By Emily Estelle
The Libya crisis is worsening rapidly. Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar declared military rule in the country’s east on April 27. Haftar is not close to controlling the country, however; his yearlong effort to seize the capital Tripoli has stalled.
The fighting is displacing civilians and destroying health infrastructure, likely exacerbating the spread of COVID-19.
The war is also setting conditions for Salafi-jihadi groups such as the Islamic State and al Qaeda to recover in Libya.
Meanwhile, foreign players with competing interests in Libya are fueling the conflict, which is becoming a testing ground for new weaponry (and maybe even chemical weapons).
The Libya crisis has many implications beyond its borders. Russia’s involvement in the country is part of a long-term effort to pressure Europe and contest NATO’s unfettered access to the Mediterranean while challenging American global leadership.
Libya is also a front in a destabilizing power competition between Middle Eastern states that is fueling conflict and political instability across the Middle East and large swathes of Africa.
More broadly, Libya, alongside Syria, have become the laboratories for a new way of war that increasingly threatens global stability.
External involvement in local conflicts can prolong and deepen them, particularly when civil wars become multisided proxy conflicts, writes Critical Threats Project Research Manager Emily Estelle in RealClearWorld.
This dynamic causes conflicts to spread and merge; Libya’s war is becoming increasingly entangled with Syria’s, setting up a larger security crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Prolonged conflicts destroy responsive governance and deepen popular grievances—exactly the conditions that extremists like Salafi-jihadis need to thrive.
Extremist groups in turn provide justification for intervening states (including those seeking to upend the world order) to mask their actual intent.
This vicious cycle is making conflicts harder to resolve and chipping away at the global order and will keep doing so while COVID-19 consumes the world’s attention.
Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar declared military rule in eastern Libya.
Haftar announced the military’s formal takeover from nominal civilian authorities in eastern Libya on April 27, citing popular will.
Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) already had de facto control of the east. This move is likely a bid to gain a level of international recognition—or at minimum permit a level of international indifference—that will allow him to gain access to Libya’s economic resources, including exporting oil.
Russia’s foreign minister signaled disapproval for the announced military takeover and emphasized Moscow’s sustained contact with all factions in Libya’s conflict.
Russian private military contractors are fighting with Haftar’s forces in the battle for Tripoli, but Moscow has never acknowledged their presence.
The Kremlin seeks to be kingmaker in Libya and is backing Haftar and Qaddafi-era figures for potential leadership.
Haftar’s announcement may also be an attempt to project strength following setbacks in his yearlong campaign to seize Tripoli.
Forces aligned with the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and backed by Turkey seized several towns west of Tripoli from the LNA on April 13, threatening a key LNA airbase.
GNA-aligned forces also launched a campaign to seize the Tripoli suburb of Tarhouna, a key LNA position and source of manpower 45 miles southeast of Tripoli, on April 18.
LNA forces rebuffed the initial attack. Clashes have also continued on a front nearer to central Libya, where the LNA seeks to pressure the key GNA-aligned hub of Misrata but has not been able to sustain forward progress.
Russian mercenaries are accused of using chemical weapons in Tripoli.
The GNA’s interior minister accused the Wagner Group of using “nerve gas” in the Libyan capital of Tripoli, where Wagner is fighting in support of the LNA.
The Wagner group is a proxy of the Russian Ministry of Defense. Observers reported shells emitting smoke on the Tripoli front line and hospitalized fighters with symptoms consistent with a poison gas attack.
The allegations are unconfirmed, and there is no consensus among observers on the type of chemical weapon that may have been used.
Such an attack in Libya could indicate a chemical weapons transfer from Syria, underscoring the deepening connections between the two conflicts.
The use of chemical weapons by a Russian contractor would indicate that Russia seeks to use the Libyan theater to advance its effort to normalize chemical weapons use.
If so, Russia may have decided to do so now to counteract new pressure in Syria after the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons attributed responsibility for a chemical attack in Syria to the Assad regime, Russia’s client, for the first time since the war began in 2011.
Haftar’s forces also have possible incentive to use chemical weapons to break an increasingly grinding stalemate that threatens the LNA’s ability to sustain operations in Tripoli.
Prison breaks may help Salafi-jihadi groups reconstitute.
More than 400 prisoners escaped or were released in Sabratha and Surman following GNA-aligned militias’ takeovers of the cities. These prisons likely contained members of the Islamic State and other Salafi-jihadi groups.
The most likely case is a grinding stalemate that settles in the Tripoli suburbs, prolonging the humanitarian crisis and exacerbating the spread of COVID-19.
Such a stalemate, or the less likely but possible loss of LNA’s Wattiya airbase northwest of Tripoli, could degrade the LNA’s cohesion and reduce support for the war in its base in eastern Libya.
This would introduce new conflict and create opportunities for dormant Salafi-jihadi groups to reemerge in the east.
Alternately, the LNA will bring sufficient pressure on Tripoli and Misrata to lure Misratan forces away from Tripoli and secure defections among Tripoli-based militias, enabling either an extension of the LNA’s military takeover or a negotiated settlement.
This outcome would set conditions for insurgency, likely quickly. Even if Haftar gains international recognition and access to Libya’s economic resources, he lacks the capability to unify and stabilize the country, especially against externally backed opposition.
All the most likely outcomes—stalemate, LNA fragmentation, and LNA Pyrrhic victory—preserve and worsen conditions that will allow Salafi-jihadi groups to strengthen.
Emile Estelle is the research manager for the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute.