By Joseph Hammond and Suhaib Kebhaj
Among the many civil wars ravaging the Arab world – in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Egypt – the one Westerners hear the least about may prove the most dangerous: Libya.
The civil war that has been raging in Libya since 2011 is, in many ways, a proxy war pitting Qatar and its Muslim Brotherhood allies against the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
The Qatari-Emirati rivalry, which became front-page news last week when Saudi Arabia and its allies severed diplomatic ties with Qatar, has been the significant factor in the continuation of the current Libyan Civil War, much more so than nationalistic or Islamist ideologies.
Qatar and the UAE both punch above their weight in the conflict because unlike in Yemen or Syria, the role of the United States and other major powers is somewhat muted.
At stake for both Gulf monarchies is influence in post-war Libya as well as economic opportunity. The country is home to some of the last significant underexplored oil and gas basins in the Middle East.
Outside the oil sector, Qatar has financial deals with Libya that date to the Ghaddafi era. The UAE, as an early investor in Libya, has also sought controlling positions in the Libyan financial sector.
After disputed elections in 2014, Libya has once again descended into chaos, with numerous factions warring against one another. These include Berber militias, ISIS terrorists, repentant former members of Ghaddafi’s military, and many other factions.
Over the last three years, however, Libyan politics have been defined by three large coalitions, each claiming to be Libya’s legitimate government.
The General National Congress is largely Muslim Brotherhood-influenced and is supported by Qatar. Conversely, the UAE along with Saudi Arabia now support General Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA). The LNA claims to represent Libya’s House of Representatives, a rival government based in Tobruk.
Both of the above factions give lip service to the Government of National Accord, the body recognized by the United Nations as Libya’s legitimate government.
Both sides also have other allies, of course. Egypt also supports Haftar, and in the past the General National Congress has received support from Turkey.
Qatar has long been involved in Libyan politics and had ties to the Islamist opposition since the Ghaddaffi era. When the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 began, it supported the Muslim Brotherhood, which was the best organized political force in several Arab states.
Qatar was the first country to recognize the Libyan rebels and had begun sending them arms early in 2011 as they fought to topple Ghaddaffi. Media reports also suggest that Qatari special forces were deployed to Libya and at least some Libyan rebels received military training in Qatar.
The Emirates also sent weapons to rebel groups early in the conflict but failed to build lasting ties. Instead the Emirates turned to General Haftar, a supposed former CIA asset who was living in exile in Northern Virginia as recently as 2011.
In May 2014, Haftar launched a military movement to create a unified Libyan National Army (LNA) and to eliminate Islamic extremists. (Haftar’s definition of extremists includes many whom others would consider moderates.)
This moment set in stone the Qatar-UAE rivalry. When each nation officially backed opposing sides in the Libyan armed conflict, Bahrain, UAE, and Saudi Arabia pulled their ambassadors from Qatar’s capital, Doha. The diplomats did not return for eight months.
The septuagenarian Haftar is perhaps the ablest military commander Libya has ever produced. He also makes little secret of his Neo-Ghaddaffi ambition to rule the country. Personality traits aside, his rapid rise has been accelerated by Egyptian and Emirati airstrikes in support of the LNA.
At first, those two countries kept their role secret due to U.S. disapproval. But following a massacre of Coptic Christians in February 2015, Egypt publicly launched airstrikes against Islamist militants in Libya. The Qatari-backed New General National Congress called Egypt’s airstrikes a “horrible assault.” Al-Jazeera coverage highlighted the civilian casualties of the strike.
The continuous airstrikes increasingly suggest an escalation of the conflict in a conventional sense. A once semi-secret activity is now being conducted in the open.
Qatar did not respond militarily to support its clients. Even if it wanted to, Libya is beyond the operational range of Qatari aircraft. Even the 24 longer-ranged Dassault Rafale fighter jets Qatar has ordered from France could not attack Libya without access to friendly airbases or mid-air refueling.
In any case, diplomatic relations soon returned to normal in the GCC, and on the surface Gulf politics seemed calm, with Qatar even joining the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen.
However, in Libya, tensions between the two countries continued unabated with the Emirates and Egypt increasing their military support to Haftar in recent months.
This was apparent in the most recent Egyptian bombing campaign in Libya. Though it used the May 26 attack on Coptic Christians as a pretext, the Egyptian government acknowledged its new bombing campaign was not aimed at the perpetrators of that attack per se. Instead, the Derna Mujahideen Shura Council, an Islamist group, bore the brunt of the campaign.
The group was an impediment to Haftar’s efforts to consolidate control of the country. According to Arab press reports, the group has received support from Qatar.
Still isolated and left with few options, Qatar may choose Libya as the place where it strikes back at the UAE. If so, the long and wrongly ignored war in Libya is likely to be even longer.
Joseph Hammond, a former Cairo correspondent for Radio Free Europe, is a senior contributor with the American Media Institute.
Suhaib Kebhaj is a Research Assistant at the International Monetary Fund and has worked extensively in his native Libya.