Libya has been locked in a civil war since 2014 leaving the country in turmoil and regional partners scrambling for power in the fragile nation. Fighting has ramped up in 2019, and General Khalifa Haftar’s anti-government LNA forces began an aggressive offensive against the Libyan government in April.
Haftar’s forces are sieging Tripoli, where the government led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj is based. Haftar is not popular in the West due to his aggressive tactics, but he is backed by the UAE and Egypt, and he enjoys tepid support from some Western powers. Haftar also met with Mohammed bin Salman in the Saudi capital shortly before launching the offensive on Tripoli.
With Russia attempting to play multiple sides and the United States offering a muddled policy on the conflict, Turkey and Qatar have emerged as the main actors fighting against Haftar and both have provided resources to militias fighting the LNA. The United Nations is the biggest player in support of the interim government.
With the UAE, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia on one side and Turkey and Qatar on the other, Libya could devolve into a proxy war on a scale similar to Syria or Yemen. If other global and regional powers do not step up to deescalate the violence, Libyans will continue to suffer at the hands of military force from within and outside of the country.
Migrant Centre Attack and European Migrant Deal
On July 3, a migrant detention centre in Tripoli was hit by an air strike resulting in over 60 deaths and more than 100 injuries. Most of the migrants were Africans in route to Europe but caught and detained by Libyan forces.
The United Nations forcefully condemned the attack and the UN-backed GNA, led by Sarraj, accused Haftar of being behind the air strikes with help from the UAE. The government alleged a UAE fighter jet made in the United States carried out the deadly attack.
The European Union struck a deal with Libyan authorities in 2017 to stem the flow of migrants into Europe, but the UN and other political organizations have come out against the EU’s policy. Reports have linked the EU-Libya migration deal with migrants being traded on open slave markets and many migrants living in appalling and inhumane conditions.
The latest attack will put further pressure on European governments to take a concrete position on the Libyan Civil War and deescalate tensions in the region. If it wants to save the controversial migrant deal then the Union may have to do more than stay on the sidelines when it comes to Libya.
The European Union has struggled to develop a united front on Libya due to France’s mild support for Haftar in contrast to other European nations. When the LNA offensive began in April, France blocked an EU statement calling for Haftar to halt the military offensive.
President Emmanuel Macron, quite similar to American President Donald Trump, sees Haftar as an ally in fighting Islamic extremism in Northern Africa, despite Haftar’s recent overtures to religious elements at the behest of the Saudi government. France’s position cripples any European Union play at peacekeeping, and locks the Europeans out of a seat at the table.
The tension between southern European countries fervent support of the Libya migrant deal and Macron’s focus on Islamic extremism is a major flashpoint when the European Union discusses Libya.
One would expect Haftar to be under increased pressure after his forces were accused of committing the attack. However, survivors of the migrant centre attack have reported they can still hear air attacks and fear for their lives.
Before the offensive on Tripoli, one of Haftar’s key allies, Egypt, was looking at alternative solutions including supporting the government. But, Haftar’s offensive forced Egypt’s hand to double down its commitment to the LNA. If Haftar’s forces are connected to the attack then Egypt may be forced to reconsider its position once again.
The United Nations is the biggest international actor supporting the interim government of Prime Minister Sarraj. The United States has wavered in its position, Russia has been talking with all sides, and the European Union has failed to provide a united front.
In turn, this has led to countries in the region with hardened stances having the greatest role in the continuation of the war. Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia all have economic and political interests in Haftar seizing more control of Libya.
However, with the interim government holding out in Tripoli, neither side looks to be the outright winner in this conflict any time soon. Instead, the fighting is at risk of turning into a protracted proxy war that will devastate the Libyan people and further destabilize the region.
Without a firm position calling for a ceasefire, the conflict will wage on and increase in its bloodiness. Rather than concern itself with resolving the conflict, the international community is divided on the issue and fighting over political and economic control of the war-torn region.