Since NATO’s supposed ‘humanitarian intervention’ in 2011 in which Muamar Gadaffi was forcibly removed from power, discussions on the political climate in Libya have been rare among the foreign media and, while surrounding powers have involved themselves with the situation, this is solely driven by self-interest. Despite this seeming lack of interest in the quickly deteriorating political situation in North Africa, the reality presents threatening consequences, not just for the people of Libya, but also for the wider African continent.

Presently, the UN estimates that 1.5 million people have already been affected by the turmoil that is currently gripping the country, while the International Organisation of Migration estimates that 75,000 have already abandoned their homes. Despite the aforementioned lack of interest in the west, Libya’s humanitarian crisis is a great cause for concern.

In fact, on the 28th August 2017 Ghassan Salamé, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya shed light on the severity and relentlessness of the conflict surrounding the country’s capital, Tripoli; ‘I fell asleep to the protracted staccato of gunfire’ while civilians ‘are killed or injured across Libya as a result of sporadic armed clashes.’ Unfortunately, this is the grim reality ordinary Libyans have faced for at least the past 8 years.

So, what is the situation on the ground? Why is Libya on the brink of civil war?


Protesters in Libya in 2011, before Muammar Gaddafi’s forced removal from power.
Photo by BRQ Network on Flickr.

There are two dominant warring parties around which the conflict revolves. The first is the Government of National Accord (GNA); an initially uneasy coalition between the Council of Deputies and the Islamist General National Congress (GNC) and lead by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. However, the GNA only has power over Tripoli, with a handful of disorganised militias at its disposal.

The second party, governing the majority of Libyan territory, is Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, head of the Libyan National Army and former aide to Gadaffi, who is pushing to topple the GNA in Tripoli. Haftar’s forces established in Tobruk isolates the GNA and threatens to take the capital imminently. The UN has labelled Haftar’s offensive as an attempted coup.

The battle for Tripoli has already claimed over 500 lives, with 2,400 injured, while a further 75,000 remain trapped and surrounded by Haftar’s closing forces. Despite this, Haftar has ruled out any ceasefire over Tripoli. His aim is total domination over Libya.

The conflict is further exacerbated by endorsements from foreign powers. Former British Ambassador to Libya, Oliver Miles, in addressing Al-Jazeera highlighted that surrounding nations are, in fact, worsening the conflict. Thus, peace in Libya appears increasingly more multifaceted and unlikely as surrounding states involve themselves.

The nations which have involved themselves in this local conflict by supporting Haftar include Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Morocco, and Russia. On the other hand, the GNA is backed by Turkey, Qatar, and the EU. However, what is striking is that European countries have furthered the complexity of the conflict by deciding to settle their differences through the politics of a North African state. More specifically, France has been accused of providing Haftar with weapons. The logic behind this is that Haftar has pledged to take a firm stance on terrorism within Libya – a potential threat which is close to Europe’s shores. However, Italy endorses the GNA. This is in part due to the probable influx of refugees travelling to nearby Italy if the condition in Libya worsen. Italy also seeks to embarrass France. This is in response to French President Macron’s drive for further EU integration, especially in defence, to which Italy stands opposed. The consequence is that a small local conflict has unnecessarily lingered on as a few squabbling regional states provide the materials needed for both sides to endure.

Meanwhile, as the battle for Tripoli rages on, the power vacuum which has been left in Haftar’s wake has led to a dramatic increase in Islamic extremist organisations infiltrating the south of the country. ISIS particularly has taken advantage of the lack of authority in the country in which it even controlled the port of city of Sirte for short while in 2015 as a result. Today, while having no physical territory, confrontations with ISIS are common. On 4th May 2019 ISIS attacked an army base in Sebha, killing several soldiers. Correspondingly, ISIS fighters attacked a checkpoint outside the Zillah oilfield. Clearly, the knock-on effects of the Libyan conflict pose sinister consequences.

Despite all the complexities of the Libyan struggle listed above it is equally paramount to understand why Libya is entangled in warfare in the first place. In 2011 NATO forces intervened in Libya to remove Gaddafi from power after accusations arose of him committing crimes against humanity. However, NATO went above and beyond its mandate of intervening solely on humanitarian grounds. By insisting on regime change, the conflict between pro-Gaddafi forces and rebel militias was exacerbated and unnecessarily prolonged. Furthermore, NATO’s total lack of a post conflict plan for Libya descended the country into chaos so much so that it became a ‘failed state.’ The consequences of this disastrous and disorganised intervention are still being felt today in Libya. As a result, the country has never fully recovered.

Currently Libya is in a dire situation and chances of a successful peace process are proving increasingly unlikely.

Ghassam Salamé stresses that ‘the damage already done will take years to mend, and that’s only if the war is ended now.’ However, Haftar’s uncompromising position coupled with a global lack of concern means Libya’s conflict will endure for some time to come.

Photo by Sarebanx on Flickr.