Libya has witnessed eight years of chaos and disaster since the arrival of the Arab Spring and the assassination of its longest serving ruler Muammar Gaddafi on October 20, 2011, during the Battle of Sirte by rebels.
Since then the situation in the country has deteriorated heralding internecine battle for control of power with different warring factions raising their heads from time to time. Over the years the situation has been such that today no one knows who is fighting, shattering peace and tranquility of the country.
According to Libyan observers, it is sheer greed for power that is driving rival groups, goons and mercenaries to kill their own people. It is fast becoming a graveyard of empires.
The crux of the Libyan quagmire is that there is absence of a centralised authority that can have command and control over the entire country. Today the main fight is between the Government led by Field Marshal Khalifa Belqasim Haftar based in central and eastern Libya, spearheaded by his Libyan National Army (LNA), and the Government of National Accord (GNA), an interim Government for Libya, headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, constituted under the terms of the Libya Political Agreement, a UN initiative signed on December 17, 2017.
On April 4, when UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres landed in Tripoli to take part in a peace conference that would have finally made the groundwork for much delayed elections in the war-torn country, the city witnessed devastating attacks by General Haftar.
The warlord Khalifa Haftar, who controls eastern Libya, has never disguised his ambitions. Once one of Muammar Gaddafi’s generals, he returned from exile in the US when the dictator fell in 2011, attempted to launch a coup three years later, repeatedly declared his intention to take Tripoli and has said that his country may not be ready for democracy.
Malta based economist Lawrence Zammit said that one needs to state that the fundamental reason for the current conflict in Libya is an economic one – who will control the reserves of oil and natural gas of the country. The European Union has sought to push for a political solution to the issue. However, the EU cannot take a major foreign policy decision unless all members agree. And in this case, France is backing General Haftar for its own economic reasons. This has nothing to do with democracy in Libya. It has to do only with oil and gas.
Effect on Libyans
Haftar apparently hoped to flip the ragbag of militias on which the GNA relies and saunter into Tripoli. But with his self-styled Libyan National Army stalled on the outskirts, the cost of his ambitions is becoming clearer. Libyans, who endured decades of Gaddafi’s rule followed by the bloodshed and turmoil after his overthrow by rebels with Nato support, now face a new chapter of suffering. More than 260 have already died, including civilians, and many more are wounded. Around 32,000 people have been displaced. Refugees held in the country’s brutal detention camps have also suffered. Last week’s attack on an LNA airbase in the south served as reminder that the attack on Tripoli may well ignite fighting elsewhere.
Yet Libya’s crisis is not Libya’s alone. Both Russia and the US blocked a British-led ceasefire security council resolution critical of Mr Haftar. Donald Trump, who held a chummy phone call with him, is merely the latest to succumb. Mr Haftar needed external backing to launch this attack, and it appears unlikely that he can manage a protracted campaign without such support. Weaponry appears to be pouring in for both sides. His advance on Tripoli happened shortly after he visited Saudi Arabia, where he was welcomed by King Salman and Mohammed bin Salman. The UAE has been a particularly enthusiastic provider of arms and military support. Egypt is another backer. Both countries are believed to have lobbied the US on his behalf.
More shocking, perhaps, is that while France claims to be a mediator, it has repeatedly bolstered him, clashing with other EU members and in particular with Italy. The two European countries have competing oil interests at stake. But France also seems to have believed Mr Haftar’s hype, which casts him as a Sisi-like strongman who can unify and stabilise his country, clamping down on extremists and stemming the flow of migrants through it. In truth, he himself relies on Salafist militias, looks far less mighty than his backers hoped, and in his recklessness and authoritarianism is more likely to further fracture and inflame his country. The military “solution” they perceive is no such thing.
The American U-turn — Donald Trump terming General Haftar’s role as significant in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources — has surprised the global community. The EU leaders still hope that the US will reconsider Trump’s surprise expression of support to Haftar.
As economist Lawrence Zammit, wrote on The Times this week, trouble in Libya does spell a big threat to us.
Malta no longer depends on Libya’s cheap oil like it did at the time of Gaddafi and Mintoff. However, there is still a significant Maltese economic presence (by our standards) in Libya. Maltese businesses have learnt how to keep on operating in Libya in spite of the political uncertainty.
However, this last armed conflict may lead to France, Russia and the US, together with some countries in the Middle East, exerting such a big influence in Libya with a view to sharing the economic spoils. Moreover it is not guaranteed, that once the current conflict is settled (probably with the victory of General Haftar’s forces), each of these three countries will not seek to edge the other two out, thereby leading to further conflict.
Our country cannot afford to have such conflict on our doorstep. Admittedly, as the President of Malta said, Malta can only exert “moral pressure”. Otherwise we are just spectators watching the situation unfold, with all the threats that it brings about.
Within a global context, we can also note that we are putting the clock back to the 1970s and early 1980s, when the foreign policy of the leading nations was not guided by concepts such as human and minority rights, but by their desire to have the largest possible share of the economic pie.
As smoke and dust plumes covers the capital city of Tripoli, one can imagine how badly the dogfight has begun among the rival groups.
The way ahead for Libya is to settle for a unity Government based at Tripoli. But much before this, majority of the rebel groups need to be tackled. Equally important is to neutralise jehadis, else chances are they will keep on appearing on Libya scene to disrupt peace.