The Internationalization of Libya’s Post-2011 Conflicts From Proxies to Boots on the Ground
By Frederic Wehrey
For almost a decade, Libya has been riven by increasingly internationalized conflicts, stemming from local and regional fissures during the 2011 anti-Qadhafi revolution and the NATO-led intervention.
In the wake of that conflict, foreign missteps and the failures of Libyan elites to produce political unity and workable institutions opened the field for an escalating proxy war.
The Sirte Standoff and Diplomatic Maneuvering, Summer 2020
By early summer 2020, the two sides had squared off over the Jufra-Sirte axis. Russia has continued its aerial shipments of weaponry, dispatched advanced combat aircraft to eastern Libya, and repositioned Wagner Group fighters in the Sirte environs, strategic air bases across Fezzan, and key oil fields—but not before seeding Tripoli homes with deadly mines and booby traps.
For his part, Egyptian president Sisi issued bellicose statements that Sirte was a redline and threatened a military intervention to halt Turkey’s advance—a warning that was endorsed by the Egyptian parliament.
But the scale of such a move, if it happens at all, would likely be modest given the Egyptian military’s limitations and Cairo’s competing strategic priorities.
Meanwhile, Turkey has been streaming materiel of its own into Libya and repositioning its arsenal for an assault on Sirte. Yet it too faces risks: A further push eastward might dilute its political, security and economic gains in Tripolitania and fracture the already fissiparous GNA coalition.
Even so, Turkish military commanders in Libya are reportedly distrustful of Russia designs given Turkey’s recent experience with Russia’s support for a Syrian regime attack on Aleppo, Syria, which occurred in the midst of Turkish-Russian talks.
A Turkish advance on Sirte would likely be accompanied by a deal with Russia on the redeployment of Wagner forces away from the central coastal city —a concession that Ankara hopes might be tied to Russian advances in Syria’s Idlib province and that would come at the expense of Egypt.
As the fragmentation in Libya and in the global order is worsening, it is unlikely that any one foreign state can win Libya, especially given the multiplicity of outside actors on the landscape.
Turkey is poised to build significant influence over Tripolitania’s economic sphere and security institutions, to include fortifying its presence at key western military bases and training and equipping new security forces, with involvement by a Turkish private military contractor linked to President Erdoğan and projected assistance from Qatar.
Yet despite this growing entrenchment, Ankara would not necessarily benefit from a formal partition of Libya, which would be invariably marked by conflict: Its long-term economic interests hinge on political stability and trade access to the east.
For its part, Russia is spreading its forces across eastern and southern Libya and has been willing to cultivate ties to a broader swathe of Libyan actors, to include elements of the GNA and the Qadhafists.
Similarly, the Egyptians, who’ve also soured on Haftar and have sought to bolster alternative Libyan military commanders and anti-Islamist figures, are eager to re-establish political and economic ties to Tripolitania.
It has especially given the importance of the western region for Egyptian migrant labor and some elements in Cairo are also open to negotiating with Turkey over the eastern Mediterranean gas dispute.
Yet at the same time Cairo strives to preserve the LAAF (without Haftar) as the nucleus of a future security architecture in Libya.
Consequently, the Egyptians, along with the Russians, have been trying shape a post-Haftar Libya in the wake of the general’s battlefield setbacks:
Cairo and Moscow are both engaging Qadhafists and both have endorsed a political roadmap by Aguila Saleh, the speaker of the eastern-based legislature, the House of Representatives (HOR), which effectively sidelines Haftar.
Yet the most consequential outside power in the Libyan imbroglio remains the least talked about, especially in Washington and Paris: the United Arab Emirates.
Reeling from Haftar’s losses in Tripolitania and bereft of appealing military options, Abu Dhabi started to diversify its outreach to eastern-based Libyan actors, though not to the same extent as Egypt and Russia.
It is also deploying a range of spoiling and stalling tactics, designed to stymie Turkish consolidation in Tripolitania and thwart a potential Turkish-Russian entente: encouraging Egyptian belligerence, and reportedly persuading Haftar to refuse a foreign-backed deal to lift his blockade of oil facilities.
All of this diplomatic maneuvering is taking place against a backdrop of profound crises and disarray in Europe and America. European policy on Libya in particular has been marked by paralysis and deep divisions.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in France’s vocal and obsessive demonization of Turkish intervention in Libya—part of a broader French antipathy toward Turkey that has domestic and ideological roots—at the expense of Emirati and Russian support to Haftar, France’s longtime ally in Libya.
Operationally, Europe’s marginalization is evident in its attempt to enforce the UN arms embargo on Libya with an EU maritime interdiction operation, the so-called Operation Irini, which started on April 1, 2020.
