No one seems to know what to do with Libya these days. French President Emmanuel Macron at least had the courage to say that the military intervention in Libya under President Nicolas Sarkozy, was a “serious mistake…It was not the suitable solution, in the sense that military action did not involve a political process.” But at this stage, President Macron does not know how to get out of it.
Although such pronouncement will help historians write books with more accuracy, it does not solve the huge crisis facing millions of Libyans. Less experienced on Libyan affairs, the Russians are trying to figure out how to “contribute” in the North African country. A dangerous sign of a potential involvement of the Russians, is a statement coming from Lev Dengov, the Head of the Russian contact group on intra-Libyan settlement who revealed that the commander of the Libyan National Army in eastern Libya, Khalifa Haftar, “has asked” Russia to build a military base in the country’s east. As “suicidal” as it may be, the Russians are definitely considering the idea, as Dengov noted that Haftar’s request was delivered to the Russian leadership, who has yet to make a decision. The bosses in Moscow did not say no yet, so the very idea that we are still talking about the possibility of more foreign presence in the country is worrisome.
Setting aside what Moscow may have in mind, violence in Libya shows no sign of abating, and the profile of the war(s) in Libya should be carefully analyzed by the Russians before they engage their soldiers in a territory vastly different than Syria. In Syria, there is a central government, fighting well-organized groups, some even controlling entire cities. It’s kind of classic warfare. Not in Libya, where it’s all about regionalism, tribalism, and other features that bring the civil war down to a micro level. In such environment, fighter jets and big infantries will be ineffective, and will likely have the opposite effect of galvanizing the local populations, and also attract militant groups who will see Libya as the “must be” place for the next fight.
As foreign powers stay idle watching the burning of Libya, cities, towns and regions there continue to live in an extremely tense environment, as no one so far has managed to convince the various feuding parties, groups and militias to negotiate the end of the bloodbath through a political process.
The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) said from 1 January to 31 January 2018, it had documented 102 civilian casualties – 39 deaths and 63 injuries – during the conduct of hostilities across Libya. This, it reported, was a sharp rise from previous months. Victims included 33 men, one woman, and five boys killed and 62 men and one boy injured. The report said that the majority of civilian casualties were caused by Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIEDs, 30 deaths and 56 injuries) followed by explosive remnants of war (ERWs, six deaths and five injuries), gunfire (two deaths and two injuries) and shelling (one death). MEA Risk’s extended that figure to 120 deaths when taking into account human losses that have directly or indirectly resulted from the current civil war, a figure that include casualties from social and human-related incidents.
As we move into February, no one, no region appears safe in Libya, from Waddan, Sirte, Tripoli and Benghazi, to Sabha, Jufra and beyond as fighting continues unabated. February came with its deadly incidents, with MEA Risk’s Shield & Alert reporting 125 deaths from critical incidents, already surpassing January’s 120. There were also 287 wounded, and as many as 722 arrests from February 1 to 21. Fighting is everywhere. A suicide bomber in a jeep attacked one of the Libyan National Army’s (LNA) checkpoints in al-Jufra, 30 kilometers west of Waddan, killing three soldiers, and wounding two others. LNA representatives blame the Islamic State for the attack. In Benghazi, two bombs exploded at Abu Huraira mosque on February 9, killing at least one person and wounding 149. The following day, in eastern Sirte, a suspected Islamic State fighter rammed his car, filled with explosives, into a checkpoint manned by LNA soldiers, wounding three of them.
Islamic State fighters continue to wreck havoc. LNA has clashed with IS sympathizers in the city of Zella, in central Libya, when IS tried to target a vehicle convoy owned by oil firm Al Waha. One soldier and three IS fighters died in the fighting.
But it is not just IS. In Sebha, the situation remains tense as fighting between the Ould Suleiman tribe and the Tebu tribe escalated into full-blown war. The two groups have been at odds over a series of killings that have triggered violent reprisals. They are heavily armed and have even been using artillery to strike at each other.
The situation is not likely to ease as the head of the Presidential Council, Fayez al-Serraj, has announced the decision to form yet another “security room” for the Tajoura area, near Tripoli. This is an armed response to a conflict in need of a unifiying political leader. As if this is not enough, the LNA’s Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar has also decided to establish three new battalions in Sebha, in an effort to “better counter terrorism.” More weapons, more boots on the ground. But that’s the only language the Marshal appears to understand. His men have been involved in alleged crimes, and one of his commanders, Mahmoud Warfali announced that he was handing himself in for investigation. Warfali is wanted by the ICC for possible war crimes and crimes against humanity. But his supporters do not see it this way. There were armed riots and military clashes in Benghazi between his supporters and forces representing “the authorities.” The clashes followed rumors that Warfali had been killed after handing himself in for investigation. These reports were denied, but disturbances seemed to have continued nevertheless.
There is a lot to report on the ongoing fighting, and the impact on the Libya citizen has been devastating. The social, labor and economic environments have suffered, just as the country is confronted with the problem of illegal migrants seeking to cross the Mediterranean sea. Just on February 19, the Libyan navy announced that it had rescued 324 illegal immigrants near Zuwara. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) also said at least 90 undocumented migrants who tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea have drowned off the coast of Libya on 1 February.
As the country continuous to fall apart, the lack of a political dialogue, and the absence of a single political leader who could bring the feuding parties together will continue to hurt Libya’s prospect for a recovery. Sadly, fighting will characterize the Libyan landscape for a long time, and a Russian involvement would only add fuel to the fire.