Despite relative calm in fighting in many parts of Syria, the north-western Idlib province has been under heavy Russian and Syrian government bombardment after a March 2020 ceasefire between Russia and Turkey ended in June. Bashar al-Asad’s regime, backed by Iran and Russia, has been leading a campaign to retake control of Idlib, which is currently in the hands of former Al-Qa'ida affiliate, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), and other jihadi groups. Turkey, which backs a number of rebel groups, including HTS, has sought to delay the regime offensive by trying to convince these groups to disarm and surrender territory along the strategic M4 and M5 highway to regime forces. This has largely failed and the government offensive continues, despite Russia, Turkey and Iran, partners in the Astana process, claiming to pursue a political solution to the embattled Syrian conflict. 

Russia and Iran, both supporters of Asad, have locked horns in the past year, with one result being continuing divisions in the Syrian military and security apparatuses and tensions flaring in the south-western Dera'a province. Compounding the situation are an increasing number of Israeli airstrikes against Iranian personnel and Iranian-sponsored militia in Syria; the most recent airstrikes targeted Iranian and Hizbullah positions in Damascus. A further complicating factor is that Turkey and Russia support opposite sides in the Libyan war, which has, thus, spilled into Syria as each of these two states recruits Syrian fighters to fight with opposing sides in Libyan. 

All of these national and international politics and military operations have worsened the lives of ordinary Syrians. Millions of Syrians facing a humanitarian crisis were dealt a immense blow on 12 July when Russia blocked a UN Security Council’s resolution that aimed to open humanitarian border crossings for the flow of aid to areas hard hit by the civil war.

 

Attempts to revive a political solution

The presidents of Iran, Russia and Turkey met in a videoconference on 30 June to discuss the Astana de-escalation process they had agreed on in May 2017 in Kazakhstan. The Astana process has been dormant since the beginning of 2020, having become unworkable when the regime began battling rebel groups in Idlib. The meeting was the first since Turkey had clashed with regime forces in Idlib in March, when a Russian airstrike had killed at least thirty-three Turkish soldiers. The official statement of the virtual summit slammed the USA for seizing oil fields in the northeast; criticised the autonomous northeast region – controlled by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) – and labelled them ‘illegal self-rule initiatives’; and condemned US sanctions on the Syrian regime, including the latest Caesar Act sanctions targeting individuals linked to the regime.

Even as the three countries issued a joint statement, political differences between them were stark. Turkey and Russia clashed in February, causing the deaths of over sixty Turkish soldiers in Idlib. Turkey retaliated with ‘Operation Spring Shield’ against Asad’s forces, downing three Syrian fighter jets and killing many soldiers. Russia then accused Turkey of breaching the terms of the September 2018 de-militarisation agreement, and of cooperating with HTS. This Russian statement represented the high point of recent tensions between the two countries, and led to the signing of another ceasefire agreement early March that committed both states to joint patrols alongside the Idlib part of the M4 highway.

Turkey has funded a number of rebel groups, has launched various military campaigns in northern Syria, and has a large military presence in Idlib province, which borders Turkey. The Turkish army has also conducted various cross-border military operations against Kurdish targets in northeast Syria, the one being dubbed ‘Operation Peace Spring’ in October 2019 under a US-brokered agreement that left Turkey controlling a 120-kilometre area between Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain that had been under the control of the Kurdish-dominated and US-sponsored Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Turkey carries out these operations and maintains a presence in Idlib at the accommodation of Russia, even with Iranian disagreement. Iran disapproves of Turkish military operations in the northeast as well as plans for demilitarisation in Idlib. It accuses Turkey of undermining Syria’s territorial integrity, and of giving control of the area to Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels. Iran’s disagreements with Turkey have become obstacles in the implementation of the Russia-Turkey agreement, especially because Turkey is to be the guarantor of Idlib as an Astana de-escalation zone. 

Iran-Turkey disagreements are, however, minute within the larger set of problems with the Astana process. The Syrian regime remains the biggest obstacle to a political solution, including its foot dragging on the UN Geneva process. The government’s focus is on its attempt to retake control of the entire country – with Russian and Iranian assistance, and little attention is paid to participation in the political process, despite occasional Kremlin pressure. The UN-Geneva process is a case in point. The regime’s delegates always stall the process, outrightly rejecting most proposals from other parties, and resisting every attempt to proceed with any of the political processes. In December 2019, the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Geir Pederson, told the UN Security Council that the second round of talks had failed because Syrian regime officials refused to discuss constitutional reforms. This came after months of UN and Russian efforts to get the Asad government to agree to a list of opposition and civil society participants for the Constitutional Review Committee formed under the auspices of the UN, and supported by Russia and Turkey.

