image Photo: Reuters

Libya marks anniversary amid ongoing strife

Libya this week celebrated the ninth anniversary of the revolution which toppled former leader Muammar Gaddafi, who was overthrown by NATO-backed rebels in 2011. There has been no stable central authority in the interim, and for more than five years there have been two opposing governments in the east and the west, with the streets often controlled by armed groups. The two factions have been engaged in vicious warfare that has left more than 1,000 people dead and displaced at least 150,000 others.

The internationally-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj has been fighting with the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar since April 2019 for control of the capital. The United Arab Emirates and Egypt support Haftar, while the GNA is backed by Turkey. A stalemate still looms after nearly a year of clashes, as foreign weapons flood in, eastern factions close oil ports and rival alliances wrangling over revenues from Africa’s largest petroleum reserves.

World powers agreed at a summit in Berlin last month to shore up the fragile ceasefire between the sides and halt hostilities in Libya while a political process was initiated, but the meeting was overshadowed when tribesmen and other groups allied to the LNA joined with Haftar’s forces to block major ports in eastern Libya and the southern Sharara oilfield, reducing output in the OPEC member state by more than 1 million barrels a day. Turkey and Russian ultimately brokered a fragile ceasefire, also last month.

Despite ongoing strife, thousands of Libyans gathered well into the night in Tripoli’s Martyr’s Square on Monday to commemorate Gaddafi’s ousting. They waved flags, danced and played music amid chants of “Allahu Akhbar,” or “God is Great” in Arabic, while openly expressing support for the GNA.  Resident Ragab Ahmed told Reuters, “Thank God, the February 17 revolution was one of freedom. Haftar has no place in all of Libya, not just in Tripoli – and Tripoli is completely forbidden for him. He is a war criminal, he destroyed Benghazi, Derna and now he is here to destroy Tripoli, but Tripoli is too difficult for him (to conquer).”

“We will definitely not abandon the revolution and we will continue,” said Salsabeel Selim, going on to say, “We decided to rally today firstly for the February (uprising) but also in support of the “Volcano of Anger” (military operation) on the front lines, and we rally today to send a message that there are those who support them. God willing (Eastern Libyan Commander Khalifa) Haftar will never enter (Tripoli) and will not rule us even for one day.” Omran Saleh added, “Today we came out to celebrate despite the pain and sorrow, but for the sake of freedom. We came out to celebrate our blessed revolution. God willing, we will build a united Libya for our future generations.”

International efforts to resolve the nearly-year long conflict have been separated into series of meetings between the sides based on economic, military and political concerns. Talks aimed at a political solution are scheduled to start with United Nations-hosted talks in Geneva on 26 February 26, while a second round of military discussions were kick-started again earlier this week. A first round of military talks concluded without tangible results at the beginning of February, but the UN’s Libya Envoy, Ghassan Salame, voiced optimism the latest summit would yield greater advances, particularly due to the passage of a Security Council resolution urging a “lasting ceasefire.”

Salame told reporters on Tuesday (February 18) that even though five officers from the Tripoli forces and five representing the LNA refused to sit in the same room without any “direct interaction,” he was willing to shuttle “one room, two rooms or three rooms” if it could help achieve an agreement. He also revealed that he was in communication with Haftar’s tribal allies in an attempt to lift the blockade of eastern oil export ports, but said they were quite general and would have to be tackled at a U.N.-led dialogue. “The tribesmen have sent me recently their conditions, but I have to say that these conditions are quite general. In fact, most of them are dealt with in the economic tract, and that is why we want the economic tract to move forward in order to answer these questions.”

“There cannot be a failure this week,” The UN Envoy stressed.

Saying it would be “naïve” to believe single meetings on economic, political or military matters in the wake of nine years of instability in Libya’s “complicated reality,” Salame said “we’re giving ourselves several weeks and, of course, several rounds” to sort out each of the three “extremely complex” tracts “to find a solution.”

Salame’s hope for sufficient time to resolve the dispute came to a crashing to a halt the same day, however; when Haftar’s forces shelled a port in Tripoli. The LNA initially claimed to have hit a weapons-delivery on a vessel from Turkey, but later said an arms depot had been struck. Three civilians were killed and five wounded, the Tripoli forces said, and the attack came dangerously-close to striking a highly-explosive gas tanker.

