Potential 2020 Flashpoints: Libya

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The proxy war going on in Libya has deepened in recent weeks and the trend shows every sign of continuing in the early days of the new year. The prospect of overt foreign intervention hangs over the conflict now with Turkey preparing to deploy troops and naval vessels to support the internationally-recognized Libyan government. The Turks intend for its navy to help defend Tripoli and the Government of National Accord (GNA) as the forces of  Khalifa Haftar continue to pose a threat. Turkish troops on the ground will help train and coordinate GNA forces similar to the manner in which Turkish troops aided anti-Assad rebels in Syria. On the subject of Syria, Turkey will also send Syrian rebels to fight against Haftar’s Libyan National Army.

Turkish President Erdogan appears to be regarding the GNA as a high-value investment worth protecting. Its certainly in Turkey’s best interest to prop up the Libyan government after the lucrative maritime deal signed between the two nations which creates a Turkish Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) from Turkey’s southern Mediterranean shore to Libya’s northeast coast. This move has shaken the region and helped crystallize opposition to Turkey’s intervention.

Libya’s neighbors Tunisia, and Algeria are concerned about the events taking place to their east. The most direct worry is that the fighting will spillover into their territory. Algeria, which has experienced a somewhat volatile political year, and is enduring economic difficulties as a result, is rumored to be considering throwing its support behind the GNA. Tunisia’s intentions are not clear although it has mobilized its military and placed forces on its border with Libya as a precaution.

Turkey’s move towards intervention is bringing about diplomatic backlash. Many nations are cautioning against the dangers of foreign intervention in Libya, although it should be mentioned that most of the nations cautioning about foreign intervention are in fact supporting Khalifa Haftar and his forces. As 2019 comes to a close, Libya seems poised to become a larger proxy war involving a constellation of ideological, political, and economic interests. Some observers have pointed out similarities between Libya in 2019, and Syria in the early days of its civil war. Personally, I think that Libya is nothing more than a shining example of the consequences brought upon the Middle East by Arab Spring. Even nine years later the region continues to feel the effects.

Tunisia’s Military Forces Mobilize

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With forces of the Libyan National Army (LNA) under the command of Khalifa Haftar preparing for a decisive assault on Tripoli the Tunisian government has grown wary of the situation to its east. Fearful of a spillover of fighting onto its soil, the government announced a mobilization of the nation’s military and security forces. These forces will deploy to Tunisia’s southeastern border with Libya in the coming days. As the prospect of fighting looms around Tripoli, the Tunisian move comes as no surprise. Along with preventing violence from spilling over, Tunisia’s military and security forces are also preparing for the anticipated surge of refugee families into their country.

On Thursday Haftar announced the start of a final LNA offensive aimed at capturing Tripoli and deposing the Government of National Accord (GNA). “Zero hour has come for the broad and total assault expected by every free and honest Libyan,” Haftar said in a speech on Thursday. It is yet uncertain if the planned offensive has commenced yet or not. Judging from government reports, and dispatches and tweets from journalists on the ground there the fighting has not yet begun in earnest. That could change at any time though.

Tunisia is not the only nation-state in the Mediterranean eyeing events in Libya closely. The other day we spoke about Turkey and the stake Ankara has in the continued survival of the GNA. Greece has been outspoken in its opposition to the controversial agreement between Turkey and Libya over maritime boundaries. Since its signing on 28 November, the US, Egypt, Russia, Israel, and the European Union have come out against the agreement too. As Athens moves to drum up more diplomatic support from nations in the Persian Gulf area, it is also reinforcing Greek military forces on Crete.

If Haftar’s LNA does seize control of Tripoli and the GNA collapses, the deal will be dead in the water. This reality is understood by the Turkish government, and at least partly responsible for Turkey’s recent offer of military intervention to the GNA.

Turkey Considers Sending Troops to Libya

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Earlier this week Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hinted that his government is considering the possibility of sending troops to Libya to prevent Russian-supported forces from capturing Tripoli. Erdogan was quick to point out that such an intervention would not occur unless the UN-recognized Libyan government requested it.

Erdogan’s comments indicate just how much the position of the Government of National Accord (GNA) has deteriorated. Forces under the control of militia leader Khalifa Haftar, heavily backed by Russian weapons, and advisers, have tightened their siege of Libya. Haftar is publicly claiming his forces will be inside of Tripoli by the end of the year, a realistic probability given the present situation on the ground.

