Can Libya’s Fragile Peace Survive Fresh Cracks?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Internal divisions within Libya’s U.N.-backed government threaten to spark a fresh political crisis in the war-torn nation.
By Andrew England and Heba Saleh
- Public fissures within the U.N.-backed government in Tripoli threaten to spawn a fresh conflict in the already divided, war-torn nation.
- Those fissures reflect the growing proxy battles between regional and global powers over the future of Libya.
When Fayez al-Sarraj, head of Libya’s United Nations–backed Government of National Accord (GNA), suspended Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha from his duties at the end of August, militias in Tripoli celebrated by firing weapons into the air. But two days later, when Bashagha returned to the city from a visit to Turkey, rival militias gave him a hero’s welcome and paraded in convoys through the streets.
Under pressure from the U.N., Turkey and the other foreign powers that back the GNA, Bashagha and al-Sarraj patched up their differences and Bashagha was reinstated. But the public rift and scenes of rival armed groups in the streets highlight the fragility of the alliance that underpins the GNA and threatens efforts to forge peace in the divided North African oil exporter, analysts and diplomats warn.
Libya is broadly split between rival administrations: the GNA, which governs the west, and an eastern-based Parliament aligned with renegade general Gen. Khalifa Haftar, who wants to seize power across the country. But all factions are dependent on militias that have exploited nearly a decade of chaos to fill the vacuum. In Tripoli they helped protect the city after Haftar launched his offensive on the capital in April 2019, but for years they have been accused of behaving like criminal gangs, engaging in extortion and plundering state funds. At times they have turned their guns on one another.
In June, GNA forces, mostly militias backed by Turkish drone attacks, finally repelled Haftar’s 14-month military offensive against Tripoli. Haftar’s offensive had united rival armed groups from across western Libya. These included battle-hardened forces from Misurata, Bashagha’s home city, which is a political and military power in its own right. But once the danger receded, divisions started to appear.
“This is totally the wrong time for the GNA to start infighting,” says a Western diplomat. “But it was predictable that it was going to happen and it was predictable militias would start shooting each other because they’ve lost their external enemy.”
The GNA declared a cease-fire in its conflict with Haftar’s forces on Aug. 21 that was welcomed by the U.N. and Western capitals. On the same day, Aguila Saleh, the speaker of an eastern Parliament aligned with the general, also called for a cease-fire. The moves sparked hopes that a political process leading to peace could advance.
But GNA infighting or a break with Bashagha that could anger his powerful allies in Misurata would be a setback for the government and threaten fragile efforts at peace. “The risk was that al-Sarraj would lose credibility not only internationally but domestically as well,” says the diplomat.
The two have now stepped back from the brink, averting a showdown, but they are likely preparing for another round.
Wolfram Lacher, German Institute for International and Security Affairs
Any collapse of the GNA or a fresh round of fighting between western militias would also add another layer of complexity to what has morphed into a proxy war drawing in regional and international powers. The U.N.-backed government is armed and supported by Turkey, which has also sent thousands of Syrian mercenaries to fight alongside its forces.
Haftar has received weapons, military equipment and logistical support from the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. Russian mercenaries from Wagner Group, a company believed by Western intelligence to be used by Russia’s GRU military intelligence service, have also bolstered his firepower.
The split within the GNA burst into the open when armed men from the al-Nawasi militia in Tripoli, which is loyal to al-Sarraj, fired weapons to disperse peaceful protesters angry at government corruption, electricity cuts and the failure of its war-ravaged health service to cope with the coronavirus pandemic. Libya has reported some 21,000 cases and 339 deaths from COVID-19.
Bashagha, who sought to rein in militias after fighting between armed groups rocked Tripoli in 2018, angered al-Sarraj by stating publicly that the civilian police under his command would protect demonstrators. That led to his suspension and a flurry of appointments by al-Sarraj aimed at placating Misurata by giving positions and powers to others from the city. While the reinstatement of Bashagha has closed the breach for now, Wolfram Lacher, a senior associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, says the cracks are likely to reopen. “These are struggles over ministerial appointments and over control of turf in the security landscape of Tripoli. They were already there before Haftar’s offensive, when Bashagha was at loggerheads with militias in Tripoli,” he explains.
Describing the al-Nawasi as “a mafia notorious for links to corrupt figures in the administration,” Lacher argues that giving Bashagha “a free hand” against militias linked to corruption would weaken al-Sarraj. “The two have now stepped back from the brink, averting a showdown, but they are likely preparing for another round,” he says.
The splits in the GNA come at a dangerous moment as the warring parties have built up their forces around the Haftar-held strategic city of Sirte in the center of Libya’s coastline. Since the cease-fire, the general’s forces have already fired Grad rockets at GNA positions in the region in an apparent bid to provoke a confrontation, diplomats say. “Haftar is dangerous because he doesn’t like this present environment, this kind of no war, no peace,” says a Western diplomat. “He’s looking for something to happen, because he knows with the military buildup in the area … it could happen. In this case he would come back to the front line.”
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