Post-Gadhafi Libya: Crippled by continuous clashes, political instability

ELIF ERŞEN @elifbiniciersen
Published 22.06.2019 00:03
Updated 22.06.2019 00:13
Libyans gather during a demonstration against strongman Khalifa Haftar in the Martyrs Square of the capital Tripoli on June 14, 2019.
Libyans gather during a demonstration against strongman Khalifa Haftar in the Martyrs Square of the capital Tripoli on June 14, 2019.

When Libyans demanded reforms and freedom from the iron fist of Gadhafi eight-and-a-half years ago, none of them imagined that they would be suffering from ceaseless conflicts and deteriorating life circumstances

Anarchy, a failed state and a power vacuum are just some of the phrases that political analysts or journalists use to describe the prevailing state of affairs in Libya.

No matter who is responsible for the political and humanitarian catastrophe in the country, the whole world needs to face up and atone for the failure of the international community to encourage and institute civilian rule in the country. It was 42 years of an authoritarian regime for Libyans under Col. Moammar Gadhafi, the military strongman who toppled King Idris al-Senussi in 1969 and ruled the country until the Feb. 17 revolution in 2011.

Despite high hopes for the oil-rich North African country to finally enjoy much-needed reforms along with political and economic stability, civil war erupted again in May 2014 when the self-proclaimed Gen. Khalifa Haftar fought Daesh terrorists in Benghazi and later expanded the attacks into country-wide aggression with the support of local and foreign powers.

Seizing most Libyan territory from the east to the south with military and political support from Russia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, France and the U.S., Haftar is now battling the Government of National Accord (GNA) – the Tripoli-based government formed in 2016 as a result of a process brokered by the United Nations – with a view to taking full control of the country and instituting a military regime, one that is no different from that of Gadhafi.

Haftar convinced regional and international powers that he could take the capital Tripoli in a very short period of time and set siege to the city from the outskirts with an attack launched on April 4. Yet, he could not deliver what he promised. His aggression toward the capital only exacerbated the humanitarian cost of the Libyan civil war.

The current clash between Haftar's militia, dubbed the Libyan National Army (LNA), and GNA forces was described as a military stalemate, by a high-ranking U.N. official at a meeting with journalists and experts in Tripoli last week. "The military stalemate can go on for a while. Around 1,000 troops continue fighting on each side in an area 30 to 40 kilometers away from the Tripoli center. Both sides have almost the same weaponry and approximately the same manpower," the U.N. official said to describe the scope of the clash.

"If belligerents can still think that the current situation is not a military stalemate and assume that they can still win over the other side, they will not be convinced to start the negotiations. Our role as the United Nations is to convince both sides. The beginning of the political dialogue depends on the cessation of hostilities," the official said. He acknowledged that both sides have the same resources and are backed by foreign powers.

Despite efforts by the U.N. Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) and U.N. Special Representative to Libya Ghassan Salame, Libyan authorities have so far fiercely censured the U.N. and the international community for providing political and military support for the Haftar forces. "We have been trying to institute a civilian government and a democratic order. But our efforts have turned futile because of the support of the international community for the military dictatorship," Naser Alkrew, a member of the Tripoli Municipal Council said at a meeting with journalists and experts in the Libyan capital.

Yousif Bdiri, the mayor of Gharyan, a small town 50 kilometers south of Tripoli, also stressed that the international community is partly to blame for the failure of the integration process. "The lack of implementation of the integration process is because of the international community. They were not serious or keen on supporting civilian life. They were not interested in integrating militia forces to a disciplined and trained Libyan national army," Bdiri asserted.

Libya's complex political structure

One of the reasons for the protracted Libyan civil war and the failure to institute a stable government is the dispersed centers of power in the country where there are very few national actors since the vast majority are groups of local players, namely tribes and militia.

Since the summer of 2014, political power has been split between two rival governments in Tripoli and in Tobruk, with the latter having been recognized by the international community before the creation of the Presidency Council in December 2015 with the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA). Currently, the country is torn between the GNA – presided over by the Presidential Council – and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR).

Source: European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).

The Tobruk parliament was supposed to be the legitimate legislative authority under the LPA but has so far failed to pass a valid constitutional amendment. Instead, HoR endorsed the rival government of Abdullah al-Thinni, which operates from the eastern Libyan city of Bayda. Tobruk and Bayda authorities have been aligned with Haftar.

The schizophrenia of the international community

While world powers are divided in their support for war-torn Libya, the U.N. Security Council has failed over and over again to release a unified statement on the situation in Libya, let alone form a resolution. "We are facing schizophrenia in the Security Council," the U.N. official said in a bid to underscore the divided nature of the council.

The members of the Security Council have different diplomatic and political interests in the Libyan conflict. "When the Security Council is divided, our job is much harder, and it gets more difficult for us to speak the language of the UNSC [U.N. Security Council] and the Libyan people," the official said.

When pointing out the deadlock in Libya, the U.N. official did not name any specific council members. However, immediately after the breakout of aggression on Tripoli, Russia blocked the release of a U.N. statement on Libya. Furthermore, in late April, the U.K.'s demand for a cease-fire in Libya faced opposition from Russia and the U.S., raising doubts about prospects for a draft resolution to halt the bloodshed in Tripoli.

The U.N. supports the creation of a buffer zone to halt further escalation of the conflict and its humanitarian cost. But this solution depends on a more productive and constructive Security Council, which is far from reality under current circumstances.

Libyan conflict opens space for terrorist groups

Groups fighting in Libya, mainly GNA and LNA forces, accuse each other of supporting terror groups, including al-Qaida and Daesh. When it first started countrywide aggression in Benghazi and moved into Derna, Haftar's main argument to convince the international community was the fight against Daesh.

