Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 July 2019

What is happening in Libya? The escalating violence explained

After years of instability, who are the main players fighting it out in Libya and why?

There has been escalating violence in Libya as Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA) seek to capture Tripoli and seize military control of the country, sparking fears of another civil war.

Mr Haftar's forces have been carrying out a multi-pronged attack from the south and west of the capital since Thursday, just over a week before United Nations-sponsored talks are to be held to attempt to map out a path to fresh elections.

US forces were evacuated from the Libyan capital on Sunday and Mr Haftar’s forces claim to have captured Tripoli’s international airport in the southern part of the city.

A government divided

Libya is currently split broadly between two administrations, the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) under prime minister Fayez Al Sarraj, which is based the capital Tripoli, and the House of Representatives based in the eastern town of Tobruk.

The House of Representatives, who were elected in 2014 but withdrew to the east after fighting broke out, were recognised by the international community until its term expired.

In 2015, the UN-brokered Libyan Political Agreement to merge the House of Representatives with the rival GNA. It led to the creation of the Presidential Council, a nine-member body that selects members of the GNA and is headed by Mr Sarraj.

According to the terms of the agreement, the House of Representatives, was to be subsumed into the GNA as its legislative body. The split comes from the fact that the Tobruk administration has not passed the needed amendments to fully implement the deal. Instead, it backed the eastern government headed by Abdullah Al Thinni and recognised Haftar’s Libyan National Army.

A country awash with arms

After a civil war led the removal of long-time leader Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, the country was left with dozens of militias and the country fractured as the groups battled each other for control of their own fiefdoms.

Efforts to unify these disparate groups had varying levels of success.

The LNA was formed to replace the Qaddafi-era military. Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar was appointed to lead the force, which had only a few thousand soldiers at the time, but he presided over the rapid training and restructuring of the new military with the help of European and Nato countries.

The LNA spilt in 2014 when Mr Haftar launched an operation to clear the Islamist-Libya Dawn coalition, the hardline Islamist Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries and local affiliates of ISIS in Libya.

Field Marshal Haftar is still backed by the Al Thinni administration in Bayda and many senior members of the Tobruk House of Representatives, but is not as supported in the west of the country.

The LNA is currently sweeping through the country and are marching on the capital. Mr Sarraj's GNA has no military but a loose coalition of militias has mounted a defence against the LNA.

Elements of the air force that also back the Tripoli government have carried out air strikes against LNA soldiers.

The LNA’s southern push and the lead up to the Tripoli offensive

Field Marshal Haftar has built up an intricate web of tribal alliances and local deals to bolster the LNA, who say their force has 85,000 active soldiers. He has the backing of numerous international players and Egyptian pilots have previously carried out airstrikes to support his forces in battle.

Earlier this year, the LNA launched a southern push that was billed as a battle against foreign forces and terrorist groups. Spokesman for the force, Ahmed Al Mismari, told Bloomberg that it was also about securing the country’s oil regions.

In 2016, Field Marshal Haftar secured the country’s main oil terminals from armed groups who had been holding the vital facilities hostage for two years. The move stabilised the country’s ability to export its reserves, but insecurity and protests at major oil and gas fields – especially in the south – meant the supply was still being interrupted.

Once the operation in the south largely completed, although far from consolidated, the LNA pushed west towards Tripoli.

Ramon Penas
Ramon Penas

UN-backed stabilisation plan

The UN has been meditating for two years in a bid to help the country hold elections and end the split between east and west Libya.

Mr Sarraj and Field Marshal Haftar met in Abu Dhabi in February and agreed to ensure stability in state institutions and to work towards elections this year.

The UN's special envoy to the country, Ghassan Salame, told the Security Council that the meeting had brought about a “crucial juncture” that could end the long-running division between the two Libyan administrations.

The LNA’s eastern push began shortly after UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres arrived in Tripoli last week to finalise preparations for a two-day conference that will be held on April 14. It is aimed at building a roadmap for elections that it is hoped will be held later this year.

The UN is insistent that the talks will still go ahead — barring a major roadblock — but the fighting could undermine any attempts to secure a deal.

Repeated efforts to bring stability to Libya have failed, often due to the lack of control that the political actors who attempt to broker the agreements have on the ground.

“The reality is that the most powerful faction … the eastern-Libyan camp led by Field Marshal Haftar, follows a military logic,” Jalel Harchaoui, a Libya analyst, told Reuters in March. “For Haftar, diplomatic forums are just a space where losers are asked to accept his ascendancy.”

Updated: April 8, 2019 04:00 PM

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