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Libya: From Civil War to Regional Conflict?

A low-intensity civil war has been raging in Libya since after its 2011 revolution. The situation escalated in 2014 after Islamists ignored the results of parliamentary elections and forced the parliament and internationally recognized government to seek refuge in eastern Libya. That same year Khalifa Haftar, Commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) and loyal to the elected parliament, started a heavy-handed offensive to end an Islamist assassination campaign in Benghazi, the largest city in the east, where U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were murdered two years before.

In 2015, the United Nations (UN) attempted to broker a deal, the Libya Political Agreement (LPA), focused on creating a new government. The LPA ultimately failed however because the negotiations were viewed as unrepresentative of actual power relationships on the ground. The internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), formed by the LPA, relocated to Tripoli in March 2016 and has been under the de-facto control of Tripoli and Misrata militias ever since. Libyans outside of the Tripolitanian area reject the GNA and continue to complain about the perceived unfair distribution of resources and wealth as well as the criminal enrichment of the militias in the capital region.

An LNA offensive on the Tripoli in April last year torpedoed a UN initiative for a Libyan National Conference in Ghadames after several failed initiatives to revive the doomed LPA. In the eyes of many across the country, Heftar purposely tanked the initiative his supporters deemed unbearable. For the GNA and its allies, on the other hand, he simply seeks to establish a military dictatorship.

The Main Warring Factions

The conflict is primarily between the GNA and Marshal Haftar’s LNA. As the GNA has very limited capabilities, it is supported by Burkan Al-Ghadab (BaG), which is both the name given to the counteroffensive (and translates loosely to Volcano of Rage) against the LNA  as well as the unofficial collective name for the anti-Haftar militias fighting for the government formed under the LPA. The BaG, strongly supported by Turkey and Qatar, is run by the Misrata militias, the largest single military block, and all of the major Tripoli militias. A larger number of radical Islamists including Al Qaeda (AQ) affiliates from the Tripolitania area fights among the ranks of the BaG, initially providing the backbone for several of its units. Several hundred Turkey-supported jihadists from Syria reinforced BaG early on in the battle for Tripoli. An alliance between the Misrata — Turkey’s closest allies in Libya and followers of Grand Mufti Sadeq Al Ghariani — and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), that has maintained a strong influence on politics, security, and the economy in Tripolitania over the years, maintains a dominating control over the GNA and BaG.

The core of the LNA are army units supported by various loosely connected militias. Its key foreign backers (and weapon suppliers) are Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The LNA has a very wide definition of terrorism, considering moderate Islamists and AQ affiliates, as well as the Islamic State (IS) alike, as terrorists. This approach has merged the usually disunited Islamists into a firm anti-Heftar block.

The civil war in Libya is now a war of attrition with belligerents who have very different capabilities. LNA casualties are mounting as it is no match for the state-of-the-art equipped Turkish troops in Libya. These troops maintain combat drones, electronic warfare capacities, long-range precision artillery, warships, and, most importantly, impressive air defense capabilities. As of 20 May, after retaking the last remaining LNA base in western Tripolitania, Al Wattiya, the BaG offensive has gained momentum while the LNA tries to consolidate its positions in the south of Tripoli.

An International Playground

Libya is a geostrategically important country holding Africa’s largest oil reserves. Naturally, several other countries have important and vital strategic interests there. Security-related interests are mostly concerned with the various Islamist groups, ungoverned areas, and Libya’s porous borders which allow for smuggling and human trafficking. Additionally, there are value-related interests focused on promoting either democracy or political Islam. Finally, several countries are economically interested in Libya’s valuable hydrocarbon industry. Between Libya’s regional neighbors (Egypt, UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar) and concerned parties in Europe (namely Turkey, but also France, Italy, and Russia), all eyes are on the conflict between the LNA and GNA.

Turkey‘s troubled economy is in dire need of Libya as an important export destination and seeks a major share in reconstruction. The survival of the GNA and a leading role for Misrata are essential for Ankara’s economic interests. Turkey gives permanent residence to several prominent former LIFG leaders (a dormant former AQ affiliate), members of the Libyan MB, prominent former Benghazi and Derna Islamist fighters, and Libya’s Grand Mufti. Turkey uses their influence to pursue its interests in Libya. Qatar is also a major investor in Libya. Both Qatar and Turkey are providing weapons and military equipment for several of the pro-GNA militias, particularly those from Misrata. In fact, the Turkish military itself is the backbone of the war against the LNA.