Idlib offensive

Instead, the regime set its sights on Idlib, the last rebel bastion in the country, under the control of HTS And other rebel groups. Idlib has become the haven for Syrian civilians and rebels who had fled regime bombardment in other, previously rebel-held, areas. It enjoyed relative calm for a while as the regime reconquered other parts of the country. From September 2018, a series of ceasefire agreements were signed between Russia and Turkey. Some three million people are at risk of displacement in Idlib because of continuing violence, and around one million are already housed in refugee camps along the Turkish border. 

Although Russia seems to have a great appetite to revive and establish a political process to end the conflict, military operations place this project at risk. The Asad government has won back around seventy per cent of the country, and hopes to regain the remaining thirty per cent over the next months, starting with Idlib. With the Idlib offensive in full swing after a few months of relative calm, the regime is still nowhere near to conquering the province, mainly thanks to Turkish interference. HTS, which controls around sixty per cent of the province, has been cooperating with Turkey in a bid to stop Russian and Syrian army bombardments. In the process, the leader of the former Al-Qa'ida affiliate, Mohammed al-Julani, has rebranded the group and, at Turkish insistence, been suppressing dissenting groups, including those that are close or aligned to Al-Qa'ida. 

This strategy attracted the attention of James Jeffrey, the US envoy to Syria, who began to advocate for flexibility towards HTS. Jeffrey praised the group’s claim of patriotism to Syria, and said it did not pose an international threat, but was focused on maintaining its positions in Idlib. HTS’s determination to hold its position and control in the province has resulted in it intensifying its attacks against rival rebel groups. On 22 June, the group arrested senior members of its Shura Council who had defected to two other jihadi factions: Ansar al-Din and Muqatileen al-Ansar. These (and other) groups accuse HTS of cooperating with Turkey, which shares intelligence with the USA on Al-Qa'ida affiliates’ leaders in Idlib. In June, US drone strikes killed two Huras al-Din leaders – Khaled al-Aruri, a Jordanian who had been a member of Al-Qa'ida in Iraq before moving to Syria in 2015, and Abu Adan al-Homsi, who was in charge of logistics for the group. 

HTS’s doing Turkey’s bidding was seen starkly in May when the group declared the Turkish Lira as the official currency in Idlib. It intensified after protests by displaced Idlib civilians – said to be mobilised by rival groups – disrupted Russian and Turkish patrols along the M4 highway. A blast on the M4 that targeted Russian and Turkish soldiers early July was blamed on HTS rival Huras al-Din, and HTS subsequently arrested many of its leaders and members. Russia retaliated for the bombing by pounding rebel positions in the Latakia countryside. However, this HTS strategy to make itself more acceptable than other rebel groups has not worked; Russia and the Syrian regime insist that HTS members remain terrorists, and they press forward with attacks on the group despite unsuccessful Turkish attempts to get it to give up its heavy weapons as per the 2018 agreement. 

Dera'a a battleground for influence and control

Since entering the Syrian conflict in 2011 to support Asad, Iran continues to be a key player in the Syrian conflict. Iranian-linked militia and Lebanon’s Hizbullah are stationed in various parts of Syria backing the regime, and Asad’s survival until the Russian entry into the war is largely dependent on Iranian and Hizbullah support. Iran also has considerable influence in various sections of the Syrian military and intelligence apparatuses. Since the 2015 Russian engagement in Syria, however, changes have been made in the Syrian military and security institutions to minimise Iranian influence. This led to tensions within the military and allied militia, and the rivalry has unfolded rapidly in the southwestern province of Dera'a, where a July 2018 Russian-brokered deal saw rebel factions surrender their heavy weapons and the province to the regime, ending a month-long regime bombardment.

Iranian-backed militia in Dera'a are linked to assassinations and kidnappings of opposition faction leaders who had been part of the 2018 deal that ended regime incursion in the province. Syrian army officers linked to Russia have also been implicated in assassinations and attacks on Iranian-linked groups in the province. The Iranian-Russian tensions came to a boil on 4 May 2020 when former rebel leader Qasem al-Subehi, linked to the Russia-backed Fifth Corps, killed nine regime police officers in Muzayrib town. These tensions also saw parliamentary elections disrupted in various parts of Dera'a on Sunday, 19 July.

Former rebels such as al-Subehi are part of a policing force set up by the Russians called the Eight Division, which had been incorporated into the Syrian army’s Fifth CorpsThe Eight Division, is led by former Sunna Youth rebel group leader Ahamd al-Oda, polices checkpoints in many areas in Dera'a. It has also been implicated in violence against regime supporters and Iranian-linked generals in Dera'a. On 12 April, two Iranian-linked regime generals – Hamid Makhlouf and Mahmoud Habib – of the Fifty Second Brigade of the Fourth Division were assassinated in an attack that was widely blamed on Russia. Russia, through the Eighth Division, is vying for control and influence in the province against the Fourth Division, headed by Maher al-Asad, the president’s brother. Maher is known to have links with Iran and to coordinate with Iranian paramilitaries and Hizbullah forces in southern Syria. 

