Last Saturday marked the first anniversary of the war for Tripoli. On 4 April 2019, the eastern based Commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar launched a military operation to capture the Libyan capital from the Government of National Accord (GNA) headed by Fayez Al-Sarraj. A year later, the operation has failed to achieve its objective while international peace-making efforts have failed to achieve theirs. Indeed, the chances of a breakthrough appear more remote in the wake of Ghassan Salame’s resignation as UN special envoy to Libya after launching the three tracks of the “Berlin process”.
The escalation of the Libyan Civil War into an overt proxy war worked to complicate the situation as never before. Turkey and Russia became the most salient outside players, each backing their respective factions militarily in the field, which alarmed Western powers fearful of the threat this posed to their strategic interests in oil-rich Libya. It was the Turkish and Russian interventions in Libya in 2019 that accelerated moves to convene an international conference on Libya in Berlin on 19 January 2020. Although the conference initiated three “dialogue” tracks, two of which began in Geneva while the third was launched in Cairo in February, the process ran aground on the shoals of the intransigence of the main Libyan factions which remain set on scoring military advances on the ground, despite the fact that neither has been able to secure a definitive upper hand.
When the political track stalled after two three-day rounds in Geneva, the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) submitted a draft ceasefire agreement to the joint military committee which has not met again since February. The national dialogue — the third track in the process — failed to get off the ground because most of the invitees insisted on progress in the military track first. At the same time, critics from both sides assailed Salame, accusing him of partiality to the other side. Ultimately, he felt compelled to submit his resignation, ostensibly for health reasons, in early March.
Former Algerian foreign minister Ramtane Lamamra was nominated to succeed Salame. Although the veteran diplomat was enthusiastically supported by France, Russia and regional powers, his appointment was held up by Washington, according to a number of diplomatic sources and US news reports. In the interim, on 12 March, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres designated the former deputy head of UNSMIL, Stephanie Williams, as his acting special representative and head of UNSMIL. The move was a sign of the UN’s resolve to press forward with the “Berlin process” which is strongly backed by the US.
The Covid-19 pandemic has also begun to have an impact on the Libyan conflict. World powers have seized on the global health crisis to renew their calls to Libyan parties to lay down arms and rally support behind global efforts to halt the spread of the lethal virus which, so far, has infected 18 Libyans and killed one, according to the Libyan National Centre for Disease Control.
Such international appeals have fallen on deaf ears in Libya where fighting between the LNA and the militias supporting the GNA has escalated during the past two weeks in the vicinity of Tripoli and Sirte. The warfare has claimed dozens of casualties including some foreign mercenaries while health and relief agencies warn of the disastrous consequences of continued fighting against the backdrop of the Covid-19 crisis and inadequate healthcare facilities.
In a statement marking one year since Haftar launched his Tripoli offensive, UNSMIL wrote: “The humanitarian situation has deteriorated to levels never previously witnessed in Libya. Between 1 April 2019 and 31 March 2020, UNSMIL documented at least 685 civilian casualties (356 deaths and 329 injured). Around 149,000 people in and around Tripoli have been forced to flee their homes since the beginning of the offensive and nearly 345,000 civilians remain in frontline areas with an additional 749,000 people estimated to live in areas affected by the clashes. It is estimated that around 893,000 people are in need of humanitarian assistance.”
The statement deplored the “needless conflict” that “shattered the hopes of many Libyans for a peaceful political transition via a National Conference that could have paved the way towards unifying the country’s long-divided institutions via parliamentary and presidential elections”. It added: “The conflict has since escalated into a dangerous and potentially endless proxy war fuelled by cynical foreign powers that has now widened geographically with civilians paying the highest price.”
The conflict has also exacted an appalling toll on homes, hospitals, schools, detention facilities and other structures while human rights abuses have increased exponentially and acts of arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, torture, extrajudicial executions are carried out by armed groups in towns and cities across the country “with total impunity”, the statement said.
UNSMIL also warned of the heavy toll on an already struggling economy. “While rich in natural resources, Libya is now heavily indebted with over LYD 100 billion in domestically held debt, another $1 billion in credit lines for domestic fuel imports and LYD 169 billion in outstanding contractual obligations. The oil blockade imposed on 17 January has already resulted in financial losses exceeding $4 billion. The conflict has exacerbated institutional divisions and diverted spending to the war effort which itself is destroying rather than building much-need critical infrastructure. The existence of two separate central banks has prevented any rational monetary or fiscal policy reform and has instead contributed to a domestic banking crisis, which if left unaddressed will result in potentially catastrophic financial loss.”
The UN organisation lamented the continued influx of foreign fighters and advanced weapons systems into the country and condemned the “flagrant disregard” for the UN arms embargo on Libya on the part of certain participants at the Berlin conference which continue to “brazenly resupply one or the other side of the conflict”. It called on all Libyan parties and their foreign backers “to embrace the outcomes of the Berlin conference, implement UN Security Council Resolution 2510 and engage without delay in the three UN-facilitated Libyan-led tracks (military, political and economic) called for therein”.
On the battlefront, the GNA militias have consolidated air and ground superiority as a result of Turkish military support provided in accordance with a controversial military cooperation agreement between Ankara and the Tripoli-based GNA. Observers believe that the development will precipitate more extensive violence and destruction. Since the beginning of April, the GNA forces have escalated using Turkish-supplied drones to target LNA supply lines.
If international initiatives fail to halt the escalation, it will become increasingly difficult to salvage a unified Libya from the civil war that has torn it apart since 2011.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly