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This photo posted on the official Facebook page of Egypt’s presidential spokesman on July 16 shows President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (center) meeting with Libyan tribal leaders in Cairo. (Egyptian Presidency/via AFP)
This photo posted on the official Facebook page of Egypt’s presidential spokesman on July 16 shows President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (center) meeting with Libyan tribal leaders in Cairo. (Egyptian Presidency/via AFP)

Egypt’s parliament has given President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi a mandate to deploy troops “outside the borders of the Egyptian state, to defend Egyptian national security in the Arab strategic direction against the actions of armed criminal militias and foreign terrorist elements.”

The mandate was passed only a few days after Sisi met with Libyan tribal leaders, who asked for the support of the Egyptian armed forces to “expel the Turkish colonizer.” The vagueness of the mandate’s wording, however, suggests that this approval by parliament could also have been given in the context of the ongoing dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia over the filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

 

It increases the risk of the conflict turning into a full-blown regional proxy war

 

Egypt has been a continuous supporter of the Libyan House of Representatives, based in Tobruk, the rival government to the Government of National Accord (GNA), which is based in Tripoli. The House of Representatives is supported by the Libyan National Army (LNA) under its commander Khalifa Haftar, which has been waging a steady campaign to oust the GNA since April 2019. Just a few months ago, Turkey began to send troops and material support to the GNA, helping to stop the LNA’s advance on Tripoli and reverse several key gains it had made.

Reacting to these setbacks, Sisi has issued several public statements making it clear that the seizure of the Libyan cities of Sirte and Jufra by rival forces would be viewed as a red line, thus inviting military intervention. Jufra functions as a corridor into western Libya and is home to an airbase that has been crucial for LNA advances. Sirte is an oil port that plays a key role in the Libyan oil economy. Both Egypt and Turkey are looking to expand their Mediterranean energy markets, with Libya a key strategic location for both countries.

Unlike prior escalations of the Libyan conflict, the direct involvement of the Egyptian military in Libya’s protracted civil war increases the risk of the conflict turning into a full-blown regional proxy war akin to what has transpired in Yemen and Syria. With Turkey a member of NATO and Egypt an ally of the United States, the fallout of such a conflict would be catastrophic for regional security and for the well-being of Libyan civilians. Every effort now needs to be made to pull all foreign actors operating in Libyan territory back from the brink.

 

Ra’s Lanuf Oil Refinery in northern Libya. (AFP)
Ra’s Lanuf Oil Refinery in northern Libya. (AFP)

Hopes of the Libyan economy clawing its way back from the brink of collapse were dashed this past weekend when Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Tobruk-based Libyan National Army (LNA), said the LNA would maintain a blockade of Libyan ports and oil fields. This reimposition of the embargo against oil exports after it was briefly lifted is to force discussion about a fair distribution of oil revenue. The LNA is also demanding an audit of the central bank in Tripoli, the seat of the Government of National Accord (GNA).

Libya’s economy is heavily dependent on oil, which, in 2018, accounted for US$24.2 billion, or just under 87 percent, of all exports. When Haftar first instituted the blockade in January 2020, production dropped from 1.2 million to about 100,000 barrels of oil per day.

Libyans carry placards as they gather in front of the National Oil Corporation to protest against a blockade launched by groups allied to military strongman Khalifa Haftar last month of eastern Libya's main oil terminals, In the Libyan capital Tripoli on February 12, 2020. Libya has lost almost one billion dollars in revenues since the blockade of its most vital oil export facilities led to a slump in production. (Mahmud Turkia/AFP)
Libyans protest against an oil blockade imposed by groups allied to Khalifa Haftar in front of the National Oil Corporation headquarters in Tripoli on February 12. (Mahmud Turkia/AFP)

The state-owned National Oil Corporation (NOC), based in Tripoli, claimed on July 5 that Russian private military contractors of the Wagner Group had occupied Sharara oil field, a claim Russia denies. The NOC has also accused the United Arab Emirates, which supports Haftar, of instructing the LNA to reimpose the blockade, a charge that neither the LNA nor UAE has responded to yet.

 

Niger Niamey Billboard G5
A billboard in Niamey, Niger, announcing a summit of heads of state of the G5 Sahel regional security forum. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

 

In the intensely hot, semiarid Sahel zone that bridges the climatic transition from lush West Africa bordering on the Atlantic Ocean to the rocky deserts of North Africa, a deep ideological schism has emerged between competing Salafi-jihadi fighting groups. This rancorous divide, once a topic of speculation, has been manifested in declared pitched battles. The local militants who have sworn an oath to either al-Qaeda or the Islamic State (IS) in the Sahel are openly competing for influence within the Salafi-jihadi thought spectrum, geopolitical and matériel resources, and additional followers to replenish their ranks.

