Year Since Eruption of Civil War, Libya Still Mired in Chaos
Libya will mark on Saturday one year since the launch of the Libyan National Army’s operation to capture the capital, Tripoli. Throughout this period, the Libyan people have been caught in a fierce battle between the rival LNA and Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA). The fighting has left hundreds of innocent people dead and displaced thousands, oil production has come to a halt and vital infrastructure has been damaged. Today, another calamity can be added to the suffering: the novel coronavirus.
One year on, and several failed ceasefires later, "we are simply witnessing the decimation of a nation", said analyst Jalel Harchaoui of the Clingendael Institute in The Hague, according to AFP.
On April 4, 2019, eastern-based LNA commander Khalifa Haftar, launched his operation to rid Tripoli of pro-GNA militias and gangs, but his forces failed in achieving a lightening attack as he pledged at the beginning of the offensive. The war has now devolved into a battle on the outskirts of Tripoli.
In the past 12 months, the internal fighting was exacerbated with the intervention of foreign powers in support of both warring factions. Russia has backed Haftar and Turkey has moved to support the GNA. The United Nations' envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salame, threw in the towel in early March following the repeated failure of efforts to restore order, although he said his resignation was for health reasons.
Libya has been gripped by chaos for almost a decade, since longtime ruler Moammar al-Gaddafi was ousted in a 2011 uprising.
A Berlin summit in late January saw Moscow, Ankara and other foreign players engaged in Libya pledge to respect an arms embargo and support a truce. But barely 10 days later, Salame was denouncing violations and a continuous influx of foreign arms and mercenaries.
According to several observers, the GNA is still receiving military supplies and fighters from Turkey, while the LNA is receiving military gear, including drones and money, from foreign powers. At the start of his offensive, Haftar had accused the GNA of supporting Islamic and criminal gangs, accusations that have been supported abroad.
A political resolution to the conflict seems remote, said both Harchaoui and Wolfram Lacher, of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. They agreed that the international community would have to pressure the outside powers.
Lacher judged that for now "Western states are not ready to exert meaningful pressure. As long as this is the case, the prospects for a political solution are virtually non-existent."
As Haftar's offensive has so far failed to take Tripoli, said Harchaoui, the Turkish government has been able "to increase its presence and influence in the Libyan capital". Pro-Haftar forces have also shuttered the country's main oil fields and production has come to a virtual standstill.
In recent months, Erdogan sent hundreds of pro-Turkish Syrian fighters to battle the pro-Haftar forces. Ankara has also backed armed groups in western Libya, including in Misrata that does not want Haftar to seize power.
Armed groups from western Libya are fighting Haftar forces "in an existential battle", said Lacher. "The fear of war crimes, of collective punishment, of marginalization under dictatorial rule means that the forces fighting against Haftar won't give up easily."
A few days ago, the GNA even announced a counter-offensive paradoxically named "peace storm".
Fighting is still concentrated south of Tripoli and east of the coastal city of Misrata, after pro-Haftar forces in early January captured Sirte, some 250 kilometers (150 miles) away.
Fighting has intensified in recent days, despite the latest pledges by both sides to accept UN and international calls for a humanitarian truce to help contain the coronavirus.
The international community's "distraction linked to COVID-19 has accelerated and exacerbated this escalation which, in any case, was inevitable," said Harchaoui.
Libya has confirmed just a handful of cases so far, but the UN aid agency OCHA has warned it is "at high risk of the spread of COVID-19 given its levels of insecurity, weak health system and high numbers of migrants, refugees and internally displaced persons".
Fears of war and disease have piled on misery for the displaced, such as Fatma Khairi, who has taken refuge in a school building in the working class district of Abu Slim, in the south of Tripoli.
"I have a lot of trouble with the communal toilets where often there is no water or soap," she told AFP.
"My family and I live in dramatic conditions that I can hardly describe to you. The situation has become unbearable."