Together with Maher Fourth Division, Iranian-linked militia have been blamed for over 102 assassinations of former rebel leaders who joined the Fifth Corps. The Fourth Division constantly clashes with military, security and other agencies loyal to Russia. Such clashes and attacks have become a routine occurrence in Dera'a, threatening an escalation of violence in the province where the Syrian uprising had begun in 2011.

In the midst of this ongoing violence, Russia has used the province as a harvesting ground to recruit fighters to be sent to Libya. Russian paramilitary company Wagner has been recruiting young Syrian men to fight in Libya for warlord Khalifa Haftar. In May, tribal leaders in Dera'a organised protests condemning this Russian recruitment of Dera'a’s youth.

 

Increasing Israeli airstrikes

The increasing number of Israeli airstrikes in Syria targeting Iranian and Hizbullah positions has added an additional layer of violence in the ongoing conflict. On Monday, 20 July, Israeli airstrikes violated Lebanese airspace and struck positions in south Damascus, killing Iranian-backed fighters and causing infrastructural damage. These airstrikes were the latest in a series of ongoing Israeli attacks against Iranian and Hizbullah forces. Israel, which previously did not acknowledge carrying out these attacks, has recently been more brazen about admitting to its striking Iranian interests in Syria. The airstrikes represent Israeli acts of war against Iran, and have been sanctioned by the US.

The Israeli airstrikes have also raised questions over the role of Russia, which appears to be turning a blind eye to Israeli incursions. Russia had previously summoned and reprimanded Israeli ambassadors over Israeli airstrikes in Syria. The most recent reprimand was in February 2020, when the Russian defence ministry condemned Israeli airstrikes in Damascus suburbs that nearly hit an airbus carrying 172 passengers. The Russian defence ministry still holds a grudge against Israel after a Russian reconnaissance aircraft was shot down by Israeli strikes in September 2018, but was seemingly downplayed by the Russian President Vladimir Putin. There seems to be a difference between the Russian defence ministry and the presidency on how to address Israeli operations in Syria.

Although the occasional Russian rebuke gets attention, this does not deter Israel, suggesting the Russian criticism is merely performative. This suspicion is strengthened by the fact that Russian complaints are few, and only for specific cases rather than against the overall Israeli series of attacks. Israel strikes in Syria despite Russian S-300 surface-to-air missile defence systems deployed in Syria in February 2019. The non-effectiveness (or non-activation) of the Russian missile defence systems is, at best, because of a lack of effective training of Syrian military personnel. However, there have also been reports that Russia had not given the Syrians the control codes to the systems, which prevents them from detecting the Israeli F-16s, effectively making Russia complicit in the Israeli attacks.

 

Worsening humanitarian situation and Russian interference

Amid increasing pressure from the Russian-led offensive on the embattled Idlib province, millions of displaced Syrians refugees are stuck in IDP (internally displaced persons) camps inside the country. The face dire humanitarian conditions, which prompted the UN Security Council to pass Resolution 2533 on 11 July to resume its mandate to deliver aid to the country. The resolution came after Russia and China vetoed an earlier proposal aimed at keeping open two border crossings that channel aid from Turkey to Idlib. The UNSC finally resolved to allow the use of the Bab al-Hawa crossing point for one year, but close the border crossing at Bab al-Salam, both in Idlib.

The closure of the Yaroubia crossing from Iraq prevents the delivery of medical supplies from various aid agencies, including the UN, into the Kurdish-controlled northeastern Syrian region. The Jordanian Nasib Border crossing has similarly been closed; it had functioned as a lifeline for refugees mainly stranded at the Rukban refugee camp in southern Syria. The closures of these crossings will ensure the that the distribution of aid will be controlled by the Syrian regime, thus making it difficult for opposition groups to continue controlling territory. The UN has warned that humanitarian conditions are worsening because of the closure of these crossings, especially as the world battles the Covid-19 pandemic, which has also gripped Syria’s northern provinces.