Kalashnikov-tipped sparring between the two absolutist movements has already been reported from Syria to Yemen, and it should not come as a surprise that such clashes are taking place in the impoverished Sahel. It has been speculated that there was some level of cooperation between al-Qaeda and IS factions in West Africa, but the relationship between the otherwise peer competitors has been far from clear.

 

The Salafi-jihadi competitors are trading barbs usually reserved for secular Muslims involved in state bureaucracies or non-Muslim populations

 

On May 7, 2020, the IS weekly publication al-Naba described clashes with al-Qaeda’s current incarnation in the Sahel, an umbrella organization known as Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimeen (Group to Support Islam and Muslims, commonly reported by its transliterated Arabic acronym JNIM). IS characterized its antipathy toward JNIM as a betrayal, which may indicate that some form of modus vivendi existed between the two groups, as has been speculated by Sahel security analysts for some time. If this were in fact the case, it certainly is no more by IS’s own description. This allegation of betrayal does not, however, indicate that the two groups in fact ever collaborated on the battlefield. It more likely means they coexisted without clashing. IS makes an implicit accusation that JNIM may in fact be collaborating with counter-terror elements in an effort to diminish IS, a grievous slander in jihadi circles. The Salafi-jihadi competitors are trading barbs usually reserved for secular Muslims involved in state bureaucracies or non-Muslim populations. Terms such as “apostates,” “hypocrites,” and “dogs,” have been hurled across social media platforms in recent months by these two now bitter opponents.

 

Ideology, Ungoverned Spaces, and French Intervention

The instability in the Sahel today is rooted in a convergence of three key events occurring in the past three decades: the Algerian Civil War turned insurgency, which was triggered in late 1991 following an Islamist electoral victory annulled by the military; the Libyan revolution turned civil war, which began in February 2011; and a hybrid Salafi and ethno-nationalist Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali that sparked a coup d’état in the capital Bamako in April 2012.

The events in Mali in 2012 whereby the country’s already lightly governed north was lost to the aforementioned rebellion led to large-scale foreign military intervention led by France in 2013, soon joined by other extra-regional state military actors. In the post-colonial context, French forces have been continuously present in the wider region since at least 1986, when Operation Épervier was launched in Chad to halt the creeping expansion of Libyan forces below the 16th parallel in that country. French troops remained in Chad for decades, long after the conflict with Libya concluded. Such policies of heavy economic and political engagement in Francophone Africa are known derisively by the controversial portmanteau “Françafrique.” Deep-seated resentment toward Françafrique across the Francophone Sahel has been seized upon by Salafi-jihadi leaders since French boots-on-the-ground overtly returned to Mali and across the Sahel region in the name of aggressive counter-terror operations.

 

Macron Flight to Mali
French president Emmanuel Macron, pictured arriving at Modibo Keita International Airport in Bamako, Mali, on July 2, 2017. Macron traveled to Mali to consolidate Western backing for a regional anti-jihadist force as France beefed up its counter-terror operations in the area. (Luc Gnago/Pool/AFP)

 

When Paris made the move for a hard power intervention in central and northern Mali, it easily siphoned off men and resources from its existing Operation Épervier to begin Operation Serval in January 2013. This mission was a casus belli for the then triumvirate of Salafi-jihadi groups al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM); Ansar Eddine; and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, commonly known by its French acronym MUJAO, which ruled for the better part of a year roaming freely in Mali’s Timbuktu, Kidal, and Gao regions as well as parts of the Mopti region, implementing their interpretation of Sharia. The scope of the French mission in Mali quickly escalated and morphed into a vast international project bringing in multiple supranational bodies—including the United Nations, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the European Union, and the African Union—in addition to American military partners who have maintained a presence in the region since the launch of the Pan-Sahel Initiative in 2002 and currently maintain two known drone bases in Niger.

