Escalation in Libya’s south could be harbinger of worse things to come

Sunday 23/04/2017

Escalation in Libya’s south could be harbinger of worse things to come

Fighting erupted in southern Libya as Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) attempted to seize the Tamenhant airbase on the outskirts of Sebha from militia forces from Misrata loyal to the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA).

The clashes between the major factions vying for power in Libya are indicative of the potential for dangerous and rapid escalation in the conflict.

The offensive on the airbase is the latest attempt by Haftar to expand his forces’ control over the country and weaken the GNA. There have been numerous reports of air strikes and ground clashes resulting in casualties and death on both sides.

Complicating the situation, forces loyal to former Prime Minister Khalifa al-Ghawi — who seized several ministries in Tripoli earlier this year in a push against the GNA — have reportedly joined the fight against Haftar’s army.

Haftar claims that Tamenhant was used as a base for the Beng­hazi Defence Brigades (BDB), which seized key Libyan oil termi­nals in the Gulf of Sidra from his army in March. GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj denied any links to BDB’s offensive on the army’s position at the oil facilities.

This latest move by Haftar may indicate a belief that, after retaking the oil facilities in March, he can seize the Tamenhant airbase and erode the GNA’s support in the south before setting his sights on Tripoli. However, this would be mis­guided.

Haftar was only able to reclaim the oil facilities after receiving air support from the outside. He does not have the military capability to take control over the entire country and it is not clear that his international sponsors would commit to such an effort.

Despite the weakness of the UN-backed parliament, Misratan militias in the south are unlikely to abandon the GNA in favour of Haftar.

In reality, there is no military solution to the conflict in Libya. Further escalation will only produce more violence.

However, as long as the interna­tional community remains on the sidelines in Libya and implicitly allows certain heavyweights to lend military support to proxy actors on the ground, clashes like those surrounding Tamenhant will continue and will likely worsen. Absent unified interna­tional action to make clear to all parties in Libya that military action is not the way forward, Haftar will continue his efforts to consolidate power.

Notably, the violence in the south prompted a warning from Sarraj that the country is “on the brink of civil war.” In a letter to the United Nations, the European Union, the Arab League, the African Union and the Organisa­tion of Islamic Cooperation, Sarraj called urgently for the interna­tional community to intervene “to end the deterioration of the situation” in the south. He added that his government would “support all decisions to re-estab­lish security and stability in Libya.”

The move by Sarraj reflects the fact that the international community cannot simply sit back and watch Libya unravel. This was not the first time that Sarraj has called on the international community for help; in February, he sent a formal request to NATO to help build up Libya’s security and defence systems.

While progress in these sectors and Libya’s transition more generally have been slow and painful, Sarraj was correct when he said that the fighting in the south “threatens everything that has been achieved on the path of national reconciliation and stability in Libya.” The outbreak of a fully fledged civil war would condemn Libya to further deterio­ration, threaten the country’s fragile neighbouring countries and leave Europe with a failed state on its doorstep.

Unfortunately, Sarraj’s call for international intervention is unlikely to have any major effect. UN leadership is severely weak­ened. The European Union seems interested in Libya only insofar as migration stemming from North Africa is considered a security threat. Different members in the Arab League support opposing sides in Libya’s conflict, and neither the African Union nor the Organisation of Islamic Coopera­tion have played a significant role.

Still, key international actors certainly recognise the danger of violence in the south. A statement by the ambassadors to Libya of the UN Security Council’s permanent members warned of renewed conflict, called for de-escalation and reiterated commitment to the UN-sponsored Libyan Political Agreement. The European Union called for an end to clashes that endanger the country’s political process. France, which has important interests in the south of Libya, independently issued a similar statement.

Until now, this has been the pattern in Libya: Escalation leads to international statements calling for an end to violence and stating support for the toothless UN-led negotiation process. This cycle seems to be playing out as fighting escalates in southern Libya. The danger is that Libya will surpass the “brink” and Sarraj’s warning of civil war will become reality.

For that reason, the interna­tional community would do well to seriously heed his call. Unfortu­nately, US President Donald Trump’s comments that he does not see a role for the United States in Libya does not inspire confi­dence. Still, this pattern of escalation and international rhetoric must eventually break. Based on the current conditions, when this happens, it may very well be for the worse.