How the Battle for Libya Has Become a Proxy Conflict

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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 2019, when military commander Khalifa Haftar and his forces marched on the capital Tripoli determined to unseat the internationally-backed government located there.

The ongoing battle for the city has accelerated interventions in Libya by Turkey, Russia, and neighboring countries as they maneuver to shape the future of the OPEC member state. More than 2000 people have been killed and tens of thousands displaced by the fighting for Tripoli.

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. In April 2019, Haftar moved on the capital, and in January, allowed supporters to shut down much of the country’s oil production to pressure Tripoli.

2. What’s the status of the conflict?

With the support of more than 1,000 Russian mercenaries, as well as Sudanese militiamen, Haftar had appeared poised to enter the capital until Turkey escalated its intervention in support of the internationally-recognized government. Turkey sent in more armed drones, surface-to-air missile defense systems, naval frigates, and thousands of allied Syrian militiamen. Its allies dealt Haftar’s forces a series of defeats culminating in mid-May in the capture of the strategic Watiya airbase southwest of the capital, putting Haftar on the back foot.

3. Why did Haftar launch the battle?

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, the 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 to the success of forces loyal to the government in driving Islamic State from the coastal city of Sirte in 2016. It accuses Haftar of seeking to restore military dictatorship.

4. 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.

5. How have countries in the region 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. Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan embraces the Muslim Brotherhood and has enjoyed good relations with Sarraj. Turkey has secured from his government long-sought recognition for Turkish claims to a disputed gas-rich patch of the Mediterranean, unlocking a surge in military aid.

6. Where do Russia and the U.S. come 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, are assisting Haftar. The U.S. had sent mixed messages to the Libyan rivals. The Russian involvement has prompted it to press more forcefully for a peace deal.

7. What’s happening with oil production?

Libya sits on top of Africa’s largest oil reserves. Until January, output had 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 supporters have since shut down production, costing the Tripoli-based Central Bank billions in lost revenues.

8. What are the prospects for peace?

A peace conference in Moscow in January ended with Sarraj signing a cease-fire, but Haftar refusing. Another conference in Berlin attended by world leaders secured a pledge to stop military intervention in the country, but the states backing either side have continued sending weapons and taking part in the fighting. Following its setbacks, Haftar’s forces sued for a monthlong truce that was spurned by the emboldened Tripoli-based government.

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