 

The militant movements are now more difficult to pursue, as their action space has greatly metastasized since 2013

 

Though Operation Serval was initially quite effective in dislodging Salafi-jihadi fighting groups from the capitals of Mali’s restive regions, the intervention ultimately had the effect of dispersing the then ensconced militants, making them more fluid across regional nation-state borders, even while they are not yet considered a threat to the global order like their equivalents in Yemen. Militant violence quickly seeped into neighboring Niger and Burkina Faso, which, like Mali in 2012, have sparsely populated, under-governed spaces that had been neglected for decades by their respective central governments. The militant movements are now more difficult to pursue, as their action space has greatly metastasized since 2013. Though the French-led intervention restored the territorial integrity of Mali, it can be argued that the wider Sahel has become less stable in the ensuing years.

 

Operation Barkhane
A soldier bearing the insignia of Operation Barkhane on patrol in Mali on November 1, 2017. (Daphné Benoit/AFP)

 

The French troop presence in the Sahel fluctuates between 4,500 and 5,000, under the rubric of Operation Barkhane, established in August 2014. Barkhane is the current counter-terror initiative that succeeded Operation Serval and inherited the infrastructure of Operation Épervier, and is chiefly staged out of N’Djamena, the Chadian capital.

Concomitantly, in 2014, the G5 Sahel was formed in the Mauritanian capital during a summit of five Sahel countries: Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. The goal was to enhance cross-border security cooperation among these countries, all grappling with the threat posed by transnational terrorism as well as deeply entrenched criminal networks involved in human and drug trafficking. The G5 Sahel Joint Force, launched in 2017, is meant to include about 5,000 soldiers, cooperating with both Operation Barkhane and the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali—known in security parlance by its French acronym MINUSMA—to secure the Sahel.

 

Salafi Schisms

The contested realm of jihad in North and West Africa is a densely convoluted one. Fighters defect from one outfit to another, leaders shame each other for being too extreme or insufficiently hardline in the face of the enemy, and oaths are pledged to faraway central leaderships in the Levant or South Asia. JNIM, the al-Qaeda wing of the region’s Salafi-jihadi fighters, has effectively capitalized on historical discontent dating to well before independence, as it has made dislodging the “crusader” French presence its most vociferous goal. While a French departure on JNIM’s terms may seem preposterous, it demonstrates that the al-Qaeda-aligned fighters are being pragmatic in their approach, at least in terms of their statements, though its attacks have not abated. The fact that JNIM is demanding the French leave Mali specifically seems to indicate that its leadership recognizes the undeniable reality of modern Mali as a nation-state. In stark contrast, IS holds the worldview that erasing borders drawn in the colonial era is one of its core tenets in order to “remain and expand.” Therefore, it views JNIM’s position as an unacceptable capitulation that deviates from Salafi ideology to the detriment of the ummah, the global Muslim community it claims to represent, while seeking to purify the faith by violent means.

The presence of foreign armies, including the regional contingents of the G5 militaries that operate in tandem with the French and MINUSMA, acts as a magnet for militant attacks. These vulnerable bases populate a more target-rich environment for marauding groups. Despite backing by Paris, its partners in Berlin, and the EU more broadly, the G5 is woefully underfunded to combat the numerous militant groups in theater. State fragility is on the rise in many rural regions where JNIM and IS currently compete.

 

That they can attack local and foreign militaries while mustering the manpower to simultaneously fight one another shows how permissive the war fighting environment has become

 

The recent clashes between JNIM and IS groups there emphasize this point. The internecine violence between competing Salafi-jihadis is a symptom of this increased destabilization. That they can attack local and foreign militaries while mustering the manpower to simultaneously fight one another shows how permissive the war fighting environment has become. The core focus of France, its G5 partners, and the United States in the jihadi cauldron the Sahel has become has been primarily manifested through a hard security paradigm. What this counter-terror model lacks is an equally robust component for bolstering local governance and addressing serious humanitarian concerns like food security for populations affected by the spread of violence, not to mention the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

While not often making front-page headlines in the Western Anglophone press, Mali is now home to the fifth-deadliest military intervention in the history of UN peacekeeping efforts since the first mission in 1948. MINUSMA has lost some 209 Blue Helmets to insurgent violence out of a force ranging between 11,000 and 12,000 members. The regional militaries comprising the G5 coalition have also sustained heavy losses from both local al-Qaeda and IS groups successfully staging mass casualty attacks on their bases and remote outposts.

