Has Libya become the powder keg of the Mediterranean Sea?

    The more financial and military support Libya’s Khalifa Haftar receives from various countries, the more this war will continue to hamper a credible process of national reconciliation.

    In another act of psychological warfare, Khalifa Haftar, Libyan warlord commander of the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA), ordered his forces to advance on Tripoli in what he called the “zero hour” and “final battle” for the capital, eight months after his earlier assault on the capital failed miserably. In fact, Haftar seems to be more adept at propaganda than war per se. The warlord’s perception management machine is accustomed to making unsubstantiated announcements of imaginary military advances and victories. For instance, in June Haftar announced that the days of the UN-supported government were numbered. Using bribes, his forces managed to take over Gharyan, a strategic location only 70 kilometres south of the capital, which is considered the entranceway to Tripoli. However, Haftar’s forces were soon driven out of the area by combat, a significant setback for the warlord.

    Latest Developments

    While not taking Haftar’s rhetoric seriously, cities of western and central regions of Libya left nothing to chance and announced a mobilisation to defend the capital Tripoli against any threats. In the meantime, Turkey’s offer to provide military support to Libya’s internationally recognised government next month has created a new dynamism for peace in the North African country. It was announced that Turkey’s President Recep Tayip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin will discuss the possibilities of reaching a deal between the protagonists. Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu confirmed this recently at the Doha Forum, stating: “Erdogan and Putin agreed to work bilaterally to stop the bloodshed in Libya.”

    If these two countries work together in Libya, this could be leveraged and bring some sort of consensus to reach an agreement to end the conflict as a result, it could provide short-term stability. In a similar vein, German Chancellor Angela Merkel invited Erdogan to the anticipated Berlin Peace Conference on Libya to be held in early 2020.

    Foreign Intervention in Libya

    Reining in Haftar is a prerequisite to stabilising Libya. There is no doubt that without external support, Haftar would have been largely a relic of the past. The interference of some international actors has been a significant factor in deepening the political fragmentation and polarisation. Interventions designed to serve foreign states’ strategic interests have been a constant feature of the country’s post-Gaddafi era. Countries, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt and France have long supported warlord Haftar financially and militarily. In addition, the recent Russian overt involvement in the Libyan civil war is an important development, which further fuels war and bloodshed.

    David D Kirkpatrick, International Correspondent for the New York Times, has recently written about the Russian involvement in Libya. The latter occurs via private security firm Wagner, which has been using Sukhoi jets, coordinated missile strikes, and precision-guided artillery, as well as snipers, to help Haftar seize the capital from the internationally recognised government. Without these foreign actors, Haftar’s self-described Libyan National Army (LNA), a ragtag of different militias and mercenary groups, cannot sustain its operations. Even its control over many regions is, at best, nominal. However, the balance of power has substantially tilted in favour of the LNA recently, as some countries, including the UAE and Egypt, have stepped up their air support to the warlord, which enables him to maintain pressure on government forces. Such a support has also made Haftar reject any political settlement, preferring to seize the entire Libyan territory by force.

    On the other hand, the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli was set up in 2015. It is the internationally-recognised executive body and was endorsed by the UN Security Council as the legitimate authority. Despite UN support, and notwithstanding the nice words provided generally by Western countries vis-a-vis UN resolutions, in practical terms only a few countries provide tangible support to the internationally-recognised government. Turkey is one of the countries siding with legitimacy, and the Turkish leadership is supporting the government diplomatically, politically, economically, and with security.

    In fact, Ankara will step up its military support for the internationally-recognised Libyan government. The recently signed bilateral arrangement between both parties was sent to parliament for ratification. The security and military cooperation agreement includes provisions for launching a “quick reaction force” – if requested by Tripoli. The agreement is the extension of existing military cooperation framework agreements. As such, the UN-backed government could request vehicles, equipment and weapons for use in army, navy and air operations. It also makes provision for training, intelligence sharing, and direct military assistance.

    Eastern Mediterranean dispute and the spillover effect

    Some of Haftar’s international backers have pushed the situation to the point of no return. Blinded by vindictiveness, they are trying hard to prevent Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus from enjoying their legitimate rights in accessing their share of the Eastern Mediterranean’s energy wealth. By supporting Haftar, they are trying to isolate Turkey completely from the region. To avert such a catastrophic scenario, Turkey and Libya’s legitimate government signed an agreement on maritime boundaries. The agreement enables both Turkey and Libya to preserve their rights and interests in the Eastern Mediterranean waters.

    This political move showed the world how dialogue and negotiation achieve a win-win situation for all parties. However, certain forces, such as Egypt, Greece and others were surprised by the agreement and became disenchanted about their designs aimed at isolating Turkey from its neighbourhood. There is a good reason for that: the deal between Turkey and Libya will likely restrict their unwarranted greed for the Eastern Mediterranean’s resources. Therefore, the conflict in Libya will likely intensify, as the Eastern Mediterranean dispute will have a spillover effect on this conflict. Turkey will likely increase its support for the legitimate government in Libya while preserving its sovereign rights in the Eastern Mediterranean. On the other hand, the anti-Turkey forces have already been supplying the warlord with all sorts of weapon systems. However, they might add the size and speed of their supplies.

    The United Nations’ role

    The United Nations Security Council has been indecisive and was not able to agree on a resolution calling for a ceasefire in Libya. In the interim, many international players were fuelling the conflict by sending arms to Haftar despite an official UN arms embargo. Meanwhile, the United Nations has been ineffective in enforcing sanctions against countries interfering in Libya. If the UN continues to sit on the fence, allowing Haftar’s backers to continue providing him with support, this conflict will expand and may escalate beyond its current location. In the meantime, the Libyan people will continue to suffer from this ongoing conflict. Since April 2019, thousands of Libyans have been displaced, and many innocent people have been killed.

    The more Haftar continues to receive financial and military support from various countries, the more likely this war will continue, and it will make it harder to undertake a credible process of national reconciliation. Therefore, the elimination of the aforementioned external support for Haftar could weaken his power on the ground. Additionally, cutting his supplies could make the war more expensive to wage for him. In turn, this would facilitate the efforts to implement fully the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA), which remains the only available politically negotiated settlement for this conflict. The long-term struggle in Libya may not end soon, as the country has become a hub for a proxy war. However, Turkey’s determination to be more involved in Libya worked wonders. It created a new momentum for peace and gave a new life to the UN-led political process. Chancellor Merkel’s invitation to President Erdogan to the Berlin Peace Conference is a tribute to this game-changing decision.

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