By Giorgio Cafiero and Theodore Karasik
The overthrow of Libya’s longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 plunged Libya into chaos almost three years before the North African country’s ongoing civil war erupted.
The power vacuum left by the former regime’s fall subjected Libya to a power struggle among foreign states seeking to shape the country’s political landscape on their own terms.
On one side, Qatar and Turkey have sponsored Islamist militias, some of which are loyal to the internationally recognized albeit fragile Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. On the other side, Egypt, France, Jordan, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have backed the Libyan National Army (LNA), which General Khalifa Haftar leads and fights for the Tobruk-based government, the House of Representatives (HoR).
The UAE’s support for the secular-leaning LNA/HoR has factored into Abu Dhabi’s grander foreign policy goal of countering Islamists in the Arab world’s post-2011 political landscape. Making no distinction between “moderate” and “extremist” Islamists, the UAE designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization in 2014, and the MB’s ascendancy in several MENA countries following the “Arab Spring” unsettled the UAE.
The Emirati MB’s branch is the UAE’s most influential non-state actor. The country’s leadership perceives it as an existential threat, and Abu Dhabi would prefer the Gulf to be a MB-free environment. The UAE sees the rise of Islamists in the Maghreb as threatening the Emirates’ domestic security given the history of MB members from North Africa spreading the group’s influence in the Gulf.
Since mid-2014, the UAE has been a vital ally of Haftar’s. Not only has Abu Dhabi provided Haftar’s forces with military supplies but the UAE Armed Forces have also carried out military strikes against some of the LNA’s Islamist enemies.
The UAE’s operations against Islamist militants in Tripoli waged from western Egypt in August 2014 marked the Emirati military’s first bombing of targets in a foreign country. At the same time, by giving billions of dollars to Egypt’s government since 2013, cooperating with Cairo on defense issues, and working with the Kremlin to arm the LNA, Abu Dhabi has coordinated with the Tobruk-based government’s foreign backers to strengthen Haftar under the banner of fighting terrorism and extremism.
In October, IHS Jane’s reported on the UAE’s new forward-operating base in eastern Libya, roughly 60 miles from Benghazi, from where the Emiratis have been operating light attack aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles.
On May 2, Fayez al-Serraj, the GNA head, met face-to-face with Haftar in Abu Dhabi for the two rival leaders’ second meeting following the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA), the UN-mediated deal that established the GNA in December 2015.
The UAE hailed the meeting as a milestone in Libya’s path toward resolving its civil war. Yet on the GNA side, there were concerns that Serraj’s talks with Haftar could weaken the LPA instead of fix it. The two addressed reducing the Presidential Council’s members from nine to three, abolishing Article 8 of the LPA (which could remove civilian authority over the army), and holding presidential and parliamentary elections next year.
Qaddafi’s regime harshly oppressed Islamists, most of whom currently reject any concessions to Tobruk that could pave the way toward Haftar becoming a leader of, or high-ranking official within, a future cohesive government. Pointing to the general’s former membership in Qaddafi’s regime and his forces’ alleged war crimes in the ongoing civil war, many Islamists in the country see Haftar as the number one threat to Libya’s 2011 revolution.
To be sure, the attack carried out by a GNA-aligned militia that massacred 141 LNA forces on May 18 underscored how the talks in Abu Dhabi represented a counter-strike by Islamists against Haftar’s forces. The speed and vindictiveness with which the Islamist Third Force militia attacked the Brak al-Shat airbase, killing LNA recruits returning from the third anniversary of Operation Dignity, were meant not only hurt LNA morale but also to communicate to Abu Dhabi that Tripoli militias will not tolerate outsiders that support Haftar.
The weak GNA has no control over large swathes of Libyan territory outside Tripoli, and even in that city routine clashes between different militias underscore the internationally recognized government’s weakness. Its ability to control powerful militias is doubtful given that the GNA presides over Tripoli’s governmental structures, which are themselves divided among numerous armed factions.
Should the leadership in Tripoli agree to share power with Haftar, armed factions loosely aligned with the GNA would likely continue to fight against the LNA. Therefore, bringing all Libyans on board behind such an agreement would be, to say the least, challenging.
Nonetheless, by hosting this rare meeting between the GNA head and Haftar, the UAE has signaled its commitment to asserting more influence in Libya, not just militarily but also on the diplomatic front.
By bringing the two separate governments together, Abu Dhabi is seeking to influence the UN’s efforts to broker a resolution to the conflict in the direction of a solution that severs support for Tripoli’s Islamist factions. The UAE’s objective is to rid Libya of Islamist actors that Abu Dhabi views as terrorists and extremists.
Ultimately, Libya may soon plunge into deeper violence and chaotic turmoil if diplomatic initiatives to resolve the civil war fail and Haftar’s forces attempt to seize control of Tripoli.
Given these prospects, Abu Dhabi is collaborating with Cairo and Moscow to support a new approach through the UN. Despite ongoing military engagements, there is a window of opportunity for Libya’s warring sides to make room for each other and explore diplomatic avenues that would require concessions on the part of all involved actors.
Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. In addition to LobeLog, he also writes for The National Interest, Middle East Institute, and Al Monitor.
Theodore Karasik is the senior advisor at Gulf State Analytics.