Khalifa Haftar’s recklessness could compound coronavirus threat to Libya

    The relentless attacks and revolving door of mercenaries widen Libyans’ exposure to the pandemic.

    Libya has confirmed its first case of the coronavirus. Years of violence have left its healthcare system notably vulnerable. The World Health Organisation representative in Tripoli has warned of the significant risks faced if Covid-19 spreads in a country where ongoing conflict will make combating an outbreak very difficult. The United Nations and other countries, including the UK, the European Union, the US, Tunisia and Algeria, are calling on the warring parties to stop fighting to make it easier to deal with the virus. Despite the ceasefire deal, Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar and his self-declared ‘Libyan National’ Army (LNA) continue to fire rockets on various Tripoli neighbourhoods and at least five civilians were killed just a few days back. The attacks came just days after Haftar expressed his commitment to a humanitarian pause in fighting against the UN-backed government in Tripoli, so authorities could focus on stopping the spread of the virus.

    Instead of halting the offensive on humanitarian grounds after the first Covid-19 case was confirmed, Haftar’s forces seem intent on continuing their assault. Refugees and migrants are the most vulnerable groups in the event of an outbreak. Countries, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt and France have long supported Haftar financially and militarily. The arrival of Russian mercenaries and air support from the UAE have introduced a new element and exacerbated the conflict since September last year. In the face of another offensive on Tripoli, the GNA requested Turkey’s help and Ankara responded. Turkey stepped up its efforts to deploy military advisers and sent armed drones. There are only a handful of countries, like Turkey, which honour their pledges and support the UN-backed government in Libya.

    To counter Turkey’s support to GNA, Haftar has formalised its alignment with the Syrian regime, allowing his militia groups to purchase technical advice from Damascus using material and diplomatic rewards. Reportedly, Russian private military contractor Wagner has been recruiting Syrians since last January to fight alongside forces loyal to Haftar in Libya. A mercenary from southern Syria told the Financial Times that he has been recruited to fight in Libya and was promised $1,000 a month to protect facilities, rising to $1,500 a month for missions. Haftar’s alliance with the Assad regime resulted in Syria’s Cham Wings Airliner to open an office in Benghazi. Libya’s internationally recognised government has accused Cham Wings of exposing the war-torn country to coronavirus by bringing Syrian fighters connected to Wagner, as well as elements of Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, into the eastern city of Benghazi to support Haftar.

    Mercenaries from countries like Syria and Iran is a source of concern considering the amount of cases in Iran and the unknown extent of the spread in Syria. If their worst fears materialise, a health catastrophe is likely to take place in Libya due to the country’s degraded health system. UN Secretary-General António Guterres has called on all sides to stop the fighting. The virus has incapacitated UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) activities in the country. This situation may prevent hundreds of vulnerable migrants from accessing humanitarian aid in the country, especially those in refugee camps. Oil is the lifeblood of the Libyan economy and the country’s primary source of revenue. Haftar has been trying to use it as a trump card. Forces loyal to Haftar seized large export terminals and choked off major pipelines in January, aiming to choke the UN-backed government of significant revenue.

    As a result, the Libyan National Oil Corporation (NOC) has lost over $3.5 billion since January 17, with daily losses at more than $1.1 million. It warned of a looming fuel shortage, given the internationally recognised government’s potential failure to pay for imports such as medical supplies which could make it harder to battle coronavirus. The peace conference held in Berlin in January 2020 to persuade Libya’s warring sides, as well as their principal international backers, to agree to a ceasefire and respect a UN arms embargo failed. In the eyes of many observers, the conference represented an abject failure as some countries continue to provide military assistance to Haftar.

    International involvement from the UAE, Egypt, France and Russia is exacerbating the conflict, making the process of national reconciliation elusive. Notably, the UAE has stepped up its air support to the warlord, which enables him to maintain pressure on government forces. According to some reports, the UAE has made a 3,000-ton delivery of military equipment to Haftar’s forces over the last few weeks. It is also believed that the number of Emirati personnel in Libya has increased. Such support has also emboldened Haftar to reject any and all ceasefire offers, let alone a long-term political settlement, preferring instead to seize the entire Libyan territory by force.

    What Libya urgently needs now is a permanent ceasefire to prepare itself for Covid-19 outbreak otherwise Libyans could face devastating consequences. It is essential that the US and the EU heavily pressure the UAE into reducing support for Haftar, who is seen by many as the principal obstacle confronting the unity of the country. If not nipped in the bud, this conflict could expand and escalate beyond its current confines. In the meantime, the Libyan people will continue to suffer from this on-going conflict.

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