Forces opposing the current UN-backed Libyan government are reported to have taken over the city of Sirte, during what their leader, General Haftar, has described as a “victorious march” towards the Libyan capital of Tripoli. Sirte was previously held by the Government of National Accord (GNA), the UN-backed Libyan government based in Tripoli, who liberated it from ISIS in 2016. The GNA reported that they chose to withdraw from Sirte to avoid further violence which could endanger civilian lives. Haftar’s forces are said to have initially used airstrikes before sending in troops, and one unnamed citizen told BBC news that they have hearing gunfire in the city.
The UN, whose Secretary-General António Guterres was visiting Libya at the time of the attack, has called for peace but has not publicly condemned either side. Speaking to Aljazeera, Anas El Gomati, a Libyan political analyst, has described the UN as “paralyzed” in their responses to the current state of Libya. He went on to outline the difficulty of the Libyan situation – the Libyan people want a democratically elected civilian government, but the potential of giving a leader like General Haftar, who is currently being investigating for war crimes by the Hague, the chance to gain electoral legitimacy is unsettling.
The Libyan Civil War, which followed a power vacuum created by the removal of Colonel Gaddafi from power in 2011, is only increasingly complex as time goes on and various nation-states fall into and out of the list of belligerents. France, to pick just one example of the complexity levels, covertly supports both the GNA and General Haftar. The situation is no doubt further influenced by the fact that Libya contains many resource-rich oil reserves – one of which, the Oil Crescent, is close to the city of Sirte. It is politically difficult therefore, for the UN to speak out against one side without triggering further unrest.
What ultimately matters most in this report, is the lives and wellbeing of the citizens of Sirte. There has been little in the international media on the experiences of civilians before, during, and after the takeover. One way in which the UN and the wider international community, can work to improve the daily lives of Libyans in Sirte, and across the country, is to mobilize the concept of legitimacy.
Gomati, again talking to Al Jazeera, argues that legitimacy, which can be partially gained through international recognition and support, is something which both the GNA and General Haftar’s supporters want in order to have a stronger chance of becoming the dominant Libyan leader. If civilian safety and quality of life is named as a priority for Libya by the UN and nation-states and is the dominant focus of reports by the international media, then there is an increased likelihood that said parties will further prioritize this in their pursuit of international legitimacy.
For the Libyan civil war to end, there will be other situations like the one seen in Sirte – there will be other cities which swap from various sides. However, if maintaining citizen wellbeing is seen as a critical element of gaining international legitimacy, then there is an increased likelihood that the opposing sides will attempt to prioritize it.