The Libyan conflict has endured for years despite numerous failed attempts at mediating a solution by the UN, African Union, and even Turkey and Italy. A 2011 arms embargo imposed on the country has been ineffective, mainly because France and Russia, which support one side in the conflict, are permanent members on the UNSC. Other states, including Egypt, the UAE and Turkey, have their own interests in the country and have thus largely ignored the embargo. Four UN special envoys have been appointed and have resigned, citing outside influence as an obstacle to their work. Despite this, foreign support for the belligerents continues to intensify, with Greece and Cyprus now also interested in the conflict’s outcomes.
Overview of the Libyan conflict
Since 2014, Libya has been divided between two governments and even, for a period between 2015 and 2017, three centres of power. This included a legislature in Tripoli, in the west of the country, formerly the General National Congress and now the High State Council (HSC); a parliament in Tobruk in the east, the House of Representatives (HoR); and the UN-recognised government, the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. The influence and power of various militia often supersedes that of these political institutions. The HoR is dependent on the support of the largest militia, the Libyan National Army (LNA), headed by warlord Khalifa Haftar, while the GNA relies heavily on the support of the Bunyan Marsus militia in the western city of Misrata. UN attempts to mediate a power-sharing agreement have repeatedly failed, mainly because foreign support has ensured obduracy from the LNA, which by April 2019 had captured much of the south of Libya and had besieged the capital, Tripoli. A year later, in April 2020, the GNA began reversing many of these gains, but the LNA remains in control of the east and much of the south.
Libya’s strategic position on the southern Mediterranean, its location as a transit route for migrants travelling to Europe, and its large oil resources have meant that it is regarded as a prize for Libyans and non-Libyans alike. Many foreign powers, including France, Russia and the USA, have significant economic and other interests in the country. Seemingly, the strategic importance of the country increased after the ouster and murder of Libya’s former leader, Muammar Gaddafi, especially since the country’s instability saw increasing numbers of migrants use the country as a transit route when travelling to Europe. Further, arms proliferation across Libya’s porous borders greatly influenced instability in the Sahel, infamously playing a role in the 2012 Malian coup. The power vacuum and contested centres of power meant that regional countries, including Egypt, the UAE, and Turkey, as well as extra-regional powers, have tried to exploit the situation for both financial and political gains.
Government of National Accord
The most recent phase of the conflict commenced in April 2019, when Haftar’s LNA besieged Tripoli. Haftar believed the capital would readily capitulate. However, after a siege lasting one year, the GNA has pushed the LNA militia out of most of the country’s western regions, recapturing the strategic Watiya airbase in May 2020 and forcing LNA troops out of their strategic base in Tarhuna thereafter. The LNA retreated from areas surrounding southern Tripoli and was pushed further east; it is now unable to mount a direct offensive on Tripoli. This new situation is due, mainly, to enhanced Turkish support for the GNA. Ankara, viewing Libya as being of strategic importance for Turkey, deployed Special Forces and recruits from among Syrian rebels, numbering around 10 000 according to some reports. Turkey also provided air support to the GNA, enabling it to end Haftar’s aerial dominance.
Turkey’s interests in Libya include a maritime border agreement signed in 2019 between Ankara and the GNA, strengthening Turkish claims over natural gas in the Mediterranean, and undermining the claims of Greece and Cyprus. Ankara also has long-standing commercial and economic interests in Libya, and is opposed to the regimes in Cairo and Abu Dhabi, Haftar’s key supporters. Egypt’s and the UAE’s recent attempts to curtail Ankara’s growing regional influence have included supporting the Asad regime in Syria. It is almost certain, however, that Turkey will increase its support to the GNA, since ensuring a GNA victory is now part of Turkey’s national interest.
The GNA also receives diplomatic support from Italy, its closest European neighbour, and Italy opposes France’s support of Haftar. Rome also assisted in financing and training the Libyan Coast Guard, but has avoided supporting the GNA financially or militarily in its confrontation with Haftar. Rome’s main interest is to prevent migration from Libya to Europe. Another strong GNA supporter is Qatar; its support is mainly financial. Recently, the new Tunisian government, which was elected in February 2020, has also begun expressing support for the GNA. Tunisia has allowed Turkish aircraft that are delivering aid to the GNA to land in the country, a move that has been vehemently criticised by the HoR.