Blocking the original resolution was also Russia’s attempt to give the regime access to resources as the government battles a weak economy and falling currency prices. In June, the USA announced economic and travel sanctions on Asad and members of his inner political circle, including family members, putting further pressure on the already-struggling government. Named the Caesar Syrian Civilian Protection Act, it allows the administration of US president Donald Trump to name and sanction thirty-nine individuals, companies and cross-border networks that channel money into Syria. The sanctions have added another layer of strain on the cash-strapped Syrian government as deepening rifts within Asad’s family expose worsen economic problems. Asad’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf, once a leading businessperson in the Syrian economy and fervent financial backer of Asad, has been confined to his residence after the state seized most of his business assets. Makhlouf’s Syriatel company was targeted amid rumours that Asad’s wife Asma was looking to set up a rival telecommunications company. The assets of other businesspeople and political figures have since also been seized by the government in a bid to replenish the state’s coffers.

Fragile situation in northeast Syria

The predominantly Kurdish region of northeast Syria has been in a fragile political situation after the Turks launched ‘Operation Peace Spring’ in October 2019. On 1 June, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) – whose military wing, the Kurdish Protection Units (YPG), leads the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – announced progress on reconciliation talks with the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC). The rival parties began reconciliation talks in November 2019, following the end of the Turkish offensive in the northeast. The SNC is based in Turkey and one of its members, the Kurdish National Council, is the only Kurdish faction at the UN Geneva talks.

Kurdish issues in Syria have been seized upon by the French government, which currently has tense diplomatic relations with Turkey over Ankara’s involvement in the Libyan conflict and Turkish naval manoeuvres in the Mediterranean. In May this year, French officials secretly met with the parties that form the Kurdish National Alliance (HNKS) and the PYD in a move seen as a direct provocation to Turkey. Turkey considers the SDF and PYD as affiliates of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is in a state of war with and outlawed in Turkey. 

 

Conclusion

The 30 June Astana meeting between Russia, Turkey and Iran revived a political process that seemed to have reached an untimely end because of political problems between the leaders of the process. Russia continues complicated bilateral relations separately with Turkey and Iran pertaining to the Syrian conflict, thus putting the Astana process in a never-ending quagmire. The regime’s offensive in Idlib supported by Russia ended a ceasefire agreement signed between Turkey and Russia in March, compounding an already-alarming humanitarian crisis for three million Syrians displaced in the province. This has put the Turkish-Russian relationship in a precarious position in Idlib as rebels continue to fight against the regime and Russia. Iran, which also supports the regime’s Idlib offensive is looking to counter increasing Israeli attacks against its positions inside Syria. Although the recent Astana meeting addressed these issues, it is yet to translate to tangible results on the ground. Meanwhile, boiling tensions in Dera'a remain unresolved, threatening renewed violence. Russia’s bid to restore territorial control to the Syrian regime saw it force the closure of two UN humanitarian aid crossings, leaving open only the Bab al-Hawa crossing in the northwest. This puts a strain on an already-struggling Syrian population because of the failing economy and US sanctions.

By Afro-Middle East Centre

The increasing tensions between forces loyal to former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Houthi are a symptom of the differing interests both have maintained from the initial stages of Yemen’s current civil war. These are being manipulated by countries in the region, especially the United Arab Emirates, as Abu Dhabi seeks to influence the path and goals of the Saudi coalition.

The recent spat between Saleh and the Houthi originated from a 19 August speech by Abdel-Malek Houthi, in which he accused Saleh’s forces of playing a double game in the country by claiming to support the Houthi coalition while also negotiating with the Saudi coalition. This is especially since Saleh has expressed his willingness to negotiate with Saudi Arabia. The speech reiterated Houthi grievances of not being proportionally represented in governance structures. Despite being jointly represented in the supreme political council, the Houthi are weary of not participating in local structures. Saleh’s 20 August response, accusing the Houthi of corruption and comparing the group to a militia, was also criticised as crossing a red line and seen as a declaration of war.

It was feared that these differences would erupt into violence at the thirty-fifth anniversary celebration of Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) on Thursday, 24 August, especially since thousands were expected to attend, and because the Houthi leadership criticised the gathering and deployed troops to prevent citizens from attending. Despite these measures, the celebration went ahead; Saleh vehemently criticised Houthi corruption, while also astutely expressing his opposition to the Saudi intervention.

Violent clashes were largely contained; however, Houthi combatants prevented citizens residing outside Sana'a from attending. The past week’s events have rendered the alliance’s survival tenuous, especially since the two have openly criticised each other.The killing on Saturday of Colonel Khaled al-Rida, deputy head of the GPC’s foreign relations committee, has worsened the antagonism, and it seems only a matter of time before the coalition falls apart.

