With the warning by Egypt on June 21 that it would militarily enter the Libyan conflict if the UN recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) forces backed by Turkey attack the city of Sirte, the US, Italy, and Germany entered the fray the next day, calling for a cease-fire and de-escalation of tensions – most observers have probably lost count of how many times that statement has been made.
The AP reported that Italian Foreign Minister, Luigi Di Maio, said that naming a new UN envoy and the strong enforcement of the UN arms embargo would help calm the situation: “If we stop the arrival of weapons, or strongly reduce them, we will be able to reduce the aggressiveness of the Libyan parties in this conflict,” which continues to be a distant hope at best.
“The last thing that Libya needs right now is more fighting . . . more presence of either foreign fighters or mercenaries on its soil.”
UN Spokesperson Stephane Dujarric added that “the last thing that Libya needs right now is more fighting, more military mobilization, more transfer of weapons, more presence of either foreign fighters or mercenaries on its soil.” It is worth noting that the first two choices for a new UN envoy were blocked by the Trump administration. Despite numerous conferences, some even with both sides attending, nothing has been achieved to lessen the toll on the Libyan people.
The last round of hostilities started when eastern-based forces under renegade commander Khalifa Haftar tried to take Tripoli in April last year. His fighters are backed by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, France, and Russia, while the Tripoli-allied forces are aided by Qatar, Italy, and Turkey. Dujarric said that the failed effort to take Tripoli created a humanitarian crisis with 1 million people needing aid and almost a half million internally displaced.
On June 22, the US State Department said that the head of US Africa Command (AFRICOM) Stephen Townsend and the US Ambassador to Libya Richard Norland urged western Libya’s Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj to return to the United Nations-backed cease-fire process. Until this weekend, the US has avoided actively taking sides in the conflict, but now has decided that the increased Russian and Turkish presence is destabilizing the region.
“The continued conflict generates more refugees fleeing to Europe and gives opportunities to ISIS and al-Qaeda to increase their activities.”
According to the officials, the continued conflict generates more refugees fleeing to Europe and gives opportunities to ISIS and al-Qaeda to increase their activities. At his press conference on June 24, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said: “The mission set remains the same: to get the fighting to stop; to reduce the number of arms flowing there from any place, whether that’s from the Turks, from the Russians, from anyone; to reduce the footprint of the military conflict; and then to find a political solution to resolve, to get a stable, peaceful situation in Tripoli and in Libya more broadly. We’re still hopeful that we can – all of those who have an interest there – [come] to the table to have these discussions and come to a political resolution.”
The next flashpoint will be whether or not the GNA continues their march against ex-general Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) by moving on Sirte and Al Jufra Airbase. Sirte is the key to the northern oil resources and Al Jufra is the main staging area for the Russians and its Wagner group mercenaries. Sisi calls them “redlines” for Egypt. It will be a very long and hot summer in Libya.
The UN Human Rights Council jumped into the fray on June 22, by establishing a fact-finding body to investigate human rights violations by all sides, which brings us to the unspoken question: What’s happening to the Libyan people and what can be done to protect them?
Civilian casualties have surged due to the Tripoli campaign.
Although the overall numbers do not begin to compare with Syria and Yemen, civilian casualties have surged due to the Tripoli campaign. The Washington Post reported that “according to Airwars, at least 429 of the estimated minimum of 727 civilian deaths in Libya since 2012, or about 60 percent, are believed to have taken place since the offensive began. Airwars assigned responsibility to Hafter’s group or affiliated forces for at least 270 of the deaths since the start of the Tripoli battle while saying the GNA and affiliated forces were believed to be responsible for 95.”
The discovery of mass graves left by the retreating LNA forces of more than 105 men, women, and children indicate that the toll is much higher. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have been actively monitoring the situation on the ground and their research was an important element in getting the UN Human Rights Council to investigate. A recent UN report conducted by the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) likewise warned of continued civilian harm as a result of every category of armed activity, documenting at least 64 noncombatant deaths in the first three months of this year. The United Nations blamed the LNA for 81 percent of those casualties.
UNSMIL reported that in the first three months of 2020, ground fighting was behind most civilian deaths while targeted killings and airstrikes were the two other causes of deaths and injuries. Since the beginning of the armed conflict in Western Libya between the UN recognized GNA forces and LNA in April 2019, residents of the region paid the heaviest toll. Furthermore, UNSMIL documented the impact of the hostilities on schools and healthcare facilities severely impeding access to education and health services by civilians.
In a country of 7 million people, many of whom are still tied to tribal networks and remote villages, the prospect of even more conflict, driven by the increased use of airstrikes and drones, is inevitable. Given the lack of population density except along the coast, indiscriminate bombings cause both suffering and unwarranted destruction of property. If the campaign against Tripoli is a template – where hospitals, refugee camps, shopping centers, and mosques were targeted – Libyans are in for a very difficult future until Egyptian, Turkish, Russian, Italian, Qatari, Saudi Arabian, Emirati, ISIS, and al-Qaeda forces declare victory and go home . . . leaving the maimed, disfigured, and dismantled country behind.