By Tarek Megerisi
Conflict in Libya has claimed the lives of tens of thousands, generated instability throughout North Africa and the Sahel, and become an increasingly pitched focal point for geostrategic competition.
The Haftar Project
“Moving away from politicians employing militias toward a paradigm whereby militias employed politicians.”
The collapse of the GNC was a turning point in Libya’s transition, symbolized best by the re-emergence of Qaddafi-era General Khalifa Haftar who had failed to establish himself after Qaddafi’s ouster.
In 2011, he was quickly sidelined and ostracized. Many Libyans were unwilling to work with him, deeming him responsible for atrocities committed during the Chadian war of the 1980s.
Others saw him as a divisive force given that they already had a commander, Abdul Fatah Younis. Haftar’s next emergence, a coup-by-television on Valentine’s Day 2014, was laughed off by many at the time.
However, it represented the beginning of politics by other means in Libya—the moving away from politicians employing militias toward a paradigm whereby militias employed politicians to provide a shroud of legitimacy.
Although Haftar has often leveraged local Libyan grievances, such as the rise of jihadism in eastern Libya or a long-standing oil blockade by rogue militias, his attempt to grow his position and attract supporters has never been an entirely Libyan or autonomous enterprise.
Haftar’s reintroduction to Libya passed through Cairo, where his vision of emulating Qaddafi’s quasi-military dictatorship found resonance with a resurgent Egyptian military institution emboldened by the successful installation of Sisi following Egypt’s aborted democratic transition.
While Haftar’s coup attempt failed to gain traction in Tripoli, he quickly discovered a new raison d’être over the course of 2014—by launching a war on terror in eastern Libya.
This allowed him to remain close to Egypt, which supplied him militarily to construct a hybrid security institution that patched together former regime intelligence and military officers with tribal militias and other auxiliary forces such as Salafists.
This movement came to represent one side of the growing national divide as some sympathetic and recently elected politicians from the new parliament, the House of Representatives, ordained Haftar and his forces as Libya’s national armed forces.
These same politicians had unilaterally moved this new legislative body to Tobruk in eastern Libya in an attempt to side-step their opponents and dominate the parliament, effectively bifurcating governance of the country.
Although the UN attempted to build a new power-sharing institution, the Government of National Accord (GNA), Haftar’s backers lost interest in political compromise in 2015.
Under the cover of the war on terror narrative, the UAE built an airbase near Haftar’s headquarters in eastern Libya while the French deployed special forces and provided other expert assistance.
Coming at a time when France was increasing its counterterrorism activity to Libya’s south in the Sahel, Haftar’s counterterrorism narrative and Emirati support (with whom France already enjoyed a close security partnership) made him a natural ally.
Moreover, Haftar and his wider movement was considered a useful vehicle to expand French influence in Libya, which had long been dominated by Italy, and a key component of the wider security architecture the French were building in the Sahel.
With his external support in place, Haftar refused to support the Libyan Political Agreement, which was intended to reunify the country, and ultimately declared the agreement void in 2017.
Haftar himself spent much of this time refusing to meet with any UN or diplomatic missions that were not coming to offer support, as he built up his base in eastern Libya.
As the war on terror gradually ended, his foreign backers provided him the technology, finances, airpower, and manpower needed to extend his network further to acquire Libya’s oil export terminals and to conquer the remainder of eastern Libya.
All the while, they ensured that no international criticism could come his way for a growing litany of war crimes committed by LNA forces including besieging the city of Derna, the execution-style killings of captured fighters from the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries, and at least 7 other incidents involving orders from a LNA commander to kill at least 33 prisoners in the area around Benghazi.
The Sacrificial Sarraj
The UN talks which birthed the GNA in December 2015 began as a process firmly backed by a host of countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and Italy, in the hopes that it could end Libya’s civil war and create a credible partner for combatting terrorism and migration.
However, as the talks dragged on, the crisis worsened, and with hundreds of thousands crossing the Mediterranean and the Islamic State having taken the city of Sirte a year earlier, these needs became more acute.
The Libyan Political Agreement which resulted from the UN talks held little local legitimacy and exhibited minimal structural capability to enforce many of its provisions, such as those to secure the capital.
Moreover, the new Prime Minister, Fayez al Sarraj, a relatively unknown politician with no clear constituency, was chosen by virtue of being the least controversial and thereby most agreeable person to be found.
Sarraj and his weak government were delivered to Tripoli in March 2016 on an Italian naval vessel. The GNA struggled to operate in a city controlled by militias that were more than happy to hold the GNA hostage as a means of tapping the country’s central bank.
Unable to immediately contribute to the counterterror or counter-migration efforts, many international actors who had supported the UN and the GNA quickly abandoned it for more expedient policies.
These policies often revolved around nonstate actors and further undermined the GNA, reducing it to the status of a payer rather than a player.
The GNA’s lack of political power was on full display when French President Emmanuel Macron hosted a conference between Haftar and Sarraj in 2018.
Dubbed a peace conference, despite the two parties never actually having been at war with each another, it created a false equivalence between the civilian leader of the country and the commander of one of the country’s multitude of armed groups.
It also set in play a dynamic that molded Libya’s political process over the coming years, with Sarraj being forced to negotiate deals with Haftar who continued expanding his presence and military power.
