The international community remains divided as war clouds continue to darken over Tripoli with stakeholders holding their breath for something to give that will make it possible to kickstart a new political process to replace the moribund process that the UN had attempted to promote since 2014.
Hostilities on the outskirts of the capital have grown fiercer and, in the four weeks since 4 April when Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA), launched his campaign to gain control over it, fighting has claimed hundreds of casualties and driven thousands of people from their homes, according to international and local agencies.
Last week brought an unprecedented intensification of the use of military aircraft by both sides which, according to some observers, marks the first time such weapons have been deployed on two sides in Libya’s Civil War. Meanwhile, Haftar and the Chairman of the Government of National Accord (GNA) Presidency Council Fayez Al-Sarraj exchanged accusations regarding unlawful arrests of military leaders.
Diplomatic sources doubt that the UN Security Council will pass a resolution to call a halt to the battle for Tripoli before the situation on the ground becomes more definitive. A number of powers have their hopes riding on Haftar, for whom this campaign is the last chance to strengthen his hand as a political leader.
The escalation in the fighting in the vicinity of the capital appears to have precipitated another new development: a rift between the Arab Maghreb and the Arab Mashrek over Libya. Signs of this could be seen in Morocco’s condemnation of the “bombardment” of Tripoli, the alarm it has expressed at the threat this warfare presents to the region and urgent consultations between North African officials in Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria.
On Sunday, GNA Minister of Interior Fathi Bashaga met with his Tunisian counterpart Hichem Fourati in Tunis to discuss measures to facilitate the transfer of wounded GNA fighters to Tunisian medical facilities, collaboration in the fight against terrorist groups and the exchange of intelligence on groups that present a threat to both countries. In a joint press conference afterwards, Bashaga said: “The Arab Maghreb will be in true peril if its countries to not stand together to halt the dictatorial tide, starting in Tripoli.” He called for a joint security and defence agreement between the countries of the Maghreb, adding: “We cannot rely on the international community.”
Military escalation in Tripoli galvanised Maghreb countries into denouncing Gulf intervention in Libyan domestic affairs. Officials in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia have stressed repeatedly that there can be no military solution to the Libyan crisis.
On Friday, the Tunisian and Algerian foreign ministers jointly condemned the military escalation in the vicinity of the Libyan capital. In a joint press conference with his Tunisian counterpart Khemaies Jhinaoui, Algerian Foreign Minister Sabri Boukadoum said: “We cannot remain silent in the face of the bombardment of a capital in a country of the Arab Maghreb.” Echoing this, Jhinaoui said: “We cannot stand by and watch as the fighting continues in a brotherly nation.”
Both officials underscored how important it is for the Libyan parties to return to the comprehensive Libyan-Libyan dialogue and “to sustain the political course as the only means to resolve the Libyan crisis in accordance with the political agreement to end the interim phase and conduct general elections under the sponsorship of the UN”.
According to Bashaga, as of Sunday, fighting south of the capital has claimed more than 300 dead, most of whom were young people and civilians. UN sources reported more than 1,200 wounded. The Tripoli-based Ministry of State for Refugees and Displaced Persons has reported that 45,000 people have been driven from their homes during the first month of the clashes.
Although military spokesmen on both sides claim progress on the ground, pro-GNA forces have definitely succeeded in absorbing the shock and preventing Haftar’s forces from entering the capital. According to press reports as well as UN and local sources, negotiations are in progress to reach a ceasefire and a humanitarian truce. They say that Haftar has agreed to a ceasefire but that Al-Sarraj continues to reject one and to insist that Haftar’s forces withdraw to their pre-4 April positions.
Some diplomats maintain that retreat would mean defeat for Haftar while negotiations are in progress behind the scenes to pressure Al-Sarraj into accepting the presence of LNA forces in the vicinity of the capital, which pro-GNA forces reject. Observers also believe that the civil strife in western Libya will spread to other areas, from Sirte about half way between Tripoli and Benghazi to Ras Ajdir on the border with Tunisia. These areas are strongholds for tribes that have their own militia formations which have largely been subsumed under the official structures of the state.
Libyan sources report that GNA officials are negotiating with local officials in Tarhuna, about 80 kilometres southeast of the capital, in order to persuade them to break off their alliance with Haftar. Tarhuna served as a major staging point for the LNA’s march on the capital. Forces from Tarhuna were defeated twice — in September and January last year — by the consortium of militia brigades that have controlled the capital for several years.
Another noteworthy development last week was a communique by the Libyan National Oil Corporation (NOC), the state-run petroleum company, strongly condemning “the militarisation of Libyan national energy infrastructure”. The statement was released following reports that French navy vessels had entered the port of Ras Lanuf, an important oil terminal. The NOC charged that gunmen had seized control of a NOC airstrip to use in military operations. The organisation did not identify the gunmen’s affiliation but it said that it had filed a complaint with the public prosecutor’s office, informing it of “its intention to take all legal steps necessary to protect staff and facilities”.
The communique, posted on the NOC Website 27 April 2019, enumerated several incidents that have occurred since the outbreak of fighting in the vicinity of the capital, including “the seizure of Es Sider airstrip for military use; military personnel entering the port of Es Sider as well as attempts to requisition NOC tugboats; and the berthing of warships in the Ras Lanuf terminal and its use by Libyan military vessels”. It cited NOC Chairman Mustafa Sanaalla as saying: “This illegal and irresponsible activity is a gross violation of our civilian mandate and must stop. These acts endanger workers, diminish partner confidence and threaten our ability to maintain operations. The NOC rejects all attempts to use corporation equipment and facilities for military objectives. The NOC is the lifeline of the Libyan economy and must be protected from all forms of conflict.”
Also 27 April, the NOC announced that its revenues in March from the sale of crude oil and derived products were 20 per cent higher than in the previous month. The announcement cited Sanaalla as warning that “[t]he latest outbreak of hostilities... poses a serious threat to our operations, production and the national economy.”
The NOC largely attributed improved March revenues “to the end of the three-month armed blockade and lifting of force majeure at the Sharara oil field on 4 March 2019.”
*This story was first published by Al-Ahram Weekly.