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Libya Enters New Phase of Armed Conflict

By: Peter Korzun

Alarm bells are ringing. The world has another armed conflict on its map.

East Libyan forces led by General Khalifa Haftar are about to take control of the Tamanhent air base near the city of Sabha, which is located on the frontline between rival forces based in eastern and western Libya. The leadership of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in the capital, Tripoli, has ordered its forces to counter the attack. According to Libyan media outlets, heavy fighting is taking place in the area.

With the two leading competitors at war, the Libyan conflict has entered a new phase – a problem for the international community to face. Several members of the House of Representatives (HoR) based in Tobruk have called for an immediate no-fly zone in southern Libya. It means the UN Security Council will have to tackle the issue soon against the background of its failure to agree on a draft resolution on Syria.

Libya has been mired in a conflict between two competing governments since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 after a NATO-led intervention. Political power has been split between two rival governments in Tripoli and Tobruk since 2014, with other actors also scrambling for power, including armed formations, tribes and city-states. The continuing quarrels between the two governments are thwarting diplomatic attempts at unification.

In March, 2015, the HoR appointed General Haftar commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA). The military leader has been part of the Libyan political scene for about half a century. Around 1990 he went into exile to the United States after a failed attempt to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi. In the 1970s, Haftar received military training in the Soviet Union. The general speaks Russian. After the start of the uprising against Gaddafi in 2011, Haftar returned to Libya where he became a key commander of the makeshift rebel force in the east.

The GNA is largely aligned with Misrata, the most militarily powerful city in western Libya.

The borders are open and nothing stands in the way of outside interference. For instance, all of a sudden the Misrata forces happened to be in possession of aircraft striking Barak Al-Shati airbase in southern Libya. The planes could not have fallen from the sky but they could have been delivered by Persian Gulf states, for instance Saudi Arabia, with the approval from Washington.

Libya is a problem to hit mainstream media headlines soon. The country is too important to ignore. The situation when everyone is fighting each other cannot last long. Russia and the US will have to add this issue to their security agenda.

Moscow has already been asked by Libya’s military leader Khalifa Haftar to intervene. It also enjoys good working relations with the HoR. The Libyan parliament’s delegation visited Moscow. No wonder, it is Russia – not the US, France or any other Western state – the Libyan military leader has asked for help. Libyans remember well the NATO intervention of 2011 and don’t trust the West, especially in view of its failure to achieve any positive results in Syria. Russia’s operation in that country has changed the political landscape and strengthened Moscow’s standing among the region’s powers. It’s important that, unlike the US, Russia enjoys a good relationship with Egypt and good working relations with the UAE – the countries that back General Haftar.

The United States and its NATO allies have already been militarily involved in Libya with their special operation forces and drones operating in the country. As the Libyan war has entered into a new phase, it’s important to make precise what the US position is.

According to the Guardian, Sebastian Gorka, a deputy assistant to Donald Trump, has pushed a plan to partition Libya, and once drew a picture of how the country could be divided into three areas on a napkin at a meeting with a senior European diplomat. Gorka is said to be competing for the White House post of presidential special envoy to Libya, a position that is yet to be formally announced. The plan to partition the country into three sections is based on the old Ottoman provinces of Cyrenaica in the east, Tripolitania in the northwest, and Fezzan in the southwest.

The US has tried it before. Kosovo is an example. Iraq has become a divided nation as a result of US invasion in 2003. The Iraqi Kurdistan government has recently announced it would hold a referendum on independence this year. The United States played a decisive role in partitioning Sudan in 2011. Now the world has to tackle the problem of South Sudan plunged in internal conflicts, hunger and poverty.

The lessons of history should be learnt. The international community cannot leave the country alone but this time there should be a concerted international effort undertaken upon a UN Security Council’s resolution. With the war going on it’s hard to imagine the country will have a united government to ask for outside help and make it legitimate. But any international operation approved by the UN is unthinkable without Russia. The need to normalize the situation in Libya rather unites than divides Russia and the West. But any idea of dividing the country is unacceptable. The Middle East has seen enough of divisions. Libya, Syria, Yemen and other nations should remain sovereign undivided states.

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