War in Libya – A risk of regional war escalation

War in Libya - A risk of regional war escalation

Six years after the outbreak of civil war, Libya remains a divided country. Forces loyal to the UN-backed unity government in Tripoli are currently engaged in fighting with those of former army general Khalifa Haftar, after the latter launched an offensive to capture the capital and oust the Tripoli-based unity government. The Libyan conflict seems to have defied mediation efforts, which could have dire consequences not just for Libyans, but also for Libya’s neighbors and Europe. Despite its shortcomings, the UN’s approach remains the dominant framework for finding a political solution. Even with an improved design, the UN process will continue to falter as long as relevant regional and international actors work at cross purposes. In recent weeks, events have accelerated with the General’s Khalifa Haftar determination to take Tripoli, with the help of its allies. This deterioration of the situation could lead to a regional conflagration. A new wave of mercenaries from Sudan and Russia are fighting in Libya, deepening concerns that the conflict in the north African state has descended into an intractable international war that could destabilise much of the region. Both groups were fighting with the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by General Khalifa Haftar against the internationally recognised government in Tripoli. This crisis could lead the countries neighbouring Libya, like Algeria, Tunisia or Egypt, to intervene in order to secure their borders. The Libyan crisis is likely to bring with it all the factors of a regional military escalation.

Libya has been in turmoil since a civil war in 2011 toppled Muammar Gaddafi, who was later killed. In the chaos that followed, the country was divided, with a weak UN-supported administration in Tripoli overseeing the country’s west and a rival government in the east aligned with Hafter’s LNA, each supported by an array of militias and foreign governments. General’s Khalifa Haftar launched a surprise military offensive in April 2019 aimed at capturing Tripoli but the offensive stalled, leaving both sides dug in and shelling one another along the city’s southern reaches with increasingly sophisticated weapons. While the LNA and the eastern government enjoy the support of France, Russia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and other key Arab countries, the Tripoli-based government is backed by Italy, Turkey and Qatar. Jordan, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates routinely and sometimes blatantly supplied weapons, with little effort to disguise the source” in violation of a UN arms embargo, a recent UN report said. But “neither side has the military capability to effectively decide the outcome to their advantage”. The LNA have also been reinforced by Russian mercenaries in recent months. On december 2019, the UN said the interference of fighters from Sudan in Libya was a direct threat to the security of the war-torn country. A UN panel of experts said in a 376-page report to the security council that the presence of the Sudanese has become more marked in 2019 and may lead to further instability. The collapse of a centralized Libyan security and law enforcement apparatus has led to a proliferation of non-state actors seizing control over small sections of territory in western Libya. This has led to an inability to police the Libyan side of the border and has provided militant groups with a reasonably safe zone to train, arm, and prepare to carry out attacks in Libya. Said Rezgui, who carried out the attack against tourists in Sousse in June 2015, trained at an Islamic State (IS) camp near Sabratha. The gunmen responsible for the Bardo Museum assault also attended this facility. On March 2019, three Jund al-Khalifa fighters were shot dead by Tunisian border guards while attempting to penetrate border defenses. The insecurity on the Libyan side, therefore, creates the conditions for militants to surveil, plan, and infiltrate neighbours countries like Tunisia with relative ease, despite security forces’ best efforts. Although at the time of writing information is still emerging over the network that carried out a series of suicide attacks in the capital on June 27, 2019, it is likely that it had some level of support from across the border. This complicated patchwork network of territorial control also complicates any attempts by Tunis to secure support from its Libyan counterparts. As territory changes hands and alliances shift, it is exceptionally challenging for Tunisian diplomatic and intelligence staff to maintain and update the necessary contacts, let alone secure support for border security. Indeed, checkpoints are valuable strategic areas, and the groups controlling them are likely to seek to acquire as much economic revenue as possible by extorting fees from those passing through, rather than controlling or checking them. This means that security will entirely be Tunisia’s responsibility for the foreseeable future, as even if the LNA takes Tripoli it is unlikely it will prioritize securing the border areas until after it has consolidated its hold over vital oil infrastructure and ports. The second consequence of the violence in Libya is the flow of refugees into Tunisia. Although the vast majority of Libyan refugees returned home following the end of the 2011 civil war, there has been a recent uptick in the number of people fleeing across the border due to the return of violence. In the event that LNA forces break through Tripoli’s southern districts and intra-urban fighting breaks out in the city proper, there will be a further spike in the number of people fleeing across the border. Given Tunisia’s political tensions and weak economy, even a relatively modest increase in refugee flows would prove a serious challenge for the government. However, the most serious security risk the Libyan conflict poses to Tunisia is not individuals coming in, but a shutdown of trade across the border. Cross-border trade, both licit and illicit, is the primary economic activity in the southern border areas, which have been historically economically neglected by the government. Intermittent border closures and increased security deployments render this trade impossible to continue at the same levels. Protests regularly impact Tunisia and often start as small local issues that resonate with the wider population and have the potential to cripple normal business functions. Further restrictions at the borders will likely lead to demonstrations in Ben Guardane and other key border towns, which in turn have the potential to trigger major unrest, which is particularly destabilizing in the context of imminent elections. Furthermore, the deprivation of economic opportunity could in turn lead to an increased susceptibility among the local population to sympathize, cooperate, or even directly join terrorist organizations. During the apex of IS’ territorial control, there were over 5,000 Tunisians within its ranks, and despite numerous counterterrorism operations, IS and al-Qaeda both retain the domestic recruitment infrastructure to take advantage of rising unemployment and poverty for their own purposes.

