While UN initiatives are underway to gather a 5+5 military commission in Geneva for a permanent truce in Libya, eastern-based warlord Khalifa Haftar is speeding up military deployments with the support of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt under the shadow of a fragile cease-fire.
Concentrating his forces around the capital Tripoli and northwestern city of Misrata, Haftar since 2014 has seen the negotiating table as an extension of the war aiming to take control of the country. However, unable to reach his goals in any talks to date, he has consistently dashed hopes for negotiation with new waves of operations.
In organizing attacks on Tripoli and halting oil production on the day of the recent Berlin conference, Haftar was actually sending the message that war is still his primary option. This shows the fragility of both the cease-fire and ongoing initiatives for political solutions.
"There is no international pressure to speak of for the UAE – Haftar's prime foreign support – to revise its policies on either the region or Libya."
The peace plan of the Berlin conference had critical importance in declaring that the continuing civil war in the country would not end unless foreign support ended. But it did not propose any effective mechanisms to ensure the implementation of the arms embargo, which has been violated numerous times by a multitude of actors. The conference concluded that the UN General Assembly could condemn violations. However, the functionality of this proposed mechanism is open to question as, so far, there have been no such decisions against the parties in breach. In addition, the final text accepted during the conference has not yet been approved by the General Assembly and thus has yet to become a binding decision. Due to all these, the issue of the embargo is the weakest point of the agreement, as the parties that have violated it are either UN members or close allies of the members.
While the measures accessible to international institutions, including the UN, are limited to such moves as condemnations or sanctions, it is doubtful whether such a decision can be taken. The decision at the Berlin conference is for now merely a "gentlemen’s agreement." So far, no condemnation has been issued on violations or war crimes in Libya. On the other hand, though the issue seems to have been limited to the arms embargo, the UAE has been using the al-Khadim Air Base in Libya since 2016 and Egypt has also been carrying out air operations from its bases within its own territory.
Since member states are in control of the embargo from the air and sea, arms transfers will occur mainly by land, strengthening the hands of neighboring countries that control these routes and influential actors in these countries of other actors in these countries. Egypt, the UAE and France control both eastern and southern ways into Libya. Last December, there was a surge in traffic on an additional air supply line from the UAE and Russia to Benghazi. Several sources claim that the UAE made a 3,000-ton delivery of military equipment to forces loyal to Haftar over the last two weeks.
The Antonov 124, a cargo plane registered with the Makassimos Air Cargo company owned by Mohammed bin Zayed, the Abu Dhabi Emirate's crown prince and deputy commander-in-chief of the UAE Armed Forces, is thought to have made deliveries of both military equipment and foreign fighters. Thus, the regional strategic power of Russia – which had gained territory thanks to private security company the Wagner Group – significantly diminished as a result of some eastern Libyan tribes withdrawing their fighters following the Giryan defeat.
UAE's Libya war
Last May UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash summarized his country’s view of the Libyan crisis and post-Arab Spring regional transformation processes, stating that the priority in Libya is to support stability in the protracted crisis against extremists and terrorism. After the 2010-2011 revolts in Arab countries, the UAE and its ally Saudi Arabia began utilizing more military power in their foreign policies and thus playing a significant role in the shaping of geopolitics in the region. Of the two, the UAE’s role in the region underwent a major shift after it launched an active policy to fuel a regional wave of authoritarian revival with the perception that the transformation processes across the Middle East – and especially North Africa – were actually a threat to regimes in the Gulf monarchies.
Until 2011, the UAE had prioritized becoming a regional financial hub and international business center. It has now transformed into a military power with its increased visibility and impact on regional dynamics following the Arab Spring. In today's world, the UAE has become one of the most important financers among regional regimes, even as it rapidly turned into a regional military power. With its strategic Red Sea port enterprises in Egypt, Somalia, Yemen and Saudi Arabia and military bases in Libya, Yemen, Eritrea and Somaliland, the country now seeks to position itself as the decisive power in the region both economically and militarily via its expansionist and ambitious foreign policy.
With the inclusion of Egypt in the Saudi Arabia-UAE regional bloc following Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's rise to power via a coup in 2013, the UAE expanded its foreign policy objectives towards Libya and played an important role in the changing course of the power struggle in Libyan politics. The ties between the UAE and Haftar based on mutual interests depend on whether Haftar's fight against Islamic groups – and especially the Muslim Brotherhood – in Libya agrees with the UAE's regional political agenda. Numerous arrests and trials have taken place in the UAE since 2012 on charges of "attempting to overthrow the regime" among the Muslim Brotherhood in the UAE. In 2014, the UAE along with Saudi Arabia declared the Muslim Brotherhood a "terrorist organization." Thus, it launched a broad war defining the movement as both a national and international security threat.
In August 2014, the UAE’s Libya War started with airstrikes as forces loyal to either of the two rival assemblies in the country battled for control of the capital Tripoli. After elections in June 2014, a political structure emerged with two governments, one of the General National Congress and the other of the House of Representatives. Come August 2014, Tripoli was the site of fighting between the tribal and militia forces of these two governments for the city’s control.
With its first strikes in Libya, the UAE had sought to stop the progress of forces loyal to the Misrata-based National General Congress towards the center of Tripoli. However it did not succeed, and the House of Representatives had to withdraw from Tripoli and settle in Tobruk, which was under Haftar’s protection. Thus, the foundation of the alliance between Haftar, the House of Representatives, and the UAE was laid. Since then, the UAE continued to support Haftar and the House of Representatives in Tobruk. The UAE’s air support was undeniably significant in Haftar’s success in the operations he launched to take Darna and Benghazi. Since 2016, the UAE has continued to provide Haftar with air support via its al-Khadim military airbase. It was observed last November that the UAE installed Hawk Air Defense Systems at the base and that it had actively used Mirage 2000 warplanes from the base during the assault on Tripoli. A UN report on the bombing of a refugee camp in the Tajoura area near Tripoli said that the attack was carried out by a Mirage 2000-9 owned by a foreign state.
However reluctant the UN has been on recording the UAE’s violations in Libya, it was forced to take note of them in its latest reports. Having ignored the UAE’s activities in Libya for a long time, the UN clearly mentioned the presence of the UAE in the country in an 85-page report published last November. Despite this, it does not seem possible that a serious change will occur in UN Security Council policies. Under such circumstances, there is also no international pressure to speak of for the UAE to revise its policies on either the region or Libya.
It is clear enough that the UAE wants to win a decisive victory in Libya. This goal can only be fully realized by toppling alternative power elements in Tripoli and building an authoritarian regime under Haftar with a prominent military aspect. Any scenario that does not prevent or balance this policy will be one in which the option of using force overcomes the political resolution.
[The writer is an expert in North African Studies at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, an Ankara-based think tank.]
* Translation by Merve Dastan
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