Libya: Between Proxy War and International Failure

While the world is overwhelmed by the crisis of COVID-19 and its ramifications, the civil war in Libya has escalated over the past few weeks. The operation launched in April 2019 by General Khalifa Haftar, the leader of the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA), to seize Tripoli from the United Nations-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) has intensified. Importantly, the domestic, regional, and international players involved in the Libyan conflict have not only failed to put an end to the ongoing war but they also are actively prolonging it.

Ongoing Fight amid the COVID-19 Outbreak

Since Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli began, his forces have launched more than a thousand air strikes on the city, targeting residential areas and civilian facilities such as hospitals and schools, which led to the internal displacement of around 200,000 people. They also targeted airports and migrant detention centers, which resulted in more than 1,000 people dead and about 5,500 wounded, according to the World Health Organization. Moreover, the humanitarian situation in Libya is worsening with growing fears over the outbreak of the coronavirus, especially in detention centers. Libya recorded its first confirmed case of COVID-19 on March 24. Since then, 26 people have tested positive and one person died (as of April 14). UN experts warn that Libya is potentially on the brink of a serious outbreak of COVID-19; according to Yacoub El Hillo, UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Libya, “Libyan health authorities, together with the UN and our humanitarian partners, have been racing against time to contain the spread of the virus.”

To be sure, the attacks on hospitals and medical facilities exacerbate the situation. For example, Haftar’s loyal forces targeted Al-Khadra General Hospital in Tripoli and injured at least six health workers. While the assault was strongly condemned by UN Secretary-General António Guterres and was considered as a “clear violation of international law,” there is no guarantee it will not be repeated against other medical facilities. In fact, the warring factions are ignoring his call. It is important to remember that Libya’s health infrastructure and capabilities have been severely damaged since the uprising of 2011 that toppled Muammar Qadhafi.

Deep Divisions

Since 2014, the country has been divided politically, militarily, administratively, and geographically between Haftar’s camp, in Cyrenaica and Benghazi in eastern Libya, and the recognized government led by Fayez al-Sarraj, in Tripoli and western Libya. The two camps are fighting over power, control of Libyan territory, and the nature of the Libyan state. The short transitional period that followed the removal of Qadhafi failed to produce a strong and capable government that could control its territory and exert sovereignty over the country. Militias and tribal groups held more power than the central government; this allowed warlords and mercenary leaders to establish footholds in different parts of the country.

The short transitional period that followed the removal of Qadhafi failed to produce a strong and capable government that could control its territory and exert sovereignty over the country.

In May 2014, General Haftar, a former CIA asset, took control of Benghazi after launching what is known as Operation Dignity—under the pretext of restoring stability and impeding “the influence of Islamist militant groups.” He also claimed to want to build a secular and democratic country. However, an investigative report from inside Benghazi by The New York Times shows a lawless, corrupt, and ruined city since Haftar’s forces began to control it six years ago. Furthermore, Haftar has persistently rejected international calls to end the war and failed to commit to several cease-fire initiatives. He strongly believes that brute force, not negotiations, is the only way to end the conflict decisively. For its part, the GNA insists that it has the domestic and international legitimacy as the representative of the Libyan people. It views Haftar as another version of Qadhafi, perhaps even worse, one who has no legitimacy and should be isolated and punished by the international community for taking control of Benghazi and attacking Tripoli. Nevertheless, the GNA agreed to hold peace talks with Haftar and commit to its resolutions, although it had little confidence they could materialize. Therefore, it began to look outwardly and to strengthen its relations with allies such as Turkey and Italy.

A Proxy War

Like many other conflicts in the Middle East, the Libyan civil war reflects a rivalry between regional and international players. Regional powers are heavily involved in the war and bear responsibility for protracting the hostilities. These rivals have clashing agendas and seek to advance their political, strategic, and economic interests at the expense of Libya’s stability. On the one side, Haftar is embraced and supported by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, France, and Russia. On the other side, the GNA is supported by Turkey and Italy. For Egypt, Libya—particularly the eastern part of it—is considered a crucial national security issue.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi believes that the Libyan crisis is a challenge to Egypt’s domestic stability. In February 2015, Egyptian fighter jets conducted a series of strikes on the training camps for the Islamic State (IS) in the eastern city of Derna as a response to the beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians by IS. It is clear that Sisi provides significant political, military, and diplomatic support to Haftar. He endorsed the operation against Tripoli last year and considered it a fight against Islamist extremism. Furthermore, some reports reveal that Egypt has high-ranking army officers operating in Libya and providing intelligence and logistical support to Haftar’s forces.

Egypt also plays a central role in whitewashing Haftar’s reputation and activities internationally. Alongside the UAE, Egypt introduced Haftar to international powers, particularly the United States and Russia.

Egypt also plays a central role in whitewashing Haftar’s reputation and activities internationally. Alongside the UAE, Egypt introduced Haftar to international powers, particularly the United States and Russia. Vladimir Putin met Haftar several times over the past few years and allowed private mercenary companies to collaborate with him. Cairo and Abu Dhabi have also lobbied Washington and President Donald Trump in order to support Haftar and to overlook his crimes in Libya. Not surprisingly, Trump spoke with Haftar just a few days after he launched his military campaign against the GNA government in Tripoli; he “recognized Field Marshal Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources, and the two discussed a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system,” a White House statement said on April 19, 2019.