The Houthis still require the support of Saleh’s well-equipped troops to contain the Saudi intervention, especially in Sana'a where they lack support, and will thus act to contain the situation. However, as Rida’s killing indicates, the popular resistance committees are difficult to control, and coordination between them and Saleh is limited. Rida’s assassination has given GPC officials the impression that it was deliberately allowed by the Houthis, leading to the GPC accusation that the Houthis are a ‘group that knows no morality or oaths’. It is, however, unlikely that the Houthi would have actively sought Rida’s death, thus running the risk of losing GPC support – which is crucial to maintain control over Sana’a. There is, clearly, a breakdown of communication between the allies, a factor that will be further weakened as the mistrust between them increases.

Saleh conversely will likely accept a deal, which would see him being incorporated into a new Yemeni government. This is in a context wherein the success of the celebration, which saw tens of thousands of Yemenis defy the Houthi ban, clearly indicates his enduring popularity, and wherein regional powers are seeking exit strategies.

This was predictable, especially since the coalition was formed to realise different objectives, and was thus more a marriage of convenience than a strategic pact. Saleh has sought to protect his influence following the November 2011 GCC agreement, which saw him forced to hand over power to his deputy, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. He thus coalesced with the Houthi to undermine Hadi’s administration. The Houthi conversely saw the GPC, specifically the powerful military units allied to the party, as critical in allowing the group to extend control over Aden and ward off Saudi intervention. Already in March 2015, the two groups clashed over control of the Raymat military base, and in February that year, Saleh criticised the Houthi decision dissolving the government. Saudi Arabia’s intensified aerial campaign since March 2015 forced the two groups together, and in November 2016 they formed a ‘national salvation government’ headed by Abdel Aziz Habtour. Notably, Saleh fought four wars against the Houthi between 2004 and 2010, creating an intractable trust deficit and calcifying Houthi paranoia over Saleh’s double game.

In recent months, mistrust between the two has also been influenced by the UAE’s attempt to court Saleh in line with its stance of backing strongmen to reverse the gains of the 2011 uprisings. In June, Abu Dhabi reportedly organised a meeting between Saleh’s son Ahmed, the current Yemeni ambassador to the UAE, and Ahmed al-Asiri, Saudi Arabia’s former army spokesperson in charge of the Yemeni war and now advisor to the kingdom’s defence minister, crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. Further, leaked emails of the emirate’s Washington ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba, show the UAE as envisaging a role for Saleh in a Yemeni peace agreement.

Moreover, in the south, the UAE has continued to finance and arm separatist forces in Aden, and Salafi anti-Islah forces in Taiz and Hadhramawt. Abu Dhabi perceives participatory Islamist parties like Islah as posing an existential threat to the regime. Further, in line with its attempt to consolidate control over the Bab al-Mandeb waterway, it has also begun constructing a base on the island of Socotra together with its bases in Berbera (Somaliland) and Assab (Eritrea).

These have severely weakened the Saudi coalition’s efforts to recapture Sana'a, and even parts of Taiz; Hadi has accused them of being an occupier and not a liberator. The battle lines have thus remained largely constant, despite two years of external intervention. The UAE had already halted frontline operations in June 2016 in line with   its ambitions to empower proxy forces, while the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, has expressed his desire to exit the two-year long expensive military adventure, which has cost kingdom between two and five hundred million dollars daily.

Friction has intensified, especially since the institution of a transitional council to govern areas in the South by the separatist southern Hirak movement in May 2017. It is thus difficult to envisage a unified Yemen; Hirak has consolidated control over Aden, while UAE-supported forces in Hadhramawt and Taiz will be difficult to dislodge, especially since it is unlikely that Abu Dhabi will sanction a partnership between them and Islah. It is also significant that prior to 1994, Yemen was two distinct countries with two different models of governance. Hirak and likeminded groups are greatly influenced by this, and by the fact that following unification power has been concentrated in the north.

Saudi forces have since been deployed to protect the presidential palace in Aden, as well as its air and naval ports, at Hadi’s request. This indicates that the differing Saudi and Emirati interests in the conflict may be intensifying. Further, a pro-Hadi parliamentary delegation met senior Saudi officials, including Mohammed Bin Salman – the individual responsible for initially sanctioning the Saudi intervention – in the past week, prior to the Saudi troop deployment. It is significant that Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, Yemen’s current vice president, is close to both Islah and elements within the Saudi regime. This militates against Riyadh being swayed by the UAE to combat Islah, a move that will inadvertently work against its interests, especially if it leads to the secession of the south.

While this ‘new’ fragmentation may see a reduction in the intensity of the Saudi coalition’s interference in the country, it will be replaced by more localised conflicts. This is especially since tribal differences have hardened, and because the conflict has engendered a situation, wherein provinces such as Hadhramawt and Marib now possess autonomy, which they are unlikely to relinquish. Further, the separatist Hirak and Houthi now possess more sophisticated arms. The foregoing will ensure that the country remains in conflict unless a solution that incorporates all the different actors is formulated. However, regional contestations over the roles of Iran, participatory Islamists and militants such as Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula have ensured that peace talks have remained elusive. This is especially since the fulfilment of UNSC Resolution 2216, which advocates a Houthi and Saleh arms surrender unrepresentative of the balance of forces, continues to be the basis for negotiations.

