On the cliff edge of a new stage of the Libyan conflict

Why Washington must act

Security members inspect the site of an overnight air strike, which hit a residential district in Tripoli, Libya October 14, 2019.  REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny

For much of its course, the war in Libya passed through deserts and rural areas, rarely reaching cities. The war has been carried out by relatively few combatants — rather, the conflict has been marked by the use of drones, as well as long stalls on the battlefield. In April of this year, Libyan Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar — who leads the armed wing of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives — launched an offensive on the capital of Tripoli, marking a major new stage of the country’s now almost eight-year civil war. In the months since, at least 1,000 people have been killed in the fighting, including around 200 civilians. An estimated 128,000 have been displaced.

Now, a possible new phase of the conflict puts 1 million people at imminent risk. After weeks of stalemate, the conflict has started to move inside the capital, with bombings intensifying in the core of the city. Tripoli could soon experience even more deadly urban warfare. With the international community still in a state of deadlock, Washington must push harder for a ceasefire.

The futility of international summits

In October, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Libya — facing an ongoing institutional vacuum — was going to become the “main terrorist hub in North Africa where this disease [terrorism] may spread into other countries and continents.” At the beginning of December, sitting at the Mediterranean Dialogues Conference (MED) in Rome, he claimed that before organizing any other conference on Libya — referring to the one slated to be held in Berlin next year — international leaders should take into account the agreement signed last February in Abu Dhabi by Libya’s two leaders: Fayez al-Serraj in the name of the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, and Haftar in the name of the House of Representatives (HoR). At previous junctures, the two have agreed in principle to the creation of a new presidential council, the drafting of a new constitution, and fair sharing of oil incomes. Since none of that has yet materialized, many international actors see additional conferences as a waste of time.

During the MED, Special Envoy of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya Ghassam Salamé emphasized the deterioration of the situation on the ground in Libya in the last few weeks. Both sides are increasing their use of drones, artificially increasing an otherwise small number of soldiers and fighters. Since Haftar launched his Tripoli offensive on April 4, his Libyan National Army (LNA) has launched around 800 drone attacks, while the GNA has launched about 270. In recent weeks, the aerial bombardments have increased, above all those directed towards the center of Tripoli, which was spared until now. Salamè has said that they are getting closer and closer to the most populated area, meaning there is a real chance of carnage.

Foreign footprints in Libya

If the fight really reaches fully urbanized areas, meaning the core of the city, the type of warfare will change completely, with people fighting street by street. Russian mercenaries fighting on Haftar’s behalf have exacerbated the violence in recent weeks. (For that reason, the GNA is collecting the names of the estimated 600-1,400 Russian fighters on the ground in order to create a list to present to Moscow.) They brought expertise, weapons, and ruthlessness. On behalf of al-Serraj’s GNA, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is now threatening to send troops to Tripoli to help. Last week, the two leaders signed a strategic agreement on new maritime borders in the Aegean, triggering Greece’s wrath and prompting the ouster of the Libyan ambassador to Athens. Rumors say that a new shipment of weapons from Ankara to Tripoli may be coming, as Turkey has done in the past.

But unless Turkey provides even stronger help, GNA militias in Tripoli face a particularly grim situation. A street fight is completely different from fighting in rural areas: The casualties (including among civilians) will grow exponentially.

The deep divisions within the international community have prevented the call for a ceasefire. The Security Council has met 15 times since the war began in 2011, but with no meaningful effect. Instead, the external interference has become more and more intense: The U.N. arms embargo has been violated at least 45 times since the beginning of the conflict.

For this reason, Salamé has changed his strategy, which for the last 18 months had focused on domestic issues. He has asked for a short truce, strongly urged a serious gathering of the five permanent members of the Security Council to find common ground on the Libyan crisis, and called for an intra-Libyan dialogue without any foreign intrusion. In his formulation, a follow-up committee would monitor the ceasefire, through intelligence and control on the ground, without the use of U.N. forces.

The Libyan case clearly shows the profound polarization of the international community, which is also evident in the cases of Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and elsewhere. In the meantime, Russia — which believes that its Western counterparts are absolutely unreliable, as Lavrov claimed at the MED — is pursuing a more aggressive strategy in the region.

The key role of the US    

The United States has strong moral weight on the international scene, and its absence has given way to far more ruthless powers. The U.N. Security Council has not even agreed to a call for a ceasefire in Libya, which is emblematic. In recent days, the tension on the ground has intensified, in large part due to increased Russian and Turkish maneuvers.

That is why the U.S. government should take a serious stand against Haftar’s moves and issue an international condemnation against him, following the state of Virginia’s example. The White House, State Department, and Pentagon must synchronize their approaches and send a unified message. None of the four international conferences about Libya have yielded meaningful results, and what is now needed is a real commitment regarding the role of external actors and a strong U.N. call for an immediate ceasefire (which, as Salamé suggested, should be monitored by a neutral and international body working with both sides).

The only heavyweight capable of accelerating this process is the United States. An internationally accepted and controlled ceasefire would hopefully mean a real stop of external intrusions. Those intrusions — mostly mercenaries and arms — have been fundamental for Haftar’s ability to fight independently.

Finally, the White House should understand that Libya is not just the perfect safe haven for every terrorist: Libya is an important chance to show the world the positive potential of American diplomacy, a notion that has been lost recently in the morass of Yemen and especially in Syria.