By Tom Pollitt
Concern is growing in the governments of Libya’s neighbors that the assault on Tripoli by warlord Khalifa Haftar will cause the civil war to spill into their territories.
Regional instability in North Africa plays into the hands of the warring parties who seek to expand their influence beyond Libya’s borders.
A significant turning point in Libya’s civil war may be just around the corner, as forces led by Khalifa Haftar, head of the self-styled “Libyan National Army” (LNA), continue to threaten Tripoli, held until now by the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA). Libya’s immediate neighbors, Tunisia and Algeria, have expressed deep concern about the possibility of Haftar’s forces taking the capital, home to around 2.3 million people, as it would likely result in a huge increase both in the numbers of refugees fleeing into those countries and in the potential for the fighting to spill into their territories.
The two major players in Libya’s ongoing civil war are the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord, which is recognized by the UN and supported by several foreign states, and the so-called Interim Government, led by ex-general and warlord Haftar, based in the east of the country. Haftar’s fighting forces and militias are supported by the likes of Russia, the UAE, and Egypt – a powerful bordering state. The leadership of Tunisia and Algeria are nominally in support of the GNA, but both have spent the majority of the decade-long conflict insisting upon neutrality and ruling out military interference.
The increasing menace posed to Tripoli by the LNA is a threat to the already thin assurances of a ceasefire achieved last month in Berlin. Attacks by Haftar’s forces on Tripoli have increased over the past year, beginning last April with a brutal and sustained assault on the city and its civilian residents.
Last month, at a summit in Algiers, Algerian President Abdelmadjdid Tebboune and his Tunisian counterpart Kais Saied said they were united in their belief that the conflict in Libya could only be resolved via a political settlement. The two governments stressed the importance of reducing foreign military interference and addressing unregulated weapon flows in Libya, which violate the 2011 UN arms embargo.
In January, President Tebboune said that any attempt to take Tripoli by force is a “red line no one should cross.” Tebboune went on to say that Algeria and Tunisia are willing to host talks with all sides in the Libyan conflict, in order to encourage an end to the violence, the creation of stable institutions, and the holding of elections.
These words echoed those of Turkish President Recep Erdogan, one of the main backers of the GNA, who said on an official visit to Algeria in January that the conflict is now too entrenched to be resolved by military force.
Both Tunisia and Algeria have a history of elevating diplomacy over military conflict. According to Algerian defense analyst Akram Kharief: “Since 2012, Algeria’s been working towards a political solution between Libya’s different parties and has relied heavily on dialogue between tribes to create a consensus from the bottom up.”
Both Tunisia and Algeria have shown an intense reluctance to get involved in Libya’s conflict. Tin Hinane El-Kadi, Algeria expert at Chatham House, London told The New Arab that: “Because of its history, Algeria is very cautious to intervene in other countries. We suffered so much from colonialism and international foreign interference. I think this is kind of a solid principle.”
El-Kadi went on to say however that it is much more likely that Algeria would take military action in Libya if LNA forces enter Algerian territory, which in turn would become much more likely if Haftar were to gain control of Tripoli.
If Haftar’s forces were to take control of Tripoli, and thereby effective control of Libya, the threat to the Libya-Algeria border would be enormous. The border is around 620 miles (1000km) long, with almost all of it falling within the Sahara Desert, making it almost impossible to defend from a significant attack. In such a scenario, military engagement between Algeria and the LNA would be all but inevitable.
In particular, President Tebboune’s government in Algiers is conscious of the threat armed groups in Libya pose to the many Algerian oil facilities near the Libyan border. They are keen to avoid a repeat of the events of 2013, when an al-Qaeda affiliated group seized control of the Ain Amenas gas plant, resulting in the deaths of 39 hostages.
It will come as some small relief to Libya’s neighbors that many security experts have said in recent weeks that Haftar’s militias do not have the strength of numbers to maintain control of a city the size of Tripoli for a sustained period. There is no doubt however that the effects of such a siege would be devastating in and of itself.
Karim Mezran, a senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Centre, told Al Jazeera: “[Haftar] can destroy the city. He can inflict a lot of harm and pain, but I don’t think he has the strength to hold the city…If Haftar pushes through and enters Tripoli, it will force many civilians to flee to Tunisia and cause major instability along the border. It will be a nightmare.”
Both Tunisia and Algeria are threatened by the situation in Libya. The united response of the two countries is based on their shared proximity to the conflict and on their long-term security partnership. Yet there are a number of differences between Algeria and Tunisia in relation to the Libyan civil war.
Tunisia has the disadvantage of being a far smaller country than Algeria, with a far greater level of interpenetration between the Libyan economy and its own. Large numbers of refugees from Libya are already living in Tunisia, many of them living unstable lives on the streets of the capital, Tunis. Tripoli lies only around 90 miles (150km) from the Tunisian border and the number of refugees crossing that border are set to increase enormously if the city falls to Haftar. If the LNA takes control of the Libyan capital, the UNHCR predicts that the population of Libyan refugees in Tunisia will double the mid-2019 level, reaching over 5,000 by the end of 2020.
Tunisian Interior Minister Hichem Fourati said in January that Tunisia has taken all necessary measures to prepare for all potential events on the Libyan border. On January 9, a delegation led by Adel Ouerghi, governor of the Tunisian city of Tataouine, visited a site at Fatnassia, 9 miles (15km) from the town Remada. It is hoped that the site can be used as a refugee camp in the event of any new influx of refugees into Tunisia. The visit was followed by a convening of Tunisia’s National Security Council, at which UNHCR officials were present. At the meeting, President Saied called for his country to step up and provide increased support for Libyan refugees.
Tunisia’s internal politics also contribute to its precarious position. While Tunisia is widely regarded as the chief success story of the Arab spring, having replaced the rule of former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali with functioning democratic institutions, this change has not been translated into sustained economic development or stability. Indeed, some ten different administrations have been in power in Tunis since the overthrow of Ben Ali in 2011.
Algeria too finds itself poorly positioned to stave off the threats posed by the war in Libya, having been in a state of internal turmoil since the ousting of former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika last year. Akram Kharief recently told Al Jazeera that the political instability in Algeria is perceived by many of Libya’s militias as an opportunity to reshape the status quo in the country. For instance, Haftar chose February 2019 to attempt to seize the Libyan region of Fezzan, at the exact time that tensions in Algeria were reaching boiling point over Boutefika preparing to run for a fifth term in office. Subsequently, the LNA’s assault on Tripoli in April 2019, began just two days after Boutefika was forced to resign.
There is no doubt therefore that regional instability in North Africa plays into the hands of the Libyan warring parties who seek to expand their influence beyond Libya’s borders.