Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, head of the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), warned on Tuesday that 800,000 more migrants could be driven into Europe unless the assault on Tripoli by warlord Khalifa Haftar ends soon.
Sarraj issued this warning – which could be taken as a threat to prod Europe into taking action against Haftar – during an interview with Sky News. It was the first interview Sarraj has given since Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA) began their push toward Tripoli.
“The international community must pressurize these forces and call it by its name and pressurize them to go back to where they came from,” said Sarraj.
“What’s going to happen with this security breakdown is that 800,000 illegal migrants on Libyan ground will have to leave Libya and will cross the sea towards Europe. Amongst these 800,000 there are terrorists and criminals. This will be disastrous,” he said.
Asked what he wanted the Europeans to do, Sarraj made it clear that talking would not be enough to dissuade Haftar, but refused to explicitly call for immediate military intervention. His strategy is to repeatedly stress the perils of the situation, emphasizing the humanitarian nightmare that will unfold if fighting continues, and wait for the Europeans and/or Americans to volunteer themselves for duty against Haftar’s army.
“We speak about a political intervention. But when we see civilians targeted in their houses, hospitals, and schools – our electricity being cut because of destruction to our infrastructure – I think all means are possible for us to get the help of one of the parties to stop this assault,” Sarraj said in a characteristic exchange.
The Libyan prime minister also said the West should take responsibility for the chaos that erupted in Libya after former President Barack Obama’s military intervention in 2011, an action certain European leaders pressured Obama to take.
“The world has abandoned Libya and left it to suffer on its own and a lot of things have become complicated. And I fear that’s what’s happening will happen again and the world will abandon Libya again and it will go into another dark tunnel,” said Sarraj.
The GNA appears to have surprised Haftar with the strength of its resistance, turning what he predicted would be a two-day waltz to victory into a bloody quagmire on the outskirts of the city. According to the United Nations, over 120 people have been killed in the fighting so far, plus over 550 wounded. The U.N. did not divide these totals into combatants versus civilians, but it added that the fighting has displaced over 13,500 civilians.
U.N. envoy Ghassan Salame made a specific reference to the bombing of a school about 9 miles from Tripoli as an example of collateral damage but did not indicate which side of the conflict was responsible. Both the GNA and LNA have conducted airstrikes in the area.
Sarraj vehemently denied Haftar’s allegations that Tripoli is filled with “terrorists” in his Sky News interview, but Reuters noted that a number of hardcore Islamist militia groups have rallied to defend the GNA in Tripoli:
One of them is Salah Badi, a commander from nearby Misrata port who has Islamist ties and possible ambitions himself to take Tripoli. In videos from the front line, Badi has been seen directing men as well as a U.N.-sanctioned people trafficker.
Some hardcore Islamists, previously affiliated to Ansar Sharia, have also popped up in the fighting, according to the videos. That group was blamed by Washington for the 2012 storming of a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi that killed the ambassador and three other Americans.France, which has oil assets in Libya though less than Italy, has called for a ceasefire – albeit more reluctantly than Rome – while also echoing Haftar’s narrative that some extremists were among the Tripoli defenders.
“There is an oversimplification. It is not just Haftar the baddy against the goodies in Tripoli and Misrata. There are groups that are at the end of the day allied to al Qaeda on the other side,” said a French diplomatic source.
Islamist military support contributed greatly to bogging down the LNA advance, but this may have come at the cost of political support for the GNA, since Haftar supporters such as Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and France see him as a more effective force against terrorists and assorted criminal gangs than Sarraj and his weak, divided Government of National Accord.
Furthermore, Sarraj should reflect that Haftar sells himself to Europeans as a more effective leader who can unify Libya and end the flow of refugees across the Mediterranean. Threatening the Europeans with another refugee tidal wave plays to Haftar’s strengths in many of the places where Sarraj desperately needs to win hearts and minds.
As Reuters pointed out, Haftar’s LNA includes “hundreds of Salafist Islamists,” and “one of his commanders is wanted by the International Criminal Court over the alleged summary execution of dozens of people in the eastern city of Benghazi.”
Haftar traveled to Cairo to meet with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on Monday and was rewarded with a statement from Sisi’s office that “confirmed Egypt’s support for efforts to combat terrorism and extremist groups and militias in order to achieve security and stability for the Libyan citizen.”
Like all the other powers orbiting the Libyan civil war, Egypt expressed a preference for a “diplomatic solution,” clearly signaling Haftar that his support in Cairo could evaporate quickly if he turns Tripoli into a bloodbath.
Sisi is widely viewed as one of the few foreign leaders who might be able to persuade Haftar to back down. France and Italy are the foreign powers best positioned to fight Haftar on behalf of the GNA, but both of them have ruled out the use of military force, even as Italy’s security services ominously warn that a new wave of refugees is very likely to flee the fighting, just as Sarraj warned. At least 7,000 migrants from outside Libya are currently trapped in detention centers in Tripoli, taken into custody as they attempted to pass through Libya en route to Europe.
The Libyan conflict is quickly becoming another irritant in the Gulf Cooperation Council dispute as Qatar demands a blockade of arms shipments to Haftar’s forces, while Qatar’s adversaries Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE all support the LNA. The UAE and Egypt supplied Haftar with some of his most important weapons, including his aircraft. The amount of oil money at stake in Libya guarantees a political quagmire as deep as the military slog on Tripoli’s outskirts, as none of the GNA or LNA supporters are likely to change their positions unless the military balance of power shifts dramatically.