 

Al-Qaeda-aligned and IS fighters are competing over interpretations of radical Sunni jurisprudence and territory as well as recruits 

 

While these intensely violent hardline groups were ostensibly established to dismantle the secular post-colonial order that exists between the Sahara and Equatorial Africa, it has become evident that they have turned their Soviet-engineered weaponry on one another in a clash over legitimacy as viewed through the Salafi prism. Both groups see this kind of legitimacy as crucial to achieving primacy on the ideological battlefield. Al-Qaeda-aligned militants and IS fighters are competing over interpretations of radical Sunni jurisprudence and territory as well as recruits. Salafism at the point of a gun has made deep inroads in Mali and its neighbors by exploiting local grievances regarding the endemic corruption of the post-colonial state’s power structure and its ties to Françafrique legacy policies.

 

Ag Ghaly
A still image made on June 25, 2016, from a video released by Iyad Ag Ghaly, leader of the Islamist group Ansar Eddine, showing him making threats against France and the United Nations’ peacekeeping mission in Mali. (AFP)

 

JNIM is led by Iyad Ag Ghaly, a former ethnic-Tuareg secessionist leader and one-time Malian diplomat in Riyadh turned violent Islamist. The formation of JNIM was declared in March 2017 by four al-Qaeda-aligned constituent groups: the Saharan branch of AQIM; Ansar Eddine, of which Ag Ghaly is the chief; al-Mourabitoun; and the lesser-known Katibat Macina, led by Amadou Kouffa, a staunch ally of Ag Ghaly.

JNIM portrays itself as a primarily indigenous movement with more localized aims, such as evicting French troops from Mali and the wider region, while it is theoretically willing to negotiate with the secular government in Bamako. The regional IS affiliate abhors this stance as betraying more globalized Salafi-jihadi principles, and would rather destroy state institutions than cooperate with them under any circumstances. JNIM draws ideologically from a more timeworn jihadi narrative of ending military occupation by non-Muslim military forces or secular state militaries such as those taking part in Operation Barkhane and the G5 Joint Force. JNIM is Salafi-jihadi with very a localized agenda and characteristics. 

 

Jihadi Geography

In the wider Sahel, IS has two groups operating, the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). It remains not entirely clear whether ISWAP and ISGS are operationally distinct outfits, have an occasional degree of overlap, or are in fact one and the same by mid-2020. ISGS stems from Saharan radical roots more broadly and Algerian militancy more specifically, whereas ISWAP has Nigerian origins with a Sahelian focus in terms of its area of operations. ISGS’s primary focus has been the tri-border area where Niger’s Tillaberi region, Mali’s Menaka region (formerly part of Gao region), and Burkina Faso’s Sahel region roughly intersect.

ISWAP is an outgrowth of the fissured Nigerian movement Jamaat Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Dawah wa’l Jihad, almost always referred to by the informal name Boko Haram, a Hausa and Arabic term meaning “Western education is impermissible.” ISWAP, the IS-ordained faction of Boko Haram reportedly led by Abu Abdullah Ibn Umar al-Barnawi, is most active in the greater Lake Chad Basin area. This is where Nigeria’s Borno state, Cameroon’s Extreme North region, Niger’s Diffa region, and Chad’s Lac and Hadjer-Lamis regions intersect to form a zone of deadly militancy irrespective of nation-state boundaries. It may be that ISWAP, as a dedicated wilaya (province) ordained by IS’s central command in the Levant, has absorbed ISGS at least in terms of branding, which, while being an affiliated group, is or was not a designated wilaya likely owing to its past lesser importance in the global IS hierarchy. 

 

Though the schism between al-Qaeda and IS fighters is rooted in ideology informed by their own official narratives, clashes among egos carved out this violent chasm

 

The opaque relationship between ISWAP and ISGS remains open to analytic interpretation for the time being. ISGS is led by Adnan Abou Walid Sahraoui. Sahraoui’s militant origins, like his Tuareg rival Ag Ghaly’s, lay not in a doctrinal Salafi movement but in a secular ethno-nationalist one. Though he began with the POLISARIO Front, an avowedly secular Algerian-supported national liberation movement in Western Sahara, Sahraoui fell into Islamism and quickly rose up through various al-Qaeda-aligned groups in Mali before defecting and swearing allegiance to IS in 2015. With the infighting among Salafi-jihadis in the Sahel, it must be remembered that among the leadership, these men were each other’s confidants not long ago. Though the schism between al-Qaeda and IS fighters is rooted in ideology informed by their own official narratives, clashes among egos carved out this violent chasm.