The GNA walked out of the talks and vowed in a statement not to return “until firm responses are taken against the attacker, and we will respond firmly to the attack in appropriate timing.” GNA Prime Minister Serraj said “This offensive has been ongoing for the past 10 months and unfortunately, the international community is still trying to appease the other side – and this is what gave them the okay to continue what they have been doing. We the GNA have been cooperative in the past with all initiatives of ceasefires, truces, and have spoken to several regional and international parties about wanting peace and do not want this war that has been brought upon us. But we are fed up with the international community and other parties.”

“We have requested the upholding of the weapons embargo for four years, not just these days now. If the weapons embargo had been respected, we would not have been in this situation today,” stressed the UN-backed leader, insisting, “If it is to be respected it must be upheld over all outlets, land, sea and air. But to speak only about outlets at sea is not worth it.”

Tripoli  signed two separate memorandums of understanding on security cooperation with Ankara in November 2019, geared toward protecting Turkey’s interests in the war-torn North African nation as well as the Mediterranean at large. The first aspect involves the deployment of Turkish troops to Libya for a one-year period, which was ratified on 2 January 2020 by Istanbul’s parliament. The second part of the Turkish-GNA deal divided maritime zones in parts of the sea between their two countries, in violation of the internationally-recognized sovereign and economic rights of Greece and Cyprus. By proxy, it also lays Turkish-claim to the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) deal Jerusalem signed with Nicosia and Athens to transport natural gas from Israel’s vast offshore fields.

Yesterday Turkey proclaimed that Ankara’s guarantees in Libya are dependent on the upholding of the truce between the warring sides.While speaking to state broadcaster TRT Haber yesterday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu Blaming the “international system” with failing to stop clashes in Libya, he accused Haftar of violating the ceasefire and said the political process in Libya cannot move forward while LNA attacks continue.

While there has been no apparent GNA retaliation for the LNA attack on the Tripoli port, the U.S. Embassy announced via Twitter yesterday that the talks have restarted and praised both sides for returning to the negotiations.

In related developments, the New York Times is reporting that two Libyan families are suing Khalifa Haftar and his sons Khalid and Saddam in US court, over the alleged killing of relatives during the 2104 Libyan civil war. The lawsuit was filed in accordance with the Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991 and deemed applicable, as Haftar holds dual US-Libyan citizenship and is reportedly the owner of property in Virginia valued at a minimum of $8 million.

According to the Times, the al-Suyid and al-Krshiny families allege Haftar of committing two extrajudicial killings and torture of several family members who were subjected to electric shocks, “beaten about the head with pipes, cables and a broomstick.”

Headlined, Ex-C.I.A. Asset, Now a Libyan Strongman, Faces Torture Accusations, the NYT article also asserts that Haftar was recruited by the CIA and supported by the administration of US President Ronald Reagan during a failed attempted-coup against Gaddafi. Using alternative spellings for the Arabic names, the Times wrote: “Mr. Hifter’s work for the C.I.A., like almost all spy operations, is draped in mystery. A former aide to Colonel Qaddafi, he turned on the Libyan leader in 1987 and was recruited by American intelligence. A planned coup never came to fruition, and Mr. Hifter and his rebel group were eventually brought to the United States. Mr. Hifter and his sons settled in Northern Virginia, where they eventually bought several properties

The lawsuit also takes aim at Haftar’s current activities, alleging that he and his sons are using the LNA to wage “an indiscriminate war against the Libyan people.” The New York Times added that he currently enjoys backing by “Russia and much of the Arab world but opposed by Europe and the United States.”

Adding to regional complexities is the growing conflict in Idlib between Turkey and the Syrian government troops, who are backed by Iran and Russia. The escalating dispute is pitting Ankara against Moscow in a tenuous struggle to balance a multitude of conflicting interests. As pointed out by Dr. Jonathan Spyer, “Turkey is in the process of purchasing the Russian S-400 air defense system, is partnering with Russia on the Turkstream pipeline to provide gas to Europe, and needs Russia to prevent an assault by Libyan general Khalifa Haftar on Turkey’s allies in the Government of National Accord in Tripoli, Libya.”

– By Erin Viner