The streets of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, where the poverty has reached the highest rate since the revolution in 2011 (Photo credit: Sufian Alashger – photo / Shutterstock.com)
Libya’s civil war amid the coronavirus pandemic

Exactly one year ago, the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA)’s westward offensive on Tripoli was launched. Led by General Khalifa Haftar, the LNA has been fighting to topple Libya’s internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), which, according to Haftar and his loyalists, is filled with “terrorists” and “jihadists.” The campaign was meant to take the Tripoli-based government by surprise and achieve a decisive victory. Twelve months ago, this plan may have seemed possible given the GNA’s internal disunity, weakness, and dysfunctionality at the time.

Yet one year into Haftar’s “Operation to Liberate Tripoli,” the LNA has failed to conquer the Libyan capital, mainly due to the Turkish military intervention in Libya. Nonetheless, the LNA has not given up, and the conflict rages on with Haftar’s side still attempting to take Tripoli. Throughout the past year, the North African country has shattered further, and the prospects for a political solution to Libya’s crisis nine years after the fall of Gadhafi  regime are dimmer than ever.

Before Haftar launched his campaign, Libya’s civil war was cooling off, and there was some optimism about a dialogue between the two sides that could ideally lead to a resolution of the conflict. Yet any lasting hopes for a political compromise were dealt an enormous blow once the warfare re-intensified on April 4, 2019. Between then and now, according to one source, the renewed fighting has resulted in roughly 1,000 deaths and 150,000 people being displaced.

Amnesty International has reported on abuses committed by both pro-Haftar and GNA forces. The human rights organization has documented cases of strikes against field hospitals and the indiscriminate use of munitions in densely populated civilian neighborhoods, along with LNA attacks on the Mitiga airport.

As a result of foreign intervention, including the supply of money, arms, and mercenaries to both sides, there has been little incentive to compromise. With deep pockets and technologically advanced weaponry, the GNA and Haftar’s external sponsors have empowered both sides to keep up the fighting regardless of the costs inflicted on Libyans and desperate refugees and other immigrants  from the Sahel and sub-Saharan African countries trying to make their way to a safe haven in Europe.

While the LNA and its allies attack Tripoli, militias loyal to the GNA are engaged in an “existential battle” against the Haftar’s forces. Given how much accumulated hatred the two sides have for each other, those fighting for the Tripoli-based government’s survival believe they would face torture and indefinite detention, if not execution, if the former Gadhafi military officer-turned-CIA-backed opposition leader takes Tripoli.

With Turkish support, the pro-GNA forces have been waging a counter-offensive named “Operation Peace Storm.” These Tripoli-allied militias have not only prevented the LNA from conquering Tripoli, but Turkish drones have targeted Haftar’s forces farther into LNA-controlled territory. Meanwhile, Haftar is receiving substantial backing from his own set of patrons, especially the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Indeed, over the past year, Abu Dhabi has devoted more resources, both directly and indirectly, to Libya than to Yemen, where it was previously playing a key role in the Saudi-led campaign against the Houthi insurgency. Officials in Abu Dhabi, who perceive a “terrorist” or “extremist” threat in virtually all forms of political Islam, see high stakes in preventing Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated forces from consolidating their position over Libya if and when the dust settles.

To a notable degree, Libya has been a victim of the regionalization of the ongoing Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) crisis. Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, and Cairo are supporting Haftar for numerous reasons, but one is their shared interest in preventing Libya from becoming another leg in the Qatari-Turkish axis. As Turkish drones and troops, plus Syrian mercenaries sponsored by Ankara, have done much to undermine Haftar’s position in recent months, Abu Dhabi appears determined to exact revenge beyond a seat at the negotiating table.

COVID-19 Risks

As COVID-19 spreads quickly, Libya’s unresolved conflict makes Libyans, especially displaced persons and immigrants transiting the country, far more vulnerable to this global pandemic. Tragically, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ appeal to cease-fires in all wars around the world in order to help governments and societies cope with COVID-19 has fallen on deaf ears in Libya. Not only has the LNA refused to lay down its arms amid this global crisis, but Haftar’s forces have tried to take advantage of the world-wide pre-occupation with COVID-19’s spread to intensify their assaults on Tripoli.

With Libya’s complicated conflict raging on, what continues is a “decimation of a nation” as the Libyan expert Jalel Harchaoui put it recently. The UN is warning that Libya is “at high risk of the spread of COVID-19 given its levels of insecurity, weak health system and high numbers of migrants, refugees and internally displaced persons.” As coronavirus continues spreading around the world, it is terrifying to consider what this pandemic could do to Libya and, given its porous borders, many nearby countries as well.

In addition to the looming COVID-19 crisis, Libya faces major economic problems that have recently been exacerbated by the oil price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia. Libya’s oil stoppage since January has cost the North African country an estimated $4 billion, according to the Libyan National Oil Corporation. The recent plunge in oil prices will severely undermine Libya’s ability to generate revenue whenever production resumes.

Exasperated by the continuing intervention by outside powers in Libya’s conflict, the former UN special envoy, Ghassan Salamé, quit his position last month. “My health no longer allows this rate of stress,” he stated in his resignation, which he announced on Twitter. His successor, Stephanie Williams, recently voiced the UN’s concerns over “the significant escalation of hostilities on the ground in Libya.” Yet, as most Libyans see it, the UN has lost any credibility in terms of the ability to enforce its will on the ground.

On the anniversary of Haftar’s offensive to “liberate” Tripoli, Libyans are suffering ever greater chaos and violence. Now COVID-19 threatens to exacerbate all of Libya’s economic, humanitarian, political, and security crises to an unprecedented degree.

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