Since the assassination of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Syria’s Idlib governorate in October 2019, IS’s central command seems to be in a succession crisis, at least in terms of its public face as to who the purported caliph is or shall be. This may indicate that the geographically non-contiguous wilayas are more independent without a unifying figure like al-Baghdadi—whom ISGS’s Sahraoui pledged an oath to—to act as a centripetal force among adherents. Therefore, while ISWAP will still appear properly branded via IS’s highly centralized al-Naba publication and Aimaq News Agency, its local attack tempo and current feud with JNIM seem to be occupying its energy. By contrast, JNIM has its own regional media outlet, al-Zallaqa, which details its local agenda as tending to be far more decentralized in nature, with its far-flung regional groups operating with a much higher degree of autonomy than its IS competitors.

 

Droukdel
An undated photo of Abdelmalek Droukdel, leader of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, who was killed on June 3, 2020, in Mali. (Al-Andalus/AFP)

 

Meanwhile, on June 5, 2020, the French Minister of Defense Florence Parly announced that French special forces assassinated Abdelmalek Droukdel, the elusive Algerian-born leader of AQIM, in the hamlet of Talhandak in northern Mali’s Kidal region on June 3. At the time of this writing, JNIM’s al-Zallaqa has yet to confirm or deny Droukdel’s death.

A veteran of the Algerian Civil War, the AQIM commander was considered to be an al-Qaeda purist in ideological terms while also playing a key role in the southerly expansion of Salafi-jihad from Algeria into Mali and other parts of the Sahel. His death, if indeed a reality, may call into question JNIM’s current feud with ISGS and its position on negotiating with the Malian government. The reported killing of Droukdel may send shockwaves through the landscape of jihad from North to West Africa. Although Iyad Ag Ghaly is the public face of JNIM’s leadership, Droukdel was still considered a crucial link to al-Qaeda’s inner circle despite maintaining a more behind-the-scenes role after the declaration of JNIM. Now it would appear that Ag Ghaly, notably a non-Arab, is al-Qaeda’s premier representative in the region. The sudden elimination of Droukdel further emphasizes France’s prioritization of hard security measures in the Sahel rather than a sustainable hearts-and-minds strategy. Droukdel’s demise after decades of jihad may also signify that militancy in West Africa may be coming more indigenous in nature rather than an import from northern Algeria. 

 

Conclusion

In this benighted environment of shifting militant alliances, it can be challenging to keep track of the outright hostility between militant groups and the alleged cooperation between them. What is certain is that the fighting between JNIM and IS is sure to further destabilize this already troubled region, which is bursting with potential and hampered by a cross-border cat-and-mouse counter-terror campaign that has achieved mixed results at best. Beyond the French-assisted restoration of central authority over Mali’s northern regions in 2013, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad are arguably worse off in terms of security than when the French military descended on Timbuktu more than seven years ago. As the world witnessed in the Grand Bassam resort attack in Côte d’Ivoire four years ago, extraordinarily violent Salafism has already well migrated from the shores of the southern Mediterranean to the West African littoral. 

 

Derek Henry Flood is a security correspondent focusing on transnational terrorism and geopolitical fault lines. Twitter: @DerekHenryFlood

 

Fathi Bashagha, Libya's UN-recognised Government of National Accord's(GNA) interior minister, gives a press conference in the Libyan capital Tripoli on April 22, 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic crisis.  Mahmud TURKIA / AFP
Libyan interior minister Fathi Bashagha gives a press conference in the capital Tripoli on April 22, 2020. (Mahmud Turkia/AFP)

In a statement released on Monday, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) said it welcomed the fact that the two Libyan camps—the Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libyan National Army (LNA)—had agreed to the resumption of ceasefire talks.

Libya has been in a state of turmoil ever since the ouster of the late Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. The GNA was established in 2015 under a UN-led agreement, but all efforts to achieve a long-term political settlement have failed. Since April 2019, the LNA under Khalifa Haftar has been leading a military offensive against the GNA, based in Tripoli.

Previous attempts to broker a ceasefire and to get the two parties to negotiate have failed.

In recent weeks, there has been fierce fighting near the capital Tripoli, fanned by foreign actors, including Russia and Turkey. Haftar’s forces have suffered several setbacks, and Russian private military contractors were evacuated after heavy losses.

 

Peace Talks

At a conference in Berlin on January 19, UNSMIL proposed a military “5+5 committee” composed of five senior military officers each from the GNA and LNA, appointed by leaders Fayez al-Sarraj and Khalifa Haftar, respectively. The ten members were named at the conference and met in Geneva in February under the auspices of the United Nations.

The parties have now agreed to talks resuming in this format, UNSMIL said, but through video calls because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It did not say when this would happen, and neither side has commented on the UN statement.