Egypt, Libya’s neighbor, is closely watching the crisis across the border for any evidence of a terrorist safe haven developing so close to home. Libya is also an important labor market for almost one million Egyptians who cannot find work at home. Italy and France have significant strategic interests regarding Libya, but while, for Italy, the economy and migration are in the foreground, regional security and counter-terrorism are the French priority. For Moscow, the chaos in Libya is an opportunity to regain influence. Russia is most likely interested in getting a substantial share of the reconstruction business and influence over the hydrocarbon industry, particularly the gas market as well as establishing a “beachhead“ in North Africa. While there are no vital American national interests at stake in Libya, its instability is an increasing threat to US interests in the wider region.

Consequences of Developments on the Ground

After explosions significantly damaged the Misrata airbase on May 6, the LNA increased its efforts to achieve a breakthrough in Tripoli but is unable to make any progress. After the recent setback at Al Wattiya, and as Misrata airbase is fully operational again, the LNA will find it very difficult to maintain its remaining positions in Tripolitania without significant outside support from Egypt or the UAE.

Currently, there is no major BaG offensive operation east of Abu Grein – Wadi Zamzam, an area to the west of the oil-rich Sirte Basin. It is possible there is a tacit understanding between Turkey and Egypt that the BaG/Turkish offensive will stop short of Sirte and the central Al Jufra Oasis. However, keeping the significance of the hydrocarbon resources east of Sirte in mind, it is doubtful that such an agreement will hold. Furthermore, if the Cyrenaica separates from Libya as a consequence of the LNA defeat in Tripolitania, the Turkish-Libyan Maritime Agreement from November last year delineating their exclusive economic zones, an agreement of critical importance to Turkey, would become irrelevant.

If there is a military escalation between Ankara and Cairo over Libya, Egypt is in a much better position to provide direct logistic support without risk of interception. Fighter aircraft will be able to attack targets all over Libya directly from bases in western Egypt. Even ground forces could easily intervene if required, whereas Turkish transport aircraft, drones, or even fighters flying to Libya could be intercepted at ease.

If the LNA is defeated in Tripolitania, Turkey will become the dominant political and economic power in Tripolitania and Fezzan. This will have a huge negative impact on European strategic interests in Libya. It can be assumed that Turkey will become the favored economic partner of (western) Libya, strongly undermining the position of the various European stakeholders, in particular Italy and France. Turkey will also gain a more important position on the European gas market and will certainly be able to influence deliveries through the Green Stream pipeline that runs through Western Libya to Italy. Furthermore, Turkey will be able to control the pipeline’s central route towards Italy in addition to the eastern Mediterranean migration route to Europe. This will significantly increase Turkey’s ability to pressure the EU. Turkey will also probably continue to expand its political and economic influence towards Tunisia, Algeria, and the southern Sahara states. This includes support of political Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood and possibly some even more radical groups that will bring Turkey into conflict with vital French strategic interests.

A Civil or Regional War?

Libya’s civil war is home-made and its roots are domestic but it is not a typical proxy war. International support is key for both sides and will not end anytime soon. If one side loses its arms suppliers for whatever reason, the other would certainly prevail. No party trusts the other, efficient enforcement of the arms embargo is unrealistic, and Libya is simply too important. Regular demands for a “unified international position on Libya” or a “resolution between the two major parties” usually means unification of all efforts against the LNA. Keeping the deep rift within Libya and the strong interests from outside in mind, it is doubtful that such a “solution” has a chance to succeed.

Turkey’s President Erdogan is close to establishing facts on the ground by a combination of diplomatic and military action. The BaG is very likely to win the war as long as Turkish military capabilities in Libya are not neutralized and are able to sustain its efforts in light of mounting casualties and an eventual escalation in Syria. Egypt is hesitant to get fully involved in what could be a protracted and very costly conflict. Russia has limited capabilities and avoids even engaging the Turkish military in Syria directly and they are certainly hesitant to do so in Libya. 

A political settlement is currently much less likely than a military decision, but with the potential upcoming defeat of the LNA at Turkey’s hand, it will not solve Libya’s problems. In fact, the situation could easily escalate and lead to a regional conflict leaving Europe and the United States to learn to live with the outcome.


Wolfgang Pusztai is a freelance security and policy analyst. He was the Austrian Defense Attaché to Libya from 2007 to 2012.

