Libya’s civil war has taken a catastrophic turn, plunging the country even deeper into crisis.
An airstrike hit a detention center for migrants on the outskirts of Tripoli, killing at least 44 people, a death toll that is likely to climb. At the time of this writing, it was not clear who launched the airstrike, although the militia led by Khalifa Haftar, known as the Libyan National Army (LNA), is widely suspected. The Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) blamed Haftar and called on the UN to investigate. The airstrike hit a weapons cache adjacent to the detention center.
The attack comes as the LNA recently suffered a severe setback in its three-month assault on Tripoli. Last week, militias backing the GNA seized the town of Gharyan, roughly 60 miles from the capital. The town has been used as a supply route to refurbish the forces of the LNA. Shortly after the town was seized, Haftar’s LNA said it would launch an air campaign against GNA-backed forces in Tripoli, a strategy that conspicuously coincides with the horrific airstrike killing dozens of migrants.
“There appears to have been an immediate change of LNA strategy in response to the loss of Gharyan, with an air force commander stating that after ‘exhausting all traditional means’ to take Tripoli, the LNA will now intensify its airstrikes on GNA targets in Tripoli,” Standard Chartered wrote in a note.
At the same time, the Interior Minister for the GNA told the AP that the airstrike could have been conducted by foreign backers of Haftar, rather than the LNA itself. Adding to the intrigue is the fact that American made missiles have showed up in Libya, and some U.S. officials suspect they found their way via the United Arab Emirates, which backs Haftar’s LNA. If true, the transfer of U.S.-made missiles to Libya would violate both the U.S. sales agreement to the UAE as well as an international arms embargo on Libya.
“The Emiratis are clearly stepping up their involvement as Hifter is floundering on the ground,” Tarek Megerisi of the European Council on Foreign Relations, told the New York Times. “They feel obliged to make sure he wins to protect their investment.”
For its part, the LNA blames Turkey for its loss at Gharyan. Turkey and the UAE find themselves on opposite sides of the civil war in Libya.
“The UN arms embargo is meant to protect civilians in Libya. But Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey, among others, are blatantly flouting it by providing sophisticated armoured vehicles, drones, guided missiles and other weapons,” Amnesty International said in a statement. “The UN Security Council must urgently take steps to enforce the embargo, and the warring parties must respect international humanitarian law and stop recklessly endangering civilians.”
The head of the African Union said the airstrike on the detention center could amount to a war crime.
But it could be the loss of the town of Gharyan that may prove a turning point in the civil war, which could “comprise the LNA offensive on Tripoli,” according to Standard Chartered.
While Libya’s oil exports have surprisingly held steady even as the fighting has intensified, “there is now a likelihood that new fronts will be opened.” The investment bank said that Haftar and the LNA have three options. First, they could focus their fighting on retaking Gharyan to reopen supply lines. Second, it could “wind down the Tripoli offensive, and open up a new front against Sirte in the east.” Third, the LNA could “simply disengage” and instead consolidate territory it already controls.
“All three present some risk to the maintenance of oil exports,” the investment bank said, although it would be the assault on Sirte that could present the biggest short-term risk to oil supply. Also, the GNA could begin to advance towards the Ras Lanuf oil export terminal “in an attempt to push LNA forces back towards Benghazi,” Standard Chartered said.
“In total we think the military situation in Libya is more fluid than it has been for three months, and the uncertainty over future export levels is accordingly higher,” Standard Chartered concluded. As the LNA suffers setbacks, the fighting may intensify, leading to a greater toll on the civilian population. But Libya’s oil exports are also at risk.