Fighting has intensified around Libya’s capitol city of Tripoli that is threatening the plunge the entire country into a full scale civil war.

UN humanitarian agencies have been warning of the human toll of this fighting for several weeks. Now, the UN Refugee Agency has issued a dire warning from its operations in Tripoli, where it says 42,000 people have been displaced by “indiscriminate shelling and heavy gunfire.”

The UN Refugee Agency issued a dire warning from its operations in Tripoli.

In the most conflicted-affected areas, there is an increasing sense of desperation. UNHCR staff in Libya say people are afraid to leave their homes. Water is in short supply, power is regularly cut off and there is scarce access to food, fuel and other key basic items…

However, the extremely volatile security situation means access for UNHCR and other humanitarian organisations to some areas remains severely restricted.

UNHCR appeals for unimpeded and sustained humanitarian access to all affected areas and to agree to a temporary humanitarian truce to allow for the provision of emergency services and the safe and voluntary passage of civilians out of conflict-affected areas.

The fighting in Tripoli began in early April after a renegade general named Khalifa Haftar mounted a military operation. His forces had controlled much of the eastern part of the country, including Benghazi. The UN-backed transitional government had control of Tripoli, and the UN Secretary General’s top diplomat in Libya was trying to broker a peace agreement between Haftar and the transitional government.

Then, everything went downhill.

Haftar is backed by Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The transitional government has the backing of most of the rest of the international community and is the government recognized by the UN Security Council, which includes the United States. As Haftar was preparing to mount an assault on Tripoli, diplomats urged him to relent. This included US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. But it was subsequently reported that even as diplomats from the State Department were seeking to hold off Haftar’s assault, the White House was sending a very different message. A phone call between National Security Advisor John Bolton and Haftar gave Haftar the green light to mount his assault. Then, in the midst of his attack on Tripoli, the White House released a readout of a phone call between Trump and Hafter in which Trump praised Haftar for his “significant role in fighting terrorism” and “shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system.” The message from the White House seemed to indicate the US was switching sides, and now backing the renegade general. But in the two weeks since that readout, there has been very little public clarity on what side, exactly, the US is supporting in this escalating civil conflict.

Meanwhile it appears Haftar is further emboldened. His forces launched airstrikes on the capitol yesterday.

If this fighting continues, Libya could slide full on into a civil war, the ramifications of which could have global consequences.

A new refugee crisis could erupt, sending hundreds of thousands of people fleeing across the Mediterranean to Europe. Regionally, the crisis in Libya could export instability to neighboring Sudan, Tunisia, Algeria–which are each in the midst of their own political transitions.

As Mary Fitzgerald, a longtime Libya analyst told me in a recent podcast interview, “Libya is not an island.” What happens there can spread regionally, and even globally. And right now, Libya appears to be sliding into a deeper crisis.

If you have 25 minutes and want a deeper understand of the causes and consequences of this crisis, including who is General Khalifa Haftar and the broader geopolitics of the Libya conflict, have a listen to this podcast episode

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