Conflict Developments in North Africa
It has been nearly ten years since the ‘February Revolution’ and NATO-backed rebellion which toppled Colonel Qadhafi from power. After years of fighting, on 23rd October 2020, representatives of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libyan National Army (LNA) agreed to a permanent ceasefire. Whether the fragile peace will hold is contentious, and reliant on the actions of Libya’s internal rivalries and external backers. By: Anton Witchell-Chibber
The Story So Far
It has been nearly ten years since the ‘February Revolution’ and the NATO-backed rebellion which toppled Colonel Qadhafi from power. In the years that followed, hopes were high that political powers, transferred to the democratically elected General National Congress, would bring peace, stability and political freedom to the country. Instead, the country descended into violent conflict, with two rival governments vying for power and influence, each connected with their own unique assortment of militia groups and external state sponsors – each armed to the teeth with heavy weaponry.
On one hand, there is the UN-backed Tripoli-based GNA, formed in 2016 and led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj. On the other are the forces led by Chief-of-Staff General Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Benghazi-based LNA, who backs the House of Representatives government in Tobruk. Since 2014, when Haftar launched ‘Operation Dignity’ to rid Benghazi of extremist Islamist militia groups, his forces have been able to sweep through and gain control over vast swathes of eastern and then southern Libya – including the bulk of Libyan oil production outside of Tripolitania.
With indirect command of around 25,000 fighters and 80% of the country, in April 2019, Haftar commenced a 14-month offensive on Tripoli in a gamble to deliver a crushing blow against the GNA. Without support from the UNSC, Libyan GNA Prime Minister Serraj requested support from his ally Turkey which, in January 2020, sent a reported 100 troops, 2000 Turkish-backed Syrian National Army fighters and Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones to halt the Tripoli offensive. Turkish warships hugged the Mediterranean coast, deploying jets and launching missile strikes against Haftar’s forces, whilst aerial defense equipment, including surface-to-air missile systems, were installed at GNA-controlled airports.
The GNA, whose power had extended little beyond Misrata and the coastline between the capital and the Tunisian border, was able to take the strategic cities of Tarhuna, and of Sabratha and Sorman to the northwest. In tandem, they were able to successfully disrupt the flow of fuel, food and weapons to Haftar’s strongholds, and put him on the retreat. In June, both sides firmly dug-in along the front-line at Sirte, a strategic gateway to Libya’s lucrative oil reserves– where they remain today.
Ceasefire and De-Escalation
Perhaps sensing the possibility of escalation, remarkably, representatives of the GNA and LNA, following five days of discussion in Geneva, were able to agree to a ‘permanent ceasefire’ on 23rd October and endorse the conclusions of January’s Berlin Conference on Libya. Stephanie Williams, head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), has called the deal ‘an important turning point towards peace and stability in Libya’, which includes provisions to exchange prisoners, open up domestic flights and land transit, form a joint military force under a unified command, implement a DDR programme for all militias, and an agreement for ‘all military units and armed groups on the front lines’ to ‘return to their camp’. Most significantly, the deal has called for ‘the departure of all mercenaries and foreign fighters from all Libyan territories, land, air and sea, within a maximum period of three months from today’ (23rd October) and for the freezing of foreign security agreements.
Talks were continued after a meeting of the joint military commission on 2nd November in Ghadames to discuss monitoring the ceasefire and authenticating violations, which are the first face-to-face negotiations between the factions in Libya since Haftar’s assault on Tripoli. These come ahead of UN-facilitated political talks scheduled to commence on 9th November in Tunis, known as the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF), which will include representatives from many of Libya’s ethnic, political, tribal and social groups. The Forum aims to settle a consensus on a political roadmap for Libya with the end goal of parliamentary and presidential elections to restore democratic legitimacy to the nation’s institutions.
Will the Peace Hold?
There have been numerous negotiated ceasefires over the past nine years, and it is difficult to ignore the plethora of occasions where such efforts have failed. For example, the 12th January 2020 ceasefire, proposed by Turkey and Russia, according to UNSMIL, had been violated 110 times by the month’s end. Peace will demand a great degree of trust, however, since Haftar’s surprise assault on Tripoli – launched as the UN Secretary General was finalising preparations in the city for a national reconciliation conference – some in the GNA camp have come to see Haftar as an unreliable negotiating partner.
What will be especially difficult will be ironing out rivalries within each of the competing assemblages. The GNA and the LNA are not monolithic actors, but messy coalitions, with alliances, regularly formed out of convenience. Whilst Haftar may have a grip over the East, in the South, his authority is unstable and relies predominantly on the cooperation of local armed groups – many of which threw their support behind him believing that he could prevail in Tripoli. After his failed assault – and depending on the outcomes of peace negotiations – some may turn against him.
Likewise, as the GNA’s Presidency Council, from the beginning, did not command any regular security forces, this left the government reliant on nominally loyal armed groups for protection. In western cities such as Misrata and Zintan, each hosts several militia cartels, each vying for influence in Tripoli, where alliances change constantly for factional gain, access to state funds, the establishment of protection rackets, and appointments in ministries of the GNA. Even a day before the October ceasefire was announced, the GNA’s media chief Mohamed Baayou was kidnapped by the Tripoli Revolutionaries – one of the major Islamist militias controlling Libya’s capital – to prevent media de-escalation measures outlined in the ceasefire agreement.
Perhaps a greater threat to Libya’s fragile peace is the influence of foreign actors. In July 2020, the UN Secretary-General warned that the conflict was entering ‘a new phase’, with foreign interference reaching ‘unprecedented levels’. It is no secret that Libya’s fragmentation has made it susceptible to external intrusion – a behaviour which has, over time, become normalised and overt. With the involvement of Qatar, Italy, and Turkey in support of the GNA, and Egypt, Russia, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Israel, and France in support of Haftar, the conflict in Libya risks becoming a geopolitical chess game between competing foreign actors. And whilst both sides have committed to the departure of foreign fighters and the freezing of security agreements, it is not clear that foreign states will agree to back off so easily.
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Anton is a contributing analyst at Dyami.
He has a post-graduate degree in Conflict Studies & Human Rights from Utrecht University and has specialist knowledge on Chinese foreign policy and sectarian conflict in fragile states.