Libya is Sliding Toward Partition

Libya is Sliding Toward Partition

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It has now been a year since the start of the current phase of the Libya civil war  between eastern forces led by Khalifa Haftar, head of the rebel Libyan National Army, and the western forces loyal to the Government of National Accord in Tripoli. Neither seems capable of decisive victory, and with little prospect of a peaceful reconciliation, the possibility of partition—formal or informal—looms ever larger.

Both sides are receiving support from outside powers, for whom the contest for Libya is a struggle over regional natural resources and over the future of Islamist groups in the Arab world.

The LNA offensive that began a year ago was dubbed Operation Dignity; irony was an early casualty of the war. It was an attempt to extend Haftar’s control from the main eastern cities of Tobruk and Benghazi into the western coastal areas, and especially the capital. Because the GNA’s fighting forces include Islamist militias, Haftar cast his campaign as an effort to purge Libya of religious extremists and terrorists.

Tripoli has proven an elusive prize for the easterners. While the GNA, backed by Turkey, has been mainly on the defensive, Haftar is overstretched and has never seemed likely to overrun the capital—or  any of the other major western coastal cities. Instead, as the battle has intensified in recent weeks, the LNA has retaken three strategic cities near Tripoli.

Fayez al-Sarraj, prime minister of the GNA, has also stepped up rhetorical attacks against Haftar, ruling out any accommodation with the rebel commander.

Sarraj’s position has been greatly bolstered by a major intervention by Turkey, which has deployed its own troops to the conflict, as well as drones and other military equipment. Ankara has reportedly dispatched thousands of Syrian Islamist fighters to support the GNA and its allied Libyan Islamist militias.

Turkey’s interest in Libya is partly driven by ideology. The Islamists associated with the GNA are among its last allies standing in the Arab world, along with Qatar, Hamas and various Muslim Brotherhood parties. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is loath to let another Sunni Islamist power in the Arab world go down without a fight.

The GNA’s authority is also crucial to Turkish ambitions  in the eastern Mediterranean Sea: Ankara is attempting to control the exploitation, and especially the distribution, of large reserves of liquid natural gas. Having drawn an imaginary line from the northern Turkish shore to the coast of Tripoli, it is claiming joint control, with the Sarraj government—and against the interests and objections of Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt—of nearly a third of the Mediterranean waters.

But even with Turkish backing, the LNA is unlikely to break out of its western redoubts. Haftar, like Sarraj, is the recipient of substantial foreign support and supplies, although perhaps not nearly as intensive or direct. The United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Russia all back his efforts, with occasional Emirati and Egyptian airstrikes against his enemies, and some Russian mercenaries fighting alongside his forces.

The stalemate over the past year suggests that a de facto partition may be developing, between an Islamist-dominated western Libya, with Turkish and Qatari support, and the Haftar-controlled east, with Egyptian and Gulf support.

One man who might have had a chance of uniting the two sides lost his own fight against the coronavirus on April 5, in Cairo: Mahmoud Jibril, Libya’s first post-Qaddafi prime minister. Jibril’s most striking legacy may be his July 2012 election victory in which his coalition of essentially secular political forces handily defeated the Islamist parties by emphasizing patriotism over religious fanaticism.

Jibril’s political genius lay in his ability to wield the flag against the Islamists, without allowing them to deploy the Koran against him. Indeed, he was able to use Islam itself to attack the Islamists, by asserting, “The Libyan people don’t need either liberalism or secularism, or pretenses in the name of Islam, because Islam, this great religion, cannot be used for political purposes. Islam is much bigger than that.”

But for all his skills, Jibril was unable to prevent his country’s drift toward civil conflict. He could not fight the growing power of independent militia groups and tried to contain them instead. Some condemned this strategy as “appeasement,” but it may have been all he could muster, especially since the international community, having taken its eye off Libya after Qaddafi’s death, failed to back him when he needed it most. As his country descended into all-out conflict, Jibril, who was no warlord, was pushed out of politics and into exile in the UAE and Egypt.

Libya, sliding toward a partition between Haftar and Sarraj, could really use a Jibril right now. None is in sight.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

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