On 3 April, General Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Forces (LNA) announced his intention to launch an attack on Tripoli, the nominal capital of the war-torn country and headquarters of the rival Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Fayez al–Sarraj. The GNA is recognised by the international community and has vowed to confront Haftar and defend the capital. On 6 April, fighting escalated around Tripoli international airport, just 30 km outside Tripoli in the Wadi Raba region. The LNA’s attack was forcefully repelled by GNA forces who have subsequently retained control after heavy air strikes. The LNA announced on 7 April that they have begun shelling a suburb in south Tripoli, putting civilian lives at considerable risk.
On the 4 April, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres tweeted, “There is no military solution. Only intra-Libyan dialogue can solve Libyan problems. I call for calm and restraint as I prepare to meet the Libyan leaders in the country.”
A statement from the G7 countries read, “We urge all involved parties to immediately halt all military activity and movements toward Tripoli, which are hindering prospects for the UN-led political process, putting civilians in danger, and prolonging the suffering of the Libyan people.”
As reported by Human Rights Watch (HRW), “Whenever rival armed forces clash in Libyan cities, it’s civilians who suffer the most,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “All sides need to abide by the laws of war and minimise civilian harm.”
This escalation of violence is seemingly a response to the upcoming ‘National Conference’, led by the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) on the 14- 16 April in Ghadames, with both sides aiming to gain territory in order to improve their bargaining position. The charter of the conference is to reach a ‘consensual position’ between the two sides in order to break the political deadlock. At its conclusion, it is hoped there will be a date set to run elections in the country, as well as address other items, such as fighting corruption and distributing economic resources equitably among national actors. The National Conference is the result of many consultations with constituencies across the whole of Libya which have produced a few proposals to end the transition period.
Ghassan Salamé, head of UNSMIL said in a statement that the talks will continue as planned, “Convening the conference in these conditions is tough but we have the desire to hold it as scheduled in mid-April, unless compelling circumstances force us to postpone it”.
Khalifa Haftar has been making military moves in the East and South of Libya for much of 2019. In February, the LNA captured two oil fields, el-Sharara and el-Feel, which together produce 400,000 barrels of oil a day. In the process, he has absorbed the local tribal forces, which were protecting the area, into the LNA, promising them a salary and a uniform. Haftar now has a strong position at the negotiation table, as he controls most of Libya’s oil output, although he is unable to sell this on the international market. Haftar also enjoys significant support from Russia, enabling him to provide some semblance of sustenance to the population he controls, although limited. Negotiations between Sarraj and Haftar most recently broke down in Abu Dhabi, UAE in late February. Despite Haftar’s strong hand, he still left with nothing. Sarraj appeared to stall for more time to wait for the National Conference where he would be stronger with UN support. This left Haftar with only two options: to negotiate a deal or launch a military campaign, the latter being the situation we see today. Haftar’s principle regional backers include Egypt, Saudi Arabia and UAE, who all envision Haftar to rule in similar authoritarian terms as el-Sisi in Egypt. This would be a dire situation, both as el-Sisi’s rule is brutal and suppressive of all those opposed to the narrow definition of the Egyptian state, and also as Haftar himself has a very limited respect for human rights. As reported by HRW, the LNA are known to target civilians, preventing them from leaving siege areas and torching homes, execute their enemies without trial, and detain people arbitrarily. Forces loyal to the GNA are also guilty of war crimes of a similar kind.
Both sides should respect the diplomatic process and join the National Conference on 14 April, to limit casualties in this war that has already claimed 8 years from the population. A military approach is only likely to initiate a renewed civil war. Constructive debate and amicable concessions are the only way to move forward and create a stable future for the country.
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