UNSMIL called on the parties to also cease hostilities, and for “those countries who are fueling the conflict to definitively halt all forms of military support”.

 

Africom_russian_jet
AFRICOM shared satellite photos of Russian fighter aircraft that had arrived in Libya from an air base in Russia via Syria. (Photo from Twitter: @USAfricaCommand)

The US Army Africa Command (AFRICOM) released a press statement on May 26 saying Russia recently deployed military aircraft to Libya to support private military contractors there fighting on the side of Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) against the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA).

 

They had been flown from Russia to Syria, where they were repainted to camouflage their origin

 

In a series of tweets, the US military said fourteen fighter planes had been delivered to Al-Jufra Air Base in central Libya, including MiG-29 and Su-24 fighter aircraft. They had been flown from Russia to Syria, where they were repainted to camouflage their origin, before flying to Libya.

Included in the statement were a series of satellite images allegedly showing Russian aircraft taxied at the Syrian base in question before flying to Libya. American foreign policy analysts have speculated that this rare public statement from AFRICOM is an effort by the Pentagon to cajole the Trump administration to take a more assertive role in the Libyan conflict, one that Donald Trump has largely tried to avoid.

The announcement comes right before Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov spoke with Aguila Saleh Issa, speaker for the Tobruk-based House of Representatives and a close ally of Haftar, indicating the Russian government’s support for an immediate ceasefire.

 

gna libya
Muhammad Qanunu (center), military spokesperson for Libya’s UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), addresses the media in front of a Russian-made Pantsir S-1 air defense system on a truck after it was seized from forces loyal to Libya’s eastern-based strongman Khalifa Haftar.

Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA), recognized by the United Nations and based in Tripoli, reported that hundreds of Russian mercenaries had been evacuated from combat zones south of the city. The news comes not long after a particularly devastating set of defeats for the Libyan National Army (LNA), under the command of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who lost the strategically important al-Watiya Air Base to GNA forces on Monday, May 18.

 

Russian support for Haftar played a key role in the LNA’s advance towards Tripoli

 

Images quickly started circulating on social media of GNA forces basking in their victory, parading a captured Russian-made Pantsir-S1 air defense system and other seized equipment. Russian support for Haftar, which delivered anti-air equipment and munitions alongside a couple of hundred private military contractors, played a key role in the LNA’s steady advance towards Tripoli since the launch of the offensive to capture the capital in April 2019.

 

Balancing Act 

Moscow has denied any role in the presence of Russian fighters in Libya, but the fact is that a collapse of the GNA and a prolonging of the conflict would help Russia check Turkey’s power in the Mediterranean. Turkey formally backs the GNA along with Qatar, whereas Russia and the United Arab Emirates support Haftar. The United States, which prioritizes the fight against terrorism, has been vague about its support of either Haftar or the GNA.

 

 

Smoke fumes rise above buildings in the Libyan capital Tripoli, during reported shelling by strongman Khalifa Haftar's forces, on May 9, 2020
Plumes of smoke rise above buildings in the Libyan capital Tripoli after reported shelling by Khalifa Haftar’s forces on May 9, 2020.

 

The dislodging of fighters loyal to Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar from al-Watiya Air Base west of Tripoli suggests a reversal of fortune for the would-be leader of Libya, who began his offensive against the United Nations-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in April 2019. This latest military setback follows the ousting of Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) from the coastal towns of Sabratha and Sorman in mid-April, both located about 70 kilometers from the seat of the GNA.

Taken together, these victories reveal how vital Turkey’s military assistance has been to the GNA, which includes anti-aerial defenses and Anka-S offensive drones that have stripped away Haftar’s air superiority.

Until recently, the LNA’s steady advance towards Tripoli, including the capture of the strategically important petroleum port of Sirte, seemed to suggest an inevitable victory for Haftar and the competing government of the House of Representatives, based in the eastern city of Tobruk. Haftar attempted to declare a unilateral ceasefire for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan following these defeats in late April, which was rejected by the GNA, claiming they could not trust Haftar’s promises due to prior truce violations.

 

Foreign Players

The crisis in Libya has drawn in a number of international players supporting either side of the conflict, in violation of an arms embargo signed in Berlin in mid-January.

 

Lockdown

Making matters worse, the presence of COVID-19 has forced the war-devastated country into lockdown, which, combined with ongoing offensives, has disrupted access to medical services and placed more than 250,000 children at risk of contracting vaccine-preventable diseases such as polio and measles.