Meanwhile, even the GNA’s staunchest allies, such as Italy, who had considered Sarraj key to preserving their influence in the country, began to lose confidence.
UN Special Representative Ghassan Salamé tried to break this mold during 2018-2019 to create a new, inclusive political process that would lead to a new civilian government and national security institutions more reflective of Libya’s patchwork of political and military actors.
Following a power-sharing agreement struck between Haftar and Sarraj in Abu Dhabi at the end of February 2019, the new UN plan seemed to offer some hope. However, the plan remained highly contested with many in Libya refusing to support it, which eroded UN and international credibility in the country.
On March 27, 2019, in a reported meeting between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Haftar, and Emirati representatives, the decision was made that Haftar would try to seize power by launching a surprise attack on Tripoli—even as UN Secretary General António Guterres was in town trying to salvage the UN-backed political process.
Tripoli or Bust
Haftar’s plan to blitzkrieg Tripoli and assume power in April 2019 failed. He quickly found himself in a war of attrition confronted by the greatest mobilization of fighters Libya had witnessed since the 2011 revolution against Qaddafi.
He simultaneously struggled to maintain long supply lines through territory that he controlled only nominally. However, the decision to take Tripoli left Haftar and his backers with few alternatives but to persist or risk losing everything.
The finality of the situation, whereby either Haftar wins and sets up a new dictatorship or he loses and a new chapter of Libya’s transition begins, mobilized Libyans as well as other international actors, namely Russia and Turkey.
“It created a false equivalence between the civilian leader of the country and the commander of one of the country’s multitude of armed groups.”
Russia has long used Libya’s slow-burning conflict to advance its relationships with Egypt and the UAE, while simultaneously expanding its influence on Europe’s southern border and its access to Libya’s natural resources.
Sensing an international vacuum and an opportunity to leverage its influence in a petroleum-rich country in the southern Mediterranean, Russia pulled a page from its Syria playbook to prop up a weak and isolated authoritarian leader in a conflict most global actors wanted to avoid.
In September of 2019, Russia began to deploy an estimated 800-1,200 Russian mercenaries through the Wagner Group led by Yevgeny Prighozin, the same outfit that Russia has deployed to conflicts in Ukraine, the Central Africa Republic, Mozambique, and Mali.
The Russian deployment tilted the balance of the conflict in Haftar’s favor. Destabilization and conflict in Libya created opportunities for mischief, growing Russian influence in the region, and ensuring Russia played a role in any settlement.
Turkey has long maintained an interest in Libya as an economic partner where it holds over $20 billion in frozen contracts that, if resumed, might boost its otherwise worsening economy. Moreover, the success of the Haftar project would cement Emirati and Egyptian influence in North Africa and present a serious obstacle to Turkish prospects in the region.
Haftar’s assault on Tripoli forced Turkey to either move against or acquiesce to the UAE/Egyptian/Russian gambit to claim Libya. It also provided Turkey an opening to advance its eastern Mediterranean interests.
Following the February 2018 discovery of significant gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean, a coalition between Greece, Cyprus, Israel, and Egypt began to develop security and economic infrastructure, which Turkey viewed as a direct threat to its economic interests and dominant security role in the region.
The desperation of Libya’s GNA and the apathy of the West toward stopping Haftar gave Turkey the leverage it needed. By the end of November 2019, the besieged GNA readily signed an agreement that delineated maritime borders between Libya and Turkey and created an exclusive economic zone covering key gas fields in exchange for Turkish military support.
With Turkish troops deployed and air support in place, the GNA was able to reclaim several strategic towns in western Libya in April 2020. Haftar’s forces have subsequently been forced to retreat to rear bases around Tripoli such as the town of Tarhouna.
The sudden and sharp growth of Turkish and Russian involvement since late 2019 has been happily absorbed by Libyan actors who are desperate not to lose.
The military prowess of both countries has quickly led to them being key actors on the ground while impinging on European interests and potentially shutting the West out of any peace settlement.
The temporary truce declared on January 12, 2020, during a meeting in Moscow, highlighted these fears. The rapid announcement of the Berlin conference set for January 19, following months of high-level meetings, was Europe’s attempt to maintain relevance.
At the end of March 2020, Europe launched a revamped naval operation, IRINI (Greek for “Peace”), to enforce the UN arms embargo in place since 2011.
The formalization of Operation IRINI, however, has laid bare divisions within the European Union (EU) as Greece pushed for the mission to focus on disrupting Turkey’s naval resupply routes with the presumably larger aim of killing the Turkish-Libyan maritime and security agreement.
In addition, enforcing a maritime arms embargo without a simultaneous blockade of arms coming overland from the UAE would, in effect, help Haftar.
This calculation no doubt factored into Turkey’s decision to take matters into its own hands. It remains to be seen whether the EU, through the likes of Germany, will be able to use Operation IRINI to facilitate holding all embargo violators accountable, or if European divisions will ultimately cause the operation to be ineffective.
Tarek Megerisi is a policy fellow with the North Africa and Middle East program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, specializing in politics, governance, and development in the Arab world. He has worked extensively on Libya’s transition since 2012 with Libyan and international organizations.