The UAE likely sees the current stalemate as a means of installing a client regime, and is positioning itself to maintain influence in both Aden and Sana'a, especially since secession would likely impede its ability to maintain its bases in Socotra. Further, both Saleh and Aidarus Al-Zubaidi (the former governor of Yemen and head of Hirak’s Southern Transitional Council) are strongmen who view Islah negatively. It is however questionable that Riyadh will alter its stance in favour of reincorporating Saleh, even though Mohammed bin Salman has expressed his desire to exit the Yemeni conflict. Riyadh still views Saleh and the parts of the GPC he controls as renegades, especially since the kingdom was influential in negotiating the November 2011 GCC agreement.

By Afro-Middle East Centre

Almost three years have elapsed since the reconvening of Libya’s General National Congress (GNC) in July 2014 and subsequent division of the country into two, now three, centres of power, with no conclusion forthcoming. The April meeting between the Government of National Accord’s (GNA) Fayez al-Sarraj and General Khalifa Haftar initially engendered some optimism. However, their differing understandings of the balance of forces, and views on ways out of the current impasse meant they were unable to agree on a unified statement. Continuing clashes in Sabha, in the south, mainly at the hands of forces aligned to Haftar, suggest that the Libyan National Army still believes in a military solution. This is despite attempts by global and regional powers to foster compromise. The 2014 Algeria plan and subsequent 2015 Skhirat (Morocco) agreement have had only limited success. Key in accounting for these failures has been the interference of foreign powers, and a lack of inclusiveness. Russia’s intensified support for the Libyan National Army (LNA), commanded by Haftar, has also been worrying.libya map

With the Islamic State group (IS) largely ejected from its Libyan strongholds, a renewal of the 2015 Libyan political agreement (LPA) is required. However, for it to succeed it must be more inclusive, and expand its focus on governance. Moreover, clear consequences for outside interference need to be stipulated. A fresh election is a likely eventuality, as a means of finally solving the impasse. However, this will only succeed if it is seen as fair and representative, and if it is coupled with security reform.

Roots of the current divide

Former president Muammar Gaddafi’s personalised and extended authoritarian rule meant that governance institutions were severely deficient. Following the NATO-led ouster of the regime in 2011, the new National Transitional Council was not very successful in dealing with governance challenges. Social service provision was non-existent and armed militia flourished. A May 2013 political isolation law, passed under pressure from various militia, resulted in the removal of a small number of technocrats and politicians who had had minimal ties to the Gadhdhafi regime. This was aggravated by the limited support provided to Libya by international institutions, which incorrectly calculated that the removal of the regime would ensure a consolidation of democratic governance.

Disillusionment amongst the population increased, and by February 2014, remnants of the old regime under Haftar’s command began agitating for a revolt against the governing GNC. Initially prompting widespread opposition from Libya’s political and military elite, by May 2014 Haftar launched ‘Operation Dignity’ in an attempt to provide a Libyan version of the regional backlash against Islamists willing to participate in electoral politics. Successfully appealing to perceived marginalisation amongst eastern federalists, tribes and separatists, Haftar’s forces greatly increased their capacity, garnering support from the country’s naval and special forces.

The May 2014 parliamentary election exacerbated the situation. The emergent Council of Deputies (now called the House of Representatives (HoR)) was comprised of a limited number of Islamists, elected with a 20 per cent voter turnout. Fears of this ‘new’ marginalisation were greatly influenced by the 2013 Egyptian coup, which overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood’s (MB) Mohamed Morsi, and the declaration of the MB as a terrorist organisation by Gulf Arab heavyweights in March 2014; thus, Libyan Islamists sought to reconstitute the GNC. Under the Libya Dawn banner, sympathetic militia began supporting the GNC, and by July clashes intensified around Tripoli airport. As a result, the country experienced a de facto division between eastern and western Libya; the HoR relocated to Tobruk and intensified its support for Haftar’s dignity campaign, which now overtly sought to confront Islamist-leaning politicians and militia. Haftar garnered support from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, which are both fearful of participatory Islamists and had led the regional campaign against them. Financial, intelligence and military support from the two states meant that Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) has been able to consolidate control of much of the country’s east.

