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Bloody Proxy War in Libya: Qatar & Turkey vs. UAE & Egypt

Fresh clashes broke out in the Libyan capital Tripoli on Sunday, forcing the city's airport to close down. Mitiga airport has functioned as Tripoli's primary airport since Tripoli International Airport was damaged and ceased to operate in August.

The clashes are merely the latest outbreak of violence in a rapidly worsening civil war that is serving as a proxy war for the region's wider conflict. The United Arab Emirates and Egypt back General Khilafa Haftar and an alliance of secularist and nationalist forces opposed to what the al-Arabiya Institute for Studies terms "the Qatari-Turkish axis supporting regional political Islam."

Libya has descended into civil war since May 16, when General Hafter launched what he termed 'Operation Dignity' against an alliance of Islamist militias. He led a patchwork of militias and Libyan army units in an assault on the Islamist stronghold of Benghazi, which was repulsed. After that, however, army units and secular and nationalist militias flocked to his banner, while Islamists of varying stripes ranged against him.  

Included in the ranks of the Islamist militias are Ansar al-Sharia, the terrorist group widely suspected to be responsible for the 2012 Benghazi attacks on the US consulate that killed US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other US officials. The Islamist forces also include the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood.

Elections in July saw Islamist factions reduced to a fraction of their former strength in Parliament, winning only 30 seats out of 200. Turnout was only 18%, and voting was marred in areas such as Derna with violence. 

The new parliament, relocated to the eastern city of Tobruk. This parliament is regarded as the legitimate one by the UN and much of the international community. The previous parliament is in Tripoli and is supported by the Islamists. It also appointed a government. 

On November 6 the Tobruk parliament was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Tripoli. However, parliamentarians in Tobruk immediately hit back, saying that because Tripoli is largely in the hands of Islamists, the Supreme Court's decision was made under duress. The Tobruk parliament refused to disband.

Egypt and the UAE launched bombing raids on Islamist targets in Libya as far back as August, using Egyptian airbases. At the beginning of October, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi formalized the relationship, officially offering General Hafter's forces training and intelligence in order to subdue Islamist terrorists that pose a threat to Egypt's own borders. In retaliation for their involvement, Islamists planted car bombs outside the embassies of the two countries last week. No-one was hurt as both embassies had been evacuated months before.

For their part, Turkey and Qatar have been reportedly been supporting their Islamist allies. In October, a representative of Turkey's Islamist President Tayyip Recep Erdogan met with the leader of the Tripoli parliament, which is Islamist controlled. He has also maintained Turkish airlines flights to the Islamist held city of Misrata.

Libyan Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni said Qatar sent 3 loaded planes with weapons to Tripoli. This is in keeping with Qatar's actions throughout the region. One diplomat from an undisclosed MENA country spoke to Telegraph saying "They [Qatar] are partly responsible for Jabhat al-Nusra having money and weapons and everything they need." Jabhat al-Nusra is the official Al-Qaeda affiliate fighting in the Syrian Civil War.

Qatar's involvement in Libya goes back to the revolution that overthrew former Prime Minister Muammar Gaddafi. In 2012, then leader of the Libyan National Transitional Council Mustafa Abdul Jibril said at a Ramadan celebration event: "Doha [Qatar] has been supporting Islamic movements as part of its vision to help establish an Arab regime that adopts Islamic Shariah law as a main source of governance." He said that Qatar had contributed $2 billion to the revolution.

On June 22, a spokesman for General Haftar gave all Turkish and Qatari citizens 48 hours to leave the country due to their governments' support for the Islamist militias.

The New York Times reported the hardening attitudes across the battle lines. A Libyan business mogul speaking from the Emirates in August, Hassan Tatanaki said “It is a struggle across the region. We are in a state of war and this is no time for compromise. Many former Gaddafi fighters have come back to Libya and taken up arms again against the Islamists, even alongside erstwhile foes. Although many groups have chosen sides due to ideological differences, ethnic, tribal and geographical divisions have played a key role. In particular, the Zintan brigades support Haftar and the Tobruk parliament while those hailing from the port city of Misrata back the Islamist government in Tripoli.

To further complicate the situation, Islamists in Derna in the east of Libya have separated entirely from the rest of the country, declaring loyalty to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Derna a province of the Islamic State.

The UN sent an envoy, Bernardino Leon, to Libya with a remit to try and reconcile the two sides. On Oct. 29 he said "I think this country is running out of time. The danger for the country is that in the past weeks we are getting very close to the point of no return."

UN High Commission on Refugees spokesperson Adrian Edwards gave a press statement on November 14 about the worsening humanitarian crisis in Libya. He said "At least 106,420 people have fled their homes in the past month alone, meaning that displacement amid the violence since May now exceeds 393,400 people."

The deteriorating situation in Libya is further evidence of a region in turmoil. The bloodshed is greatly exacerbated by the relentless funding of Islamist militias across the region by Turkey and Qatar. 

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