By Ferhat Polat
Oil-rich Libya has limited funds to pay for imports, such as medical supplies, thus making it harder to battle coronavirus.
Libya’s internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) forces advanced on Tarhouna, a vital support base for warlord Khalifa Haftar and his last stronghold in the area surrounding Tripoli.
The advance comes days after UN-backed troops’ retaking of strategic cities in the west of Tripoli, including Sabratha, Surman and al-Ajaylat, which were key towns that served as a base for forces loyal to warlord Haftar.
After being removed from the west of Tripoli, Haftar’s militias turned their rage on civilians in the capital. Over the past few weeks, Haftar’s militias have escalated their use of artillery shells in Tripoli’s densely inhabited area.
The capture of coastal cities as well as advancing on Tarhouna is seen as a significant blow to Haftar and his backers, a year after he launched an offensive on the capital.
The latest territorial loss has further hampered militia leader Haftar’s chances of taking Tripoli. Haftar seems to be more adept at propaganda than war per se. His perception management machine is accustomed to making unsubstantiated announcements of imaginary military advances and victories.
The ongoing fighting, the use of fighter jets and drone strikes have had a humanitarian fallout but led to no clear advantage for Haftar’s forces.
The war continues to rage, while, according to the UN, in the last year alone, over 2,000 people have died, including hundreds of civilians, 150,000 people have been displaced from their homes along the Tripoli frontline and are looking for temporary shelters.
Refugees and migrants are the most vulnerable groups in the war.
The UN and aid agencies have called on Libya’s conflicting parties to halt the fighting. However, the battle has intensified in the last couple of weeks, with a number of rockets hitting a hospital in the UN-backed-government(GNA)-held area of Tripoli.
The UN condemned the shelling of the hospital in Tripoli, calling it a “clear violation of international law”, but even this official condemnation amounts to barely anything.
Years of war have created conditions that accelerate the spread of the virus, and the Haftar forces pushing to capture Tripoli appear to be exploiting the pandemic to inflict the utmost casualties on civilians by shelling areas where people are trapped at home under the curfew, as the coronavirus is threatening an already shattered health system.
The World Health Organization (WHO) representative in Tripoli has warned of the significant risks that will be faced if COVID-19 spreads in a country where the ongoing conflict will make combating the outbreak very difficult.
Recently, Turkey sent medical supplies to Libya to help fight the novel coronavirus, while the world at large is mainly focused elsewhere, on fighting the pandemic in their own countries.
And so, many Libyans are left to their own devices, merely waiting to see just how far the war and the virus will spread.
Reportedly, there are 49 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Libya as of April 18, but testing is very limited, and the number is most likely to grow.
The UN and the EU called on the warring parties to stop fighting to make it easier to deal with the virus. Instead of ending the offensive on humanitarian grounds, Haftar’s forces have continued their assaults, only to show that the UN and the EU have failed miserably again in their most recent call for a truce.
The UN has been encouraging diplomatic efforts, while the failure of previous initiatives, the arms build-up, and Haftar’s history of undermining political solutions make it harder for any credible diplomatic effort toward ending the conflict in Libya to take hold.
Haftar’s latest assault on Tripoli shows that his goal is to impose military rule over the rest of the country, as he has done in the east.
In the meantime, Haftar’s so-called Libyan National Army (LNA) artillery attacks are ruthless, designed to harass Tripoli’s innocent residents indiscriminately.
Forces loyal to Haftar seized large export terminals and cut off major pipelines in January, aiming to choke the UN-backed government of significant revenue, which is brutal punishment.
Civilians in Libya are suffering deeply from a war, with large-scale electricity, water, and gas cuts, and there is limited funding in the government treasury for the oil-rich Libya to pay for imports, such as medical supplies, which will surely make it harder to battle the coronavirus.
The situation in Libya is getting worse day by day, making life even more difficult for so many civilians living with war and the new threat of the coronavirus.
Haftar forces should stop shelling Tripoli’s residential neighborhoods, since this shelling only fuels more conflict and destruction.
Meanwhile, Libyan people urgently need greater support and resources to cope with the virus. Otherwise, people will continue to suffer under what are already horrendous conditions.
Ferhat Polat is a Deputy Researcher at the TRT World Research Centre. He is a PhD researcher in North African Studies at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies in Exeter with a particular focus on Turkish Foreign Policies. His interest include the politics of the Middle East and its influence in North Africa, particularly inregards to the potential for stronger economic, political and social partnerships.