 

Libyans have responded to COVID-19 measures in creative ways
Libyans have responded to COVID-19 measures in creative ways. In this photo, one man wears a surgical mask and another wears a Salvador Dalí mask as depicted in the Spanish television series La Casa de Papel.

According to official statistics COVID-19 has barely affected Libya, but the true number of cases is likely underreported. An ongoing civil war, a large refugee and migrant population, and a deficient healthcare system threaten to exacerbate the spread of the disease, further destabilizing a country already devastated by years of conflict.

To date, the Libyan National Center for Disease Control has reported sixty-four COVID-19 infections and three deaths. The country’s ability to monitor the outbreak is very limited; as of May 7, the country has performed only 2,338 tests. To forestall further infections, the Government of National Accord imposed a ten-day, 24-hour curfew in areas under its control from April 17, forbade intercity travel, banned driving, and closed the country’s borders and airspace.

“Now is not the time to reduce caution,” says Elizabeth Hoff, head of mission for the World Health Organization in Libya. “The low numbers reported should not fool us into a false sense of security. Libya is in the early stages of the epidemic and has not yet reached the height of infection. Until the test becomes more widespread, it will be impossible to ascertain the extent of the disease and its geographical spread.”

 

Hospitals Under Attack

The pandemic comes amid the long-running civil war between the Tripoli-based, UN-backed government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, known as the Government of National Accord (GNA), and the eastern-based government backed by the House of Representatives, which has aligned itself with Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA). As Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has noted, the latest stage of the conflict, which began in April 2019 when Haftar’s forces launched an attack on Tripoli, has further compounded the damage to Libya’s already weak health system.

The International Rescue Committee reported in March that there had been sixty-two attacks on hospitals and other health facilities in the previous year, and in April rockets fired by the LNA struck Al-Khadra General Hospital in Tripoli, where COVID-19 patients are treated. “This is a health system that was close to collapse before you got COVID-19,” Hoff says.

 

The Pandemic Could Be Catastrophic for Migrants

The country’s sizable population of refugees and migrants—an estimated 700,000 in total—further intensifies the crisis. Many of them reside in densely populated, unhygienic detention centers where other diseases, rape, extortion, and abuse are prevalent. A spokesman for the UN International Organization for Migration has warned that an outbreak of COVID-19 would be “truly catastrophic” for this population.

“International intervention has also continued unabated” in the civil war, writes Wehrey, “with thousands of mercenaries, including Syrians, Russians, and Sudanese, flowing into both sides and acting as potential pathogen vectors.”

 

Two Libyan horse owners cool their horses in the sea in the Tripoli area on May 5th. Adherence to a COVID-19 lockdown has been sporadic.
Two men cool off their horses in the sea near Tripoli on May 5, despite concerns over COVID-19.

 

The Conflict Has to End

A UN official has warned that failure to end the civil war would likely lead to further infections. “If Libya is to have any chance against COVID-19, the ongoing conflict must come to an immediate halt,” said Yacoub El Hillo, the UN secretary-general’s deputy special representative in Libya as he condemned the latest attack on the Tripoli hospital.

An immediate end to the war, however, remains unlikely. On April 20, the UN Support Mission in Libya issued a statement expressing “grave concern” about “the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Tripoli and its surroundings as a result of the intensification of fighting in the past few days”. This fighting, the statement continued, had resulted in the wounding of at least twenty-eight civilians and five deaths. “Indiscriminate attacks,” the statement added, could “amount to war crimes.” Four days later, shelling of Tripoli by Haftar’s forces killed another three civilians.

 

The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court warned of potential war crimes in Libya.

 

For now, though, pro-GNA forces appear to have the upper hand. The GNA has said it was close to breaking Haftar’s siege of Tripoli after pro-GNA forces had seized several key towns in the west. Those forces have begun a siege on the town of Tarhouna, Haftar’s key western stronghold.

On April 27, Haftar declared in a televised speech that the 2015 UN-brokered agreement to unite the country was a “thing of the past”, and that he would form a new government for the entire country. This statement further inflamed tensions between the east and the west. Two days later, Haftar’s forces declared a unilateral ceasefire, noting that it was responding to international calls for a humanitarian pause during the holy month of Ramadan, but the GNA rejected the truce, suspecting Haftar was using it merely to resupply his forces.

Since then, hostilities have resumed. On May 5, Fatou Bensouda, prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, warned of potential war crimes in Libya. Meanwhile, Prime Minister al-Sarraj called for a resumption of UN-brokered talks.

