While the whole world is fighting against a deadly pandemic, the United Nations has been consistently reiterating its calls for a cease-fire in Libya by expressing concern about the possible impact of the coronavirus outbreak in the war-torn country. Despite rival sides in the country initially welcoming these calls for a stop to hostilities, Libya has been witnessing escalating clashes in recent days. Experts say that as long as putschist Gen. Khalifa Haftar continues to be treated as a legitimate actor by the international community and not punished for his actions, a political or diplomatic solution free from violence is not possible.
The world is busy trying to stop the spread of one of the most threatening pandemics in modern history. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had called for a complete cease-fire in conflicts around the world to allow for a total focus on a common global response. He also urged both the internationally recognized legitimate Government of National Accord (GNA) and Haftar forces to observe a truce, citing "the already dire humanitarian situation in Libya and the possible impact of the COVID-19 pandemic."
A week ago, the warring sides publicly welcomed the idea and expressed their commitment to a humanitarian pause in the fighting so that authorities could focus on preventing the spread of the new coronavirus. There are fears the global pandemic could devastate the war-torn Libya, where the decadelong conflict has ravaged key infrastructure and created dire medical shortages. However, fighting broke out again soon afterward as Haftar forces intensified their offensive on Tripoli. Haftar has been trying to capture the capital for almost a year, backed by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Russia.
Speaking to Daily Sabah, Emrah Kekilli, a Libya expert and researcher at the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA), said that we should focus on the actual state of the field, not public statements.
“There have been such cease-fire calls from the U.N. since 2014. However, these calls did not lead to any effective results. Guterres’ recent call is another attempt of goodwill. But we all knew that it would not create concrete results. It is very naïve to think that Haftar will abide by any truce under these circumstances when he is treated as a legitimate actor by the international community and not held accountable for his actions,” he explained.
Veysel Kurt, an academic at Istanbul Medeniyet University, also shares similar opinions. Stating that such calls for a truce have been a routine since the Berlin conference, Kurt said that Haftar did not heed any calls for peace and attacked again whenever possible.
“The recent calls represent the humanitarian side of the issue due to concerns about the coronavirus outbreak. It was not difficult to say that Haftar would not heed these calls once again, because he has always ignored and blocked the diplomatic initiatives,” Kurt added.
In response to Haftar militias' repeated violations of the cease-fire and attacks on civilians in Tripoli, the GNA this week launched an operation on several fronts, including an attack on an air base held by their rivals west of Tripoli.
"In response to the heaviest bombardments Tripoli has seen, we launched a series of counterattacks against Haftar," Mohamed Geblawi, spokesman for the Libyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in a statement.
Geblawi cited what he called "indiscriminate shelling" by the Haftar forces after both sides had agreed to a cease-fire to tackle the coronavirus.
Pro-GNA forces attacked al-Watiya air base, 125 km (80 miles) west of Tripoli and the closest of such facilities to the capital in Haftar forces’ hands, early Wednesday, leading to intense clashes. GNA troops succeeded in completely seizing the air base, which is considered the most strategic military air base in the country after Tripoli's Mitiga airport.
Diplomatic efforts have failed
Diplomacy has made little headway in stopping the fighting or finding a political solution to the turmoil that has followed the 2011 uprising that ousted long-time dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
A fragile truce entered into force on Jan. 12, but fighting has continued with each side blaming the other. On Jan. 19, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.N. Secretary-General Guterres co-hosted the Berlin conference, which sought a stronger commitment from world powers and regional actors to noninterference in Libya, genuine support for the cease-fire and adherence to the U.N.'s arms embargo.
Early this month, the U.N. envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salame, resigned, citing the damage the stress of the job was doing to his health, as talks in Geneva sputtered and a cease-fire agreed upon in January faltered. He had earlier complained about the violation of an arms embargo, with weapons pouring in for both sides.
On Thursday, the European Union said it would launch a new naval and air mission to stop further breaches of the embargo. The United Nations "is alarmed that hostilities have continued in and around Tripoli despite the announced humanitarian pause", a U.N. statement said on Friday.
“There has not been any actual enforcement or practice for the implementation of decisions taken in Berlin and the following cease-fire calls. Most of the countries, which participated in the decision-making process at the U.N. Security Council, are actively involved in the Libyan conflict by siding with Haftar and have huge shares of interest. It was not logical to expect these actors to be a mediator for the conflict,” Kekilli explained.
