30.07.2020 Author: Valery Kulikov

Is there a Way to Avoid an Escalation of Armed Violence in Libya?


According to many observers, the Libyan conflict is nearing its climax due to the number of players it now involves, a turning point which will be nothing short of crossing the Rubicon.

Tensions are mounting in Libya today, and not only along the front line where the eastern and western centers of power clash, but also within the Government of National Accord (GNA). Accusations are being made within the GNA that almost all of its power has been seized by Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha, who is accused of acting only in his own interests and in the interests of armed Islamist groups from Misrata, against the interests of the militias in Tripoli. This has led to a number of Tripoli’s militia leaders threatening to unleash their fighters against Fathi Bashagha.

Fathi Bashagha is well known as one of the chief architects of the military and political alliance between Turkey and the GNA. Bashagha managed to win President Donald Trump over to the GNA’s side by using his connections with the US Department of State, the Pentagon and American intelligence agencies, wooing America with everything from military bases on Libyan soil to lucrative oil and gas deals. It is therefore no wonder he is placing all of his bets in receiving assistance from Ankara, the United States and NATO.

However, Fathi Bashagha is known to have connections with extremist Islamist groups that are listed as illegal terrorist groups by other countries, namely the Islamic al-Farouq Brigades (Kata’ib al-Farouq al-Islamiya, KFI), the Libya Shield Force, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Bashagha has been nicknamed the Grey Cardinal, a reference to his preference for pulling the strings behind the scenes, yet he is followed by a long trail of public accusations for war crimes, and these accusations have not only come from enemies in the Haftar camp, but have also been made by colleagues from the GNA.

At the same time, the continued fighting between the warring parties has primarily been funded from abroad. On Libya’s Eastern border, Egypt is the neighbor that has played the most active role, showing full support for the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by General Khalifa Haftar, which has full control of eastern Libya, and this of course includes the entire Egyptian border. Cairo can catapult an unlimited amount of aid over this border to the LNA, including the assistance of the Egyptian army, which is one of the world’s strongest armies in terms of personnel numbers and the amount of equipment it has. The Egyptian Armed Forces have the capacity to crush National Transitional Council (NTC) forces within a matter of days, even without any help from the LNA — all that is needed is Haftar’s consent to enter Libyan territory. Egypt has already received the official consent of Libya’s eastern-based parliament, as well as approval from the Egyptian parliament, which essentially allows Cairo to launch a military intervention at any time.

A full-blown Egyptian intervention in the Libyan crisis would certainly be very beneficial for Cairo, as this would offer Egypt a way to get hold of Libya’s massive oil and gas reserves, which are very important resources for Egypt that it could exploit for both domestic consumption and export. The world’s largest artificial irrigation system (the Great Man-Made River) created under Gaddafi is surely also being eyed up, which would go a long way towards helping Cairo alleviate today’s problems with the country’s water supply, caused by the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile. In terms of the possible international reaction Cairo could receive for launching this kind of blitzkrieg, it is unlikely that there would be a serious backlash against Egypt, especially considering the open criticism Turkey has received from France for supporting the GNA, and considering Israel’s support for the LNA and the support of the Middle Eastern monarchies (with the exception of Qatar). Even in Washington, more and more open criticism has been leveled at Ankara on many fronts in recent months. This includes a bill submitted to US Congress to sanction Turkey for purchasing a Russian S-400 missile system, Washington’s growing support for Egypt and the UAE, pursuing cooperation with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Iraq despite its conflict with Turkey, and Washington’s criticism and desire to curb Ankara’s actions in the Eastern Mediterranean and in Libya itself.

In effect, a war is already being fought between Egypt and Turkey in Libya today, but it is masked as a war between the NTC and the LNA, and is still very limited in scale. You get the feeling that the only thing stopping Cairo from transitioning to an overtly armed phase are Cairo’s purely perceived concerns that a war with Turkey would trigger a declaration of war by NATO. However, today’s NATO is unlikely to offer Turkey any real support if such an open conflict were to break out, especially considering that the alliance said virtually nothing in response to the conflict which recently unfolded between NATO members France and Turkey off the Libyan coast, when a French frigate under NATO command tried to inspect a cargo ship suspected of smuggling arms to Libya, which was being escorted by Turkish navy vessels. Indeed, Washington, NATO, and the EU are becoming more and more vocal by the day with their complaints addressed to Ankara.

Nevertheless, the international community is well aware of the danger of the Libyan conflict and the standoff between Egypt and Turkey descending into a military phase. Many countries have therefore recently taken the necessary measures to resolve this issue by organizing a series of negotiations. Diplomats from many different countries are trying to find a compromise in order to secure a ceasefire in Libya.

On July 22, an interdepartmental delegation of Russian foreign and defense ministers met their counterparts for two-day talks in Ankara on the situation in Libya, and will convene for the next round of consultations in Moscow in the near future. The sides agreed to keep putting pressure on those participating in the Libyan conflict with the aim of creating conditions for a lasting and sustainable ceasefire, and also resolved to promote the intra-Libyan dialog under United Nations auspices. The parties also agreed to consider establishing a joint working group in the near future to solve the Libyan crisis.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov expressed Moscow’s attitude towards the participants in Libya’s military conflict — the Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. Lavrov said that Moscow is maintaining contact with both sides, adding that the conclusions of the Berlin Conference on Libya remain relevant, and the ultimate goal of all efforts to secure a Libyan settlement should be to restore the country’s sovereignty.

Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune has expressed his opposition to military intervention in the Libyan conflict, saying in an interview with local media that arming Libyan tribes would lead to a “Somalization” of the situation in Libya. He stressed that Algeria did not approve of unilateral actions in Libya, but stated that he would not interfere in the conflict. On July 19, a visit was paid to Algeria by the UN Secretary-General’s Deputy Special Representative for Political Affairs in Libya in United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) for Libya, Stephanie Williams, then on July 22, Algerian Foreign Minister Sabri Boukadoum arrived in Moscow, where he engaged in talks with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, and said that “there is no military solution” to the Libyan conflict.

On July 22, US President Donald Trump and Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan met to discuss regional security issues and the situation in Libya, where they stressed “importance of de-escalation in Libya through the removal of foreign forces.”

The European Union has called on Libya’s neighbors to end external interference, and called for a return to the UN-led Berlin settlement process. French President Emmanuel Macron announced that sanctions against countries involved in the Libyan conflict were being prepared.

One can only hope that the measures taken by the international community will prevent the Libyan conflict from escalating.

Valery Kulikov, expert political scientist, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.