In Libya, the worst is yet to come

The low level of violence in Libya in recent days could be the quiet before the storm.

Last April, General Khalifa Haftar, backed by the United Arab Emirates, Russia and France, launched an all-out assault on the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), which is supported mainly by Turkey and Qatar.

A December stand-off on the edge of the capital led to a Jan. 12 ceasefire and a Berlin summit that sought to curb foreign interference and bring the warring factions closer to peace talks. Berlin was widely seen as a failure, and the ceasefire collapsed last week as Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) clashed with GNA militias east of the city of Misrata.

Now Libya could be facing its highest level of violence since the war began.

“The next phase of the war is going to be much more intense,” Jalel Harchaoui, research fellow at Dutch think tank the Clingendael Institute, told Ahval in a podcast. “The physical amount of foreign weaponry and foreign manpower injected into Libya over the last five to six weeks, on both sides, is absolutely without precedent.”

Flights between Syria and Benghazi have spiked of late, which Harchaoui thought could herald the arrival of more mercenaries from the Russia-backed Wagner Group, adding to the 2,000 or so already in Libya.

Two Turkish warships appeared off the Libyan coast this week as Ankara continues to send some 6,000 Syrian mercenaries to support the GNA. Turkey has since December supplied the GNA with air defence and jamming systems, hoping these would level the playing field, ensure the continued survival of the GNA, and perhaps curb the violence.

“That was the rationale, and I believe the rationale is completely off,” said Harchaoui. “What we have seen in January is unconditional, brazen support on the part of France for whatever the UAE chooses to do, regardless of the level of destruction.”

A drone shot down by the GNA last week was the first Emirati military drone to appear in Libya since the Jan. 12 ceasefire, marking a renewed commitment, according to Harchaoui, from the Gulf state. He is convinced that the main objective of the UAE is now to show the world Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was wrong to intervene militarily in support of the GNA.

“It could launch a shock-and-awe kind of assault from the air, to overwhelm whatever Turkey has been able to install since December. It could also use heavy artillery, which hasn’t really been used in the last 10 months,” he said.

U.S. Africa Command Chief Gen. Stephen Townsend said in a statement last week that Libya faced significant escalation as the interjection of troops from external actors like Turkey and Russia had left the international community paralysed. A detachment of U.S. marines left Libya as Haftar began his assault on Tripoli, and the Pentagon is planning a further reduction of its 6,000 troops across Africa, underscoring the erosion of U.S. influence in the region.

French officials have blamed Turkey for breaking its promises on Libya, while Turkish officials have in turn blamed France for the continuing crisis in Libya. The United Nations hopes to convene talks in Geneva between Libya’s two warring sides sometime soon, but few observers expect those talks, or any European effort, to alter the playing field in Libya.

“I don’t see any effort that is genuine and forceful in terms of diplomatic push from any Western nation,” said Harchaoui. “The U.S. has clearly shown that it doesn’t care. Russia is very limited, and the EU is completely caught in a very binary, simplistic and mostly false depiction of what is about to happen.”

Alexander Clarkson, lecturer on German and European Studies at King’s College London, said that European states have been playing a potentially malign role in Libya for years, pointing out that Italy helped set up the GNA in 2018, while France was backing Haftar.

“The various ways that the Italians and the French have fed in arms and cash has arguably contributed to various escalations and dysfunctions rather than improved them,” he told Ahval in a podcast.

Turkey has been backing the GNA to protect some $18 billion in Gaddafi-era construction contracts and out of an affinity between Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party and Islamist elements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, within the GNA. In addition, Turkey sees its maritime borders deal with the GNA, signed in November, as boosting its negotiating position for energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean.

The UAE has tied its regional strategy of countering Islamists to Haftar. On Sunday, LNA spokesman Ahmed al-Mismari said there was only a military solution to Libya’s conflict. That same day, Erdoğan said there was no military solution, even as his government was sending thousands of Syrians to join the fight.

Harchaoui sees Erdoğan as hostage to domestic politics, and unable to send Turkish troops to fight in Libya after three incursions into Syria. “If he sends actual Turkish boys and they die in Tripoli, it will create a huge backlash,” said Harchaoui. “He has no choice.”

Yet that might be the move that tips the scales in favour of Haftar. The UAE, Egypt and the LNA have for more than a year accused the GNA of importing Islamist fighters from Syria. Suddenly, that charge rings true.

“Those Syrian mercenaries - this is seen as a catastrophe by a lot of pro-GNA people,” said Harchaoui, adding that it had led to fracturing support within the GNA. “The GNA-aligned coalition is not one big happy family. Many fissures exist within it.”

Meanwhile, from the European perspective, the Syrian mercenaries make the U.N.-backed GNA look even more Islamist and more suspect. This has pushed countries like Germany, Cyprus and Greece into full-on support for Haftar.

“Everybody is absolutely obsessed with preserving their friendship with the UAE,” said Harchaoui. “The UAE is demanding in exchange the ability to do whatever it wants to do in Libya, and it’s obtaining that ability.”

So, the UAE has beefed up its support of Haftar, with assistance from France and potentially Russia, just as Turkey has significantly expanded its backing of a troubled GNA. There is a chance that these two massive arsenals could force each side to stand down.

“The more probable scenario is that the UAE may end up giving in and utilising, on behalf of Haftar, its new armada in northwestern Libya in order to penetrate Tripoli by force. In that case, the level of destruction, death and mayhem could be the most intense to date,” said Harchaoui, who wanted to make clear who would be to blame.

“The Europeans, particularly France, will be responsible when this happens.”


© Ahval English