One year from the start of General Khalifa Haftar’s offensive against Tripoli, the civil war in Libya is still raging despite continuous demands from the United Nations and the international community for a humanitarian truce to help combat COVID-19.
General Haftar has even intensified his attacks on the suburbs of Tripoli and the regions near the border with Tunisia, and has seized the towns of Abu Kammash and Ras Jedir from the troops of the UN-backed government. These attacks have in turn triggered a response from the Government of National Accord which, on 26 March, launched operation “Peace Storm” to avenge Haftar’s actions and the deaths caused by Bengasi’s troops.
In the meantime, the country has recorded its first case of coronavirus. Now, in the face of innumerable difficulties, the two rival governments are trying to put in place restrictions on population movement in an attempt to slow the spread of the disease. Unfortunately, in a country devastated by war and lacking in strong institutions, the measures adopted by both leaders look more like propaganda initiatives than practical steps. Healthcare structures are inefficient and the few hospitals left standing have been shelled by Haftar’s forces in recent days.
Tripoli, caught between economic crisis and the coronavirus
Al-Serraj, who controls the west of the country, has pledged some 350 million dollars to improve the healthcare system and enforce containment rules. Since 22 March, the Tripoli government has introduced strict measures including the closure of all mosques, schools and universities and has set up a quarantine centre in Mitiga airport, which Haftar shelled on 23 March.
Following Haftar’s advances in 2019 and given the resolutions of the Berlin Conference, the GNA has appeared increasingly isolated within the international community and is presently supported only by Turkey. This isolation has led the government in Tripoli to exploit the COVID-19 emergency to move closer to China for support in fighting the virus, though approaches have so far been half-hearted.
China, while merely a spectator in the civil war, has frequently shown an interest in including Libya in its Belt and Road initiative, given the country’s enormous energy resources. In this sense, China’s presence (with five Chinese doctors apparently supporting Libyan medical personnel) might well represent a card that Al-Serraj could play at the international level.
At this moment in time, following Haftar’s decision to block all oil exports, the government in Tripoli is suffering from serious cash-flow problems and a crisis of legitimacy. As a result of the late payment of public sector salaries, this is causing growing unrest among the population. According to the Central Bank of Libya, since 17 January (when the oil blockade was imposed), the country has lost around $US 3 billion and oil production has fallen below 100,000 barrels a day. This oil crisis is causing a war of its own in Libyan waters. From mid-March, a cargo ship (the Gulf Petroleum 4, flying the Liberian flag but originating from the UAE) had been illegally supplying Bengasi with fuel. This eventually triggered the ire of the GNA, which reacted in the evening of 22 March by impounding the vessel.
The present economic difficulties coupled with a lack of international support is severely testing the Tripoli government. The spread of SARS-CoV-2 and the possible collapse of the already fragile healthcare system could well throw the government into an even deeper crisis.
Haftar: the antiviral strongman
Like his counterparts in Tripoli, General Haftar has also imposed severe restrictions on movement and has closed the ports and airports (except for arms supplies) along with public and private offices. Nevertheless, what seems to frighten Haftar most is the large number of COVID-19 cases in nearby Egypt, mainly because of the frequent journeys recently undertaken by emissaries of both nations. The announcement by Haftar’s spokesman, Ahmed al-Mismari, that he had entered voluntary self-isolation after a trip to Egypt, badly shook Bengasi and forced the government there to set up a commission under the control of the army’s high command to fight the novel coronavirus.
The measures taken by the Haftar regime also serve as an excellent platform for his propaganda machine. The LNA’s Twitter accounts continuously show images of security forces checking the prices of medicines in pharmacies and at check-points in the deserted streets of Sirte, Sabha and Bengasi. Two weeks ago, the Bengasi government even sent aid and medicines to the west of the country. While presented as normal humanitarian aid, this move is typical of the soft-power strategy the general is following to discredit the measures put in place by the government in Tripoli which, since the start of the coronavirus crisis, has been severely criticised by the population for the inefficiency of its actions. Haftar seems to be convinced that the GNA is on its last legs and that the time is right for the umpteenth assault on Tripoli to further erode its power base.
Nevertheless, despite Haftar’s aggression and the restrictions he has imposed in response to the coronavirus emergency, the lack of funds for his own health system is making itself felt and the general is perfectly aware of this. This understanding has led the parliament in Tobruk, acting through Aqila Saleh, its highest representative, to ask the Central Bank of Libya – controlled by the government in Tripoli – for funds to prepare quarantine centres. A mass outbreak in Cyrenaica or Fezzan, the regions controlled by the general, could well have a dramatic impact on Haftar’s power, especially if the Central Bank of Libya, as seems likely, refuses to grant Bengasi the funds it is seeking for its healthcare system.
Syrian forces and the possible war of numbers
There is a very high risk of COVID-19 spreading rapidly nationwide and current countermeasures are evidently insufficient. The presence of mercenaries on both sides represents a further danger.
Al-Serraj's recent statements concerning possible cases of coronavirus among Syrian troops faithful to Haftar triggered a response by Al-Mismari who accused other Syrian mercenaries fighting in Al-Serraj’s Turkish coalition of contaminating Libyans.
It is the potential spread of the disease, however, that is really worrying both sides. In other countries in the region, as in Western nations, a high number of cases represents a real risk to government power and many are already wondering to what extent restrictions will actually be relaxed when the emergency finally passes. A few days ago, neighbouring Egypt, an ally of Haftar, expelled a Guardian journalist it accused of publishing figures exaggerating the situation in the country. In Libya, although the spread of COVID-19 is not yet cause for real concern, such a war of numbers could easily represent yet another destabilising factor and make matters even worse for a civil population already enduring terrible hardships.