20/01/2020 – Since the 2011 NATO-backed revolt in Libya that ended 42 years of rule by strongman Muammar Qaddafi, the oil-rich North African country has been in perpetual turmoil. The latest phase began in April, when military commander Khalifa Haftar and his forces marched on the capital Tripoli determined to unseat the internationally backed government located there. The battle for the city accelerated interventions in Libya by Russia and neighboring countries as they maneuver to shape the future of the OPEC member state. More than 2,000 people have been killed and tens of thousands displaced by the fighting for Tripoli. In January, Russia and Turkey, which opposing factions, pushed the rival sides to accept a ceasefire.
1. Who’s vying for power in Libya?
Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj came to power through a 2015 United Nations-backed political deal. But a rival government set up in eastern Libya and aligned with Haftar, 76. His coalition of regular troops and militias, called the Libyan National Army, gained fame for taking the cities of Benghazi and Derna from militants affiliated with al-Qaeda. Haftar gradually extended his grip over the country’s east and then the south, leaving him in control of most of Libya’s oil fields and terminals. After a 2018 attempt to sell oil provoked a warning from the U.S., Haftar restored control of the resource to the National Oil Corp. and revenues from it to the central bank, both of which answer to the government in Tripoli. In April, Haftar moved on the capital.
2. What’s happened since?
The battle lines have hardly shifted. Backed by Turkish drones, forces loyal to the recognized government had several successes, including retaking the city of Gharyan, Haftar’s forward base over the summer. After that, they struggled to hold their ground as hundreds of Russian mercenaries arrived at the front lines to support Haftar, bringing expertise in artillery and ground combat honed in Syria and Ukraine. Backed also by Sudanese mercenaries and United Arab Emirates’s drones, Haftar’s forces spent months trying to breach defensive lines in the Tripoli suburbs. outskirts, eventually breaking through in some suburbs. They also took over the coastal city of Sirte.
3. What are the chances for peace?
Haftar’s forces announced Jan. 11 a halt in their offensive — days after a meeting between the leaders of Russia and Turkey. But Haftar walked out of talks in Moscow on Jan. 13 without putting his name to a more permanent truce agreement that Sarraj had signed. Germany is planning to host a conference in January bringing together the countries intervening in Libya. It wants them to agree to respect an existing UN embargo on arms transfers to Libya and to shape a political resolution to which the Libyan rivals can agree. Skeptics argue that the foreign powers are not yet ready to call it quits.
4. Where do Russia and Turkey fit in?
Initially, Russia kept contacts with both sides while promoting Qaddafi’s son Saif as a future president. By September, however, Russia shifted to flat-out support for Haftar despite its misgivings about a figure who had connections with the CIA during a 20-year stay in the U.S. More than 1,000 mercenaries with the Wagner group, headed by a confidante of Russian President Vladimir Putin, have been assisting Haftar. Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has enjoyed good relations with Sarraj, securing from his government long-sought recognition for Turkish claims to a disputed gas-rich patch of the Mediterranean.
5. How have other countries picked sides?
Though the U.A.E. and Egypt initially had misgivings about an offensive they predicted would turn into a quagmire, they’ve supported Haftar. Both see him as a reliable strongman who could end Libya’s chaos, and they’re opposed to some of Sarraj’s Islamist allies, including the Muslim Brotherhood, which defines itself as non-violent but is considered subversive by some Middle Eastern governments. Erdogan embraces the group. The U.S. has sent mixed messages to the Libyan rivals. The Russian involvement has prompted it to press more forcefully for a peace deal.
6. Why did Haftar launch the battle in the first place?
Haftar had been vowing for years to take Tripoli, after a failed coup attempt in 2014 forced him to set up base in the east. The UN, U.S. and other powers had hoped to stave off a Tripoli offensive by negotiating a political agreement between the two factions. Haftar’s advisers said they didn’t trust Sarraj to abide by a power-sharing deal that would lead to elections, and accused him of being beholden to militias and extremists. They complained that oil revenues were distributed unfairly, to the disadvantage of the historically marginalized east. Sarraj’s government responds to the extremism charge by pointing to its cooperation against terrorism with the U.S. and other Western countries, and the success of forces loyal to the government in driving Islamic State from Sirte in 2016. It accuses Haftar of seeking to restore military dictatorship.
7. Who supports the two sides locally?
Haftar has the support of the main tribes in the east and some cities in the west, including Tarhouna, which neighbors Tripoli. Sarraj’s government is supported by militias in Tripoli and in neighboring Misrata, and the powerful forces of former defense minister Osama al-Juwaili from Zintan. Both sides increasingly rely on foreign patrons.
8. What’s happening with oil production?
Libya sits on top of Africa’s largest oil reserves. Mustafa Sanalla, chairman of the National Oil Corp., has warned that the Tripoli fighting could impact production. The country has suffered major oil disruptions during the years of upheaval but output has stabilized at more than 1 million barrels a day, still well-below the 1.6 million barrels a day produced prior to the 2011 uprising. Haftar’s grip on the fields is precarious. The recognized government says it intends to retake them. In December, fighters loyal to it briefly reclaimed the El-Feel field in the south, causing a temporary shutdown of operations.