Guest: Fred Wehrey
Jon Alterman: Fred is a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He was a senior policy analyst at RAND for seven years. Before joining Carnegie, he served for 21 years in the Air Force, both in active and reserve duty. He is the author of Burning Shores: Inside the Battle for the New Libya. Fred, welcome to Babel.
Fred Wehrey: It’s great to be here. Thank you. Appreciate it.
Jon Alterman: What I wanted to talk to you about is the internationalization of Libya. It seems to me that Libya is sort of an unlikely place, an unlikely conflict to be internationalized. There aren’t a lot of people. Why are so many countries engaged and when did they get engaged?
Fred Wehrey: It’s been a gradual process, I think over the past near decade, ever since the overthrow of Gaddafi in 2011. And of course, when you look at the rivalries, many of these foreign rivalries were present during the 2011 Revolution. They fell back on the back burner, and then they really rose to the fore in 2014. I think Libya is really a casualty of broader, global disorder and tensions between the Russians and the United States. There’s a number of reasons why countries are intervening related to ideology, to economic interests. This is the African country with the largest oil reserves, so I think there’s multiple overlapping factors at work.
I think it’s this notion that Libya is on the seams. I mean, it’s not important or not central enough in the Middle East region where it warrants huge U.S. focus. It’s not at the center of the Arab-Israeli conflict or the Saudi-Iranian rivalry. But it is important enough, because it has these oil reserves, that there are states wrangling over it. And then of course, I think it’s also a test case of the post-Arab spring struggle for the role of Islamists. And then, that was the major factor why the Emirates intervened.
Jon Alterman: So give me a program. Who are all the foreign players in Libya now that matter?
Fred Wehrey: It’s incredibly complex. The main players are the United Arab Emirates, Russia, France, Jordan, backing the forces of General Khalifa Haftar, who-
Jon Alterman: Along with the Egyptians, no?
Fred Wehrey: And the Egyptians. Very good point, of course. General Haftar launched the war last April on the internationally recognized government in Tripoli, the Government of National Accord. The Government of National Accord in Tripoli has enjoyed the support from Turkey, most significantly in January of this year, when the Turks brought in Syrian mercenaries. These were the same Syrian proxy fighters that Turkey has backed in the Syrian Civil War, and Turkey moved them over into Libya. The Turks have sent drones, advisers— a very technical type intervention.
Those are the main players. You’ve got a number of other players that are conducting interventions. By one count, there have been seven different countries conducting their own airstrikes in Libya since, I think, 2012. So it’s a very crowded marketplace, but those are the main players.
Jon Alterman: And how were they fighting?
Fred Wehrey: This is another very fascinating aspect of Libya, is the nature of combat. You have to remember that for much of the past seven years, it was a very rudimentary form of combat, militias. I’ve been to the front lines. There’s static artillery duals. It’s not a very advanced form of combat. So the actual Libyan military forces are very weak. So what that does is give an opening for foreign forces to come in with even a modicum of advanced weaponry. And you have seen an injection of very deadly weapons coming in, anti-tank weapons coming in from the Russians.
But most significantly are drones. This is the largest ever combat deployment of drones. The Emirates are flying their own drones, the Turks are flying drones. And what’s important about this is that these are not Libyans that are operating these drones. Typically, when we define proxy war, we talk about local forces that are being backed by outside actors. But in this case, the foreign actors have cut out the Libyans. There are Emirati pilots flying these drones, the Turks are flying these drones. The drones have been a huge part of this intervention.
Jon Alterman: And then I’ve heard more and more about mercenary fighters in Libya.
Fred Wehrey: That’s another dimension of this: the draw of Libya’s financial wealth. These mercenaries are getting paid. In some cases the Libyan actors, the Libyan factions, are paying them. In other cases, it may be foreign actors like the Emirates. But the mercenaries are there. Most significantly, the Wagner Group, the famous Russian mercenary group that has intervened in Ukraine and Africa, intervened in November, or rather September of last year.
I was on the front lines, and that was a huge shift in the momentum. It really aided Haftar’s forces. And for the first time, you had the possibility that Haftar could possibly take Tripoli. That spurred a counter reaction from the Government of National Accord, who turned to Turkey and said, “Help us.” The Turks brought in thousands of Syrian mercenaries in late December and January. I was able to interview them, and they’ve been a very potent force on the front lines. Added to the mix, you’ve got Sudanese mercenaries, you’ve got Chadians. So again, a very crowded marketplace.
Jon Alterman: Is this a harbinger of the future of Middle East conflict, where you just have outside parties looking to get the spoils of war and wealth, playing different sides, paying different parties, mercenaries coming in, collapse of the state? Could this happen elsewhere, or is there something particular about the weakness of Libya that allows all of these forces to cannibalize it?
Fred Wehrey: I’ve been wrestling with this. I do think it is, in some sense, a foreshadowing of war, and it represents war in the Middle East. It represents the convergence of a number of geopolitical and technological shifts: the availability of these very cheap drones, the disposable, deniable nature of mercenaries, gray zone actors that are going around from war to war fighting. The very cheap nature of these fighters, the Sudanese, the Wagner; I think you’re seeing Libya’s sovereignty being truncated. The Emirates are carving out a separate sphere in the East. You’ve got the Turks in the West. The Russians are also building up air bases and forces. So there’s something very alarming at work.