Pointing to the talks by the Libyan 5+5 Joint Military Commission, Kekilli said: “Representatives that Haftar sent did not have the caliber of conducting diplomatic talks on behalf of his forces. He proved his bad intention at the beginning. No constructive step could be taken during the process. Since the Berlin process has failed, Haftar has been continuing his assault.”
Kurt believes that a permanent cease-fire can be achieved through the use of deterrent force. “All possible diplomatic steps have been taken but Haftar must be stopped on the field. Diplomacy follows the realities in the field. For example, the involvement of Turkey to the field with military support has been effective for the defense of Tripoli,” he added.
Turkey has sent armored drones and air defenses to prop up the embattled U.N.-backed Tripoli government. Russia, meanwhile, has deployed hundreds of mercenaries to boost Haftar’s assault. The UAE and Egypt also back Haftar with fighter jets, drones and mine-resistant vehicles.
Kekilli emphasized that it is very naive to think Haftar would abide by any truce under these circumstances. “Let’s imagine that you are an illegitimate warlord leading some tribes and militia. Then, you attack the legitimate and internationally recognized actor in the country. In response to all these, you are invited to international diplomatic efforts, take support and military assistance from some regional and global powers, face no sanction or punishment, and gain political and economic power. Why would you abide by cease-fire calls?” he asked.
"Aware of this situation, Turkey has provided military assistance to the legitimate government, because forcing Haftar to a diplomatic and political solution depends on the status quo on the field,” he added.
Another humanitarian crisis on the horizon
Hit by war and an oil blockade, Libya now prepares for a possible spread of the coronavirus pandemic in the country. Both the rival sides in Libya have imposed lockdowns in the areas under their control to guard against the coronavirus but fighting is ongoing, compounding difficulties the country faces in preparing to combat the disease.
Regarding the threat of the coronavirus pandemic, Kekilli said: “There is only one case officially recorded in Libya so far. However, it will be a disaster for Libya if this number keeps increasing, because they have a very underdeveloped health care system, which needs other countries’ assistance to deal with even ordinary diseases. Foreseeing this threat, the GNA declared a curfew and took serious measures for the strict implementation.”
Fear of the new coronavirus is widespread in Libya. Authorities tracked down and quarantined dozens of people who had come into contact with the country’s first confirmed case, a 73-year-old man who entered from neighboring Tunisia on March 5 after traveling to Saudi Arabia. Health officials said Wednesday he was in stable condition.
Even before this first case was detected, the administration had launched preventive measures against the COVID-19 pandemic, including nighttime curfews and the closure of restaurants and cafes.
The risk posed by the pandemic is particularly worrying in Libya, where security and the humanitarian situation have deteriorated further since Haftar launched his offensive against Tripoli almost a year ago, which has killed more than 1,000 people and displaced 150,000. The escalation in the fighting could spell disaster for Libya's already fragmented and badly stretched health system in handling the coronavirus.
"Libyans have suffered for years under this brutal conflict, and now they face yet another threat to their health and wellbeing," said Elizabeth Hoff, the World Health Organization (WHO) representative in Libya.
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Libya on Wednesday voiced deep concern, warning that a possible outbreak would overwhelm the already stretched aid response in Libya.
“The health and safety of all people in Libya, including 345,000 of the most vulnerable, is at risk,” OCHA said.
A blockade of oil ports by Haftar has also cut off most revenue to the Central Bank of Libya in Tripoli, which funds state institutions and the salaries of public workers across the country.
Tribes loyal to Haftar forces seized large export terminals and choked off major pipelines in January, aiming to starve the Tripoli-based government of crucial revenues. Oil, the lifeline of Libya’s economy, has long been a key factor in the civil war as rival powers jostle for control of oil fields and state revenue. Libya has the ninth-largest known oil reserves in the world and the biggest oil reserves in Africa.
Kurt draws a pessimistic picture in the case of the pandemic spreading in Libya: “In a country struggling with crises since 2011 where the health care system and economy collapsed, a very tragic humanitarian catastrophe would be inevitable if the virus spreads across the country. It would be the de facto downfall of the country."
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