15 May 2019

Libyan Conflict: An arena of competing interests and proxy wars

Ongoing fighting in Tripoli between the UN-backed GNA and General Haftar’s LNA threatens to turn Libya into an arena for competing international interests and proxy wars.

The offensive by General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) to take Tripoli is the biggest military campaign in Libya since the overthrow of former leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Despite Haftar’s intention to swiftly take control of the capital, armed groups allied to the Government of National Accord (GNA) have halted his offensive and both sides are now locked in a stalemate. The current episode of fighting will entrench already deep-rooted divisions and make a political solution to the crisis more difficult in the near-term, and the protracted conflict risks entrenching regional interests and turning Libya into a deeper proxy war.

On 4 April, General Khalifa Haftar ordered his LNA – an unofficial army made up of a collection of militias – to advance on Tripoli, however, following over four weeks of fighting against forces allied to the GNA, the LNA’s offensive has failed to breach Tripoli’s southern defences and make inroads in the capital. Ignoring international efforts to bring about a political solution to the current crisis, both sides have intensified their military operations resulting in a stalemate which shows no sign of resolving. According to figures released on 1 May by the World Health Organisation (WHO), at least 376 people, including 23 civilians, have been killed and 1,822 others have been injured since fighting began. A further 39,000 people have been displaced and an unconfirmed number of people remain trapped in conflict areas. These figures are likely to increase as Haftar believes that a successful military campaign is the only solution for Libya. Aside from the impact on civilians, the current crisis is likely to embed pre-existing political divisions and is another setback on Libya’s transition. Ultimately, Haftar has betrayed the United Nations (UN) peace process and his Tripoli offensive has taken a political solution off the table.

Both camps have approximately the same number of aircraft and the same number of fighters on the ground, with the LNA being made up of around 25,000 troops, including 18,000 militiamen, while the GNA relies on 18,000 militiamen from Misrata, 1,500 members of the Tripoli Special Deterrence Forces and 1,800 fighters from the Nawasi militia. The stalemate in Tripoli has led both sides to expand the conflict into other areas. Misratan militias have reinforced their deployment in parts of central Libya and have carried out airstrikes on Haftar’s supply chains south of Sirte. Meanwhile, the LNA has attempted to cut off the road connecting Tripoli with Misrata to prevent the GNA-allied militias from reinforcing defences in Tripoli. With costs mounting for both sides – Libya is already one of the most indebted countries in the world – the GNA has tried to limit Haftar’s access to hard currency, with the Central Bank imposing special checks on four eastern banks, including three in the LNA stronghold of Benghazi. As the stalemate continues and costs accumulate, the battle for Libya’s critical infrastructure and natural resources becomes increasingly important. Haftar’s forces have already demonstrated their ability to target airports and in the past have taken control of oil terminals, many of which are secured against militant attacks by his forces. A prolonged conflict appears increasingly likely, and fighting will entrench animosities between the sides and complicate any future political negotiations between Haftar and the GNA.

A protracted conflict runs the risk of turning into a proxy war as multiple foreign actors look to secure their interests in Libya. While numerous countries condemned the escalation in hostilities during the early days of the conflict, the international community has failed to take any substantial action to condemn Haftar or force a ceasefire. The United States (US) and Russia on 18 April refused to support a British-drafted UN Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire, the US not outlining their reasons for doing so and Russia refusing to back a resolution solely blaming Haftar for the escalation. The failure to condemn Haftar has emboldened him, as has a phone call from US President Donald Trump. Haftar’s LNA likely has military and logistical support from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and political support from Russia and France, while the GNA is internationally recognised by the UN and maintains support from Italy, Turkey and Qatar. According to the UN, at least 10 countries are intervening in Libya and providing arms to different parties despite the current UN arms embargo. A protracted conflict threatens to disrupt international oil supplies, potentially create a new migration crisis for the European Union and embolden Islamist militants across North Africa and the Sahel region, which could in turn lead external actors to take a more direct role in the Libyan conflict.

The military stalemate looks set to continue for the foreseeable future as neither side appears capable of claiming an outright victory. This raises the likelihood of a prolonged conflict with innumerable casualties and will increase resentment between the many Libyan factions. Foreign support for either the GNA, Haftar and the LNA or any of the armed groups currently operating in Libya will prolong and complicate the crisis and further undermine the UN’s attempts to broker a political solution. The fighting in Libya has international ramifications, threatening to turn the Libyan arena into a deeper and even more complex web of interests and proxy wars.

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