With no end in sight for the humanitarian crisis in Libya, NATO’s intervention may prove the only solution in finding peace and in halting other countries’ interference.

Ferhat Polat 20 May 2020


Libya has been mired in fighting since mid-2014, three years after NATO members served as the air force of the revolution that toppled long-time Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi.

While the conflict escalated, Libyan Warlord Khalifa Haftar and his self-declared ‘Libyan National Army’ (LNA), announced in December 2019 that a "decisive battle" had been launched to capture the capital Tripoli from the internationally-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA).

This latest offensive comes 13 months after he launched an earlier military attack to seize the capital.

The ongoing fighting, the use of fighter jets and drone strikes have caused a humanitarian fallout but led to no clear advantage for Haftar's forces. So far, the international community seems unable to prevent Haftar's multiple transgressions against civilians.

According to the UN, in this last year alone, Haftar's war on Tripoli has killed thousands in their homes and displaced over 200,000 civilians.

Haftar's LNA continues to shell residential areas, most recently bombs hit a shelter for displaced people in Libya's capital Tripoli.

Health authorities said on Sunday that at least seven people were killed in the latest attack, including a 5-year-old Bangladeshi child.

Latest developments

UN-backed government forces have recaptured al Watiya, a key military base on the outskirts of the country’s capital from Haftar’s LNA, dealing a significant blow to the warlord’s military and its morale as well as his ambitions to rule the country by sheer force.

The air base was captured in 2014 by Haftar, who used it as the headquarters for his attacks on the UN-backed government.

This is seen as a strategic victory for GNA, and it might finally bring about some tangible change in current military dynamics.

This victory could allow the UN-backed government to project power over western and southern Libya, such as moving down towards the south of Tripoli, to Tarhuna, which is the last stronghold of Haftar's offensive. All indications are that Haftar's militias are on the retreat.

Turkish support has been vital for the GNA, and it has had a hand in changing the balance of power on the ground. This does not mean the war is over.

It is predicted that Haftar’s backers, particularly the UAE, might continue to provide him with more resources and mercenaries in order to push him to maintain his last stronghold in the west of Libya.

After a period of neglect, NATO seems concerned over the increase of violence against civilians in Tripoli.

Recently, Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary-General, held a phone call with Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al Sarraj to discuss the latest developments in the country.

The NATO chief confirmed the military alliance's readiness to support Libya by building defence and security capacities. In addition to that, the NATO secretary also spoke with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week.

The leaders discussed the possibility of a NATO capacity building mission in Libya.

The vacuum

In 2018 NATO established the security program and pledged to advise the UN-backed government in the field of defence and security institution-building.

NATO also confirmed that it would provide any help in close coordination with other international efforts, including those of the UN and the European Union.

However, the political deadlock and ongoing humanitarian crisis has now entered its ninth year in Libya, and there is no obvious end in sight.

The UN has been encouraging diplomatic efforts, while the failure of previous initiatives, the arms build-up, and Haftar's history of undermining political solutions, make it harder for any credible diplomatic effort in Libya to take hold.

NATO could therefore actively support the UN-backed government for two principal reasons. Firstly, the GNA is the only legitimate government, and therefore it seems to be the Libyans' and NATO's best bet for an inclusive, responsible option for establishing long-term stability.

Secondly, the longer NATO is out of the picture, the more the powerful alliance becomes redundant in such a vital geographic location.

In fact, some of the regional and international actors including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Russia and France have been filling the vacuum left by NATO to further their interests regardless of the cost to international peace and stability.

As a result, NATO’s prolonged absence could exacerbate the conflict, keeping the prospect of national reconciliation elusive.

There is a general belief among many Libyan analysts that a lasting political solution could be possible as long as external actors and nation states stop interfering in Libya in ways that give priority to their interests over those of ordinary Libyan people.

The international community's lack of coherent policy led to countries like Egypt, France, the UAE and Russia finding it easier to introduce themselves in the conflict.

For instance, French support for Haftar, which is primarily based upon furthering its economic interests and political influence, is also using the mantra of counter-terrorism to justify its position.

By backing Haftar, who is seeking to return Libya to a one-man military rule and dictatorship, France is in direct contradiction with the democratic principles for which Paris purports to stand.

Meanwhile, Turkey has long supported the UN-backed GNA diplomatically, economically and with its security. There are very few international players that have given the same level of assistance to the UN-backed government.

Turkey's diplomatic and military intervention altered the course of events and precipitated what appears to be a growing effort to find a political solution in Libya.

Given the circumstances in Libya, NATO should provide complementary support to the GNA and in close coordination with other international efforts, including those of the UN and the EU.

However, NATO’s commitments of support to Libya have mainly been rhetorical so far, with no actionable policies in place.

The alliance has failed thus far to work effectively with the UN-backed government for stabilising Libya after its 2011 mission.

Will NATO general secretary, Jens Stoltenberg's initiative to support the UN-backed government lead to a significant breakthrough? It's too early to tell, but if there was genuine action, it would be a constructive step towards a long-lasting settlement effort.

*This article was originally published on TRT World's Opinion Section.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.