The LNA and the HoR
Haftar’s main weapons suppliers are the UAE and Egypt. Chadian, Sudanese, and Russian mercenaries have also been recruited to bolster his ill-fated advance on Tripoli. Most of these countries view the Islamist components of the GNA as a threat. Egypt’s additional motivation is the possibility of benefiting from Libyan oil. Egypt’s president, Abdul Fattah El Sisi, regards Haftar as having similar interests as him, since both are military strongman, and because both oppose political Islam. Cairo has provided diplomatic and military backing for the LNA, and allowed Emirati aircraft to use Egyptian airspace and bases to carry out attack on Libya Dawn forces in Tripoli in August 2014.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE also increasingly regard their support to Haftar as a means of containing Turkey by engulfing Ankara in a potentially unwinnable conflict. Between April 2019 and April 2020 the UAE carried out over 850 air attacks on GNA targets, mainly through drones. In January and February 2020 alone, Abu Dhabi provided over 4.6 tons of military equipment to the LNA, allowing it to respond to Turkish attacks and also to snub ceasefire calls from the UN, EU and Turkey and Russia. Riyadh too has financially supported the LNA; Haftar visited Saudi Arabia in March 2019, just weeks before his April 2019 march on Tripoli.
For Russia, the reinstatement of Gadhafi-era weapons contracts, worth over four billion dollars, would be a big prize, one that a military like Haftar would be able to guarantee. Moscow also sees other economic benefits through eastern Libya, including the exploitation of Libya’s oil resources. In general, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin views strongmen as more reliable allies and more able to provide stability. Like some of the other state supporters of Haftar, Moscow does not always differentiate between militant and democratic Islamists. Moscow has, therefore, diplomatically and militarily supported the LNA, including by watering down and, at times, blocking UN statements and resolutions condemning Haftar. Recently, Moscow deployed fourteen fighter jets, including MiG29s and SU24s, to the Jafra airbase to support the LNA after the GNA’s military gains. Apart from state involvement, the Russian Wagner security group, which is said to have close links to Putin, is also active in Libya, supporting Haftar’s militia.
France regards Haftar as pivotal in its Sahelian counterterrorism strategy, which has resulted in it supporting strongmen in the Sahel, and turning a blind eye to the suppression of freedoms and narrowing political space. France was the first western state to dispatch special forces to support Haftar, and has worked to weaken EU statements criticising his actions, the most recent of which followed his march on Tripoli.
Haftar has skilfully used the Islamic State group (IS) bogey to garner western and Russian support. His 2014 ‘Operation Dignity’ was presented as a counterterrorism operation, and he includes elements of the GNA in his ‘terrorist’ category. France, a major player in the 2011 uprisings and the NATO campaign to unseat Gaddafi, initially supported Haftar ostensibly to counter IS. The group currently has little influence in Libya, with only a few hundred members, but its name has been useful for Haftar to use as a scare tactic.
Jordan, Greece and Cyprus have also recently increased their support for the LNA. Amman dispatched UAE-funded weapons and aircraft to the LNA in an attempt to mask their origination. Jordanian-manufactured armoured vehicles and weapons have also been used by Haftar. Amman is wary of Turkish support for the GNA. Jordan also regards support for the LNA as a politically tolerable method of ensuring that it continues to receive support from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Although the country is opposed to the Qatari blockade and Saudi and Emirati support for Trump’s ‘deal of the century’ on Palestine, it is dependent on Saudi and Gulf Cooperation Council largess for its survival. Greek and Cypriot support for the LNA is mainly an attempt to scupper Turkish efforts to explore natural gas in the Mediterranean.
Haftar has also enlisted the services of private security companies from a number of countries, including, reportedly, South Africa, in the attempted capture of Tripoli. In May, a group of private military contractors, including eleven South Africans, evacuated to Malta from Libya, as reported by the UN panel monitoring the embargo. They were to engage in an assault on Tripoli using three SA341 Gazelle and three AS332 Super Puma helicopters that had been sourced in South Africa by UAE companies and transported to Libya via Botswana. The eleven South Africans included four pilots.
Current political situation
Until the LNA began to be pushed back and forced to retreat from April 2020, Haftar had remained resolutely opposed to a negotiated political settlement, believing that he had the means to achieve a military victory against the GNA. Once it became clear after the April 2020 GNA gains that Tripoli was no longer within the reach of the LNA, he began making calls for a ceasefire. Splits have also emerged between the HoR and Haftar. The HoR’s speaker, Ageela Saleh, announced a new peace initiative in April 2020 that called for a restructuring of the presidency council to three members, one from each of the country’s three main regions. The initiative would have partially curtailed Haftar’s powers, since he would be answerable to this new council. Haftar subsequently anointed himself in charge of the country, declaring the 2015 Skhirat agreement void, in a move that was criticised by most of his supporters, including Moscow.
