By Michael Young
A regular survey of experts on matters relating to Middle Eastern and North African politics and security.
Emadeddin Badi – Nonresident scholar in the Countering Terrorism and Extremism Program at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C.
It is clear that the key players who have been fanning the flames of war for the past months are now intent on confronting one another militarily in Libya.
Several cargo ships transferring heavy weaponry were offloaded by Turkey in western Libya, and more than a 100 heavy-lifters from the United Arab Emirates have transferred thousands of tons of military hardware to the forces of Marshal Khalifa Haftar in eastern Libya.
This build-up accelerated shortly after the Berlin Conference of January 2020, highlighting that the commitment by certain states to the flowery pledges made at the meeting were, at best, insincere.
Even the European Union’s proposal to enforce the arms embargo on Libya post-Berlin was half-hearted. On the one hand, the EU’s proposed naval mission to monitor the arms embargo on Libya would disproportionately affect the Turkish-Government of National Accord duo, effectively giving an advantage to Haftar and his backers.
On the other, the fact that the proposed mission fails to save migrants seeking to reach Europe by sea suggests that the desire to enforce the arms embargo is overridden by the desire of certain European states to contain migration flows from Libya.
Ironically, this apathetic approach will result in Europe failing in both endeavors. As such, I unfortunately believe that we are sleepwalking into an unprecedented escalation in Libya.
Silvia Colombo – Head of Italy’s Foreign policy Program at the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) in Rome, senior fellow in IAI’s Mediterranean and Middle East Program
After more than nine years since Libya was plunged into conflict, and at least three rounds of strife, the conflict in the country will likely remain a low-intensity one, but with highly destabilizing effects in the coming months.
Mediation efforts involving regional and international stakeholders will not deliver tangible results as the incentives to avoid undermining the already meager results of negotiations (for example the arms embargo agreed upon at the Berlin Conference of January 2020) are not significant enough.
Lawlessness and the proliferation of contested orders will prevail.
Against this backdrop, the European Union’s likely attempt to put its weight behind its recently-announced naval mission to enforce the arms embargo will drain a great deal of resources without producing the expected results.
On the ground, the level of human suffering, once involving the migrant communities only, is projected to rise with increased rates of displacement, poverty, and division.
As the conflict drags on, Libyans are seeing their moral restraints in the conflict collapsing, are questioning the people who should be protecting them, and are losing hope in the future.
Jalel Harchaoui – Research fellow in the Conflict Research Unit of the Clingendael Institute, The Hague
By dragging on for so long, Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s destructive yet ineffectual offensive against Tripoli has enabled Turkey, the United Arab Emirates’ ideological nemesis, to expand its presence in western Libya dramatically and more indelibly than before his operation began in April 2019.
Now, Haftar and the countries helping him will carry on strangling Tripoli to ensure it becomes less useful to Turkey. The $50 million a day oil blockade imposed by the pro-Haftar camp since mid-January is only one facet of a wider campaign meant to squeeze the Central Bank in Tripoli.
The civilians in the capital will suffer more as low-precision fire from Haftar’s Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) becomes increasingly routine. On February 18, the LAAF shelled Tripoli’s port in a bid to destroy a Turkish ship carrying Syrian fighters, ammunition, and weapons.
The LAAF’s projectiles struck yards away from a gas tanker. The incident, which could have easily killed hundreds of innocents, illustrates the kind of harassment the Libyan population may endure in 2020.
One also has to highlight the very possible scenario where the Government of National Accord’s forces and the Turkish mission succeed in expelling the LAAF from Tripolitania altogether.
In anticipation, Haftar and his foreign backers may use massive force to engage in a new and larger push into central Tripoli. Such an attempt would bring more destruction and more death.
Tim Eaton – Senior research fellow in the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House, London
Diplomatic efforts to bring Libya’s third bout of civil war in a decade to an end have faltered. The arms embargo continues to be flouted with near impunity.
Men, arms and materiel continue to flood into the country. European Union moves to enforce the embargo by sea will concern the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), however, as this is how it receives its support from Turkey.
So for the embargo to be effective there must also be a means of stifling support to the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF), led by Marshal Khalifa Haftar, by land and air.
Libyan actors expect the conflict to escalate over the coming months as these fresh resources are deployed. Haftar’s recent demands for the withdrawal of Turkish and Syrian forces and the “liquidation of terrorist groups” before any ceasefire can be negotiated illustrate his commitment to staying the military course.
The GNA’s insistence on a withdrawal, even partial, of Haftar’s forces from Tripoli in return for a ceasefire looks unattainable under the current circumstances.
The spillover of the conflict into the economic sphere through an ongoing oil blockade of GNA-controlled territory has worsened the situation, running the risk of counter-measures from Tripoli (such as withholding salaries) that may dismantle the existing system of economic interdependence.
Until now this interdependence has been ensured because the LAAF controls oil and gas infrastructure while the GNA controls the means of distributing revenues from oil and gas.
It is becoming increasingly difficult for Libyan institutions to operate nationally as governance divisions harden.
Michael Young – Editor of Diwan and a senior editor at the Carnegie Middle East Center.