After the Tripoli aggression, U.S. President Donald Trump even praised Haftar for "his contribution to counterterrorism and securing Libya's oil forces." A White House statement on the Trump-Haftar call said on April 20 Trump "recognized Field Marshal Haftar's significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya's oil resources, and the two discussed a shared vision for Libya's transition to a stable, democratic political system."

Trump's "welcoming" of Haftar's move and his attribution of a political authority to the Libyan military strongman by engaging in diplomatic dialogue signaled a complete reversal of U.S. policy in Libya and expanded the camp of "Haftar supporters," despite popular outrage against the commander.

Local officials and Tripoli-based authorities representing the GNA have in return accused Haftar and his forces of supporting Daesh terrorists and argue that their forces in Derna have repelled Daesh.

"If Haftar continues to rule and attack Libyan towns, Daesh is likely to remain. Haftar military forces and Daesh jointly attack Libyan civilians. Daesh terror has become an excuse for Haftar to attack the Libyan people. In Derna, the local people have fought Daesh," said Awad Belghassem, member of the Derna municipal council.

Since the outset of Haftar's military aggression on April 4, not much has changed in the areas controlled by the Libyan National Army led by Haftar and regions under the control of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA). While the former has the entire south and east, the GNA is controlling the coastal Tripolitania region. Some militia and extremist terror groups are also scattered around the southern part of the country.

U.N. officials also confirmed that there is clear evidence of Daesh presence in Libya. After the April 4 aggression by Haftar, Daesh attacked a village in southern Libya, they said. "This conflict will continue to provide more leeway to al-Qaida and Daesh. They feel freer to move around the conflict environment," one U.N. official said.

In his address at the Security Council on May 21, U.N. Libya Representative Salame confirmed the increasing number of Daesh attacks since Haftar's move toward Tripoli and noted that the continuous attacks are not only a threat to Libya, but to the entire region. "I am no Cassandra, but the violence on the outskirts of Tripoli is just the start of a long and bloody war on the southern shores of the Mediterranean, imperiling the security of Libya's immediate neighbors and the wider Mediterranean region," Salame said, portraying a bleak outlook for future security in the region.

"In the south of Libya, the black flags of Daesh are appearing, and I am dismayed to report that since April 4, there have been four separate Daesh attacks in the south of Libya: Two attacks in Ghodwa, one in Sebha and one just a few days ago in Zella. The cumulative toll of the attacks has been 17 killed, more than 10 wounded and eight kidnapped. Libyan forces that had in the past courageously defended their country against these terrorist groups are now busy fighting one another," the U.N. representative explained.

Dire humanitarian situation

Tripoli has not been described as an attractive tourist destination, despite its long Mediterranean coast. In particular, after the outbreak of the civil war and the overthrow of Gadhafi, there are no foreigner tourists on the streets of Tripoli, now covered with garbage as the municipality cannot operate and offer services in an efficient manner.

It is difficult to have uninterrupted water and electricity supply in the Libyan capital, let alone the outskirts and other cities because of the attacks on the power grids and the canals. Some neighborhoods don't receive power up to eight hours per day, High Council of State Chairman Khalid al-Mishri confirmed in a recent meeting with journalists. Al-Mishri also said that the municipality could not provide electricity for Zawiya – a northwestern Libyan city – for one month since the main power grid supplying the city was attacked.

Attacks on hospitals and medical supply units make the situation for civilians even harder. For instance, the attack of Haftar forces on a small hospital in Tripoli, Oil Clinic, destroyed the medical supplies on May 24.

According to a report by the World Health Organization (WHO) released on June 13, 19 ambulances have been struck, six health workers have been killed and 10 others have been wounded. Four health facilities were hit by airstrikes or shelling; as a result, two of these hospitals were fully evacuated.

The WHO report also revealed that 653 people have lost their lives since the outset of the Tripoli fighting and 41 of them are civilians. Some 3,547 people were also injured, including 126 civilians, the report added.

U.N. officials also highlighted the deteriorating situation for internally displaced people. More than 90,000 people had to leave their homes and take refuge in Tripoli. Some of them have taken shelter in their relatives' houses, but others have been placed in centers – mostly schools where each family has been given a classroom to reside.

The war cripples the healthy allocation of resources between the civilians who need it most, the internally displaced people, although the production of the National Oil Corporation reached 1.25 million barrels per day, according to Libyan Economy Minister Ali Abdulaziz Issawi. The country expects to generate $25 billion to $28 billion in oil revenues this year. However, according to U.N. officials, increasing defense expenditures due to the ongoing fighting block the fair and healthy allocation of revenues.

Officials of the Libyan High Council of State reported that 77 families are currently living in these schools, and the municipality, along with international missions, are trying to supply blankets and mattresses for the families. The government asked for local boy scouts to help take care of families and their children.

During a visit to one of these schools in Tripoli, Omar ibn Hattap, the humanitarian cost of the Tripoli fighting became more evident. Families are struggling to survive in classrooms under mortar fire just outside Tripoli. The classrooms they are living in have only thin carpets, no mattresses, no electricity and just a couple of thin pillows and old blankets.

In one of the classrooms at another school, a newborn baby, Ahmad Ali, was crying. His mother Hamida said he was 1 month old, and the family had been living in the school for two months. Yes, Ahmad Ali was born in that classroom. Despite the unimaginable conditions for anyone who has not witnessed a war, Hamida's husband Khallat was thankful. He was saying "Alhamdulillah," just for being alive and being with his family, fathering his four children.

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