By Barah Mikail
There is no simple solution to Libya’s problems: institutional divisions prevail within a general context of political void, while the absence of a strong army is fueling the rule of militias.
The Libyan security context: State of play and main dynamics
If it weren’t for its volatile security situation, Libya would most likely generate less media attention. Indeed, problems at the security level explain observers’ concern about developments in Libya.
Rivalries and polarization reflect on the international community’s failure to turn Muammar Gaddafi’s fall into a success story, and this is, in itself, a matter of frustration.
That said, it is obvious that Libya’s political vacuum caused and continues to cause instability in the sub-region, fueling migration from Libya, often to Europe.
Immigration is an issue that remains high on European states’ agendas. Unfortunately, European fears of large numbers of people seeking better lives and opportunities on their soil does not often correlate to an interest in addressing the root causes of this mass migration in the first place.
The security context and what is at stake
Libya is at the crossroads of many intertwined dynamics. While other countries in the region may be experiencing, to some extent, security-related problems, Libya faces a deluge of virtually every conceivable security issue.
The political vacuum in the aftermath of the Gaddafi regime’s fall opened the door to various types of rivalries, starting with the struggle over power.
Hence, actors wanting to increase their influence and capabilities were fast – and often successful – in finding support from regional and international actors.
These, combined with the natural volatility of the sub-region, generated an explosive context.
Libya’s instability and insecurity is obviously caused by a convergence of more than simply these four issues; nevertheless, addressing these issues is vital to attaining the level of security necessary to benefit the population and provide it access to basic needs and services.
Libya needs a coordinated and efficient strategy to move towards effective state-building. Furthermore, all the above-mentioned security challenges also need powerful and determined actors able to impose a strategy based on a clear vision and a realistic plan.
This objective is difficult to reach. Quickly reaching stability in Libya under the prevailing political and institutional divisions is an illusionary aim.
Reality and role of institutional representatives
Since 2011, Libya has not benefited from a strong central government. All the official governments that succeeded each other ended up being inefficient.
Rivalries, both political and ideological, and the absence of a strong actor capable of facilitating an efficient transition plan, are significant causes of the failure of these successful governments.
With the launch of the so-called “Operation Dignity” in 2014, the Libyan landscape evolved towards more clarity: Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar, presiding over a Libyan military (the Libyan National Army) that had been absent from Libya for over two decades, officially launched a war on what he called “radicals” (i.e. Islamists) in western Libya. By doing so, he intended to take a share of power.
The end of “Operation Dignity,” combined with the constitution of the internationally-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in December 2015, would become the official starting point for an institutional division of Libya.
The Tripoli-based GNA rules from the west, within what corresponds –roughly speaking– to the boundaries of the region of Tripolitania. The eastern-based government headed by prime minister Abdullah al-Thinni, the House of Representatives, and the Libyan National Army (LNA) have sovereignty in the region of Cyrenaica.
Libya’s third historical region, the Fezzan, became a significant point of contention between these two symbolic sets of institutions, with the LNA gaining the upper hand in large parts of this province as it launched a new military offensive in early 2019.
Khalifa Haftar’s instigation of the battle for Tripoli in early April 2019 would incite the Tripoli-based Sarraj government to launch the “Operation Volcano of Rage” in return, causing the LNA to lose the geographical and strategic advantage it had on the ground.
The Fezzan region is characterized by tribal and ethnic identities, allowing local leaders to rule in their traditional, historical territories while deciding with whom they want to engage.
The LNA’s offensive on southern Libya in early 2019 proved that agreements negotiated informally would benefit Khalifa Haftar.
Tribal stances may be volatile, but the facility with which Haftar was able to combine military strength with negotiated pacts with tribes, and the importance of these pacts to his successes, is worth mentioning.
For example, without securing an agreement with the Magareha and the Hasawena, Haftar wouldn’t have been able to touch southwestern Libya.
The reality and role of militias and military leaders
Neither the LNA nor the western-based “army” is comparable to a standard army: both are largely based on the action of militias. Yet despite this similarity, the LNA of the east and the army of the west are fundamentally different.
In the west, the GNA’s security and “stability” is entirely dependent on powerful militias. Each of these militias have an agenda of their own, despite appearances of unity when it comes to fighting a common enemy vying for control over Tripoli or western Libya.
By contrast; in the east the LNA is largely based on militias that seem less inclined toward relative autonomy or defection. Indeed, leaders of the militias forming the core of the LNA are Haftar’s own sons, and commanders that have proved their loyalty.
This distinction between the two militaries is crucial. Indeed, internationally-recognized Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj of the GNA depends on the support of the international community, rather than on the military or militia allegiance; this makes him vulnerable losing his position.
While in the east, Haftar’s foundations are significantly more solid. The eastern-based Field Marshal was able to prevail as one of the country’s truly strong leaders, though he did so at the price of authoritarian decisions and human rights abuses.
This also explains why Haftar’s insistence on maintaining a strong military role hardly provokes strong international criticism in response.
Libya may be suffering institutional fragmentation, but it needs to keep prospects open for including everyone in a political solution; several countries act therefore as if countering Libya’s only real strongman would definitely jeopardize the prospects for an inclusive – though imperfect – solution.
