April 2020 marks one year since Khalifa Haftar launched an offensive towards Tripoli to expel its Government of National Accord (GNA). Seen as the next Gaddafi, by many, it was believed that he launched the campaign last year in desperation, as not doing so could have brought his political and military demise.
The offensive left more than thousand fighters dead on both sides, and forced more than one hundred twenty thousand people flee their homes to safer areas, according to World Health Organisation.
As of now, conditional ceasefire seems a distant dream. It was demonstrated by Haftar’s refusal to sign a Russia-Turkey mediated ceasefire document, during his visit to Moscow on 13 January, 2020. There was also a failure in two rounds of talks in Geneva, when United Nations organised a joint LNA-GNA military commission.
In the war, neither of the participants have been able to gain sizeable territories. Although, no major battles are going on right now, intermittent fighting has continued without any gains from either side. What one side loses in one week, it is likely to regain in the next, and vice versa. It has been the essence of this Libyan war until now.
Desperate to stay in power since the last twelve months, GNA has signed a security accord in Ankara, on 27th November 2019, where Turkey committed itself to supply the government with weapons and fighters. President Tayyib Erdogan had sent Syrian mercenaries alongside Turkish advisors to increase the GNA defenses. Turkey is also known to have atleast two drone command centres at Miatiqa Airport, east of the capital, and in Misrata, which have been attacked by LNA air force and foreign supplied drones.
There is also Russian involvement in the nine-year-old conflict. While Moscow is denying its role, it does recognise the presence of mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner Group, a secret security company, who are helping Haftar’s forces, although Libyan National Army says that it only deploys Libyan fighters. More than one thousand Russian mercenaries are said to be operating in Libya, according to U.S and Western officials. For Russia, Libya is also part of a strategy to extend Russian influence across the Middle East and Africa. With their expert snipers, high tech guns, and combat discipline, the Russians have inflicted a heavy toll on the pro-GNA militias.
In the absence of strong U.S. diplomacy and policies, Russia and Turkey appear well balanced to exploit the security and diplomatic vacuum, and control the fate of Libya, as they have done in Syria.
There is also interest of Italy and some other European nations in Libya’s civil war, although it is mainly driven by the Middle East’s latest divide, pitting the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Saudi Arabia (who support Haftar) against Turkey and Qatar (who support GNA).
The US has officially supported the Tripoli government without making any real commitments in the past. But, the official line has been blurred after President Donald Trump praised Haftar in a telephonic call: when this happened, there were large protests in Tripoli as a reaction.
One of the U.N. experts’ report also said that there is presence of Chadian and Sudanese fighters in Libya, which has become more marked, since 2019 and that they represent a direct threat to the country’s security and stability.
The interest of foreign nations, in the war, is with total disregard for UN resolution 2510, which calls all countries to refrain from sending any weapons to the North African country.
On a political front, nothing much is happening. Ghassan Salame, UN envoy to Libya, has resigned, and it has further complicated the war crises.
U.N. arms embargo is already in tatters, raising the peril of more civilian causalities. There are refugees who are now fleeing violence, spilling across borders and attempting dangerous sea journeys to Europe.
According to an Oped by Sudarsan Raghavan, “As the war has intensified, so has hate speech, disinformation and fake news as both sides seek to use propaganda as a weapon. It is dividing tribes and communities and fracturing efforts at reconciliation.”
When it comes to Haftar’s strength, there have been reports where it is believed that Haftar’s has lack of human resources, as evidenced by the transfer of six hundred police officers from Benghazi to the front lines on September 10, 2019. In the east, there is also some factional bickering between LNA units. After violently kidnapping Libyan MP Serham Sergawi, the whole act made Haftar a repressive figure.
The behaviour of his troops in the south has inflamed ethnic tensions, with the Tebu militias forcing the Haftar aligned Ahali to abandon Murzuq. The localised conflict has led to the displacement of sixty percent of town’s civilians and their families. UAE sponsored mediation between the Tebu and Haftar’s force is reported to have been collapsed, too.
Although, Haftar has means to recover in this war. His armed strength mostly comes from Gulf patrons, who also provide him an ideological cover. Political Islam also has played a role in Haftar’s military success and domestic appeal. Madakhali Salafism, a branch of Salafi Islam, named after Saudi theologian Rabee Al Madkhali, is cited as a critical ideology for Haftar. In April 2020, Madkhali, a prominent court sheikh of Saudi monarchy, released a voice recording calling upon Salafists in Libya to merge around Khalifa Haftar in his fight against the GNA.
The GNA also relies on Salafist militias, whose loyalty has been rewarded with vast security powers. For example, the Special Deterrence Force, headed by Abdul Rauf Kara, control the entrances to Tripoli and Mitiga International Airport, as militarised version of the late Saudi religious police, focused primarily on enforcing religious customs and morality. However, it has been accused, alongside other Tripoli based militias, of turning into criminal networks straddling business, politics and administration. Haitham Al Tajouri’s Tripoli Revolutionary Brigades (TRB) have also done extortion of central bank employees, kidnapping of government ministers, and done abuses at private prisons controlled by its forces.
Haftar’s forces have been no better than their adversaries. According to a report by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Crime (GIATC), the LNA have taken over the lucrative local economy for their own benefit through affiliated businessmen, extortion of bank employees and public servants, and sponsorship of militias engaged in the smuggling of migrants and oil products. The GIATC report also points out systematic smuggling of refined oil products by LNA affiliates and political figures in east Libya, reflecting that Haftar has accumulated enough power for action through Libya’s oil, by controlling significant installations in the south and east, even if his forces were defeated and forced to retreat from Tripoli.
Infact, Haftar, who once lived in exile in the US for more than a decade, and served the CIA, allowed loyalists to shut down oil production in January 2020, as he came under pressure to agree to a diplomatic deal to end the war.