Johannesburg - Libya’s ongoing fighting is in danger of descending into a full-scale civil war that is threatening to spread into a regional conflict right on Europe’s doorstep.
However, what is fueling this conflict is outside intervention, as different countries with disparate interests take sides as the Libyan National Army (LNA), under renegade general Khalifa Haftar, continues its assault on the capital Tripoli in an attempt to overthrow the internationally-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA).
Haftar supports the opposition House of Representatives (HoR) authority in the eastern city of Tobruk. The self-styled LNA launched its military assault at the beginning of April but was stalled by forces loyal to the GNA.
The fighting has subsequently reached a stalemate with neither side gaining ground. However, the death toll has surpassed 1 000 people, many of them civilian, with many more wounded. Thousands have been displaced and homes, businesses, and infrastructure severely damaged.
The North African country is now split in two, with regional and international powers aggravating the geopolitical schism between east and west.
The latest country to enter the fray is Turkey which has economic and regional interests.
“Turkey’s suspected intervention in support of the GNA had been growing in scope, provoking concern over wider regional involvement,” said Michel Cousins the editor of the Libya Herald.
Ankara - which supports the Muslim Brotherhood and is owed $23 billion in debt and unfinished contracts - has provided the GNA with an assortment of weaponry, enabling it to block the LNA’s Tripoli offensive because it fears that if Haftar wins it will be barred from future Libyan business.
There are now fears that Turkey will significantly increase its military backing for the GNA, possibly even providing more air cover, which would push the Egyptians to make their next move, said Cousins.
Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, are supporting the LNA and Haftar with mounting evidence pointing to their support for the military assault on Tripoli.
“Various Gulf Arab states – particularly Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE – have sponsored Libyan political movements and armed groups, aiming to establish regional hegemony amid the ashes of the Arab uprisings,” said the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) in a recent report.
Egypt’s support for Haftar stems from a mixture of economic opportunism, direct threats to its security interests, and Haftar’s and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi’s shared ideology of militarism as the only antidote to an existential Islamist threat, the ECFR report explained.
“The UAE views the Arab uprisings’ promise of a push towards representative government – and the prospect that the (often Islamist-leaning) parties that remained in opposition for decades could one day come to power through the ballot box – as an existential threat,” added the ECFR report.
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has mobilised propaganda in favour of the LNA.
The Europeans are also split on Libya, with key European actors focusing more on their narrow interests than on a comprehensive solution to the crisis.
While Italy intervened directly in Libya to mitigate the migration crisis that began in 2015, supporting militias loosely affiliated with the GNA in Tripoli, France adopted a Libya policy that focused on counter-terrorism and, as a result, became increasingly dependent on Haftar.
In regards to the international arena, Russia has been crucial to Haftar’s successes, raising his international standing and assisting him financially by printing a new Libyan currency on his behalf, the ECFR said.
Moscow’s geopolitical nemesis the US, meanwhile, has also had its fingers in the pie.
Officially the US has backed the UN in regard to Libya policy while simultaneously assertively protecting its main interests, including countering terrorism and preventing Libyan politics from disrupting global oil markets.
“Left unchecked, foreign interventions in the country will continue to drive the conflict – not least by blocking any EU and UN diplomacy designed to resolve the crisis through a power-sharing agreement,” the ECFR warned.
“The result could very well be an intractable regional crisis of Syrian proportions.”