The role of regional and international actors
Libya can’t be understood independently from the meddling of foreign actors; some of which attempt to have a constructive role, while others are spoilers.
In 2011, Qatar was a very influential actor that favored some players at the expense of others; its agenda was very keen on supporting people close to the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, such as Abdelhakim Belhaj, Ali Salabi or Sadeq Ghariani.
This bias toward the Muslim Brotherhood prevailed as Libya’s political landscape progressively fragmented. This fragmentation allowed other actors to invest in Libya’s political scene.
The UAE and Egypt are currently Khalifa Haftar’s main and most important backers, providing him with access to considerable funds and ammunition.
Saudi Arabia also has an important role in Libya’s political landscape as a backer of the Madkhaliya, a Salafi ideology. Madkhalis are now known for influencing many militias under the authority of the LNA. Their influence also extends to the west, as exemplified by the Radaa force led by Abderraouf Kara.
Several western or European states are important to the developments in Libya as well. France and Italy are very active, their desire to further their self-interests is evident in their rivalries and tensions.
But while Italy is clearly keen on dealing with politicians, military officers, and businessmen in the west of Libya under the GNA, France’s alleged strong support of Haftar is concurrent with its backing of the GNA.
In addition, states such as Finland, Germany, Norway, and Sweden also have roles worth mentioning. However, these roles are focused on diplomacy, technical projects, and/or development rather than on military prospects.
Russia is also a significant actor in Libya, despite notable ambiguity surrounding its real role and inclinations; officially, Moscow tries to stand equidistant from the GNA and the eastern-based institutions.
Much is being said about the activities of some private military contractors (PMCs) in the east, but the only certainty is Russia’s desire of an active role, including at the diplomatic level.
It is still difficult to classify Russia as either a spoiler or a positive broker; beyond its official statements, its orientations are unclear, with diplomatic channels open on both Tripoli and Rajma.
At the same time, Russia’s opposition in April 2019 to a UN resolution critical of Khalifa Haftar is a clear indication of how keen it is on allowing the LNA to gain strength and legitimacy.
The US has not always been clear either in regards to revealing its intentions towards Libya. Its interest in “anti-terrorism” is evident, and it is characterized by the actions of AFRICOM.
From a diplomatic point of view, the intense activity of Stephanie Williams, the assistant of the UN’s special envoy to Libya, is perhaps indicative that her moves are reflective of Washington’s point of view.
American intentions in regards to Libya’s political future still lack facts and clarity. In 2012, following the assassination in Benghazi of US ambassador Chris Stevens, the US had shown more interest in Libya and its security issues; since then, Washington has given the impression that it is taking a distance from events in Libya, dedicating most of its attention to security and ISIS-related issues.
With Donald Trump’s presidency, the focus on terrorism-related issues has been intensified. Stephanie Williams’ nomination to UNSMIL is also an indication that the US wants to have its say on political and institutional developments.
It took some time before Washington condemned Khalifa Haftar’s attempted military takeover of Tripoli in April 2019. While the eventual condemnation was a clear indication that the US would be backing the GNA in Tripoli, the time it took for the US to condemn Haftar and the LNA also suggests that the US is not ruling out the possibility of Haftar playing a political role in the future.
The UN ends up being the actor that could, potentially, genuinely make the difference in Libya. Despite many difficulties linked to the complexity of the country, the UN is still trying to push for an inclusive solution that would take into consideration a wide spectrum of the Libyan sociopolitical scene and could include even Islamists and persons keen on the “former regime.”
That said, UN envoy Ghassan Salame’s moves have so far failed to bring the conditions required for a positive development. A “national conference” expected to be organized by him in mid-April 2019 had to be cautiously postponed due to battles on the ground.
Yet these developments do not change anything in regards to the nature of the problems in the country.
For the time being, Libya’s prospects depend on several issues: the organization of a constitutional referendum; municipal, legislative and presidential elections; and the agreement of the country’s main players on a solution for the future, something that implies indeed the organization of an “inclusive conference.”
On all these points, the UN is meant to have a crucial contribution.
On the other hand, in the short run, it may be nothing short of miracle that everybody expects the UN to perform in Libya.
While Libya’s players hardly agree on power-sharing and institutional building, interference of foreign countries (UAE, Egypt, Russia, France, Italy…) and their political and/or military backing of some actors at the expense of others fuel problems rather than solve them.
Putting an end to foreign interference would definitely help to move forward positively and confidently in Libya.
continues in part 3
Barah Mikaïl is an associate professor at Saint Louis University (Madrid Campus) and a senior researcher on geopolitics and security-related issues at the Foundation for International Relations and External Dialogue (FRIDE). He previously worked as a senior researcher on Middle East and North Africa and on water issues at the Paris-based Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques (IRIS, 2002-2010). Barah has been lecturer at the Collège Interarmées de Défense at the French Ministry of Defence (2005-2007), at the Université Paris-8 Saint-Denis (since 2005) and at Sciences-Po Lille (2004-2005). In 2003, he also worked as an analyst on Middle East issues at the French Ministry of Defence.