Libya Tribune

By Thomas Hill

Chairman Deutch, Ranking Member Wilson and members of the House Foreign Affairs Middle East, North Africa and International Terrorism Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to testify on Libya.

The timing for this hearing is especially important given the escalation in violence in Libya over the past five weeks and the bleak prospects for a peaceful solution in the near future. 

I am the Senior Program Officer for North Africa at the United States Institute of Peace, although the views expressed here are my own.

USIP was established by Congress as an independent, nonpartisan national institute to prevent and resolve violent conflicts abroad, in accordance with U.S. national interests and values.

The inability to end peacefully Libya’s post-Gaddafi transition has resulted in violence, allowed terrorists and traffickers to operate with near impunity, and created a conduit for irregular migration into Europe – posing a significant security challenge to the strategic interests of the U.S. and our allies.

My testimony today is distilled into three points:

  1. A permanent political solution is not possible if external actors and nation-states continue to intervene in Libya in ways that prioritize their own interests over those of the Libyan people.
  2. The peace process led by the United Nations has failed.  The causes of that failure are numerous and open for debate but the outcome itself is not.  

It is appropriate to conclude that the United Nations never had the authority necessary to restrain external and internal spoilers and no longer enjoys the requisite credibility with the Libyan people to broker a lasting peace. 

  1. The United States and other “P5” countries can and should play a role in bringing Libya’s conflict to resolution through high-level diplomatic engagement and applied pressure on those states and actors that violate United Nations resolutions related to arms transfers and the protection of civilians.

External Actors

The popular movement that challenged and ultimately overthrew Muammar Gaddafi was greatly aided by – and would have been unsuccessful without – the intervention of NATO forces and the support of the United Nations.

NATO states (led by France and the United Kingdom) and non-NATO allies, like the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar, aligned against Gaddafi and implemented the UN-authorized “no-fly” zone.

These external actors provided anti-Gaddafi groups with critical financial and military support, laying the foundation for the patron-client relationships that persist in Libya today.

Following Gaddafi’s death October 2011, all states that participated in the NATO alliance intervention publicly pledged to support the United Nations and its mandate to facilitate Libya’s transition.

In 2016, a Joint Communique on Libya, signed by Egypt, Italy, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the UAE, and others, reaffirmed “our commitment to the United Nations Support Mission in Libya’s efforts under the leadership of the UN Special Representative of the Secretary General.”

The European Union, African Union, the League of Arab States, and United Nations issued a joint statement in 2017 reaffirming their support for the UN’s coordination role and leadership.

Unfortunately, since 2011, external actors continued to provide military and financial support to their Libyan proxies, in contravention to United Nations Security Council resolutions, undermining UN mediation efforts.

Rivalries that had been set aside in the effort to oust Gaddafi resurfaced as states have sought to advance narrow self-interests, often at the expense of one another.

Divisions within Libyan society were exacerbated and exploited by external actors who found Libyan partners willing to prioritize personal gain over national unity.  

As these regional proxy battles and competition for control over Libyan resources have played out over the last eight years, it has been the Libyan people that have paid the largest cost.

Regional rival interventions

The UAE and Qatar participated in Operation Unified Protector, the NATO-led mission, sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council, to protect civilians in Libya.

However, this alliance was one of convenience and perceived necessity. The two countries have a well-documented history of tension made worse by their respective entanglements in the revolutions of Egypt and Syria.

These tensions reportedly boiled over into a near military confrontation as recently as June 2017, a disaster only avoided after the intervention of former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. In lieu of direct military conflict, Libya became one of the battlegrounds where this regional conflict materialized.

The United Nations identified the external regional actors engaged in the Libyan conflict into two groups: one comprising Chad, Egypt, and the UAE; the second, including Qatar, Turkey, and Sudan.

Saudi Arabia could also be reasonably included in the same group with Egypt and the UAE. It would be an overstatement to describe these groupings as alliances since each country has its own unique justifications for engagement in Libya.

Instead, it would be more accurate to describe these countries as working in parallel lines of effort that frequently are mutually beneficial and, at times, coordinated.

Following the military coup that ousted President Mohamed Morsi in Egypt, tensions between two sides increased significantly. President Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood party had been supported by Qatar; military intervention was supported by other Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The resulting escalation in tension led to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain recalling their ambassadors from Qatar in 2014.

It was at this same time in Libya that General Khalifa Haftar and his Libya National Army (LNA) launched a military campaign (Operation Dignity) “to rid Benghazi of Islamist and Jihadist militias,” groups frequently seen as synonymous with the Muslim Brotherhood by the governments of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt.

With the support of Egypt and the UAE, Field Marshal Haftar assaulted the city of Benghazi for three years before finally declaring victory.

Benghazi was left in ruins but Field Marshal Haftar was able to declare victory over the Islamists that had been there, demonstrating his usefulness to his supporters in Cairo, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi.  

In addition to providing military and financial support to the LNA, Egypt and the UAE conducted their own military assaults in Libya.

Qatar and Turkey did not support Operation Dignity and instead doubled-down in support of the General National Congress (GNC) and its Libya Dawn coalition that included Muslim Brotherhood affiliates.

In December 2015, the Libya Political Agreement (LPA) was signed in Skirhat, Morocco.  The agreement committed all parties to a “unified governance structures under a Government of National Accord [GNA].”

With the support of the United Nations, the governments of Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar all publicly recognized the Government of National Accord as “the sole legitimate government of Libya, with Prime Minister Fayez Serraj as the leader of the Presidency Council.”

Nevertheless, all of these external actors continued to provide support to their various proxies inside Libya and undermine the United Nations’ efforts.  

Since 2015, both Egypt and the UAE (as well as others) have attempted to orchestrate talks between Field Marshal Haftar and his GNA counterpart, Fayez Serraj, reportedly at the official invitation of the United Nations Special Representatives of the Secretary General (SRSG).  

Many have questioned how these efforts by the Egyptian and Emirati governments are consistent with United Nations resolutions that call for Member States to work with the SRSG to develop “a coordinated” approach to Libya.  

Egypt hosted talks in February 2017; the UAE hosted talks in May 2017 and again in February 2019.  All of these efforts failed to resolve the political stalemate and arguably undermined the credibility of the United Nations.

In April 2019, Field Marshal Haftar and his LNA forces launched an assault on Tripoli and the internationally recognized Libyan leadership (GNA).  

In Egypt, a government spokesman stated “[President Sisi] affirmed Egypt’s support in efforts to fight terrorism and extremist militias to achieve security and stability for Libyan citizens throughout the country.”

Emirati Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash posted a Tweet saying the “priority in Libya [is] to counter extremism/terrorism & stability in long drawn out crisis.  

Abudhabi agreement offered opportunity to support UN led process. Meanwhile extremist militias continue to control Capital & derail search for political solution.”

Noticeably absent from either statement is a call for an immediate ceasefire or a condemnation of the escalation in violence.

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Thomas Hill, senior program officer for North Africa, testified on May 15 at the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Middle East, North Africa, and International Terrorism hearing on “The Conflict in Libya.”

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UNITED STATES INSTITUTE of PEACE