There are two main camps in Libya: the Turkish-backed coalition led by the Government of National Accord (GNA) and the UAE-backed coalition led by military commander Khalifa Haftar.
Before the pandemic was in the news, both camps were engaged in an escalation process. By early January 2020, both camps were already deeply committed to ramping up their military intervention in Libya’s internationalised civil war.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had in December announced a bold military intervention.
From that moment, we knew that Turkey was going to carry out a very aggressive military buildup and the UAE wasn’t going to stand by. It is going to respond in kind.
Berlin tried on January 19 [to de-escalate the situation], Moscow had had a go a week earlier, the UN also tried and then special envoy Ghassan Salame resigned.
When Western states become completely distracted by the pandemic, then that basically translates into an acceleration of the existing escalation because it encourages both parties to pursue the escalation they were seeking to carry out, in any case.
Turkey is implementing a very specific military strategy. It is being very methodical and very precise. For Ankara, this is a war against a military enemy. It is not there to kill civilians and not because it is particularly virtuous, but rather because it has no time.
Haftar and the UAE, however, were caught off guard by Turkey’s self-assurance which means they do not yet have a clear strategy.
What they tend to do in response to Turkey’s operations is usually go after civilian infrastructure and civilian-inhabited areas. They continued to do that even more than before, knowing that there’s a pandemic.
For the next four to six weeks, I suspect that the dynamic that we are seeing is going to continue. It always takes time for states to shrink their foreign policy.
If the attitude before the war is that you really want to win the war by all means, then when the pandemic hits, you cannot suddenly do a U-turn. It is not like domestic policy where you can institute a lockdown, austerity measures, etc.
In Libya, the pandemic has not fully hit home yet. If a month from now, you end up having 15 or 20 percent of the foreign mercenaries not able to fight or a lot of them dying, that will surely affect the behaviour of the states that sponsor the war. Somewhat of a de-escalation may ensure.
But international observers must not bet on this. The other scenario – an unabated continuation of the ongoing escalation – remains a distinct possibility, irrespective of the damage COVID-19 will inflict on Libya.