I mean, of course Libya is unique in the sense that it’s somewhat on the periphery of Middle East concern. So it’s almost like this has gone on precisely because great powers, the United States, have been disinterested. They’ve allowed it to go on. We saw similar dynamics at work in Yemen, and there was obviously more U.S. attention there. But again, similar strategies being played out in Yemen with the truncation of sovereignty, mercenaries, airstrikes. I think the middle powers of this region, the Turks, the Emirates, the Saudis, they’re throwing their weight around. The United States is absent. One question for me is the impact of the post-pandemic economic fallout, and also the decline in oil prices and their ability and willingness to have these sorts of adventures in the region.
Jon Alterman: Are you seeing any of that yet? You’ve been going back and forth to Libya for a while.
Fred Wehrey: A lot of Libya watchers are watching that. We’ve not seen that yet. I mean, we thought maybe the COVID pandemic would force these warring parties to dial back, either out of financial considerations or the concerns of the health of their combatants, but you’re not seeing that. You’ve seen an uptick of shipments. So any economic fallout, there’s probably going to be a great time lag.
You just had the deployment of Russian fighter aircraft coming in. The big fissure to watch now is there’s a division between the backers of Haftar—over his future, over the next steps—because Haftar suffered some serious battlefield losses at the hands of the Turkish-backed GNA forces over the last week. He’s on his heels, and his foreign backers are recalibrating. They’re deciding, “Do we really want to back these guys?” And what you have now are the Russians and the Egyptians backing the HOR, the House of Representatives in the East, who launched a sort of peace plan with the GNA, the Government of National Accord. But meanwhile the big unknown is the Emirates, and they still seem to be committed to Haftar. So this is something to really, really watch.
Jon Alterman: One of the things that one of the negotiators told me at one point was his concern that Haftar wasn’t strong enough to be a good strong man.
Fred Wehrey: That’s accurate. We’ve known for a long time that his backers, especially the Russians and the Egyptians, have long soured on him, his military competence, his ambitions. So they’ve really propped him up with a lot of weaponry and funding, but you’re absolutely right. The Egyptians—we haven’t talked too much about them—but they have, legitimate concerns about their border. They’re looking for some pliable ally in the East that will secure their border, but they were always leery about Haftar launching this military expedition in Tripoli to topple the recognized government there.
Jon Alterman: You have been going back and forth to Libya for quite some time. You’ve been watching this conflict unfold. What’s the piece of it that you feel people don’t understand? As you pointed out, this isn’t a high profile conflict, but you know a lot of people in Libya, you’ve tracked a lot of people in Libya. What’s the piece that’s not understood that needs to be appreciated?
Fred Wehrey: I think it’s often the misunderstanding of the motives of the players, and this very lazy labeling of, especially I think, of Islamists and non-Islamists. And this is, unfortunately, part of the narrative that’s touted, especially by Haftar’s backers, that the Government of National Accord is filled with Islamists, and that this is a campaign against radicals, and Haftar represents some secular vision, which is completely not borne out by the realities on the ground. So I think that’s one: careless labeling that we see in the media, but also among certain policymakers.
When you get down on the ground, you just realize how incredibly complex it is. You’re talking about a complex tapestry of different political factions, especially towns, town-based militias, under this broad, regional umbrella. But that’s another thing: I think people don’t understand that it’s a struggle between East and West. There is a division between East and West, but we have to remember that a lot of Haftar’s forces in this battle are coming from the Western region, from a town called Tarhuna.
So again, the bottom line is just avoid easily labeling, look to the convergence of economic and political factors, avoid reading this too much through an ideological lens of Islamists or anti-Islamists. I think the anti-Islamist dimension certainly motivated the Emirates from 2014 to about 2017, but around 2017 the Islamists in Libya really fell by the wayside. They were exiled, they were killed, imprisoned, and in some cases, from within their own communities. And now the rationale, for especially Emirati intervention, is not purely about anti-Islamism anymore.
Jon Alterman: As a final wrap up, it was interesting to me that the piece you said isn’t well understood is largely a domestic piece. And that implies that what is understood is the international aspect, the extent that you have all these proxy forces in war, and yet, we’ve had very little effective mediation. The UN has been trying; Ghassan Salamé just resigned after several years of trying.
Fred Wehrey: Right.
Jon Alterman: If we fundamentally understand the international piece of this, why is it so hard to just bring countries together and resolve the international dimensions to this conflict?
Fred Wehrey: I’ve been grappling with that, and you’re absolutely right. Everybody knows what’s going on. The UN has been issuing these panel of experts reports every year where they tabulate the arms embargo violations. So this has been going on in broad daylight for a number of years. And again, to my understanding, Libya is a casualty of this broader, global disorder, multi-polarity. You compare the consensus at the Security Council in 2011 with what’s happening now. You mentioned the UN efforts to effect a ceasefire; the United States vetoed those efforts. It was on the side of Russia and France.
The bottom line is, when I talk to U.S. policymakers about why they’re not engaged, it’s the notion that there are other regional equities at play. So yes, Libya is bad. However, the United States cares about other regional files—Iran, Israel, Palestine, these other areas—and the interveners in Libya are part of those interests. And so the United States is reluctant to push too hard. So there’s a tradeoff. It’s almost like Libya is a victim of the fact that there are other regional pressures and interests at play.
The Europeans, of course, have been trying to enforce an embargo, but the Europeans are divided. Again, the French have been some of the most stalwart backers of Haftar. The Italians have their own interests. I think it just comes down to other priorities, global disorder, disinterests. You have to attribute much of it to the U.S. reticence, after the 2011 Revolution where Obama consciously said, “Look, we’re not going to own this post-occupation or post-conflict reconstruction. We’re going to hand it off to the UN, to the Europeans.” And I think that did create somewhat of a precedent and a vacuum for other powers to come in.
Jon Alterman: All right, thank you very much for joining us. We appreciate it.
Fred Wehrey: My pleasure. Thank you.