By Tarek Megeris
This paper examines recent developments in the conflict and analyses the positions and interests of the many non-European foreign states that have intervened in Libya.
- Foreign actors have long been an underappreciated driver of conflict in Libya, to the detriment of European and UN policymaking in support of a political solution there.
- These actors facilitate their Libyan client groups’ belligerence and escalate the conflict through financial, media, and military support.
- Europe must understand the role of other foreign actors in Libya if it is to prevent the conflict from devolving into an intractable proxy war akin to that in Syria or Yemen.
- Such a war would destabilise Libya’s neighbours, directly threatening European security interests and global energy markets.
- Major powers such as the United States and Russia are unwilling or unable to play a constructive or unifying role in Libya, putting the onus on Europeans to lead the effort to reach a solution.
- This will require European countries to neutralise or co-opt other foreign actors’ partisan support for Libyan groups.
- It will also require them to establish an inclusive international working group on Libya, using a mixture of incentives and disincentives designed to prevent escalation.
The Libyan National Army’s (LNA) recent advance on Tripoli, under the leadership of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, has pushed Libya into what could become a far-reaching proxy conflict on Europe’s southern border.
With the advance reaching deep into the city’s southern suburbs, the European Union and its member states now have a strong interest in preventing the situation from developing into a nationwide war.
Such escalation would lead to further state breakdown and provide sanctuary to terrorist groups and people smugglers. Therefore, it is critical that Europeans understand the international dynamics of the intensifying violence in Libya.
Left unchecked, foreign interventions in the country will continue to drive the conflict – not least by blocking any EU and UN diplomacy designed to resolve the crisis through a power-sharing agreement. The result could very well be an intractable regional crisis of Syrian proportions.
The role of foreign states in Libya’s civil war has long been murky, yet hugely significant. Interventions designed to serve foreign states’ political or regional interests have been a constant feature of the country’s post-revolutionary fractiousness and strife.
Various Gulf Arab states – particularly Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – have sponsored Libyan political movements and armed groups, aiming to establish regional hegemony amid the ashes of the Arab uprisings. These efforts were a driving force in the collapse of Libya’s first post-revolutionary parliament and the outbreak of its civil war in 2014.
The conflict shifted the centre of Libyan politics onto a historical east-west divide, with leaders in western Libya affiliated with a rump parliament and linked to Qatar and Turkey, and those in the east increasingly under the sway of Haftar, who has ties to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.
The conflict also created space for the Islamic State group (ISIS) to seize territory and for people smugglers to thrive. Moreover, the war led to the formation of military groups that have plagued attempts to stabilise Libya ever since. The country’s embrace of the Arab uprisings dragged it into a regional competition driven by ideology and realpolitik.
Its geographic position and economic potential have made it a coveted prize in this contest, while the threats to Europe that emerged from the civil war have prompted interventions from Western powers that only complicate the situation.
The 2014 Libyan conflict initially led to a rare show of unity among foreign powers, in support of the United Nations’ political process and a new Libyan Political Agreement. But the political institutions created under the deal failed to forge a consensus.
International support for these bodies became ever more superficial and Western states adapted accordingly, with key European actors focusing more on their narrow interests than the search for a comprehensive solution to the crisis.
For instance, Italy directly intervened in Libya to mitigate the migration crisis that began in 2015, supporting militias loosely affiliated with the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. Similarly, France adopted a Libya policy that focused on counter-terrorism and, as a result, became increasingly dependent on Haftar.
These dynamics deepened the divide between the GNA and the House of Representatives, a body based in the eastern city of Tobruk that eventually became almost completely beholden to Haftar’s military-focused enterprise. Thus, rather than working through a unified Libyan chain of authority, international actors increasingly sided with one of the rival groups.
Those more invested in the west ignored the deeper flaws of the GNA and the deteriorating security environment there so long as their interests were secured.
On the other side of the country, many external actors succumbed to the pro-strongman argument that so often results from counter-terrorism relationships, leading them to tacitly accept, or actively engage with, Haftar’s campaign despite his obvious lack of commitment to the UN process.
Indeed, there is considerable evidence that Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE encouraged and facilitated Haftar’s advance on Tripoli.
In these circumstances, it was almost inevitable that the civil war would reignite – despite the best efforts of Ghassan Salamé, head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, and proclaimed international support for his mission.
This paper examines recent developments in the conflict and analyses the positions and interests of the many non-European foreign states that have intervened in Libya. Focusing on attitudes towards Haftar, the paper explores various actors’ motives for, and modes of, intervention, as well as the impact of their activities on the country.
Europeans urgently need to devise a strategy to address the role of other foreign actors – particularly those that back Haftar’s highly destructive and almost certainly futile advance on Tripoli – before military escalation in Libya triggers an all-out regional proxy war.
