Caught in a crossfire between Paris & Rome     

<i>Mercenaries have a field day as western countries cynically ensure that Libya never stabilises</i>

Image courtesy: Social media
Image courtesy: Social media

Saurabh Kumar Shahi

On the face of it, the current quagmire in Libya may appear rather straight forward. The UN-supported ‘Government of National Accord’ (GNA) is in power in Tripoli and in most of the northern coast. The rest of the country is under ‘Libyan National Army’ (LNA) of General Haftar, who—once an ally of Colonel Gaddafi—turned against him and was nurtured by the CIA for several years before he was thrown into the helm of affairs. Haftar controls Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city, as well as much of its oil resources now in the centre and south of the country. LNA maintains that it is fighting militias and terrorists of all kinds who are allied with GNA.

It was all fun and games till both the parties were entrenched in their power centres at Tripoli and Benghazi until Haftar decided to march towards the capital. Now it is a free for all there. And Europeans and the US are to blame. LNA has been trying hard to capture Tripoli by force but following some initial successes, they have either stagnated in several sectors or floundered. Consequently, Haftar took a tour of Europe. Haftar’s recent diplomatic visits to Europe to bolster support for his campaign has worked a bit in his favour in that France has made the EU not unequivocally support the ruling GNA formation. Sources say that GNA is on decline politically, and while it might survive this recent campaign by LNA, it will keep giving diminishing returns until it becomes irrelevant.

GNA was really looking forward to a direct message from the EU to Haftar to withdraw from the areas won by it since April before a national negotiation could restart. However, the French really browbeat Italy and the UK and made the EU give out a statement where it did not demand any withdrawal from Haftar, only ceasefire. This has emboldened Haftar.

Now the question arises, what is it for European powers in it? A lot, it appears. If GNA loses any more oil fields, it will come under massive financial pressure, triggering massive migration. Therefore, it is in the interest of the EU to stop Haftar.

But this is only one of the reasons why Italy is against Haftar. The truth is that GNA protects Italy’s interest in Libyan oil. Italy’s primary role in deposing Gaddafi meant that it was Italian oil companies that won the best of the heavily-lopsided contracts. France, which also live-tested its Rafale jets in that intervention, was left holding the can.

Haftar has assured Paris that if Tripoli falls, oil deals will be renegotiated and France’s generosity will not go unacknowledged. Such a scenario has other fallouts as well for Italy. The refugees fleeing Libya, like always, would want to reach the closest European country - Italy. Therefore, while France has broken ranks with the EU to undermine GNA, Italy has doubled down on its support for the same. However, the question remains, can Haftar and LNA topple GNA militarily?

LNA has powerful backers, no doubt. And there is a very clear division of labour in that. The funding for his campaign is primarily coming from the UAE, but also from the Saudis. The French are providing intelligence, training by their special forces, live satellite imagery and drone capabilities. Sources say that a fortnight back they also sent some precision-guided missiles rather clandestinely. All the air-support comes from Egypt and Russia. Russia is also maintaining and servicing LNA’s air force as well as providing training to its pilots at a facility in Egypt. Sudan has bolstered Haftar’s ranks with its militia.

In spite of all the bluster, LNA lacks the requisite momentum and capacity as of now to defeat GNA. Also, while the battle has stagnated since late April, GNA’s primary supporters—Turkey and Qatar—have sent military supplies including heavy weapons that GNA lacked till now. It has brought them to a level playing field.

The LNA alliance is shakier than what people believe. The core of fighters with military backgrounds and discipline is around 9,000 personnel. The rest are tribal militias, mercenaries from other countries, or worse still, Salafi Jihadists whom Haftar claims to be fighting against. This includes 2000 odd Madkhalists who have an Islamic State like mentality and view of Islam.

There are around 13,000 militias drawn from Sudan and Chad as well as around 3000 battle-hardened fighters from Zintan Brigades. Add another 8,000 tribal fighters from Southern Libya including those from Al Awlad Sulemani and the total number comes to somewhere around 35,000.

The problem is GNA also boasts of similar numbers. As of now, all the four major militias in Tripoli are still sticking with GNA in spite of attempts by Haftar and the UAE to wean them away through bribing.

GNA has mercenaries from the Balkans—brought in and paid for by Turkey—who are operating its depleted air force, apart from Salafi Jihadists of various hues. The EU has done nothing to stop these Balkan mercenaries from joining GNA.

In the foreseeable future, the impasse will remain both on the battlefield as well as in the diplomatic arena where European powers are playing very cynical politics.

Prolonged conflict on the doorsteps of Tripoli will lead not only to mounting civilian and military toll, but it will also make the condition in Libya untenable.

However, neither Paris nor Rome is willing to budge, and therein lies the tragedy of Libya.

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