By Samer Al-Atrush
Since the 2011 NATO-backed revolt in Libya that ended 42 years of rule by Qaddafi, the oil-rich North African country has been in perpetual turmoil.
The latest phase began in April, when military commander Khalifa Haftar and his forces marched on the capital Tripoli determined to unseat the internationally backed government located there.
The ongoing battle for the city has accelerated interventions in Libya by Russia and neighboring countries as they maneuver to shape the future of the OPEC member state.
More than a thousand people have been killed and tens of thousands displaced by the fighting for Tripoli.
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, gained fame for taking the cities of Benghazi and Derna from militants affiliated with al-Qaeda.
Haftar gradually extended his grip over the country’s east and then the south, leaving him in control of most of Libya’s oil fields and terminals.
After an attempt last year to sell oil provoked a warning from the U.S., Haftar restored control of the resource to the National Oil Corp. and revenues from it to the central bank, both of which answer to the government in Tripoli.
In April, Haftar moved on the capital.
What’s the status of the conflict?
Since the first week of fighting, the battle lines haven’t shifted much.
Backed by Turkish drones, forces loyal to the recognized government had several successes, including retaking the city of Gharyan, Haftar’s forward base over the summer.
Since then, they’ve struggled to hold their ground as hundreds of Russian mercenaries arrived at the front lines to support Haftar, bringing expertise in artillery and ground combat honed in Syria and the Ukraine.
Backed also by Sudanese mercenaries and United Arab Emirates’s drones, Haftar’s forces are trying to breach defensive lines in the Tripoli suburbs.
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 the two factions.
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 revenues were distributed unfairly, to the disadvantage of the historically marginalized east.
Sarraj’s government responds to the extremism charge by pointing to its cooperation against terrorism with the U.S. and other Western countries, and the success of forces loyal to the government in driving Islamic State from the coastal city of Sirte in 2016.
It accuses Haftar of seeking to restore military dictatorship.
Who supports the two sides locally?
Haftar has the support of the main tribes in the east and some cities in the west, including Tarhouna, which neighbors Tripoli.
Sarraj’s government is supported by militias in Tripoli and in neighboring Misrata, and the powerful forces of former defense minister Osama al-Juwaili from Zintan.
Both sides increasingly rely on foreign patrons.
How have countries in the region picked sides?
Though the U.A.E. and Egypt initially had misgivings about an offensive they predicted would turn into a quagmire, they’ve supported Haftar.
Both see him 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.
Turkey has secured from his government long-sought recognition for Turkish claims to a disputed gas-rich patch of the Mediterranean.
Erdogan has said he’s prepared to send troops to reinforce Sarraj’s forces, if asked.
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, however, Russia shifted to flat-out support for Haftar despite its misgivings about a figure who had connections with the CIA during a 20-year stay in the US.
More than 1,000 mercenaries with the Wagner group, headed by a confidante of Russian President Vladimir Putin, are assisting Haftar.
The US has sent mixed messages to the Libyan rivals.
The Russian involvement has prompted it to press more forcefully for a peace deal.
What’s happening with oil production?
Libya sits on top of Africa’s largest oil reserves. Mustafa Sanalla, chairman of the National Oil Corp., has warned that the Tripoli fighting could impact production.
The country has suffered major oil disruptions during the years of upheaval but output has 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.
Haftar’s grip on the fields is precarious. The recognized government says it intends to retake them.
What are the prospects for peace?
Germany hopes to host a conference in January bringing together the countries intervening in Libya.
It wants them to agree to respect an existing UN embargo on arms transfers to Libya and to shape a political resolution to which the Libyan rivals can agree.
Skeptics argue that the foreign powers are not yet ready to call it quits.
Samer Al-Atrush – Journalist based in Turkey covering North Africa.