Foreign actors’ substantial investment in Libya makes this task very difficult, particularly given that France has tacitly backed Haftar. But Europeans can still make a positive contribution.
They should focus their attention on pressuring other external actors to de-escalate the conflict, by attempting to enforce the UN Security Council’s arms embargo on Libya and by using their close relationships with Gulf Arab states to emphasise the risk that military escalation poses to everyone’s interests.
If there is to be a genuine prospect of a ceasefire and a political process to end the conflict, Europeans will need to work to minimise these actors’ partisan and incendiary activities in Libya.
The pro-Haftar camp
Since the resignation of the Islamist-backed government in Tripoli in 2016 and the gradual removal of its international supporters from the city, the overwhelming majority of outside interference in Libya has come from Haftar’s backers (a trend that became even more apparent following the end of the 2017 battle for Benghazi).
He has long relied on the support, if not followed the lead, of the UAE and Egypt. Haftar launched his assault on Tripoli shortly after returning from a trip to Riyadh, where he likely secured approval to advance with support from countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
The core of this support comprises states that share a broad political vision of rolling back the politics of the Arab uprisings, particularly democratic and pro-Islamist forces, and backing autocrats who can fit into a new regional order.
Libya’s role as a theater for regional rivalries, as well as its economic potential, has heightened the importance that these supporters attach to its fate.
Egypt’s changing calculations
Egypt’s support for Haftar stems from a mixture of economic opportunism, direct threats to its security interests, and Haftar’s and President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s shared ideology of militarism as the only antidote to an existential Islamist threat.
In 2014 Egypt identified its roughly 1,100km-long desert border with Libya as a vulnerability that directly contributed to the growing number of terrorist attacks on its territory and the insurgency on the Sinai Peninsula. Haftar has been a natural ally for Cairo due to the location of his forces near the Egyptian border.
Additionally, Cairo hopes that a stable Libya will prop up the ailing Egyptian economy, maintain the supply of the subsidised oil it has relied on since the first gulf war, and allow Egyptian labourers in the country – who, prior to the Arab uprisings, accounted for roughly $33m per year in remittances – to resume work.
These considerations led Egypt to invest heavily in Haftar, providing him with substantive military and diplomatic assistance after he launched Operation Dignity, in 2014.
Having begun as a military campaign to displace Islamists and more extreme jihadist movements from their ascendant position in Benghazi, the operation grew to represent a wider, more political, mission.
As such, the relationship between Egypt and Haftar quickly deepened, with Egyptian forces even carrying out airstrikes in Libya on his behalf later that year. However, by 2019, Egypt felt that Haftar had marginalised it in favour of close contact with the likes of France, Russia, and the UAE.
This, along with concerns that he was dangerously overextending himself, prompted Egypt to explore other avenues to protect its interests – including by cultivating ties with the GNA’s prime minister, Fayez al-Sarraj, and its speaker of parliament, Aguila Saleh, and by aiding a resurgence of the ancien regime.
Egypt also began to craft a political process of its own through its chairmanship of the African Union, attempting to rival and, it hoped, supplant the UN’s national conference process.
This proposal was likely designed to create a power-sharing deal between Sarraj and Saleh that could have unified the state and contained Haftar within a civilian legal system – at least until Libya held an election or underwent another political transition.
However, Haftar’s assault on Tripoli forced Egyptian leaders to recalculate and, eventually, reaffirm their support for him.
In the “with us or against us” dichotomy Haftar created, Egypt aims to protect its investment, as the defeat of his forces would be ruinous for its interests – and, even in a military stalemate, Cairo could have opportunities to profit and to restore some control over him.
This led to a phone call between Trump and Haftar on 15 April, and a subsequent shift in the United States’ position that provided Haftar with important US diplomatic cover.
As the war entered a stalemate, Haftar’s forces started conducting airstrikes at night, which the GNA’s interior and defence minister, Fathi Bashaga, blamed on “two Arab countries”.
The shrapnel of blue arrow missiles found in Tripoli suggests that these strikes came from Chinese-made Wing Loong drones – a type Egypt and the UAE have both used in Libya – that were likely piloted from Jufra airbase, near Sirte.
If Haftar’s war effort continues to falter or the rumoured attack on Sirte materialises, Egypt might once again deploy piloted aircraft in Libya, another dangerous escalation in the war.
It seems inevitable that, unless it discovers a cheaper way to protect its interests, Cairo will continue escalating the conflict through arms shipments and airstrikes that give its client a military advantage.
Tarek Megerisi is a policy fellow with the North Africa and Middle East programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations. He is a political analyst and researcher who specialises in Libyan affairs and more generally politics, governance and development in the Arab world.