We are used to discussing foreign involvement in Libya in terms of which side is benefiting – GNA or LNA. Classic thinking about military conflicts tends to be zero-sum in this regard. Increase support for one side, it wins over the other. Conflict over. Or not. Jump to Libya.
Embedded with GNA fighters in Tripoli, journalist Frederic Wehrey, writing for Foreign Policy Magazine, has noticed the on-the-ground implications of Russia’s growing involvement on Haftar’s side. As the two sides have reached a stalemate, in part due to Turkey and the UAE having rushed in, the “deck was shuffled” again in September as Russian mercenaries began arriving by the hundreds to help the LNA. Wehrey describes significant improvements in the use of attack drones, mortars, advanced anti-tank missiles and especially snipers, bringing a level of professionalism the conflict had not previously known.
He warns that this Russian assistance, however, may come with a price tag. The United States started taking notice recently, and began condemning this involvement specifically. Congress is looking to place bi-partisan sanctions on the Russian contractors.
Wehrey is encouraged by this new, more assertive US position after months of ambivalence, where it wasn’t clear which side the US backed. Officially, the US and State Department were backing the GNA, but after Trump’s phone call to Haftar in April, who claimed to be leading the fight against ISIS and al-Qaeda, this was no longer certain.
Wehrey noted that the effect of the Russians has been to sow distrust and panic among the various GNA militias, who were already not under any unified command. The effect, on the ground, is the tearing of the social fabric of the country, more and more as each day passes. There are already over 140,000 internally displaced persons by the fighting. In areas controlled by the GNA, social services barely function, not that they functioned well before. And, as fighting continues, the various corrupt militias taking control of the areas grow bolder. At the same time, the LNA and its use of airpower has shown little sensitivity to differentiating between civilian and military targets.
The author calls for a more resolute and clear US diplomacy. The recent meetings by a senior US delegation with GNA officials, followed by meetings with Haftar pressing him to accept a cease fire, are a good start. But Haftar has shown little incentive to stop his efforts. The US, says Wehrey, must convince the various foreign powers to stop their military support, especially the UAE, Turkey and Russia, all seeking to make themselves the power brokers in the region.
The danger, Wehrey suggests, is not that the GNA will collapse and Haftar will take over Tripoli and the environs. Far from it, Wehrey suggests, rather, that the urban areas will descend into vicious, block-by-block fighting that will rip Libya apart further. The GNA will not give up so quickly, as they are not under unified command rather are disparate and passionate militias.
Haftar’s offensive, backed by Russia’s advanced capabilities, are bad news for Libya. Haftar will seek to coopt some militias in Tripoli and import his management style – stoking communal tensions in some places, and strongman dictatorship methods in others. This will only encourage a continued insurgency and perhaps may even give new life to ISIS and other Salafist groups to regroup and continue fighting. This would be ironic indeed, given Haftar’s selling himself as the one who will fight off ISIS.
Back to our opening thought. If we take Wehrey’s suggestion and flesh it out, what may happen is that given Russian backing, rather than having one side reach a decisive victory in Libya, the LNA’s new advantage could see a crumbling of the GNA but not of the militias that comprise it. Thus, we could see the conflict dragging on in Tripoli itself in a far more chaotic fashion. Moreover, this could allow for a resurgence of ISIS and ISIS like groups, something neither side wishes to see bounce back.
As Russia seems intent on stoking further violence, perhaps the US and various European or NATO powers, must work more decisively to end the conflict. This starts by getting the Russians, Emiratis and Turks on board first and pressuring all sides for a diplomatic and political solution.