The UAE’s strong support for Haftar is indisputable. It views him as a strategic and political ally that stands against Abu Dhabi’s main enemy in the region, namely political Islam. However, the UAE’s objective in supporting Haftar goes far beyond fighting political Islam; one analyst argues that Abu Dhabi’s main aim is to prevent a stable and independent government from forming in the oil-rich North African country. The UAE provides unequivocal political, military, logistical, diplomatic, and financial support to Haftar which emboldens him and explains his brazen behavior. According to a UN report, the UAE has provided Haftar with air power and advanced military weapons over the past few years. In fact, that military assistance breaches the UN arms embargo which was imposed during the country’s 2011 uprising and tightened in 2014. Furthermore, recent media reports reveal that the UAE has supplied Haftar with an Israeli air defense system after organizing secret meetings between him and Israeli intelligence officers from Mossad. Similarly, Saudi Arabia supports Haftar as part of its geostrategic regional alliance with Egypt and the UAE.

Turkey’s support to the GNA has become evident over the past few months. It is driven by a constellation of political, economic, and geostrategic interests in Libya. While Turkey opposed NATO intervention against Qadhafi in 2011, it sought to influence Libya after his removal in order to protect its investments and economic interests. According to some reports, Turkey has around $15 billion in unpaid contractual obligations in Libya. Turkey’s interest in influencing Libya has increased with the chaos and instability that has mired the country. At the same time, Turkey fears that the intervention of other regional rivals in Libya—i.e., Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and others—would come at its expense. Therefore, it became heavily involved in the Libyan conflict, particularly after signing the military and maritime agreement with the GNA at the end of 2019.

A Divided Europe

Since the beginning of the crisis, Europe has been divided on how to deal with the situation in Libya and these disagreements have shaped the European Union’s policy toward the country over the last few years. The conflicts of interest, particularly between France and Italy, have tremendous impact on the dynamics of the Libyan civil war and have deepened the polarization among Libyan factions as they support the opposite sides in Libya. While Italy backs the Sarraj government, Haftar enjoys French political, diplomatic, and military support. In fact, both countries consider Libya as their geostrategic backyard and as an indispensable asset for their influence in North Africa.

While Italy backs the Sarraj government, Haftar enjoys French political, diplomatic, and military support.

For Italy, Libya is not only a historical colony with long-standing ties and bilateral relations; it is also a geostrategic and economic prize that cannot be abandoned. Italy also regards Libya as a cornerstone to its national security, particularly when it comes to illegal immigration and human trafficking. Therefore, it signed a memorandum of understanding with the Sarraj government in February 2017 to create a framework of cooperation for “combating illegal immigration, human trafficking and contraband, and strengthening border security.” Moreover, Eni, the Italian oil company, is the largest foreign oil producer in Libya with investments that reach $8 billion. Eni acquired 42.5 percent of British Petroleum’s oil and gas license in Libya. It is unquestionable that Italy relies on the GNA to secure its interests, including access to oil reserves.

For its part, France has important strategic interests in Libya. They range from fighting extremism and illegal immigration to securing economic and oil interests. In fact, France’s leading role in the NATO operation against Qadhafi explains its behavior after his removal in 2011; to be sure, it refuses to envision a Libya under the control of other European or regional forces. Therefore, Paris has played a key role in the strife in Libya since then, either through the United Nations or the European Union. While France officially recognized and deals with the Sarraj government, it provides political and military support to Haftar, whom it sees as a bulwark against extremist militants in North Africa. Several reports confirm that Paris has provided missiles and intelligence support to Haftar.

Not only have the competing interests of France and Italy created a political and diplomatic feud between both countries, they have also impeded European and international efforts to end the Libyan civil war. For example, last year France blocked an EU statement that urged Haftar to stop his offensive against Tripoli. Moreover, despite the UN arms embargo imposed on Libya since 2011, weapons continue to flow to different factions in the country. On March 31, the European Union announced “the launch of a new naval mission in the Mediterranean Sea aimed at enforcing the UN arms embargo on Libya.” However, it was criticized by the GNA because it does not impose an embargo on weapons that arrive by air and land. Most recently, the United Nations failed to select a new envoy to Libya to replace Ghassan Salamé, who resigned in March citing stress and frustration about the lack of cooperation at the international level to resolve the Libyan conflict. It is reported that the United States has rejected the selection of the former Algerian foreign minister, Ramtane Lamamra, as the new UN envoy to Libya. Some diplomatic sources told Agence France Presse that the US rejection of the appointment of Lamamra came after pressure from Egypt and the UAE because they believe he has close ties to the GNA.

Clearly, the Libyan conflict features a number of entangled domestic, regional, and international players. They continue to fuel the civil war in Libya. Without unraveling and addressing the complexity of their involvement, the profound disputes there will only continue to worsen.

Khalil al-Anani is a Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC and an Associate Professor of Political Science at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. To learn more about Khalil al-Anani click here