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The battle for control of Libya has been waged inconclusively since Colonel Gaddafi’s rule ended in 2011. Over the last year conflict has intensified again, with a surge in violence recently, despite the threat presented by coronavirus.

East-west split

The present line-up of forces is the Government of National Accord (GNA), supported by the UN and based in the capital Tripoli, and the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), led by General Haftar and based in the east.

The UN has mandated ceasefires and an arms embargo, but these have proved ineffectual. In 2017 and 2018 the LNA conquered much of Libya’s territory and the major cities apart from the capital, Tripoli. In 2019 General Haftar announced an offensive on Tripoli.

Peace processes

The Geneva Process supported by the UN and the German-backed Berlin Process are the two international forums seeking agreement on a ceasefire. The final conference of the Berlin Process, in January 2020, seemed hopeful – outside countries pledged to refrain from interfering and to respect the arms embargo. Hopes were soon dashed, however, as it became clear that outside powers were still arming their proxies. The Geneva process has floundered, with parties saying they could not negotiate while attacks were taking place. There have also been meetings in Moscow but these have not had an impact on the fighting.


In recent weeks, fighting for the capital Tripoli has further intensified, at a time when the country is threated by the coronavirus pandemic. Libyan health services were already disrupted by absence of medical staff and physical damage to facilities. One of the main hospitals designated to take Covid-19 patients has been shelled several times in the last few weeks. Electricity and water supplies in the capital have also been cut, while migrants and internally displaced people are crammed into inadequate accommodation. Tripoli is dangerously exposed to the pandemic.

Proxy battles

The conflict has become a proxy conflict between supporters and opponents of political Islam (whose most important group internationally is the Muslim Brotherhood). Turkey and Qatar tend to support political Islam and are aligned with the GNA. Opponents of political Islam include Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. These countries, along with Russia, have intervened on the side of the LNA.

The UAE, Jordan and Turkey were singled out in a report to the Security Council for violating the arms embargo.

It has also been difficult to make any progress with political negotiations because the US has not been strongly involved and European governments are increasingly distracted by the coronavirus crisis in their own countries.

The EU has launched a replacement for its Operation Sophia. Unlike Sophia, the new Operation Irini will focus on monitoring for compliance with the UN arms embargo rather than people trafficking.

The UK Government supports the UN-backed Government of National Accord, and has an aid programme in the country. The UK is spending £51.6 million from April 2017 to March 2021 to help build Libyan institutions while also funding humanitarian and health work with £4.29 million, in a programme due to finish this year.

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