Two rival governments. One thousand drone attacks. Fifty thousand registered refugees. Civil war has been raging in Libya since last April, when the self-styled Libyan National Army, led by General Khalifa Haftar, launched an offensive on Tripoli, Libya’s capital city. The internationally-recognized Government of National Accord of Libya, led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, still holds Tripoli, for now.
Syrian soldiers, Russian mercenaries and Emirati drones are all engaged in the fighting, while the United States and European Union watch from the sidelines. So what exactly is happening in Libya?
Post-Qaddafi, nine years of instability
In January 2011, the Arab Spring, a pro-democracy protest movement, began to engulf Tunisia, followed by Egypt. Libya was embroiled in a civil war by February, with Tripoli under rebel control by March. Longtime dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi spent months on the run before his capture and killing in October 2011.
After nearly half a century in power, al-Qaddafi’s death left behind a power vacuum, with armed militias fighting for control. Libya moved slowly toward democracy, but in 2014, Libya’s supreme court ruled that year’s legislative elections to be unconstitutional. The newly-elected Tobruk-based parliament rejected the ruling and a rival legislative body sprung up in Tripoli, setting off a new civil war. It’s still going.
And it got worse last April, when Haftar launched his “Operation Flood of Dignity” offensive against al-Sarraj’s frail Tripoli-based government. The attack sparked a fresh wave of fighting, currently held back by a feeble, two-week-old truce brokered by Russia and Turkey.
It’s not just Libyans fighting in Libya. Who’s who?
The United Nations has thrown its metaphysical weight behind al-Sarraj. But on the ground, the internationally-recognized government gets most of its support from Turkey.
Much of that support comes in the form of armored vehicles and drones. This month, however, the Turkish parliament authorized the government to deploy Turkish troops to Libya for one year. Within the week, Turkey started deploying troops, some of which are Syrian, according to recent news coverage.
Behind Haftar stands his primary supporter, the United Arab Emirates, providing him with drones, aircraft, military vehicles and an air defense system. Egypt also sends weapons and provides logistical support. Russia backs Haftar as well, opposing Turkey again in an intractable civil war eerily similar to the one raging in Syria, which was also sparked by the Arab Spring. Russia has sent thousands of mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a private paramilitary organization.
In a Jan. 15 report, the U.N. Support Mission in Libya linked mercenary fighters with increased violence. But more professional fighters are being lured to Libya by paychecks, including a new wave of Sudanese mercenaries.
France, Italy, Jordan and Qatar are also involved.
“Take your hands out of Libya”
The U.N. wants everyone out. Earlier this month, the head of the U.N. Support Mission in Libya called on other countries to “take your hands out of Libya,” adding, “There are enough weapons in Libya; they do not need extra weapons. There are enough mercenaries in Libya, so stop sending mercenaries…”
Libyans want outside troops gone too. One bank clerk told The New York Times, “We Libyans don’t want Turkish or Syrian or Russian or any other foreign troops… We just want the issue to be resolved.”
Where does oil come in?
Even as Haftar and al-Sarraj battle over Tripoli, both leaders also have their eyes on (and troops in) Libya’s profitable oil fields, which the national economy depends upon heavily. The country has the ninth largest oil reserves in the world, and the largest in Africa.
Powerful tribes allied with Haftar have taken major export terminals along Libya’s eastern coast, as well as oil fields in the south and a major pipeline last weekend. Libya’s national oil company said that port terminals along the eastern coast were still closed Monday. Each day they’re closed cuts production by 800,000 barrels and loses the country $55 million in income.
The U.S. remains quiet on Libya, but the news of continued closures led the U.S. Embassy in Libya to tweet that they risk “exacerbating the humanitarian emergency in #Libya and inflicting further needless suffering on the Libyan people,” adding that “operations should resume immediately.”
What’s happening to Libyan people?
It’s not looking good. About 284 civilians have been killed, many in the more than 1000 drone strikes launched since the April offensive. According to the January U.N. report, nearly 400 people were injured and over 140,000 forced out of their homes. Over 230,000 people are still in “immediate front-line areas” and another 380,000 are living in “directly impacted” areas.
Law and order has crumbled, increasing violence against women, drug trafficking and arms sales. Conditions in Libya have sparked condemnation by human rights groups.
Is there a plan?
Last Sunday’s U.N.-sponsored talks in Germany were only marginally effective. Leaders of 12 countries agreed not to interfere in the conflict, support a ceasefire, honor an oft-broken U.N. arms embargo and support a peace process mediated by the U.N.
Haftar and al-Sarraj were both in Berlin, but didn’t attend the talks or talk to each other. One Libya specialist told ABC the summit ended with “absolutely none” of the “concrete mechanisms” needed to build a sustainable truce. Negotiations on a more sturdy ceasefire are set to begin this week.