Taiwan: Between a ROC and a Hard Place

Taiwan is currently in the midst of an identity crisis. The island nation desires to retain its official Republic of China (ROC) designation while half-heartedly nursing an unconsummated claim to the mainland. Instead, it is relegated to the status of “Chinese Taipei.” This diplomatic ambiguity does the island-state no favors in coaxing, much less obtaining, formal recognition as a sovereign country. It does even less to distinguish Taiwan, at least in diplomatic terms, from mainland China. To be sure, the thought of coexisting side-by-side with another Sinic-based polity is nigh heresy in Beijing. There is probably no higher political transgression than to loudly entertain the very idea of an independent Taiwan within Zhongnanhai, the headquarters for the Communist Party of China (CPC), which also serves as China’s central government.

Taipei squandered the opportunity to break free of the cross-strait ambiguity in 1989 at the height of the June crackdown by Beijing when Western powers and China’s citizens recoiled from the death toll and sheer violence unleashed at Tiananmen Square. Had Taipei formally declared independence then and there, it would have established a credible precedent. Though the move was unlikely to garner immediate recognition, Beijing would not have been able to overturn it without risking further internal instability or throwing an ill-equipped conscripted army into a complex cross-strait invasion. Today, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is a far cry from its Maoist iteration of the past, and China’s citizens are mainly in line with an ethnocentric-based nationalism that was mostly absent during the Mao and Deng years.

There is But One China 

Half of this problem lies in Taiwan’s retention of the moniker Republic of China and its widely ignored, but constitutional, claim to the mainland. Both are legacies bequeathed to Taiwan by Chiang Kai-shek, who himself aspired to rule over a unified China. Both remain points of contention on the international stage. Additionally, the CPC threatened a kinetic form of “Chinese Reunification” after Taiwanese “desinicization” (sic) efforts. Thus, while denied use of “ROC” outside of Taiwan, its official existence and unresolved mainland claim indirectly serve Zhongnanhai’s narrative — at least for its domestic audiences — that the peoples on both sides of the strait yearn for “reunification.”

Repudiating both would buttress Taiwan’s position as standing apart from China rather than being perceived as a failed pretender for the throne. The present uncrowned King of Greece is a royal consort to the British Queen, a gentle fate to be sure. Trotsky suffered far worse: an icepick to the head. And it conforms with the first leg of the Shanghai Communiqué by resolving Kissinger’s “constructive ambiguity” that there is but one China. It is this re-framing of perspective that Zhongnanhai possibly fears more than a formal declaration of independence bearing the name “ROC.”

Mandate of Heaven

Repeated questioning – or is it discrediting? – of CPC’s one-party rule via the simplistic narrative of “Communism vs. democracy” does Taiwan no favors. While it might score points with pundits and politicians in the U.S. and Europe, it has by far failed to secure formal recognition from governments there. And how does one ascertain legitimacy without a ballot? The fact that more than a billion Chinese citizens pay taxes with and save in renminbi emblazoned with Mao’s face, strongly suggests they deem CPC to be “legitimate” for practical purposes. And what is money but, as Geoffrey Ingham of Cambridge University advocates, “a system of social relations based on power relations and social norms”? It can be argued the moment Germans burnt reichsmarks for heating or used them as wallpaper, marked the beginning of the end for the Weimar Republic and heralded the ascendancy of Adolf Hitler. Such a shift has yet to take place on the Mainland.

Some would argue that Taipei should ungrudgingly acknowledge the CPC’s mainland legitimacy under the “Mandate of Heaven”, a political justification used since ancient times to justify the rise or fall of Chinese emperors. It was even enthusiastically adopted by foreign conquerors such as the Mongols and the Manchus that established the Yuan and Qing dynasties, respectively.

Recalling the titular characters romanticized in the famous Chinese classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Taiwan is somewhat reminiscent of Liu Bei in his opposition to Cao Cao. The former, a warlord claimant to the imperial throne and a supposed heir to the Han dynasty circa 1-2 CE, contended with the latter who controlled the emperor Xian of the eastern Han dynasty. Present-day Liu Bei, rather than emulate his historical predecessor, should instead render unto Cao Cao what is Cao Cao’s.

Contrasting the “Mandate of Heaven” rule with pluralistic political participation, which denies such divine intercession, would serve better in advancing the cause for a separate, yet distinct, Sinic-based polity. Taiwan’s recent success at averting the coronavirus pandemic, sans WHO membership or a highly centralized rule enabling mass mobilization with minimal resistance, merely affirms such.

Taiwan, in the long run, cannot expect other countries to buy into its present stance when it cannot convince itself, much less its audience across the strait, that an independent Taiwan is not merely an “old wine in a new bottle”. Otherwise, Taipei would do better to negotiate a far less ambiguous future under “One Country, Two Systems”. Ultimately, a raison d’etre for independence would first necessitate the cognitive deportation of the highly monolithic Chinese philosophical and political worldview, mainly colored by Confucius and Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of unified China, back to the mainland where it truly belongs.


