The conflict in Syria is coming to an end, with the leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran, the real power brokers in Syria, on the way to work out the terms of peaceful settlement. These countries, not the US-led coalition, hold the key to the conflict resolution. With the world attention focused on Syria, the situation in Libya has fundamentally changed.
With an area of almost 1.8 million square kilometres (700,000 sq. mi), Libya is the fourth largest country in Africa, and the 16th largest country in the world with the 10th-largest proven oil reserves. Strange as it is, the situation there receives almost no coverage in mainstream world media. But the country is too important to ignore.
Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar’s official position is Commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA). He was appointed by the House of Representatives (HoR) in early 2015. The HoR is the internationally recognized parliament. In summer, the strongman’s forces achieved great military success, gaining control of large swathes of Libyan territory, including main oil fields. It seemed that nothing could prevent the warlord from establishing control over the entire country. Now his luck has turned.
While Ghassan Salamé of Lebanon, UN Secretary General’s Special Representative and Head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), is applying desperate efforts to trigger peace process, many actors inside the country are trying to protect their interests through the use of force.
This month, fighting erupted in Wershiffana district in western Libya between local armed groups and the forces led by commander of the western military zone, Major-General Usama Juwaili, who was appointed by Fayez Mustafa al-Sarraj, the Chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya and Prime Minister of the Government of National Accord (GNA). Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade (TRB), once an element of forces loyal to the Tobruk-based Libyan Interim Government along with the Libyan National Army, took part in a military operation alongside western military zone and Zintan Military Council to help "cleanse" Jafara and Aziziya districts in Wershiffana – southwestern Tripoli – from "outlaws and gangs."
The Zintan Brigades of Haithem Tajouri, also previously allied, but separate from, the Libyan National Army, took part in the operation. The Brigades participation made one erroneously believe that it was Marshall Haftar who commanded the forces. But no, the group changed sides. It even opened fire at the 4th brigade of LNA. The fight against criminals turned into a battle between major forces, with the military balance changed in favor of those who oppose Field Marshall Haftar.
Perhaps, cracking down on criminals was not the real, or not the only, objective of the offensive. The operation was also targeted at the forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar and the Libyan National Army. By Nov. 7, the 4th brigade of LNA was dispersed with its commander having gone into hiding. The LNA lost the position, which allowed it to advance and establish control over Tripoli, Libya’s capital. The Field Marshall has lost influence in Tripolitania.
Thus, the military-political landscape in the country has changed. There is a new alliance emerging. The abovementioned formations can be reinforced by Janzur and Zawiya militias, which opposed each other until recently. Does this alliance have a solid basis? Changing sides is not something extraordinary in Libya. Now, can it be ruled out that with the Zintan Military Council on his side, Usama Juwaili may want to become an independent actor.
Here is another repercussion. The events took place against the background of intensifying activities of terrorist groups in Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city. With Islamic State routed in Iraq and Syria, the fighters are coming home or looking for new safe havens. This is a heavy blow to Field Marshall Haftar. The military leader is known as an anti-Islamist leader for his tough stand against Muslim fundamentalists. This summer, he solemnly declared Benghazi liberated from rival armed groups after a three-year campaign. It is widely believed that whoever controls Benghazi controls Libya.
The strongman’s position is also undermined as he and his forces have to fend off accusations of having committed crimes against humanity during the country's ongoing civil war. With no viable evidence presented, the campaign is gaining strength. It’s an open secret that Haftar’s army consists of various groups. Some of them could not care about human rights much. What matters is that if some elements of LNA act this way, the strongman is not in full control.
Until recently, it was widely believed that Field Marshall Haftar is going to unite the country. Now, it’s not clear what the future holds for him. Libya has become even more divided. The hopes that rival factions will reach an agreement appear to be dashed.
Russia has applied efforts to act as an intermediary between the Libyan opposing governments. An international effort is indispensable to prevent Libya from becoming a second Syria. NATO is responsible for the turmoil in the country since 2011 when it overstepped the initial UN resolution to plunge the country into chaos. It would be logical for the alliance to contribute to the search for a negotiated settlement of the conflict. Libya is not a dividing issue between Russia and the West. Both are interested in preventing the big and oil-rich country from becoming a safe haven for terrorists taking advantage of everlasting instability. The issue is undeservedly kept out of spotlight instead of topping the international security agenda.