Libya conflict expands

Kamel Abdallah , Saturday 10 Aug 2019

With little agreement on a solution among local and international powers, the Libyan conflict looks set to continue to widen

Libya conflict expands

The war theatre in western Libya has expanded in recent weeks and now stretches from the southern suburbs of Tripoli to Murzuq, the Toubou stronghold in the far south, passing through the strategic Al-Jufra Airbase in central Libya, which is controlled by the Libyan National Army (LNA) commanded by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

Although the forces fighting for the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) gained an advantage when they took the strategic town of Gharyan (100km south of Tripoli) at the end of June, they still have not managed to drive the LNA and its allied militias from the southern outskirts of the capital, especially the arc between Qasr Bin Ghashir, the airport and Khallat Al-Furjan.

GNA forces might share a common hatred for Haftar, but mistrust between their various militia components threatens their cohesion and unity of purpose. The LNA, in turn, is short of fighters and funds, its long supply lines are vulnerable, and it lacks sufficient control over allied forces, such as the militias from Tarhuna, which served as a major body of the strike force in the Tripoli offensive.

While fighting persists in the vicinity of the capital, attention has shifted southward in recent weeks. Last week, GNA forces launched a drone strike against Al-Jufra Airbase which is a forward staging point for the LNA in its campaign against GNA forces in the capital. The LNA retaliated with a strike against Misrata Airbase, signalling the possibility of a further expansion in the scope of the conflict.

Attention also turned further south to Murzuq where fierce clashes have erupted between militias allied with the GNA and militias allied with the LNA, which had secured control over Murzuq in February. On Sunday evening, the LNA staged an air strike against locations of its adversaries in the town. Local authorities reported that at least 43 people were killed and more than 60 people were wounded in the attack. LNA officials have denied targeting civilians in the course of what it described as a strike against Chadian opposition militias, while the Presidency Council of the GNA charged that Haftar’s forces had committed a “war crime” and called on the UN and the international community to initiate an investigation into the attack against Qalaa district in Murzuq.

The EU, on Monday, issued a statement condemning the strike which it said “may amount to war crimes”. “The air strike in Murzuq has claimed the lives of civilians in southern Libya, a region that is already paying a heavy price for the inability of the warring parties to end the crisis. Indiscriminate attacks on densely populated residential areas may amount to war crimes and must cease immediately,” said the spokesperson for EU foreign affairs and security policy. “[T]hose committing war crimes and those breaching international humanitarian law must be brought to justice and held to account. We expect all Libyans to support the United Nations special representative’s attempts to re-launch political negotiations and implement a truce on the occasion of Eid Al-Adha.”

The recent rounds of fighting in Libya have seen widespread human rights violations by all warring parties. Hospitals, public utilities, and other civil facilities have been targeted leading to large numbers of civilian casualties despite warnings that such practices amount to war crimes.

Last week, in his briefing to the UN Security Council, Ghassan Salamé, UN special representative and head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), urged all parties to commit to a truce for the occasion of the Eid Al-Adha holiday. The truce was part of a three-phase plan he proposed to end the fighting. The Eid Al-Adha truce would be immediately followed by a high-level international meeting of the countries concerned with the Libyan crisis. This would prepare the way for another meeting between influential Libyan parties in order to re-launch the stalled political process.

The UK was the only permanent member of the UN Security Council to support Salamé’s proposal. Since the battle over Tripoli began in April, London has been trying to persuade its fellow Security Council members to adopt a resolution to halt the fighting. Its failure to do so is a sign of sharp divisions among the major powers over the current conflict in Libya, which some see as an opportunity to alter the unacceptable situation that has prevailed for the past four years.

If international powers agree on the need to resolve the Libyan conflict through diplomatic rather than military means, diplomatic interventions have so far failed to achieve a breakthrough in the crisis which is becoming more intractable by the day. There are still strong disagreements over the nature of future security and political arrangements for Libya, which has edged closer to partition than ever before.

Salamé has come under harsh criticism from both sides of the conflict in Libya and it is uncertain whether he will continue his duties as head of UNSMIL when his current term expires in September. Meanwhile, he is still lobbying to mobilise international support for steps to restart the political process that was interrupted when Haftar launched his Tripoli campaign four months ago. Unfortunately, at the moment, the warring parties in Libya do not appear ready to take the initial steps to halt hostilities.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Libya conflict expands

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