In fact, the only country capable of dealing with the crisis in Libya is Algeria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the Libyan crisis could not be solved by « military means », after talks last Sunday (January 26, 2020) with his Algerian counterpart in Algiers. President Erdogan, accompanied by a high-level business delegation, was greeted at Algiers airport by his Algerian counterpart Abdelmadjid Tebboune. Algeria, which shares a 1,000-kilometre (620-mile) border with Libya, is trying to mediate a political settlement to the conflict gripping its neighbour that threatens regional stability. « We have said from the beginning that the Libyan crisis would not be resolved through military means, » Erdogan told reporters after meeting Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune. « We are in intense negotiations with the countries of the region and with international actors to secure the ceasefire and facilitate the return to political dialogue in Libya, » Erdogan told reporters. The visit comes after Erdogan accused Eastern military commander Khalifa Haftar of violating the truce between his troops and forces loyal to the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA). Fighting has abated in the past weeks but picked up at the weekend at the frontline in southern Tripoli, where artillery fire could be heard. More than 150,000 people have been displaced by the months of fighting. Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) faction aims to capture the capital, Tripoli, through the backing of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Russian mercenaries and African troops. Turkey sent military advisers and trainers to help the GNA fend off Haftar’s assault on Tripoli. Algiers, for its part, has taken on a role as mediator and last week hosted a meeting of Libya’s neighbours that rejected “any foreign interference” and called for a negotiated settlement. Algeria’s ability to weigh on the Libyan crisis has been severely undermined by domestic instability over the past year. Only since the election of the new president, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, Algeria has been able to pursue a coherent and audible policy on Libya. Indeed, after the visit of Turkey’s foreign minister in early January and his attempt to convince Algeria to bless and provide support to Ankara’s operation, Tebboune publicly called Tripoli ‘a red line,’ affirming that Algeria is against any form of foreign interference and wants to find a peaceful solution to the current crisis in Libya.” During his swearing-in ceremony in mid-December, President Tebboune made his priorities abundantly clear, telling his audience, « Algeria is the first and foremost country concerned by Libya’s stability, whether one likes it or not. Algeria will never accept being excluded from the proposed solutions to the Libyan crisis. » That some kind of solution is vital to Algeria is indisputable. The cost of policing Algeria’s 1,000-kilometer (621-mile) border with its eastern neighbor, once estimated to cost Algiers $500 million per year, increased following Turkey’s announcement in mid-December 2019 that it would be deploying troops and its Syrian militias to the conflict as fears of spillover from any proxy war grew. Concern over foreign interference in Libya has been a main element of Algeria’s foreign policy positioning. From the conflict’s outset in March 2011, Algiers was one of the few member countries to oppose the Arab League’s call for Western military intervention against Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Further foreign involvement has caused equal disquiet.

Moreover, despite its role in establishing the UN-backed government in Tripoli, now one of the principal parties in Libya’s civil war, Algeria has maintained a relatively neutral stance within Libya’s internal anarchy. This is something President Tebboune underscored in his opening address to the Libya conference in Berlin on Jan. 19, when he urged a Libyan dialogue between all the warring parties. All kinds of foreign interventions in the region are anathema to Algeria, which has always opposed all forms of interference in its domestic as well as regional affairs. Algeria is opposed to any use of military force in Libya, whether it comes from Turkey or Russia. However, while Algeria’s position may be emblematic of many of Libya’s immediate neighbors, not least Tunisia, the geopolitical ambitions in Moscow and Ankara are now driving developments on the ground. In late 2019, Russia is reported to have dispatched hundreds of fighters from its privately contracted Wagner group to support the faltering attempts of eastern Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar to take Tripoli. Responding in December,2019 Turkey increased its support for the UN-backed government, dispatching up to 2,000 fighters from its allied Syrian militias to support the government in Tripoli. In fact, Algiers does not have an overt preference either for Russia or Turkey. It sees foreign presence in general as aggravating the chaos in Libya. And Algiers does not appreciate the support of France, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia to Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar either. What Algiers seeks is to have a role in bringing about a solution. For domestic reasons, the authorities wish to show that unlike what had happened under, former Algerian president Abdelaziz] Bouteflika, Algeria now is an actor to reckon with. Algerian authorities also worry about the influence Turkey could have on Tunisia, which depends on Algeria and has been staying neutral, and in the Sahel. And they are even more worried about a potential military confrontation between Turkey on the one hand and Egypt and the United Arab Emirates on the other, and that a generalized war in Libya could have a spillover effect in the entire Maghreb-Sahel region with which Algeria shares borders. And an additional consideration, though potentially not as critical, was the expanded influence of the Muslim Brotherhood that any Turkish deployment could bring; this would be viewed in Algiers as a potentially further destabilizing influence within the North African tumult. Turkey supported the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ and the coming to power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Tunisia, even if Algiers and Ennahda have excellent relations. In sum, they see Turkey as a destabilizing actor in the region.

Finally, there are the long-standing relations between Moscow and Algeria; Algiers is an established importer of Russian military hardware. There also is the matter of political ties with Moscow; the two countries are often aligned in their views on world affairs. Algerians also know that Moscow values its relations with Algiers and would not seek to undertake actions that might undermine Algeria’s core interests. Despite Algeria’s best efforts, nine years of conflict have essentially now brought an international proxy war to Algiers’ doorstep. While its support for any peace process may prove critical, it appears that there is little Algiers can do to stifle the international competition for dominance within Libya’s chaos. In conclusion, Algeria’s role is unavoidable in the resolution of the Libyan crisis.