The Libyan crisis: Berlin lies between Tobruk and Tripoli

Updated: January 21, 2020 5:23 PM

Hope that a New Libya will emerge has been dashed by myopic and ineffective, inept and inexperienced leadership, mushrooming of armed and powerful militias and the primacy of fundamentalist and terrorist groups.

libya, New Libya, libya army, libya military, libya leadership, libya war, libya aiport bombingMembers of Misrata forces, under the protection of Tripoli’s forces, prepare themselves to go to the front line in Tripoli, Libya April 8, 2019. (Reuters)

By Amb Anil Trigunayat

Libyans have suffered a great deal since the revolution in 2011 which along with NATO strikes forced the removal of Gaddafi and his eventual killing in October. Hope that a New Libya will emerge has been dashed by myopic and ineffective, inept and inexperienced leadership, mushrooming of armed and powerful militias and the primacy of fundamentalist and terrorist groups. Above all, it was a failure of the international and regional actors who merely fanned the fire. There are probably over a dozen international actors who are creating a bigger mess while thinking they are trying to sort it out.

Russia and Turkey militarily happen to be the latest entrants. Russia obviously had not forgotten the miss that the NATO countries had given to it in 2011 while extraneously using the R2P (Right to Protect) to serve their own interests and the agenda of regime change. Hence this time after their grand success in Syria and generally a mightier presence and strengthening relationships in the Middle East, Moscow has taken a lead in Libya initially supporting General Khalifa Haftar who is the current key to any viable outcome. He is also being supported by Egypt and UAE as well as ambivalent Italy and France and of course Russia. Even the US keeps on shuttling sides.

The complex of the ground reality changed since April last year (2019) when General Haftar after taking full control of eastern Libya and supported by Tobruk government tried to invade and take over Tripoli by force and laid siege since then. Tripoli houses not only the internationally or UN recognised interim government of Serraj but also the erstwhile power structures like GNA which are supported by powerful Islamist Misratans on the ground and Turkey and Qatar and some western powers from outside.

This has created a power stalemate on the battleground for over ten months now. Haftar despite better military command and aerial support from its allies has not been able to run over Tripoli although tactically they have taken over Sirte which is the birthplace of Gadhafi. Despite UN sanctions all sides have been receiving latest arms and supplies and the armed drones have become the new addition to their armour. Mercenaries deployed by all sides ironically are also keeping the stalemate going.

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When Gaddafi was deposed it was estimated that over 26 million sophisticated arms were up for grabs apart from the huge cache pumped in by the west through their regional allies. They also enabled injection of Al Qaeda and it’s offshoots into the Eastern part of Libya to beef up the armed rebellion. Each one of them had their own grudge against Gaddafi but eventually, it became the playground of their regional and international rivalries further destabilising the situation. No one thought of 5-6 million Libyans and their plight. Only their quest for oil and Libyan potential to ferry the immigrants and terrorists across the Mediterranean dictated the piecemeal efforts to ensure some communications and insincere efforts of Europeans to reduce the violence.

But no one has been on the same page. Meanwhile, the world got more concerned with other hot spots in the Middle East be it in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, US-Iran conflict or for that matter the Arab Spring 2.0. This has been further compounded by a dynamic exchange of hardcore fighters. In 2012 several countries helped send fighters from Libya to Syria to fight against Assad regime which was estimated at 20000 and the new Libyan government committed to about US$20mn for them. Arms supplies was not an issue as they were plenty in the post-Gadhafi era. However, with Turkey well ensconced in the game, well paid Syrian and Libyan fighters have begun to return to fight in Libya. This even gave the ISIS (Daesh) a suitable landscape to hatch and harness their potential further. Hence the Libyan conundrum continues.

Russian support to General Haftar, allegedly through its hundreds of consultants from Wagner Group, enabled Benghazi leader to gain few notches more especially in Sirte. To avert the impending defeat of Tripoli government Erdogan signed a deal with them to not only collaborate on maritime cooperation and minerals explorations but also to provide military support and assistance overtly to defend the UN-backed government of Serraj. Reportedly it has deployed some contingent too in Western Libya.

Earlier Turkey had also supported the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist factions in Libya and elsewhere. During the Gadhafi era, Turkey had billions of dollars’ worth of contracts and wants to keep its economic and strategic interests intact. In fact, in the aftermath of the killing of Gadhafi only Turkish and Indian projects had begun to move forward as companies from both had lost hugely during the revolution. Although Russia and the Nato member Turkey have had their own problems they have been able to sit across and resolve in view of their larger strategic gains.

The relationship between Erdogan and Putin and their several meetings to avoid getting to the fighting frontiers on opposing sides led to ceasefire both in Syria and Libya which is broadly holding as the Berlin conference went underway with the participation of all key stakeholders or interventionists. Russia also hosted a Peace conference to institutionalise the ceasefire and talks which were attended by General Haftar but despite the other side signing it he asked for more time and left Moscow which may have embarrassed the Russians as even though earlier having been a US and CIA asset he is currently enjoying the Russian affection.

But he also knows that between him and Tripoli stands Turkey and its forces and hence before going to Berlin he took the Greeks on board who have their own territorial issues with the Turks and could use their influence with their European and American partners who often hate the guts of Erdogan. Hence the trust deficit and competition on the ground keeps the situation volatile.

Hundreds of militia groups many of whom are radicalised and veering on the border of terrorism surfeit with huge support from within and abroad have been the bane of New Libya since after the revolution. As there was no proper plan to integrate and disarm them they have become a law unto themselves. General Haftar, seen as a strongman by many especially his benefactors, wants to defeat and eliminate all opposing and Islamist militias or force them to yield. Several observers believe that Haftar is an ambitious General, who believes that he could be the Egyptian General Sisi in Libya, which is also begrudged by many.

After being spurned in 2012 of the top military post-Haftar has brought eastern Libyan forces into a legitimate and professional outfit. So whatever the solution emerges at Berlin or otherwise Haftar will have to agree to it. Meanwhile, there are plenty of examples in Libya that has a history of power-grabbing on the one hand and the reluctance of those in power to cede it whether by ballot or bullet.

In my view, Libya had the best chance, after July 2012 exemplary elections, which was frittered away by the inept politicians and their foreign benefactors. Alas, the chaos continues. Hope the Berlin consensus will hold and pave the way to some positive forward movement so that, howsoever shattered, the Libyan dream could be realised. Otherwise, it will be more of the same.

(The author is former Ambassador to Libya, Jordan and Malta. Views expressed are personal.)

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