In a television address on Thursday 12 December 2019, the Libyan general Khalifa Haftar announced that he was tasking his troops to take Tripoli in a ‘decisive battle,’ setting up what could turn out to be a bloody attempt to take the Libyan capital Tripoli, currently held by the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). Haftar leads the Libyan National Army (LNA), and his statement, which according to Al Jazeera also alluded to “a broad and total assault”, has the potential to become a watershed moment for a country that has been engulfed in civil warfare for several months. Whether or not Haftar does indeed take the capital, and there are early signs that his troops are making gains at the edge of the city, the fact that close to eight years on from the death of Muammar Gaddafi Libya is no closer to being a stable country, is testament to the inadequacy of the solutions to the problems that the country has faced up to this point. In this report, there will be a brief analysis of these last eight years, highlighting the numerous missteps of the international community in their dealings with the country. However, the main focus of this report will be on the past several months, and the position which Libya now finds itself in. As such, whilst there will be unavoidable criticism of the actions which have led to this moment, these will be balanced out by a desire to look at some potential solutions. To look at these solutions however, there must be an acknowledgement that the solutions, at least for the short term, must be focused on mitigation, rather than solving the deep and far-reaching problems that continue to plague Libya. The acceptance of these solutions must also come with an acknowledgement that due to the current situation, the longevity of the GNA government in Tripoli, currently backed by the UN, is questionable.
The current offensive by Haftar, which began in April 2019 and led to the LNA controlling large swathes of the Libyan countryside, has, according to the UN’s own figures, killed 200 civilians and an estimated 2,000 fighters. Meanwhile based on recent figures, 128,000 people have been forced to flee their homes, and 135,000 are living in the frontline of fighting. These numbers are a far cry to the future of the country imagined following the death of Muammar Gaddafi in October 2011. In a speech on 29 March 2011 at the London Conference on Libya, then British Prime Minister David Cameron reaffirmed his commitment to help Libya transition into a democratic country, and to “take control of their own destiny.” However, the following year saw the attack on the Benghazi compound which killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya. According to the BBC, this was followed by the Prime Minister being forced to resign in 2014 following a ruling by the supreme court, and the UN subsequently being forced to pull out of Tripoli. Meanwhile in 2015, Islamic State militants took control of towns such as Sirte, as well as the Port of Derna, out of which they were only eventually forced in the middle of 2018. Meanwhile amongst all this chaos the UN have on multiple occasions announced support for governments, none of which have the support of the key players. For example, as reported by the BBC, in 2016 the UN decided to recognize an interim government in Tunisia, which did not have the support of either the Trobuk or Tripoli parliaments.
So how do these issues relate to the past several months, and the current situation? One common thread running through the last eight years, is the ineffectiveness of the UN in helping to deliver peace to the country. Just last week, a panel of experts released a report to the UN, highlighting the violation of a UN arms embargo by countries, mainly Egypt, the UAE, and Jordan on behalf of the LNA, and Turkey on behalf of the GNA. According to a quote picked up from the report by the Guardian, the two sides are “routinely and sometimes blatantly supplied weapons with little effort to disguise the source.” According to Ghassan Salame, the UN special envoy to Libya, this foreign intervention is the main obstacle for peace in the country. Yet, despite this flagrant disregard for the embargo by these four countries in particular, the UN has been left crossing its fingers, and hoping that the report that was published last week will lead to a level of publicity which will lead to the states backing down. This is a very tall ask and is highly unlikely to be agreed to in the short term. There had been talk of a peace conference to be held in Berlin in the New Year, involving the two sides in Libya, the UN Security Council and key players in the Middle East. Although there will certainly be hope that a ceasefire will occur, seemingly the best case scenario, and the likely main focus of the talks, will be to make sure that countries do not interfere in Libya any further, and to create an international body that has the power to enforce these changes. There are of course other aims. As the Guardian points out, Salame stated that he hopes to achieve six goals when in Berlin, including achieving a new ceasefire mechanism, as well as new security arrangements for the capital. However, the likelihood for any of the latter two goals to be achieved, especially following the most recent developments, is close to nil. The truth is that the only realistic goal of the peace conference, if it happens at all, will be to stop foreign powers from flagrantly defying a UN enforced arms embargo to help their respective armies. It is this reality, which does the most to epitomize the inadequacies of the UN’s solution to the crisis.
What’s more, alongside Egypt, Jordan and the UAE, both Russia and France were also supporting Haftar’s forces. As reported by the Guardian, the Libyan foreign minister accepted that his country offers strategic benefits to Russia, and accused the country of pretending to do one thing, when in fact they do the complete opposite on the ground. Russia is also an increasing source of a number of mercenaries coming into Libya from private armies, a factor which according to the Guardian, Salame blames as being the main reason why the war has suddenly turned in favour of Haftar. Indeed, according to Al Jazeera, Russian mercenaries were assisting the LNA outside Tripoli in late September. French backing is however more subtle and is largely due to their desire to impose a strong government and stop Islamist activity in the region. According to Bloomberg News, although it has never been fully acknowledged, there are telling signs of France’s backing of Haftar, notably through their ownership of anti-tank missiles which were found in the hands of the LNA earlier this year. However tacit, the support of General Haftar’s forces by Russia and France demonstrate the ineptness of the UN’s position. If two leading members of the Security Council are backing the opposition, and if Russia do indeed see Libya as being a strategic advantage, then the UN position of backing the GNA simply cannot work in the long term, and the acceptance of this fact is a key component of any potential solution.
So, what are the possible solutions? It would be foolish to try and predict the outcome of this now certain confrontation between troops loyal to General Haftar and those loyal to Fayez-al-Saraj, the Prime Minister of the GNA. This is even more true given the fact that Turkey has threatened to supply ground troops in support of the GNA, significantly raising the stakes of fighting in the capital, and arguably represents one of the most obvious of cases of foreign interference in the conflict. Of course, ceasing foreign intervention in the country is a good start, but is this a realistic proposition? Russian intervention in the country has largely been done through private mercenaries, meaning that the Russian state is implicitly, rather than explicitly backing Haftar. Furthermore, if Libya is in Russia’s strategic interests, what would be the point in agreeing to an end of foreign interventions? The key therefore, in working out a solution, is to accept these constraints. More importantly however, the key is to have a concrete goal which you are able to work towards to. Of course, the UN wants democracy and stability in Libya, but the two do not go hand in hand. The last set of elections to be held in Libya were in 2014, and there has been a certain vagueness over what the UN wants to achieve in the country. Compare this to France’s reasoning for backing the LNA, namely to help deal with the growing problem of radical Islam, and you are suddenly comparing the backing of the GNA, which consists of misguided optimism regarding the vague principles of democratization of the country, with the backing of the LNA, which is aimed at providing stability for the country. There is a clear difference regarding the coherency of both reasons, and surely now, the experiment for democracy in the region is over. The solution therefore, is for the UN and other backers of the GNA to change their priorities, sense which way the wind is blowing, and adjust their positions accordingly. David Cameron’s hope, that the Libyan people could take control of their own destiny, is now arguably further from being realized than back in 2012. There must be an acceptance of that. The time has come to choose the least worst option for Libya.
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