Because the EU’s interdiction efforts were focused almost entirely on the maritime front, GNA supporters and outside critics charged, correctly, that Irini was biased against Turkey, since its shipments went by sea.
In contrast, Haftar received foreign arms from the air or overland from Egypt. Yet even with this focus, the actual disruptions of Turkish seaborne supplies has been spotty to non-existent.
On top of this, key European countries—France, Italy, and Germany—are threatening EU sanctions on Libya’s foreign meddlers, but given their divergent approaches toward Libya—and, in the case of France, blatant partisanship toward the UAE—their list is unlikely to cover the most serious violators.
In the summer of 2020, the ineffectiveness of European policy on Libya elicited a public rebuke from David Schenker, not just on Operation Irini but on Europe’s one-sided stance. “They could at least, if they were serious, I think, call them out —call out all parties of the conflict when they violate the arms embargo,” the American diplomat told a reporter.
Yet American diplomacy on Libya has hardly been a paragon of effectiveness and even-handedness. Indeed, in its reluctance to formulate a clear policy on Libya and its reticence to exert diplomatic leadership, the Trump administration has in many respects followed the Obama administration’s paradigm of “no ownership”—what State Department officials have recently reframed as “active neutrality.”
As noted earlier, part of this is structural and geo-strategic: Libya is just too peripheral for Washington to warrant significant commitment of U.S. resources or pushback against American allies who’ve long been intervening—especially when those allies’ help is deemed to be essential on other regional priorities.
But under the Trump administration, authoritarian ideological preferences and a pronounced tilt toward the United Emirates and Turkey have factored in as well. Having first backed the Emirates in their support of Haftar, the Trump presidency subsequently sent positive signals to Turkey, once Haftar’s advance stalled and after the Russian presence widened.
As a result, U.S. policy under Trump has been muddled and anything but neutral. Moreover, by imposing a false moral equivalence Libya’s warring factions and issuing toothless expressions of regret on repeated violations and abuses, Washington contributed to a prolongation and intensification of the war.
By the summer of 2020, there were modestly encouraging signs that this reticence was changing. The United States took the positive and long overdue step of threatening U.S. Treasury sanctions on Haftar, a U.S. citizen in conjunction with its application of sanctions on Wagner financier Yevgeniy Prigozhin (for his involvement in Sudan, rather than Libya).
In tandem, the U.S. Africa Command began waging a concerted public information campaign to highlight and criticize Russia’s buildup of military infrastructure in Libya—though such measures, by themselves, won’t deter Moscow’s meddling .
Diplomatically, the United States, along with Germany, the United Kingdom and the UN, started pressing for a demilitarization zone in Sirte as a means of securing a return to a political process.
The U.S ambassador to Libya engaged in robust shuttle talks with Ankara and Cairo, resulting in their support to a ceasefire agreement announced on August 21, 2020 by GNA Prime Minister al-Sarraj and the speaker of the eastern HOR, Aguila Saleh.
Though the agreement, which endorsed the demilitarization of the Sirte region, called for a resumption of oil production, and included a provision to place oil revenues in Libya’s foreign, rather than central bank, was lauded by the UN and in Western capitals, it remains fraught with pitfalls.
Most significantly, the signatories have a limited span of control over armed and political actors on the ground, illustrated in the case of Aguila Saleh by Haftar’s rejection of the deal and threats to restart fighting.
For its part, al-Sarraj and the GNA coalition have been shaken by widespread protests over poor administration and corruption and a surge in coronavirus infections and deaths—which are also present in the east.
The GNA has also been riven by a worsening power struggle, which saw al-Sarraj suspend and then reinstate the powerful interior minister Fathi Bashagha for allegedly encouraging the protests.
These widening and deeply rooted fissures extend well beyond political elites, to armed groups and towns in and around Tripoli—and to the Tripoli-based Central Bank, whose militia-aligned governor has emerged as a key obstructionist, along with Haftar, according to a senior Western diplomat.
On top of these internal dynamics, the prospect for a durable peace is offset by the calculations of outside interveners, who are jockeying to secure their political and economic interests in the wake of the deal.
Most notable of these is the Emirates, which, even if it has not militarily thwarted the deal, has not altered its ideologically-driven position on Libya and seems committed to stoking the GNA’s collapse.
Moreover, Turkey’s commitment to the agreement should not be assumed to be interminable, given its distrust of the Emirates. In short, unless there is more sustained diplomatic follow-up,
especially from Washington, toward Libyans and toward regional states, the al-Serraj-Saleh ceasefire, like so many other truces before it, could presage a reconfiguration of the conflict rather than its lasting cessation.
Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace focused on politics and security issues in North Africa and the Gulf.