The LIbyan National Army patroling in downtown Sebha, the biggest city in southern Libya Image Credit: AFP

Cairo: A years-long conflict in Libya is back in global focus amid fears of an expanding feud after Turkey overtly threw its weight behind a militia-supported government based in the Libyan capital Tripoli.

On Thursday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that he plans to send troops to Libya, to help defend the so-called Government of National Accord (GNA) from an assault by the Libyan National Army.

The announcement on the heels of two controversial maritime demarcation and security cooperation pacts reached by the GNA and Ankara.

The accords, which triggered an international outcry, were sealed as LNA commander Gen. Khalifa Haftar was pushing to capture Tripoli from the GNA supported by Turkey, Qatar and a motley of armed militias.

There are also concerns oil-rich Libya will become a magnet for Islamist militants, who could reassemble in the chaotic country after they were routed in Syria.

A web of regional and international rivalries are seen as fuelling Libya’s strife, now in its ninth year, as the following explainer shows:

How did Libya’s conflict start?

Libya descended into chaos after a 2011 armed revolt, supported by the NATO, toppled Muammar Gaddafi, who had ruled the country for 42 years.

After Gaddafi’s ouster and assassination, Libya was split up among rival militias amid an inflow of arms into the country.

Competing politicians failed to patch up their disagreements, giving rise to feuding governments mainly based in Tripoli and Libya’s east.

A fertile ground for extremists

The messy situation proved ideal for radical Islamists to flock to and thrive in Libya.

The country also emerged as a hub for human trafficking and migrants illegally seeking to reach Europe.

Since 2014, Haftar, an army officer who participated in the anti-Gaddafi revolt, has spearheaded a relentless campaign against militants first in Benghazi in the east and later in other parts of the country.

Haftar (right) with Italian premier Giuseppe Conte. Image Credit: AP

He has since established international clout and expanded his territorial control of Libya.

Why does Libya have two rival governments?

In December 2015, Libya’s feuding factions reached a UN-mediated peace deal in talks hosted by Morocco.

Under the so-called Skhirat Agreement, the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Fayez Al Serraj was born.

Libyan politicians celebrate the Skhirat agreement. Image Credit: AFP

The GNA functioning was, however, dependent on gaining recognition from the elected House of Representatives based in Libya’s eastern city of Tobruk.

The GNA was formed and took office in Tripoli in 2016, but without securing this recognition, thus throwing its legitimacy into doubt.

The GNA is largely perceived as weak without popular support.

It has failed to assert its territorial authority on the ground, being in control of only Tripoli and parts of western Libya.

Al Serraj and Haftar were brought together at a series of meetings hosted by the UAE, Egypt and France. However, their talks produced no breakthrough.

Who are the international players backing the rival governments?

Internationally, Haftar is backed by neighbouring Egypt and Russia which see him as able to restore stability to the country.

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The US has given tacit support to Haftar in the form of a phone call between US President Donald Trump and the LNA leader. France also is seen as backing Haftar.

The GNA is, meanwhile, supported by Qatar and Turkey which have been repeatedly accused of providing Al Serraj’s militias with weapons in violation of the UN embargo.

Italy, also backs the GNA, but for its own set of domestic concerns.

Libya's foreign actors Image Credit: Gulf News/Graphic News

The battle for Tripoli

In April this year, Haftar ordered the LNA forces to march on Tripoli to seize it from militias supporting Al Serraj’s government.

But the offensive has since largely descended into a stalemate mainly due to the LNA concern about the city’s civilians and weaponry supplies to Al Serraj-allied militias from Turkey and Qatar in violation of a UN arms embargo on Libya.

In the wake of a contested military deal between Turkey and Al Serraj in November, Haftar announced in early December a new “decisive battle” for Tripoli.

The LNA also gave militias from Libya’s western city of Misrata, the main backer of GNA, a week-long deadline to withdraw from Tripoli and the coastal city of Sirte or the LNA forces will target Misrata with bombing.

The deadline ended with no heed from Misrata’s militias.

Haftar forces have reported territorial progress in their Tripoli offensive since the new battle commenced on December 2.

Turkey’s growing role in Libya

Last month, Al Serraj and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed a maritime and security cooperation deal that has sparked massive criticism.

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Al Serraj (left) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan Image Credit: AP

The security pact allows Turkey to send military personnel to Libya.

Erdogan has said Turkey could deploy troops in Libya upon a request from the GNA.

The accord on maritime demarcation in eastern Mediterranean gives Turkey disputed access to a zone where Egypt, Greece and Cyprus are jointly drilling for gas and oil.

In reaction to the agreement, Greece expelled the Libyan ambassador from Athens and condemned the pact as a violation of its sovereignty.

On Sunday, Greece sent its foreign minister to Libya where he met Haftar. The visit was made a week after Akila Saleh, the head of Libya’s pro-Haftar parliament, travelled to Greece.

The European Union, of which Greece is a member, also condemned the Libya deal as a breach of international laws. Erdogan has shrugged off the condemnations.

The elected Libyan parliament slammed Al Serraj over the maritime and security pacts with Turkey, saying he has no mandate to sign them.

The legislature has called for withdrawing international recognition from the GNA government.

LNA spokesman Ahmad Al Mesmari, meanwhile, accused Turkey of transporting militants from the so-called Islamic State aka Daesh and Al Qaeda branch in Syria, Al Nusra Front, to Libya.

Arabs wary of Turkish expansionsim

Last week, the UAE implicitly accused Turkey of harbouring expansionist ambitions in the Arab world.

“The region is plagued by a radical, agitating speech pursued by governments preoccupied with expanding their influence at the expense of the Arab world,” UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dr Anwar Gargash, tweeted without giving names.

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“Speech of threats from countries, which still dream of their past empires and have no positive messages, are categorically rejected,” he added without elaborating.

Earlier this month, Egyptian President Abdul Fattah delivered his harshest criticism yet of Al Serraj’s government, blaming it for hampering peace in Libya and posing a threat to Egypt.

“Why does the government in Tripoli have no free and real will? It’s because this government is held hostage to armed and terrorist militias,” the Egyptian leader said.

Prospects for Libya’s peace

Germany is preparing to host a conference for Libya’s peace expected to to be held early next year.

Likewise, UN envoy for Libya, Ghassan Salame, is pushing for bringing Libya’s warring factions to the negotiating table.

However, there are dim hopes that such efforts will bear fruit.

On the ground, the main warring sides look bent on establishing territorial realities before entering negotiations.

Mounting foreign meddling also makes an end to Libya’s conflict too distant a prospect.