By Muriel Asseburgk, Wolfram Lacher, and Mareike Transfeld
This section of the study answers the following questions: Why are the Libyan conflict so resistant to resolution efforts?
What are the specific aspects of the conflict configurations that impede UN efforts? What factors in the UN approach are obstacles to a successful conclusion? What lessons can be learned for future mediation efforts? And how can Europe contribute to progress in this area?
In December 2015, Libyan politicians signed an agreement in Skhirat (Morocco) to form a transitional government.
The agreement aimed at transcending the country’s political divide after the eruption of civil war in mid-2014 had put an end to the post-2011 transitional process. Negotiated under the aegis of the UN, the agreement not only had the support of Western governments but also of a united UN Security Council.
The latter declared the Government of National Accord (GNA) formed on the basis of the agreement to be the only legitimate government of Libya, called on member states to cease contact with parallel institutions, and threatened actors who obstructed the agreement’s implementation with sanctions.
Despite international support, the agreement could be considered a failure soon after it was signed. The country’s political and institutional divide persists.
Instead of functioning as a power-sharing arrangement, the GNA has devolved into a façade for the capture of state institutions by a handful of Tripoli militias. The government as such exerts little authority in Tripoli, let alone beyond the capital city.
The economic crisis has dramatically worsened since the GNA’s formation. Following unsuccessful attempts at isolating opponents of the agreement, Western governments have resorted to courting the most powerful challenger to the GNA: Khalifa Haftar, the leader of the so-called Libyan Arab Armed Forces.
International efforts at brokering a new political arrangement that would include Haftar have remained stuck.
What explains the failure of the Skhirat agreement, and what are the prospects for negotiating a power-sharing deal in Libya?
The defining feature of the Libyan conflict landscape is its fragmentation. There are few clear fault lines or constant actors, and few coherent political-military forces – with the exception of Haftar’s.
Instead, countless armed groups and political actors form ever new constellations. The continually changing balance of power makes for difficult conditions for negotiations.
The current conflicts have their origin in the 2011 revolution. During the civil war, numerous revolutionary armed groups formed at the local level.
Because of their fragmentation, the revolutionary forces failed to re-establish central authority after the regime’s demise. Rather, successive transitional governments were a front for the competition over resources between representatives of individual cities and groups.
One focal point of these rivalries was the security sector, where representatives of competing factions used their official positions to build up militias under the guise of state institutions.
As the power struggles escalated, actors with common enemies gradually formed broader alliances.
In the summer of 2014, this dynamic resulted in the formation of two rival camps and the eruption of a civil war whose epicentres were the country’s two largest cities.
In Benghazi, rampant lawlessness created fertile ground for the establishment of a renegade army leadership under Haftar – formerly a high-ranking officer under Muammar al-Qadhafi; later his adversary in exile; and after the 2011 revolution an openly power-hungry militarist.
In Benghazi, Haftar’s forces fought a coalition of revolutionary and jihadi groups. In Tripoli, an alliance of militias led by forces from Misrata drove its Zintani opponents, who had allied themselves with Haftar, out of the capital.
A majority of the newly elected House of Representatives (HoR) met in the eastern city of Tobruk, lent its support to Haftar, and formed a government in nearby al-Baida. A part of the General National Congress (GNC), elected in 2012, refused to recognise the HoR’s Tobruk sessions and appointed a government in Tripoli to represent the forces which had just taken control of the capital.
With the eruption of civil war, the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) – established in 2011 to support the post-Qadhafi transition – began focusing on mediating between the conflicting parties to overcome the political divide.
These efforts were initially unsuccessful. A first attempt to bring together representatives of the HoR in Tobruk with boycotting parliamentarians failed in September 2014. The political climate was polarised.
The Tobruk-based camp attacked its opponents as Islamists; they, in turn, accused Haftar and the Zintanis of leading a counter-revolution in league with regime loyalists. Regardless of the rhetoric, however, the two camps were politically too diverse to fit into neat categories.
In early 2015, a political and military stalemate between the two camps began to emerge. As a result, the two opposing alliances disintegrated. The UN-led negotiations – now primarily between representatives of the two parliaments – encouraged the gradual dissolution of the state of polarisation.
Largely independently of the UN-led talks, initiatives by local commanders and mediators to negotiate local ceasefires in western Libya also had an important impact.
The military stalemate and persistent political divisions did, however, provide space for Libyan affiliates of “Islamic State” (IS) to expand and gradually establish Sirte as their Libyan headquarters.
Despite the fragmentation of the two camps, the UN-led talks stuck to a binary framework, the principal negotiating parties being the HoR and the GNC.
From mid-2015 onwards, rifts opened up between supporters and opponents of the negotiations, both within these two institutions and in individual cities that had previously been clearly associated with one or other of the camps.
