Libyan government calls for foreign intervention as fighting spreads

Sunday 23/04/2017
Military option. Libyans demonstrate in support of eastern Libya’s troops commanded by military strongman Khalifa Haftar, on March 17. (AFP)

Tunis - Libya’s UN-backed govern­ment has appealed for “urgent intervention” from the international community to prevent civil war as armed forces from Lib­ya’s main rivals battle for control of a key airbase.

Libya’s security situation has not been helped by lack of progress in mediation efforts by the country’s neighbours while tensions over North Korea and the war in Syria have drawn US attention away from Libya, political analysts said. That could lead to Russia attempt­ing to replicate its Syrian interven­tion in Libya, they said.

Clashes erupted April 12 after Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who heads eastern Libyan factions but has national ambitions, attacked militias loyal to the UN-brokered Government of National Accord (GNA) to capture the Tamenhant airbase.

The airbase is near Sabha, which is a front line between Haftar’s Na­tional Libyan Army (NLA) and his allies and the GNA’s loose alliance of forces that include the powerful Misrata militias.

“This sudden and unjustified escalation… puts the country on the brink of civil war,” GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj said in an open letter to international organi­sations, including the United Na­tions, the European Union and the Arab League.

Sarraj pleaded for “urgent in­tervention from the international community to end the deteriora­tion of the situation in southern Libya.”

The call has proven controversial in Libya, helping Haftar consoli­date his political base, especially in the east.

Libyans have been wary of for­eign intervention since the 2011 NATO-backed uprising that oust­ed long-time dictator Muammar Qaddafi, leaving the country with­out a central government and in the hands of militias and authori­ties vying for control of the oil-rich North African country.

Algerian security analyst Zine Cherfaoui said: “At a time when the world has eyes on the risks of glob­al wars in Syria and North Korea, Libya is slipping gradually into civil war after the failure of the inter­national community to reconcile rival camps in Tripoli and eastern Tobruk.”

“Both camps see the front-line base as crucial for their strategies to take the battles further to con­trol Tripoli and seize main oil fields and export terminals in the east,” said Cherfaoui.

“Military experts interpret the efforts by Haftar to take control of Tamenhant as part of military ma­noeuvring to later besiege Tripoli and defeat the GNA there,” said Khider Cherif, an Algerian security expert in Libya.

Libyan military analyst Milad el-Mzoughi said Haftar’s forces moved to take over the Tamenhant airbase to “neutralise militias loyal to the GNA and clear their threats to seize again the oil terminals in the east.”

Mzoughi argued that, if Haftar controlled the base, it would help his allies in the neighbouring re­gion of Fezzan.

“Fezzan region is politically linked to Tripoli, which is why the GNA had pushed all its forces to de­fend the Tamenhant and Jufra bas­es. If the GNA loses the two bases it loses control of the south,” he said.

The GNA, which was established following a UN-brokered agree­ment in late 2015, has been unable to assert its authority across Libya.

GNA Defence Ministry spokes­man Mohamed al-Ghasri said the GNA requested the international community to establish a no-fly zone in the south.

Ghasri was the commander of the Misrata militias aligned with the GNA during their battle to uproot Islamic State (ISIS) fighters from Sirte last year. During the 4-month battle, the United States conducted air strikes, British intelligence pro­vided logistics support and Italy stepped in with medical assistance.

The city was left in rubble, with most ISIS fighters scattering into other regions, including Tripoli, Ghasri said.

The turmoil in Sirte is frequently cited as a reason to reject foreign intervention but analysts said there were no signs of foreign military in­tervention and that hopes for suc­cessful mediation in the conflict by Libya’s neighbours were growing dimmer, amplifying the risk of civil war spreading from the front line near Tamenhant.

“European powers could be the ones leaning towards an interven­tion in Libya, not the United States, because of the pressures to defend European interests in Libya,” said Libyan political analyst Khaled al- Gerboui.

The Tobruk-based parliament rejected the call for international military intervention, describing it as a violation of Libyan sovereignty.

Sarraj’s call was also the source of concern among Libya’s neighbours.

“Is Sarraj blind to the dangers his call represents for Libya and its neighbours?” asked Algerian daily L’Expression, which is close to the Algerian presidency. “No one, whether Libya or its neighbours, would be served by military adven­ture replacing the option of politi­cal dialogue.”