Late last month world leaders met in Berlin to discuss securing a political solution to Libya’s intractable civil war. Heiko Maas, Germany’s foreign minister described the Berlin conference as perhaps the last chance to stop Libya turning into a ‘Second Syria’.
Yet despite lofty promises by international leaders to de-escalate the conflict and respect countless United Nations resolutions and arms embargoes, the Conference collapsed into an all too familiar acrimony. Fayez al-Sarraj, the Prime Minister of the United Nations Government of National Accord (GNA), and Khalifa Haftar, the Commander of the Libyan National Army, who lays rival claim to control in Libya refused to be in the same room, talks collapsed, and hostilities resumed hours later.
Haftar and Sarraj both view the solution to Libya’s crisis in military terms, and their respective international patrons prove ever willing to support the sword over the pen to achieve their aims. Until foreign actors move beyond paying lip service to international agreements and commit to extricating themselves from the conflict, international resolutions and treaties on Libya will be worth little more than the paper they are written on.
The presence of foreign militias and actors in Libya has been of longstanding concern. However, recent months have seen foreign patrons play an increasingly direct role in the conflict- moving from a largely advisory capacity to exerting a stronger on the ground presence.
In December, Turkey began sending Free Syrian Army troops to Libya as part of its efforts to bolster the GNA, while reports note the large number of direct military flights taken between Abu Dhabi and LNA controlled Eastern Libya since the start of this year.
However, recent months have seen foreign patrons play an increasingly direct role in the conflict- moving from a largely advisory capacity to exerting a stronger on the ground presence.
In some ways, patterns of affiliation and support mirror long standing geopolitical competition in the Middle East and North Africa. Support provided by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for Mr Haftar fits into a long-term strategic agenda of attempting to thwart the influence of political Islamists in the region.
As a corollary, Qatar and Turkey have lined up behind Mr Serraj’s GNA to outfox their rivals in the Gulf, a strategy sweetened by GNA promises of privileged access to Libya’s enormous oil wealth.
European powers, too, have picked varied allegiances in the conflict. French arms sales to the Gulf have reached record highs, helping indirectly support Mr Haftar’s attempts to seize sovereignty by force alone. Yet France has also increasingly aligned itself with Abu Dhabi and Riyadh ideologically, hoping to sponsor ostensibly secular authoritarian strong men in the region to thwart Islamist influence.
Italy, meanwhile, attempting to stem the flow of migrants from Libyan ports to its own shores has continued to provide support to the GNA, who it sees as best able to undermine smuggling operations. As in Syria, Russia has hoped that its presence in aid of Mr Haftar will be repaid at a later date, offering access to prime Mediterranean real estate.
European powers, too, have picked varied allegiances in the conflict. French arms sales to the Gulf have reached record highs, helping indirectly support Mr Haftar’s attempts to seize sovereignty by force alone.
Although European and Middle Eastern actors see themselves as having a significant stake in Libya’s conflict, its repercussions may be felt most acutely in the states of the Sahara and Sahel that border the country’s South. This region has become, since the end of last decade, increasingly fragile, unstable and violent. A progressive deterioration of governance in Libya augurs especially badly for an uptick in the fortunes of struggling states like Sudan and Chad.
As recent reporting by the International Institute of Strategic Studies, a think tank, makes clear, Sudanese and Chadian militias have increasingly involved themselves in Libya’s conflict. It is believed that Sudanese rebel groups from that country’s troubled Darfur region, as well as the government backed paramilitary, the Rapid Support Forces, may both be operating in Libya in support of Mr Haftar’s LNA.
An armed Chadian movement, the Military Command Council for the Salvation of the Republic, committed to the overthrow of long-term Chadian President Idriss Déby operates in southern Libya in support of the GNA with covert Qatari backing. Nina Pouls, an analyst of East African politics notes that ‘the presence of Sudanese militias is difficult to explain if we would look at possible ideological connections between the parties and Haftar’s forces’.
The participation of Sudanese and Chadian militias is most likely explained by material incentives. As Ms Pouls suggests, participation in overseas conflicts allows Sudanese armed groups to ‘significantly strengthen their military capabilities’, allowing them to ‘obtain new equipment and engage in large scale recruitment of new fighters.'
'...participation in overseas conflicts allows Sudanese armed groups to ‘significantly strengthen their military capabilities’, allowing them to ‘obtain new equipment and engage in large scale recruitment of new fighters.'
The presence of such groups in southern Libya, a region with existing tensions between Arab tribes and non-Arab minorities threatens to upset an already fragile social fabric and worsen Libya’s conflict. Just as importantly, it allows foreign mercenaries to enrich and equip themselves to continue to wage violent conflict on their return to their country of origin.
Though Sudan’s transitional government has pledged to make a negotiated peace in Darfur a priority, the strengthening of active armed groups such as the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (al-Nur) based on their involvement in Libya is a potential risk in a fragile state.
After 2011, arms, personnel and technology imported into Libya to overthrow Colonel Qaddafi’s long-standing regime trickled southwards, bringing untold destruction to Mali and the Greater Sahel region.
As foreign mercenaries spy opportunities to enrich themselves in the chaos of Libya’s long lasting conflict, an already precarious situation may deteriorate further. International hand wringing and false promises have brought unnecessary suffering to the people of Libya. Lasting solutions are necessary to prevent this national tragedy from engulfing an oft forgotten region.
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of Al Bawaba News.
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