The failed Tripoli offensive has weakened Haftar’s influence relative to Saleh’s. This is indicated by the shift away from Haftar by Egypt, the UAE and Russia since May. Haftar’s powerful militia, however, will ensure that, at least for the time being, he will continue being influential in the east. The HoR will likely continue supporting him for now, even though many of its members are disillusioned and frustrated that he controls most of the levers of power.
Although the GNA, currently enjoying many military victories, claims it is no longer interested in talks and wants to ‘liberate’ the whole country, it will likely be prepared to engage in peace talks after it establishes its dominance in the west and captures the city of Sirte. The recent gains have, however, granted the GNA new confidence and it is insisting that its leader, Fayez Sarraj, heads a reformed presidency council that would include Saleh. The GNA has also become more assertive in opposing Haftar’s remaining in charge of the LNA after a resolution is found.
Foreign powers impede political negotiations
The UN has been attempting to find a resolution to the Libyan crisis since 2015, but continues to be hamstrung by divisions in the UNSC. Haftar’s continued obduracy has been encouraged by support he receives from UNSC non-elected member France and, more recently, Russia. Further, the UN’s focus on elections as the sole means out of the conflict has resulted in it not concentrating more effort on consensus-building and bottom-up negotiations. These were hallmarks of the initial phases of the negotiations that resulted in the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement (LPA/Skhirat agreement). The UN planned for elections to be held in 2018, but these have repeatedly been postponed.
A 13 January 2020 ceasefire agreement, mediated by Turkey and Russia, failed because Haftar refused to endorse it. Further, a fifty-five-point roadmap endorsed by most of the roleplayers in Libya, as well as the UAE, Turkey, and France, and signed in Berlin on 19 January, is proving difficult to implement. UN-sponsored ceasefire talks between five military officials from each of the two sides convened in February in Geneva and agreed on a tentative ceasefire. However, the two rival governments subsequently overruled this. Negotiations have since recommenced following the LNA withdrawal from Western Libya, but no new agreement has been reached.
It is clear, as suggested by the one-year stalemate as Tripoli was besieged, that a political solution is the only way out of the Libyan crisis. However, most of the actors in that country have ulterior motives, and have hampered negotiations and, more importantly, implementation of agreements. They have thus continued to try to shape solutions by announcing their own initiatives outside the UN in attempts to provide political legitimisation for their interference. This was the case with the 2018 Paris and Palermo meetings and the unsuccessful January 2020 Turkey-Russia ceasefire. The 6 June Cairo declaration may be characterised in the same way. Although advocating a ceasefire, an elected governing structure and the expulsion of outside forces from the country, Egypt’s declaration is an attempt to protect the HoR, which had been suffering military losses since April. The Egyptian call for foreign forces to leave is directed at Turkey; it is unlikely that Sisi includes Haftar’s supporters – Egypt, UAE, France and Russia – in that call. They are unlikely to reduce their support to the LNA or withdraw forces from Libya.
It was no surprise, then, that the UAE, France and Russia vociferously supported Sisi’s call; Turkey, Germany and the USA have been more cautious, arguing that it was a good first step but that negotiations needed to be guided by the UN. Turkey is unlikely to accept an agreement that will see its interests negatively impacted. The agreement, similar to the 2018 meetings in France and Italy, will likely be stillborn. Turkey has already expressed its dissatisfaction over Saleh being seen as the main personality guiding the process. A 16 June meeting between the Turkish and Russian defence and foreign ministers was cancelled following Ankara’s opposition to Russian proposals that Saleh lead a new political process in the country.
The UN and AU are the only institutions that remain able to mediate and formulate a solution that would be acceptable to most parties. However, both institutions are hamstrung by the interests of powerful states; Egypt in the case of the AU, and France and Russia in the UNSC. The inability of the UNSC to appoint a replacement for former special envoy Ghassan Salame for three months also means that negotiations are not able to take place since there is no one to drive the process from the UN. Any lasting agreement will have to be in line with the fifty-five point roadmap agreed upon in Berlin in January to have a chance at success. Further, the UN’s three track negotiations process, dealing with economic, political and security/military issues, will need to be replicated to engender a more holistic solution.