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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”.

 

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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.

 

Ghassan Salamé, the United Nations special envoy for Libya, publicly announced on Twitter on March 2 that he was resigning from his position due to health concerns arising from stress. The resignation came a few days after Salamé brought delegations from the two main sides in the Libyan conflict to Geneva, Switzerland, for peace talks, but key representatives suspended their participation. Salamé was appointed in 2017 to replace the German diplomat Martin Kobler.

 

Why It Matters

Libya’s civil conflict is perhaps the greatest security concern for the African Union and for Europe, fearing the evolving nature of the civil war into a proxy conflict between African and Middle Eastern powers could transform the country into a second Syria. Libya is also a final port of call for migrants making their way into Europe. As such, further destabilization risks undoing deals struck with Tripoli to monitor migrant flows and prevent them from attempting to cross the Mediterranean.

Massive numbers of small arms have been pouring into Libya from countries attempting to shape the outcome of the conflict, despite an arms embargo signed in Berlin in February. These weapons have already made their way beyond Libya’s borders to rebel groups in Chad and terrorist groups in Tunisia. 

 

Rival Factions and Foreign Intervention

Salamé is widely respected in the diplomatic community, but had failed to halt the escalating violence in Libya’s civil conflict, fought between the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli and the House of Representatives, based in Tobruk and led by the Libyan National Army’s Khalifa Haftar. Most recently, Salamé condemned foreign interference in the civil war, which has seen countries like France, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates support Haftar, whereas Turkey and Qatar have sent aid to the GNA.

 

Libya’s United Nations envoy Ghassan Salamé announced on Tuesday, February 4, that the warring parties in the Libyan civil war were ready to turn the agreed-upon ceasefire signed in Berlin last month into a durable truce. The respective parties and European diplomats have gathered in Geneva, Switzerland, to hammer out the details of a sustainable peace agreement, building on similar peace talks held in Moscow, Brazzaville, and Berlin.

These talks were supposed to have been held on January 28 but failed to secure the participation of representatives from Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s camp, which had been leading an assault against the UN-backed Government of National Accord since April 2019. After a visit by Salamé to Benghazi on Saturday, Haftar agreed to attend. Salamé noted that despite the will of both sides to sit down and negotiate, they had not spoken to each other directly yet.

In a public address, Salamé condemned the continuing violations of the international arms embargo agreed upon in Berlin on January 12. Alongside these talks, the UN launched a parallel series of discussions regarding economic and financial subjects pertinent to Libya, with the first of these held in Tunis on January 6. A second round of these talks is scheduled for February 9 in Cairo.

 

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