Libya, at the moment, keenly represents the mishmash of competing interests, and actions by powers in the region. In the past three months Russia has thrown its lot in behind Haftar, contributing a considerable number of mercenaries, and equipment. These moves has enabled Haftar’s forces to successfully resume the drive on the Libyan capital. Government forces opposing them are reaching the breaking point. If they are unable to prevent Haftar’s troops from entering Tripoli, it will likely mean the collapse of the GNA. Libya could once again descend into a long period of fighting between militias opposed to Haftar, and his forces. This turmoil will inevitably bring on a fresh exodus of refugees looking to escape the fighting. The most likely destination of these people is Europe, a scenario the European Union can hardly afford.

Russia is not the only nation backing Haftar. Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia have provided weapons, and material support in the hopes Haftar and his authoritarian style can restore stability to Libya. The US, and other Western powers have publicly supported the Tripoli government and UN efforts in Libya, but very little military support has been provided, on the surface at least. Behind the scenes is another matter entirely.  Earlier this week the US claimed a Russian air defense system was responsible for bringing down an American UAV in Libya.

Turkey’s support for the GNA is partly due to the continuing rivalry between it and the Saudi-led bloc. It has become the major provider of military hardware for the Tripoli government, though its motivations are not confined to Ankara’s desire to counter the Saudis. There is an economic element as well. Just days ago Turkey signed a deal with the GNA giving Ankara drilling, pipeline, and maritime rights over a wide area of the Mediterranean between the two nations. That particular move has set off a firestorm in Greece, and across Europe, however, it has not deterred Erdogan. For better or worse, Turkish involvement in Libya appears ready to escalate now that the survival of the GNA is directly tied to Turkish economic and geopolitical fortunes in the region.

Libyan Chaos

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Libya is on the verge of descending into chaos…..again. Fighting between government forces and  Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) has intensified as LNA troops approach the capital city of Tripoli. As the fighting edges closer to the city, the United Nations has requested a temporary ceasefire in order for wounded civilians to be evacuated. The UN attempt failed. The international community has called for both sides to end hostilities. Those calls were soundly ignored by the government and LNA forces. If anything, the fighting appears to be intensifying, with both sides having launched airstrikes at positions in the Tripoli suburbs. Artillery fire has also been reported to have hit civilian homes and businesses across the capital city.

As the fighting escalates, the United States has announced it is withdrawing some of its forces from Libya due to the deteriorating security situation on the ground there. News of the evacuation was the first public confirmation that US forces are in Libya. India is also withdrawing its peacekeeper troops from the country.

Haftar’s stated goal is to overthrow the Government of National Accord (GNA) which is backed by the UN and many Western nations. Haftar’s forces are receiving material support from the UAE, and there are reports of up to 300 Russian mercenaries in Eastern Libya supporting Haftar.

GNA forces have launched a major offensive dubbed Operation Volcano of Anger to prevent Haftar’s LNA from entering the capital city.Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj appears to have chosen to defend Tripoli as he waits to see if international pressure can either force Haftar to retreat, or bring about a truce. Western pressure placed on Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE is the clearest path to achieving either of these goals, however, it is not clear if the West can project a united front in order to bring it about.

As the drama plays out, Libya remains on the edge of a major disaster this evening.

Sunday 22 July, 2018 Brief Update: Gaza Ceasefire

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The Israel-Hamas Gaza ceasefire is holding steady for the moment. The truce ended the latest round of frenzied clashes along one of the world’s most volatile borders. It began on Friday when an Israeli soldier was killed by a Palestinian sniper. This was the first killing of a soldier around the border since 2014. Israel responded promptly with airstrikes against dozens of military targets in Gaza. Egypt, Qatar, and the United Nations moved quickly to prevent the situation from exploding.  Hamas eventually ended up requesting a ceasefire through the Egyptians and Israel agreed.

This is the third ceasefire to be brokered by Egypt between Israel and Hamas this year. Weekly demonstrations along the border between Gaza and Israel have kept tensions high since they began in March. Over 140 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces in the protests, however, there appears to be no end to the demonstrations in sight. During the same time period, Palestinians would frequently launch incendiary kites and balloons across the border, causing significant damage to Israeli farmland. Israel has long accused Hamas of using the demonstrations as cover for attempts to breach the border and conduct attacks on Israelis.