Teoh Jit Khiam works in private practice. He writes on topics concerning Asian politics and history.

The Cloud Over Africa: Corona Virus

As the 2019 Corona Virus Disease ravages the most developed economies of the world, Africans wait for its inevitable arrival on their shores. The prospect of an extremely virulent and deadly respiratory disease like COVID getting loose on the continent causes a great deal of trepidation. Africa has some of the poorest and least developed health infrastructure on the planet. In parts, its societies are ravaged by malaria, polluted environments, war, and poverty stricken cities with some of the highest population densities in the world. Africa lags behind the rest of the globe in nearly every measurable medical statistic. If and when COVID takes hold there, it seems inevitable it will quickly overwhelm health services and attack an unprotected population as it is doing in Bergamo, New York, and Madrid. COVID may seem like a dark cloud hanging over all of us but perhaps it is just a bit darker over Africa.

The reality is, COVID has already arrived on African soil. As of 2 April there were over 6200 confirmed cases in 51 African countries. Though the vast majority are in just three nations: South Africa, Algeria, and Egypt; distribution across the continent is spreading quickly. Hundreds of cases in Africa’s poorest and least stable countries are perhaps cause for even greater concern. In one example of what could lie ahead, 8.9 percent of the total cases in the Democratic Republic of Congo have already died of the disease.

The State of Africa

Africa holds a precarious position when it comes to health infrastructure that matters in the fight against COVID. Last in almost every measure, only three of Africa’s 54 nations (Mauritius, Libya, and Tunisia) have more than one doctor per 1000 citizens. Only twelve have more than one hospital bed per 1000 citizens and none of those are the densely populated countries around the continent’s periphery. By comparison, Italy, scene of one of the world’s worst COVID outbreaks, has 3.4 hospital beds per 1000. The numbers do not favor the sick.

Diseases like COVID spread faster in areas of high population density and Africa’s urban population tends to be very densely packed. Cities in the Sahel and West Africa have around 5000 residents per square kilometer. The large cities on the Mediterranean averaging about 8000. Cairo, Kinshasa, Mogadishu, and Asmara top the list with 15,000-25,000 people per square kilometer. (By contrast, Washington DC has only about 4000 per square kilometer.)

Though sparse population will slow the disease’s progression in the vast rural parts of Africa, those are precisely the areas with the least access to modern sanitation and health care. A 2012 study by the World Health Organization found 17.9% of respondents in all the sites surveyed, depended on traditional healers for their primary health care. Worse, some of these areas feature migratory populations that could continue to spread COVID for years.

Africa is not ready for Corona Virus
Disease tracking technology in a remote part of the Sahel. African states are poorly prepared for the onslaught of Corona Virus Disease.

Corona Virus Cloud

In more developed parts of the world, governments have the capacity to significantly impact the spread of COVID. Aside from health measures that directly prevent spread of the virus, such as issuing personal protective equipment for health workers, and organizing vast testing regimes, strong states can also enforce effective social distancing measures. Most African states however are not so capable and in some cases lack credibility with their own constituents. Most African governments are not even trying at this point.

In an effort to quantify and compare government responses to the pandemic, the Blavatnik School at Oxford University developed a system to combine 11 indicators into a common “stringency index.” As of 31 March, only seven African nations even registered on the index and of those, only two (Rwanda and Zimbabwe) had more stringent responses than the United States whose response is on the low end of the scale.

It is clear a disaster looms in Africa in the coming weeks. The situation leaves little reason to believe African cities will be spared the dramas we see in Bergamo, Guayaquil, and Madrid, but with far less ability to deal effectively with the results. In rural areas the disease may progress more slowly with a significantly flattened curve but with almost no modern health infrastructure in place in some areas, there is little chance the disease will even be tracked let alone treated. With so many countries around the world overwhelmed by the pandemic, hoping for international aid seems forlorn. Africa will be on its own.

On a continent that remembers the responses to Ebola and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), COVID hangs like a dark cloud on the horizon. Perhaps the only ray of light is that Africa’s cities, as unprepared as they are, may actually arrive at an equilibrium with the disease — sometimes called “herd immunity” — far sooner than European and American cities will. Reaching that point however will incur a cost in lives and pain that few can foresee and none deserve.


Lino Miani, CEO Navisio Global LLC

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC.