What Lies Behind the Nine Years of Turmoil in Libya
South African National Defence Force (SANDF) personnel walk past a Roikat and an Olifant main battle tank, left, manufactured by OMC Engineering Ltd., at the Africa Aerospace & Defence Show (AAD2014) at the Waterkloof Air Force Base in Pretoria, South Africa. (Photographer: Dean Hutton/Bloomberg)  

What Lies Behind the Nine Years of Turmoil in Libya

Oil-rich Libya has been in perpetual turmoil since the 2011 NATO-backed revolt that ended 42 years of rule by strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi. In April 2019, military commander Khalifa Haftar and his forces marched on Tripoli determined to unseat the internationally backed government located there. The war accelerated intervention in Libya by Turkey, Russia and neighboring countries as they maneuvered to shape the future of the OPEC member state, and it could escalate into a direct confrontation between Turkey and its allies against Egypt and Russia. The Tripoli-based government proposed a cease-fire in late August.

1. Who’s vying for power in Libya?

Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj came to power through a 2015 United Nations-backed political deal. But a rival government set up in eastern Libya and aligned with Haftar. His coalition of regular troops and militias, called the Libyan National Army, took the cities of Benghazi and Derna by late 2018 after drawn-out battles from militants affiliated with al-Qaeda. Haftar gradually extended his grip over the country’s east and then the south, giving him control of major oil resources. In 2019 Haftar moved on the capital, and in January 2020 allowed supporters to shut down much of the country’s oil production. Turkish military intervention forced him to retreat to central Libya in June. More than 2,000 people were killed and tens of thousands displaced by the fighting for Tripoli.

2. What’s the status of the conflict?

With the support of more than 1,000 Russian mercenaries, as well as Sudanese militiamen, Haftar had appeared poised to enter the capital until Turkey escalated its intervention this year in support of the internationally recognized government. Turkey sent in more armed drones, surface-to-air missile defense systems, naval frigates and thousands of allied Syrian militiamen. Its allies dealt Haftar’s forces a series of defeats, culminating in the takeover of his last strongholds near the capital by the first week of June 2020. Haftar’s forces are now concentrated in the coastal city of Sirte and the central Libyan Juffra airbase. Egypt said it would send in its army if Turkey and its allies attack the new front lines, proposing a ceasefire in June. Haftar accepted, but the Tripoli-based government said it first intended to take back Sirte. At the end of August, the government declared its own truce.

3. Why did Haftar launch the battle?

Haftar had been vowing for years to take Tripoli, after a failed coup attempt in 2014 forced him to set up base in the east. The UN, U.S. and other powers had hoped to stave off a Tripoli offensive by negotiating a political agreement between Haftar and the internationally recognized government. Haftar’s advisers said they didn’t trust Sarraj to abide by a power-sharing deal that would lead to elections, and accused him of being beholden to militias and extremists. They complained that oil revenue was distributed unfairly, to the disadvantage of the historically marginalized east. Sarraj’s government has responded to the extremism charge by pointing to its cooperation against terrorism with the U.S. and other Western countries, and to the success of forces loyal to the government in driving Islamic State from Sirte in 2016. It accuses Haftar of seeking to restore military dictatorship.

4. Who supports the two sides locally?

Haftar has the support of the main tribes in the east. The head of the eastern-based parliament, Aguileh Saleh, has an uneasy alliance with Haftar, although lawmakers are split. Sarraj’s government is supported by militias in Tripoli and in neighboring Misrata, as well as the powerful forces of former defense minister Osama al-Juwaili from Zintan. Both sides increasingly rely on foreign patrons.

5. How have countries in the region picked sides?

The UAE and Egypt supported Haftar despite initial misgivings about an offensive they predicted would turn into a quagmire. Both saw him at the time as a reliable strongman who could end Libya’s chaos, and they’re opposed to some of Sarraj’s Islamist allies, including the Muslim Brotherhood, which defines itself as non-violent but is considered subversive by some Middle Eastern governments. Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan embraces the Muslim Brotherhood and has enjoyed good relations with Sarraj. Ankara has secured from his government recognition for a maritime boundary between Libya’s exclusive economic zone and waters over which Turkey claims jurisdiction. That in turn may pave the way for Turkish access to a disputed gas-rich patch of the eastern Mediterranean, and has unlocked a surge in military aid to Libya.

6. Where do Russia and the U.S. come in?

Initially, Russia kept contacts with both sides while promoting Qaddafi’s son Saif as a future president. By September 2019, however, Russia shifted to flat-out support for Haftar despite its reservations about a figure who had connections with the CIA during a 20-year stay in the U.S. More than 1,000 mercenaries with the Wagner group, headed by a confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin, are assisting Haftar. In late May, the U.S. military’s Africa Command said Russia had sent jet fighters to eastern Libya to support Haftar, in its most overt intervention yet. At the start of the fighting, the U.S. had sent mixed messages to the Libyan rivals. The Russian involvement has prompted it to press more forcefully for a peace deal.

7. What’s happening with oil production?

Libya sits on top of Africa’s largest oil reserves. Until January, output had stabilized at more than 1 million barrels a day, still well-below the 1.6 million barrels a day produced prior to the 2011 uprising. When Haftar’s supporters shut down production in January, it cost the Tripoli-based central bank billions of dollars in lost revenue. After U.S. and UN mediation, the Libyan state oil company lifted force majeure briefly in July but was forced to reimpose it after Haftar’s forces laid down a series of conditions for the resumption of production, chief among them a mechanism to evenly distribute the revenue.

8. What are the prospects for peace?

Haftar has accepted an Egyptian-proposed ceasefire and political initiative, after spurning previous truce attempts. The Tripoli-based government announced a ceasefire on Aug. 21, in a call reciprocated by Saleh, the head of the eastern-based legislature. Haftar’s forces say they are still committed to the truce but question the sincerity of their rivals. The U.S., UN and others are seeking to mediate an agreement to demilitarize Sirte and resume oil production.

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