By Edward P. Joseph & Jeffrey A. Stacey
Libya is among the most intractable conflicts in the world today. Despite UN Secretary General Guterres’s global appeal for a cessation of violence during Covid-19 conditions—and the initial positive response from Libya’s chief combatant General Khalifa Haftar—intense fighting continues.
Libya remains in the grips of a multi-faceted conflict that has brought regional, religious, tribal, personal and financial differences to the fore, as well as external intervention on both sides of the conflict.
Nearly ten foreign countries have stakes in the present-day Libyan civil war dating back to 2014, with the country’s collapse beginning even prior to that.
Even today, after its descent into renewed conflict and dysfunction, Libya remains a mass of contradictions that defy easy categorization and distinguish its pathology from current catastrophes like Yemen.
In 2014, the Libya National Army (LNA), a force based in the East formed in opposition to Islamist extremism and to tensions with the prevailing government in Tripoli, launched a multi-year assault to dislodge extremists and reassert control, initially in Benghazi.
Under the command of Khalifa Haftar, the LNA ultimately succeeded in dislodging extremists from the town, but at the cost of considerable physical destruction.
The LNA went on to launch a similar operation in Derna, which ultimately succeeded in 2018. After skirmishes in various parts of the country, including the south, in April, 2019, Haftar launched a stunning, ill-advised assault on Tripoli itself.
The ‘battle for Tripoli’ has engulfed the country in renewed turmoil.
Among other steps, the East has prevented oil from being exported from the Sirte Basin, denying Tripoli its source of revenue.
Despite that, the National Oil Corporation and the (main) Central Bank have otherwise continued to function. In short, Libya is not comparable to Venezuela, which has seen its oil infrastructure collapse, but rather seen the contest over oil drive the conflict and, now, a significant tactic.
Sporadic international efforts, including a major effort in Berlin in January, have achieved little. The UN-led parley in late 2015 in Skhirat, Morocco ‘succeeded’ in getting a hand- picked, unrepresentative selection of Libyan leaders to sign the “Libyan Political Agreement.”
The LPA envisioned a shared, Government of National Accord (GNA), with a range of representational bodies. Due to the perceived lack of legitimacy of the signatories, leaders in the East have rejected almost all of the formal institutions of the GNA, and fulsomely oppose its leadership.
The GNA enjoys international recognition, including from the United States and Europe, but remains a government of “national unity” in name only.
In light of the country’s political deadlock, then UN Special Representative Ghassan Salame unveiled in 2017 his ‘Action Plan’ to amend the LPA, restructure the government, and approve a new Constitution and electoral law through an inclusive “National Conference.”
It was on the eve of the National Conference last April – the product of a multi-year, intensive consultation with ordinary Libyan citizens and prominent figures alike – that Haftar and the LNA initiated a lightning assault on Tripoli.
Ten months later, combat continues, with an escalating role of outsiders like Turkey and Russia. Citing exhaustion, Salame has resigned his position.
Interspersed with these efforts were high-level gatherings of Haftar and his primary counterpart, GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj that have yet to achieve any breakthroughs. Until recently, there has been simply no trust among the leaders and – given their continued outside support – no reason for them to halt.
Recent developments on the battlefield may change that. Since January, Turkey’s intensified, hands-on support on behalf of the GNA has steadily and dramatically shifted the military momentum. The LNA has been pushed back from the outskirts of Tripoli some fifty miles southeast near Tarhouna.
Sophisticated Turkish weapons systems, operated by Turkish soldiers not Libyans, have mostly neutralized the LNA’s ability to conduct offensive operations. This contributed to the dangerous admixture of militias and groups supporting the GNA, including some – by no means a plurality let alone a majority – radical Islamist groups.
The LNA has also reportedly received some support from Syria, but the numbers are likely much smaller for the straightforward fact that Bashar Assad is in no position to take fighters away from his war in Syria.
Also misunderstood is the role of mercenaries in the war. It’s true that a number of fighters are mercenaries, but neither on the GNA or LNA side have mercenaries made the crucial difference. Russia’s Wagner Group played a significant role in the LNA’s advance towards Tripoli earlier this year, but these forces are only in Libya with the approval of Moscow, i.e. they are hardly unaccountable mercenaries.
Haftar’s forces are far from containing exclusively mercenaries, as he depends on crucial tribal and local support in addition to fighters from the East.
Most of the militias who rushed to the aide of Tripoli are paid – one of the major problems with security in Libya – but money was not the only motive that drew them into defense of Tripoli as Haftar launched and maintained his assault.
Child mercenaries, like migrants of all ages, could well be among the fighting forces of both sides. With no international monitoring, the solution to their plight, to the extent reports are accurate, is to end the fighting as soon as possible, while bringing pressure on the parties to ensure they are not using child soldiers.
The LNA’s overextended supply lines are threatened. Haftar’s position has so obviously weakened that his authority has been openly challenged in his Eastern bastion by Parliament leader Aguilah Saleh. Saleh’s peace-reform proposal forced the embarrassed Haftar into a
effectively declaring himself Libya’s dictator – as his LNA forces have been rolled back and exposed.
This means that Turkey and Tripoli know they have the momentum, making a ceasefire improbable. It remains to be seen how Haftar’s weakness will play out in the East, where other, more reasonable figures are in waiting.
In the end, it is unlikely that Libyans can bring themselves to peace, however welcome such a development would be. A much more serious international strategy is needed rather than splashy international conferences along with empty pledges – by both the Libyans and the internationals.
With the fighting at a crucial point, the time is ripe for the U.S. to step forward at a senior level, ideally appointing a special envoy for Libya. Tensions between Russia and Turkey give Washington additional impetus to act as mediator – a role that could also yield benefits for U.S. objectives in Syria as well.
The idea would be to seize the opportunity created by the Berlin process, and the multiple rounds of Geneva talks, along with the temporary balance of fear playing out in Tripoli.
Washington’s goal should be to convince the key sponsors of both sides, beginning with Ankara, to a detailed ceasefire plan that would see the forces move back to defined positions. Washington should also insist that the UN in some fashion – initially only through air assets provided by member states, including the U.S. – monitor the ceasefire.
A serious political proposal to finally end the conflict is essential.
Edward P. Joseph is a foreign policy professional, commentator, author, professor and Senior Fellow at Johns Hopkins SAIS, president of multiple foundations, and former Deputy Ambassador of the OSCE.
Dr. Jeffrey A. Stacey is a UN lead consultant, former State Department official in the Obama Administration, Managing Partner of Geopolicity Inc., and Senior Fellow at Johns Hopkins SAIS. He is author of “Integrating Europe” and the forthcoming “Rise of the East, End of the West?”