A Massive Proxy Military Escalation is Taking Place in Libya

Published May 28th, 2020 - 05:34 GMT
A military parade in Benghazi on May 7, 2018 /AFP
A military parade in Benghazi on May 7, 2018 /AFP

As forces aligned with Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) recaptured Al-Watiyah base in the country’s West from Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), a telling image circulated on social media accounts.

A picture snapped at the airbase showed a Pantsir Russian missile defence system, placed on the back of a German military truck, procured to assist Haftar’s forces by the United Arab Emirates, perfectly encapsulating the internationalisation of Libya’s protracted conflict. As Libya watchers have long noted, the path to peace and stability in the war-torn country will have to be paved as much in Moscow, Abu Dhabi and Ankara as in Tripoli and Tobruk. Yet the events of recent weeks suggest that hopes for de-escalation and disengagement on the part of international backers will likely be dashed once more.

 

In January of this year, states with interests in the conflict met in Berlin to make lofty pledges on bringing Libya’s conflict to an end. Yet these commitments have proven insincere. Since January, thousands of tons of military hardware and personnel have streamed into the North African state. A European Union naval monitoring mission to enforce the arms embargo has proved half-hearted, undermined by both a lack of capacity and glaring divisions between European states over the country’s future.

A European Union naval monitoring mission to enforce the arms embargo has proved half-hearted, undermined by both a lack of capacity and glaring divisions between European states over the country’s future.

Libya’s protracted conflict continues to wreak havoc on the civilian population. More than 370,000 people have been internally displaced, and 213,000 civilians remain in frontline areas. Recent reporting by Human Rights Watch has documented the damage done to Tripoli’s health infrastructure by increased shelling in recent weeks as the World Health Organisation flags Libya as among the countries at highest risk from the COVID19 pandemic. The economic situation remains dire as analysts predict an already struggling economy to contract by more than 12% in 2020, as oil sales dry up and the world enters into a period of generalised recession. Yet as the Libyan people suffer, outside actors continue to fan the flames of conflict.

Yet as the Libyan people suffer, outside actors continue to fan the flames of conflict.

The international dimensions of Libya’s conflict are not new: ever since the events of the Arab Spring, regional and international rivals have involved themselves in the nation’s chaotic politics. Libya’s strategic location at the heart of Mediterranean and Maghreb presents opportunities to a range of actors.

Oil companies and their state backers see immense potential in Libya’s untapped reserves, Russian and Emirati logistics firms see lucrative prospects for development on the Mediterranean coast, and Gulf rivals seek to outmanoeuvre one another as they shore up support for actors aligned with their own visions of the region’s future. Yet the dynamics of the conflict have shifted decisively following more extensive Turkish involvement since late 2019. Turkish ground forces and military technology abound in Libya as Ankara trades support for the GNA for acknowledgement of its energy claims in the Eastern Mediterranean and promises of fulfilment of the estimated $25 billion worth of frozen Turkish construction contracts in the country.

Turkish ground forces and military technology abound in Libya as Ankara trades support for the GNA for acknowledgement of its energy claims in the Eastern Mediterranean and promises of fulfilment of the estimated $25 billion worth of frozen Turkish construction contracts in the country.

Turkish involvement appears to have paid dividends. Since mid-April, GNA aligned forces have reclaimed strategic towns in Western Libya, made advances in contentious suburbs of Tripoli and helped reclaim the Al-Watiyah airbase.

Tim Eaton, a Senior Research Fellow at Chatham House, notes that the events of recent weeks have showed ‘how much Turkish support has changed the balance of power on the ground’. Such high-profile military successes will allow GNA forces to more closely concentrate on dislodging pro-Haftar forces from remaining strongholds in the West of Libya such as Tarhouna.

Image released by US Africa Command of Russian MiG in Libyan airspace

Yet hopes from international observers that this pushback by the GNA might encourage Mr Haftar’s Libyan National Army and its backers to pursue a potential ceasefire and de-escalation already appear sunk. Federico Borsari, a Middle East and North Africa researcher at the Italian Institute for International Politics suggests that Turkey’s increased involvement in the conflict may encourage the further military commitment from international rivals, auguring ‘the possibility of a dangerous escalation of the conflict’.

Turkey’s increased involvement in the conflict may encourage the further military commitment from international rivals, auguring ‘the possibility of a dangerous escalation of the conflict’

The LNA’s air force chief Saqer al-Jaroushi noted last week that ‘All Turkish positions and interests in all occupied cities will be targeted’ and reports have emerged that Russian Mig29 and Sukhoi 24 aircrafts flown into Eastern Libya from Syria. Stephanie Williams, the acting UN envoy in Libya issued a stern warning at the UN Security Council this week: ‘From what we are witnessing in terms of the massive influx of weaponry, equipment and mercenaries to the two sides, the only conclusion that we can draw is that this war will intensify, broaden and deepen’.

Libya’s conflict which has attracted less headlines than developments in Yemen and Syria looks poised to shift in new directions. Important questions remain to be answered. For instance, it is unclear how strategic setbacks will affect internal developments within Haftar’s LNA. As Mr Eaton notes, ‘Libya’s conflict does not pit two unified rival camps against one another but is instead a conflict between loose networks and shifting alliances’.

reports have emerged that Russian Mig29 and Sukhoi 24 aircrafts flown into Eastern Libya from Syria

While Haftar pressed forward and achieved significant military success after April 2019, local actors saw tactical utility in aligning with him, but as his forces are pushed backwards, communities in Libya’s East may increasingly tire of committing their sons to unsuccessful offensives and see putting their lot in with Haftar as no longer a useful trade-off.

However, the GNA’s reliance on Turkish support may prove problematic in the long run, stoking historic anti-Turkish sentiment and, as Mr Eaton notes, ‘further buttressing the view that the GNA is solely reliant on international backing’. The future of international engagement in Libya also remains unclear. Whilst it shows no signs of abating at the moment, Federico Borsari suggests that COVID19 may prove a ‘structural game changer’.

The enormous economic hit taken by Turkey and the UAE in recent months may affect their willingness to continue to commit material and manpower to Libya, as they push to redirect scarce resources to quelling unrest at home. Yet events of recent weeks suggest that such shifts in calculations may not prove immediate. Even if international backers lose their appetite to commit to an unwinnable conflict in Libya, chances for long term peace and stability look remote.

The enormous economic hit taken by Turkey and the UAE in recent months may affect their willingness to continue to commit material and manpower to Libya, as they push to redirect scarce resources to quelling unrest at home

After close to a decade of political strife and conflict, building unified institutions with popular support appears more difficult than ever, and as the people of Iraq and Lebanon know all too well, convincing militias to lay down arms will require a degree of economic stability and opportunities in licit commercial activities that are sorely lacking. For now, conflict and fragmentation will likely remain central in Libya.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.


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