The situation has been aggravated by the growth of IS, which consolidated control of the Libyan city Sirte in May 2015. Western countries’ exaggerated perception of IS’s military strength, and their wariness over migration to Europe from Libya had seen countries such as Britain and France coordinate with Operation Dignity, unintentionally increasing suspicion amongst Islamist-leaning politicians and militias. This myopic focus saw these states push through the Libyan political agreement (LPA) in December 2015, in an attempt to create a ‘unified’ government, which would sanction direct intervention. The imposition of the LPA, which resulted in the formation of the Government of National Accord (GNA), stalled what was then a domestic process between local actors. The GNA, under the leadership of Fayez Sarraj, has thus received limited support from the GNC and HoR; and the Sarraj administration exercises limited territorial and administrative control. The HoR has voted against endorsing it, while parts of the GNC have formed the National Salvation government out of Tripoli.

 

Present situation

Currently there are three centres of power in the country: the GNA, GNC (Salvation government) and the HoR. The HoR remains based in Tobruk and has consolidated control over eastern Libya. Haftar’s forces have pushed GNC-supported militia, under the banner of the Benghazi Defence Brigades, out of most of Benghazi, and encircled Derna. Moreover, in September 2016 Haftar’s forces successfully captured Libya’s oil crescent, allowing it to control most of Libya’s oil, and enabling Haftar to increase his influence in the HoR. Through staffing local councils with military allies, Haftar is now more influential than the prime minister recognised by the HoR, Abdullah al Thinni, and HoR speaker Ageela Saleh.

Conversely, the GNA controls parts of western and southern Libya, including the influential city of Misrata. Misratan forces support the Sarraj regime, which is regarded by the international community as the legitimate government. Parts of Libya Dawn are allied to the GNA; however, more hard-line groups have resolved to back the GNC and its head Khalifa al-Ghwell. Prior to March 2016 Sarraj operated out of Tunis; he has since managed to consolidate control in parts of Tripoli. Ghwell had attempted a coup in Tripoli in September 2016, but GNA-supported militia rapidly quelled this effort. Notably, many GNC-aligned militia have frequently interchanged support between the GNC and GNA, although most would support the GNA in a confrontation with Haftar. In March 2017, for example, the GNC-allied Benghazi Defence Brigades briefly gained control over the oil refineries of Ras Lanuf and Sidra, most likely with support from Misratan militia. Moreover, in April, GNC-aligned forces supported the thus far successful effort by Misrata’s Third Force to repel LNA troops from capturing the Tamnihint airbase in Sabha.

Conflict among the three parties is currently centred in the south and centre between the HoR and GNA, and in Tripoli between the GNA and GNC. At present, although Haftar’s forces have the best training and equipment, a military victory is unlikely. This is especially since the federalist and separatist elements that support Haftar in the east are not present in the west, because the Misratan militia are reasonably well trained and possess aerial capabilities, and because many western tribes still support the GNA. Recent clashes, between Misrata’s Third Force and Haftar, over aerial bases in the southern city of Sabha and over the strategic central city of Jufra will shape the military side of the conflict in the immediate term.

IS in Libya has been largely defeated, and only a few hundred fighters remain in the country’s south. This is mainly the result of actions of the Misratan militia under the al-Bunyan al-Marsoos operation, and because of support from US airstrikes. Sirte was regained in September, and IS is unlikely to regroup. Significantly, Sirte’s recapture weakened the Misratan militia, allowing Haftar’s forces to move west into Jufra. IS’s relatively rapid routing from Sirte does point to the group’s comparative weakness in the country and the often-exaggerated perception of its influence.

Politically, all three governments possess only nominal control over areas they claim to govern. Social services such as electricity and health care are often irregular and intermittent. Inflation has increased and the Libyan dinar has weakened. Oil production, the country’s main source of revenue, has increased to around 700 000 barrels daily. However, in recent months, the GNA and HoR have disputed the sharing of such revenue.

Efforts to form a unified government incorporating the HoR into the LPA have faltered. In December 2016 it was agreed that the LPA would be amended to include Haftar’s command of the Libyan army and to provide a greater role to the HoR in shaping policy, the two main factors impeding HoR endorsement. The subsequent meeting between Haftar and Sarraj reinforced this, especially as the two reportedly concurred on the need to reform the GNA’s presidential council to allow for HoR representation, and that Haftar would head a unified national army. However, it is unlikely that Sarraj would allow Haftar a voice on a reformed presidential council, and it is implausible that militia aligned to both the GNC and GNA would sanction the LNA being incorporated into the GNC’s presidential guard if it meant that their influence would be subsumed.

