament, the parties as well as the centralized administration. Gaddafi, the ultimate arbiter, held the reins of power in the country and quickly created a dictatorship system of fear and loyalty around his person.
The Arab Spring swept Tunisia and Egypt and Libya was also affected by the popular uprising in 2011. Gaddafi responded with violence to popular uprisings demanding more freedom and social justice. The rebellion eventually led to chaos and division between the warring factions and triggered an ongoing civil war.
Gaddafi’s downfall left a power vacuum occasioning the start of military and political turmoil that is still reverberating and tearing the country apart. The conflict has fuelled rivalry and ambitions of local tribes and other militia groups leading to an eruption of violent clashes throughout the country. In 2012 the attempt to stabilize the country through constitutional reforms and the democratic process became unsuccessful, prompting General Khalif Haftar to emerge as a military leader who wants to control the country from his base in Benghazi despite the fact the Tripoli government is recognised by the United Nations. Intense rivalry within tribal groups made the task of securing a meaningful agreement impossible. Faced with the inability of the new government to secure the country, on February 14, 2014, General Khalifa Haftar unleashed an unsuccessful attack on the elected government in Tripoli. This former Libyan military refugee in the United States for two years took command of the National Liberation Army (ANL) to liberate the South and quickly gain some sort of legitimacy thanks to the military assistance of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia.
Since then, Libya has been divided into two camps, with a Parliament established in Tobruk in the East, under the control of Marshal Haftar's army, and the Government of National Unity (GNA) in the West based in the capital Tripoli, and recognized by the international community. The Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj is still at loggerheads with Haftar despite several attempts at reconciliation to reach a political compromise. Oil has sustained the current conflicts and serves as a catalyst for internal interests and factions. General Haftar has secured major oil-producing regions and facilities but cannot sell it to the international markets without breaching the United Nations sanctions put in place.
Extensive geopolitical contests also continue to catalyze conflict in Libya. Foreign powers are divided into two camps, according to their political and economic interests. In the East, Marshal Haftar claims to be engaged in the fight against Islamic terrorism. He receives support from the UAE, Egypt and Russia. In the West, the UN-recognised government of El-Sarraj receives assistance from Turkey and Italy, two countries dependent on Libyan oil. Officially, the EU aligns itself with the positions of the UN while the United States has adopted an ambiguous position despite the fact that Haftar and El-Serrah were both received at the White House separately. China and South Korea are watching and ready to engage because of their economic interests in the country.
Special Forces have been accused of supporting Haftar's forces through training. Conflicting sides continue defying the U.N. arms embargo, and pressure to facilitate peace seems unsuccessful. The fearless onslaught on Libya's capital shows no signs of changing soon. Foreign support for both sides of the conflicting parties has failed to unlock the major underpinnings of the conflicts. The sporadic fighting since 2014 between factions has left thousands of people killed. Leaders seem to rule out compromising their ambitions for peace. For instance, Haftar continues to maintain that he can only pursue a political solution if armed groups providing support to the Tripoli government leave the capital. Both sides have considered external backing to turn the Tripoli government in their favour but the number of casualties keeps increasing
Currently, dialogue appears impossible between the two Libyan opponents who no longer speak to each other as both refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the other.
At the end of 2019, tension reached a dangerous level when Turkish troops set foot on Libyan soil in support of El-Sarraj. Haftar threatened to call on Egyptian forces to respond to the move. Recent attempts by Italy, Turkey, Russia and Egypt to bring El-Sarraj and Haftar together to accept a ceasefire, have failed twice.
More recently in February, the Libyan government of national unity (GNA) announced the suspension of its participation in the work of a joint military commission in Geneva, under the aegis of the UN, following repeated violations of the truce. A month later, after 3 years in office, the UN envoy to Libya Ghassan Salamé resigned for health reasons. Despite leaving his post vacant, the emissary called on both sides to unify the Libyan institutions and encouraged the continuation of the inter-Libyan negotiation process, facilitated by the United Nations even though both sides announced the suspension of their participation in the peace talks.
At least one health worker was injured when the Al-Khandra General Hospital came under heavy shelling on Monday, damaging the fully-functioning 400-bed facility.
Yacoub El Hillo, UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Libya, said the attack not only violated international humanitarian law, but also defied calls for a global ceasefire amid the coronavirus pandemic.
It also showed ongoing disregard for a truce announced in mid-January between the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) and the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA) led by commander Khalifa Haftar that began to lay siege to the capital Tripoli, a year ago.
As of March, a total of 27 health facilities in Libya have sustained damage to varying degrees due to the proximity of fighting, with 14 being forced to close and the remainder at risk of following suit as lines of conflict shift.
In a statement on 4 April, the first anniversary of the start of the LNA’s offensive to seize Tripoli, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) said the country was in the midst of a needless conflict that has shattered hopes for a peaceful political transition through a UN-backed National Conference and subsequent elections.
“The conflict has since escalated into a dangerous and potentially endless proxy war fueled by cynical foreign powers that has now widened geographically, with civilians paying the highest price”, it said.
The humanitarian situation has deteriorated to unprecedented levels, it said, with UNSMIL documenting at least 356 civilian deaths and 329 injuries in the year to 31 March. Some 149,000 people in and around Tripoli have been forced to flee their homes since the offensive began; nearly 345,000 civilians remain in frontline area and an estimated 749,000 live in areas affected by fighting.
An estimated 893,000 are in need of humanitarian assistance, UNSMIL said, adding that it has received a growing number of reports of human rights violations, including hundreds of cases of arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, torture and extrajudicial executions by armed groups across Libya.
The conflict is taking a heavy toll on Libya’s already struggling economy. An oil blockade imposed on 17 January has results in more than $4 billion in financial losses, while funds that should be going into critical infrastructure are being redirected to the war effort.
“The influx of foreign fighters and advanced weapons systems into the country continues unabated and their use on the battlefield has directly lead to an intensification of the conflict,” UNSMIL said, pointing as well to a “flagrant disregard” of an embargo on arms shipments into Libya.