Alarming disconnect between diplomatic maelstrom and situation on the ground in Libya

Since the Berlin conference, the number of Syrian mercenaries dispatched by Turkey to Libya is believed to have more than doubled.
Sunday 16/02/2020
A man checks a shell-pocked wall in a street that was reportedly hit during shelling by forces loyal to Libyan National Army in Tripoli's Batata neighbourhood, February 13. (AFP)
Bullet-riddled. A man checks a shell-pocked wall in a street that was reportedly hit during shelling by forces loyal to Libyan National Army in Tripoli's Batata neighbourhood, February 13. (AFP)

TUNIS - Since the beginning of the year, the disconnect between events inside Libya and those outside the country could not have been starker.

There have been international meetings and conferences, all designed to bring peace to Libya but, inside the country, despite a national truce, the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli and the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, appear to be moving towards fresh fighting.

Arms and equipment, as well as mercenaries, continue to be supplied by foreign backers to both sides, despite promises at the Berlin Conference on Libya in January not to do so.

Buoyed by the presence of Syrian mercenaries and militants deployed by Turkey, which has provided officers and military specialists to direct them, the GNA is believed to be planning a counteroffensive to break the LNA’s siege.

There are reports of a major force gathering in Misrata, under radical commander Salah Badi, intent on recapturing Muammar Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte, which fell to the LNA in early January.

Since the Berlin conference, the number of Syrian mercenaries dispatched by Turkey to Libya is believed to have more than doubled. In mid-January, the figure was put at approximately 1,000. Now, estimates of the number range from 2,500-6,000.

There were unconfirmed reports of Syrian government fighters heading to Libya to fight with the LNA. This raises the bizarre prospect of Syrians fighting Syrians in Tripoli.

Turkey installed air defences at Tripoli’s Mitiga airport and at Misrata airport, both of which also function as military bases. Turkish drone attacks were reported on LNA forces near Sirte, possibly ahead of Badi’s reported offensive. The drones are thought to be based at Misrata.

Since the Berlin conference, the pace of international activity on Libya has accelerated. Under the direction of the UN Support Mission in Libya and its seemingly indefatigable head, Ghassan Salame, there was the 5+5 military meeting in Geneva from February 3-8 with five commanders chosen by Sarraj and five chosen by Haftar to find a way to a permanent ceasefire. On February 9-10 there was a gathering in Cairo of Libyan officials and businessmen to plan economic reforms. At the same time, in Addis Ababa, the focus was on the crisis in Libya at the African Union summit.

The UN Security Council adopted two resolutions on Libya. The first extended sanctions on Libya relating to the illegal export of crude oil and allowing member states to inspect vessels in open waters. The other endorsed the results of the Berlin conference, calling for a lasting ceasefire and demanding an end to all intervention by member countries in the Libyan conflict, including the provision of mercenaries.

At the same time, during a hearing at the US Senate in Washington on US-Libya policy, Democratic and Republican senators expressed concern that Russia was making inroads into Libya and said that had to be reversed.

The hectic international pace continues. An invitation went out from German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and Salame for a follow-up to the Berlin conference on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference.

The political track meeting, February 26 in Geneva, is to be attended by 13 members each from the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR) and the Tripoli-based State Council plus 14 others invited by the United Nations.

The HoR appears to be dragging its feet on attending, with the head of its Foreign Affairs Committee saying there may not be enough time to choose delegates. However, it is thought that the names will appear at the 11th hour and delegates will turn up.

On February 18 there is to be another meeting of the 5+5 military committee which, at the last meeting, failed to agree to a permanent ceasefire, and of the economic track in March.

Neighbouring Tunisia and Algeria are coordinating policies on Libya, following Algeria’s suggestion to the African Union that it should host a Libya conference. Morocco is also said to be planning a Libya conference.

The diplomatic maelstrom is in stark contrast with what is happening in Libya where there is little more than lip service to international efforts to end the crisis.

Tripoli is suffering in many ways. International Committee of the Red Cross President Peter Maurer, who recently visited Tripoli, said the number of displaced in the city, officially put at 150,000, was much higher, possibly 200,000.

The city faces economic as well as social collapse. With the LNA offensive into its 11th month, the United Nations said 220 schools and 13 health facilities have been closed.

Maurer said one-quarter of all Libyans need assistance in areas such as health facilities, water, housing and education. The assessment does not consider the closure of the oil refinery at Zawia, west of Tripoli, because of the closure of the oil pipeline from the Sharara oilfield in south-western Libya by forces linked to the LNA in January.

Although a large proportion of petrol and other fuel is imported by Libya, the refinery produces a significant amount of petrol, diesel and other much-needed fuel for the local market.

The shutdown was expected to result in further power outages and associated cuts in the water supply.

The fear that a major battle just ahead continues to push Tripoli residents to seek safety elsewhere. The number of Tripoli-registered vehicles on the streets in Tunisia is visibly on the increase.

While the indications are that both sides are gearing up for war, despite international efforts in the other direction, the disconnect within those efforts is playing a major part.

One observer recently suggested that, like the legend of Emperor Nero playing his fiddle while Rome burned, the international community is doing the same while Libya burns. Although, perhaps, in this case, it is a complete orchestra that is playing, with several performers playing completely different tunes but pretending to follow the same score. The result is a dangerous cacophony, not a symphony.