The March 2018 date for presidential and parliamentary elections, agreed upon by Haftar and Sarraj, provides a means out of the current impasse. However, for this to be successful, the election would need to be seen as fair and representative. Turnout would need to be greater than the 20 per cent seen in the 2014 poll, and stipulations for regional seat allocation would need to be enacted, especially since federalism and secession have previously had much appeal. Moreover, a formula for military unification would need to be concluded and implemented in the interceding period, failing which militia groupings would continue to hold sway.

 

Increasing role of foreign actors

Since its inception, the Libyan conflict has been greatly influenced by outside powers. Gadhdhafi’s overthrow can largely be attributed to international support for rebel groups and the NATO-enforced no-fly zone. Haftar’s forces had subsequently received vast amounts of military backing from Egypt and the UAE, which deployed ground and aerial forces into eastern Libya. Haftar’s recapture of Sidra and Ras Lanuf in March 2017 was planned in Egypt and executed with the assistance of UAE aircraft, based out of a UAE-controlled airbase in eastern Libya. The Misratan militia and those allied to the GNC receive support from Turkey and Qatar; however, this is limited when compared to foreign support for Haftar. The IS threat has meant that France, Britain and Algeria have also deployed special forces to the country. These have usually been in support of different militia groupings, including Haftar’s LNA, aggravating the conflict and often impeding efforts to engender political compromise.

Worryingly, Russia has intensified its focus on the country. Over the past year, both Sarraj and Haftar visited Moscow, and in January 2017 Haftar was hosted on the Russian Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier. Comparable to its renewed focus on Egypt and support for the Asad regime in Syria, Moscow does not distinguish between militant extremist and participatory Islamists. It has thus militarily supported Haftar’s Operation Dignity and is likely to provide over two billion dollars of arms to the LNA. Haftar reportedly participated in a video conference with Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, while on the Admiral Kuznetsov, and methods of circumventing the arms embargo were discussed. Haftar has thus been emboldened and has intensified his intentions to militarily confront Tripoli. Notably, prior to Gadhdhafi’s ouster, Moscow concluded over ten billion dollars in arms and trade deals with Libya, and is seeking to reactivate those agreements. In addition, agreements over Russian use of Libyan aerial and naval bases have also been concluded with the HoR in the east.

Thus, regional and international diplomatic and political manoeuvres have had only limited success. The Algeria initiative of September 2014 was impeded by Egyptian support for Haftar and a subsequent parallel Egyptian initiative. Conversely, the LPA has been hampered by the willingness of international actors to work with Haftar to combat militancy. Recently, Algeria, Egypt and Tunisia collaborated in an attempt to formulate a more localised solution to the Libyan crisis, which would involve all actors. This culminated in the Tunis Declaration of February 2017, which calls for the protection of Libya’s territorial integrity, involvement of all actors in finding a political solution, and desisting from the use of force by regional and international actors. It is difficult to see this being implemented, especially since neighbouring countries are already involved in the conflict, and because they believe their interests can better be guaranteed by Haftar prevailing. Egypt continues to support the LNA, while there are reliable reports that Russia seeks to work through Algeria to circumvent the Libyan arms embargo. Further, the UAE, through its organising and hosting of the meeting between Haftar and Sarraj, seeks to initiate its own negotiations. These will likely undermine those held by the Algeria-Tunisia-Egypt troika, which have African Union support.

 

Conclusion

While most international and regional actors concur that a political solution is the only means of solving Libya’s conflict, they maintain support for different parties. This support, military and financial, has emboldened these groups, which continue to seek a military victory. The consolidation of governance structures has thus not occurred as different groups divert resources to military efforts, and negotiations aimed at amending the LPA have stalled, owing to disagreements over who will be in command of the military. Though it was a possibility in 2014, secession is no longer on the cards, mainly because international actors are not in favour; however, polarisation between eastern and western Libya is calcifying, and secessionist sentiments occasionally arise in the south. In the immediate term, the confrontations in Jufra and Sabha will greatly influence which faction possesses the upper hand, but the outright military victory of a single faction is unlikely. International and regional powers need to ensure that good-faith negotiations are expedited. Key in this regard is facilitating the maintenance of a ceasefire and ensuring that military support from outside powers results in clear consequences. Building governance institutions, which was an aim of the Skhirat agreement, must be emphasised and pursued, and an agreement over the sharing of oil resources formulated. The LPA needs to be revised; however, caution must be exercised to ensure that the agreement represents the balance of forces and is not seen as favouring certain factions.

Na'eem Jeenah on Syria

  • Nov 27, 2020
  • Published in Videos

South African aid organisations have been lauded for their humanitarian efforts in the Syrian conflict. The conflict began with the Arab spring in 2011 and now has degraded into a civil war whereby there are many armed factions fighting for control. To give us more insight and to explain South Africa's humanitarian role in Syria is Afro-Middle East Centre Executive Director Naeem Jeenah.

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