Should the two sides lay down their arms, they may be able to refocus their attention on combatting COVID-19. In the meantime, the civilian population caught in the middle will continue to pay a heavy price.

 

Tzvi Kahn is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). Follow Tzvi on Twitter @TzviKahn. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. Based in Washington, D.C., FDD is a nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

 

 

GNA fighters in Libya
Fighters with Libya’s UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) gather at a position near the town of Garabulli, some 70 km east of the capital Tripoli, as they engage in battle with forces loyal to Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar on April 19, 2020.

 

On the eve of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the Libyan National Army (LNA) halted its siege on the Tripoli-based and internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) after the LNA’s leader, Khalifa Haftar, announced a ceasefire during Ramadan in response to international calls for a truce. In response, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) urged Libya’s warring parties to resume the 5+5 Geneva Joint Military Talks with the goal of a permanent ceasefire based on a draft agreement drawn up by UNSMIL on February 23.

 

They would only recognize a cessation of hostilities if it were monitored by UNSMIL.

 

The GNA conditionally rejected Haftar’s unilateral ceasefire, saying they would only recognize a cessation of hostilities if it were monitored by UNSMIL. The 5+5 Geneva talks began on February 3, bringing together five appointed representatives each from the GNA and LNA. Ghassan Salamé, the former special representative of the United Nations secretary-general and head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, moderated these talks until his resignation, citing health reasons due to stress.

 

UN secretary-general António Guterres has begun looking for another candidate for the position.

 

Finding a replacement for Salamé has taken on even greater priority now given the circumstances, but efforts to fill the position have been hampered by resistance from the United States to the appointment of former Algerian foreign minister Ramtane Lamamra. UN secretary-general António Guterres has begun looking for another candidate for the position.

Military support for the GNA from countries like Turkey has allowed the GNA to slow the LNA’s advances and push back, which in turn has led to growing support for the GNA at the expense of Haftar’s ambitions to rule a united Libya.

 

 

This image grab taken from a video published by the War Information Division of military strongman Khalifa Haftar's self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA) on April 28, 2020 shows Haftar giving a speech, saying he had "a popular mandate" to govern the country, declaring a key 2015 political deal over and vowing to press his assault to seize Tripoli. In a speech on his Libya al-Hadath TV channel, Haftar said his self-styled Libyan "army" was "proud to be mandated with the historic task" of leading Libya. He did not make clear whether an elected parliament in the country's east, a signatory to the deal, backed his move -- or what its future role would be. Haftar has so far drawn his legitimacy from the administration based in the country's east, and last April his forces launched an assault to seize the capital Tripoli, in the west, from the Government of National Accord. LNA War Information Division / AFP
Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army, in an image from a video released on April 28, 2020, of him giving a speech, saying he had “a popular mandate” to govern Libya. (LNA War Information Division/AFP)

 

Hopes that the Libyan Civil War may end through a diplomatic solution were dashed on Monday, April 27, when Khalifa Haftar, the leader of the Libyan National Army (LNA), declared a 2015 United Nations–brokered agreement to unite the country effectively over, vowing to continue his assault on Tripoli.

Just more than a year ago, the LNA began its assault on the UN-recognized government based in Tripoli, the Government of National Accord (GNA), with the goal of forcibly reunifying Libya under Haftar’s leadership.

 

Russia’s Role

Haftar's unilateral decision has been widely condemned by various international powers, even Russia, which has defended Haftar at the United Nations, and is accused by Libyan and United States officials of secretly providing mercenaries and weapons to Haftar’s forces. Moscow has denied the accusations.

 

Years of war have devastated a once-efficient health system.

Fighters of a military battalion loyal to Libyan General Khalifa Hafta patrol the streets in the eastern city of Benghazi during a state of emergency to combat the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, on March 21, 2020.
Fighters of a military battalion loyal to Khalifa Haftar patrol the streets in the eastern city of Benghazi, where a curfew is in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

 

Healthcare in Crisis

The escalation of the Libyan conflict is especially concerning given the additional threat of COVID-19, which could cause the collapse of the country’s already-precarious healthcare services. Years of war since long-time ruler Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011 have devastated a once-efficient health system.

In March, the UN and other countries welcomed a positive response by both warring parties to a call for a humanitarian pause in the fighting to help prevent the spread of the virus. Within hours, however, heavy shelling had resumed in Tripoli.

 

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