The politicians who signed the December 2015 Skhirat agreement therefore had shaky power bases. Representatives from eastern Libya, Misrata and Zintan who held positions in the nine-member Presidency Council often faced influential adversaries in their own communities. In eastern Libya, where Haftar set the agenda, opposition to the agreement prevailed.
The GNA’s formation brought about further changes in the political landscape. Former Haftar supporters from eastern Libya who had obtained a position in the GNA now joined their former enemies in opposition to Haftar.
Militias from Tripoli that had previously been hostile to the “puppet government” were now surprisingly pragmatic and exploited their new status as pro-GNA forces to move against local rivals.
Former regime officials, who had been ostracised until the mid-2014 institutional divide, now became coveted allies for actors across the political spectrum. There was no longer any limit to opportunistic side-switching.
During the same period, “Islamic State” disappeared as a prominent actor. Misratan militias, though divided in their attitudes towards the GNA, united against IS in Sirte. After several months of fighting, they received support in the form of sustained US airstrikes; by late 2016, IS was destroyed as a territorial force in Libya.
The political survival of the Presidency Council is exclusively due to international recognition.
The GNA remained too weak politically to act as a magnet for rival factions. One reason was that it was a unity government in name only: two of the nine members of the Presidency Council began to boycott its meetings a mere month after the agreement was concluded; a third stepped down after a year; the remaining six were conspicuous mainly through their public spats and lack of cooperation.
A second major weakness of the Presidency Council was that the Central Bank initially granted it only limited access to funds.
Serraj, who increasingly monopolised the scarce resources and decision-making powers of the Presidency Council, gradually built up a precarious clientelist structure of rival politicians and militia leaders over whom he had no real control.
Instead, the government increasingly came under the influence of a handful of militias that divided up Tripoli between themselves. The political survival of the Presidency Council was exclusively due to international recognition.
Throughout all twists and turns of Libya’s conflicts, Haftar was the only actor who steadily consolidated his power structure and expanded his territory.
His alliance was initially very loose; many of his allies hoped to turn on him when they would no longer need him. But against such calculations, Haftar gradually eliminated all of his disloyal associates. His seizure of the eastern oil ports in September 2016 marked the definitive failure of attempts to undermine him by integrating rival figures from eastern Libya into the GNA.
Haftar owes his continuous ascent principally to levels of foreign support that no other actor in Libya’s conflicts enjoys. Military and political backing from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) allowed Haftar to put up tenacious resistance to the Skhirat agreement and bet on long-term military gains against his opponents.
The Egyptian and Emirati support for Haftar is rooted in the regional antagonisms that developed after the overthrow of Egyptian President Morsi in July 2013: Haftar’s declared goal of “eradicating” the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya resonated in Cairo and Abu Dhabi.
The oft-repeated accusations by Haftar and his allies that Qatar, Sudan and Turkey supported Libyan Islamists may also have encouraged the Emirati leadership to intervene. However, there is only sparse evidence for such assistance to Haftar’s opponents.
The extensive and barely concealed Emirati and Egyptian support for Haftar is far disproportionate to the few indications of Turkish and Sudanese arms deliveries or Qatari payments to Haftar’s adversaries.
For regional powers, Libya in 2014 became a playing field in which no rules applied. The Emirates and Egypt delivered heavy equipment to Haftar, in flagrant breach of the UN arms embargo.
In mid-2014, the Emirates launched airstrikes on militia positions in Tripoli without ever admitting it – and without even consulting the US, let alone European governments.
In subsequent years, the Emiratis secretly constructed an air base in eastern Libya from which they regularly launched strikes on Haftar’s opponents.
In 2016 and 2017, there were at least three strikes by unknown attackers; in each case, the only plausible explanation is that they were Egyptian or Emirati aircraft.
Neither the Libyan authorities nor Western governments or international organisations have so far been able, or willing, to identify the states responsible.
While Libya’s neighbours to the west, Algeria and Tunisia, supported the Skhirat talks, the UN Special Representatives Bernardino Léon (September 2014 – November 2015) and Martin Kobler (November 2015 – June 2017) could only bring their Egyptian and Emirati interlocutors to pay lip service to the agreement.
Both states clearly put their support for Haftar above efforts for a negotiated solution. Without this support, Haftar’s stubborn rejectionism would have been unthinkable and a power-sharing agreement would have had a realistic chance of success.
The Egyptian and Emirati role was thus key to the failure of UN efforts.
Dr Muriel Asseburg is a Senior Fellow in the Middle East and Africa Division at SWP
Dr Wolfram Lacher is a Senior Associate in the Middle East and Africa Division at SWP
Mareike Transfeld is a doctoral student at the Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies