By Thomas M. Hill
Foreign forces are using Libya as a proxy for their own competition while Libyans’ interests are sidelined.
Libya’s post-2011 conflict has degenerated into a theater for regional and major power competition. The competing Libyan factions—the western-based, internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) on one side and Khalifa Haftar’s forces and the Tobruk-based parliament on the other—each have significant foreign support that has only exacerbated the country’s existing conflict drivers.
Despite repeated attempts by the international community to limit foreign interference, the major players only continue to deepen their involvement. What does this all mean for Libya’s political future and for its people? Here are four things you need to know.
1. Turkey and Russia are exploiting Libya as a battleground for broader competition.
The expanded presence of Russian private military contractors in and around major oil installations is the latest gambit in a much larger competition between Turkey and Russia (and respective allies) being played out across the Middle East and North Africa. Control over oil resources will have a major influence on the trajectory of Libyan conflict, now entering its 10th year.
If the GNA and its allies are able to take control over the country’s major oil infrastructure, they will effectively control 60 percent of the country’s GDP and 95 percent of all exports. Under such a scenario, the eastern-based government and the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) controlled by Haftar could be financially strangled.
Turkey’s interests in Libya are complex but can be roughly distilled into four lines of effort:
- Economically: The Turks have oil interests in Libya although these are limited and, in a vacuum, would not warrant intervention. It is only in combination with other interests that the economic benefits materialize.
- Strategically: The Turks see Libya as an opportunity to create leverage with Russia—the Turks primary competitor in Syria. For the Turks, instability in Syria is an immediate existential threat and the Russian intervention gives Moscow the ability to regulate the flow of refugees, migrants, and terrorists into Turkey.
- Ideologically: Libya represents another country where the role of Islam in politics is undetermined. Turkey (and Qatar) are sympathetic to political Islamic parties like the Muslim Brotherhood, which Egypt and the Gulf states see as a terrorist organization. Supporters of Haftar claim they are fighting for secular political forces against the terrorist Islamic Muslim Brotherhood; supporters of the GNA claim that any affiliation with Muslim Brotherhood parties is limited and non-threatening. This wider regional ideological competition exacerbated the 2017 Gulf crisis, almost leading to war.
- Historically: Turkey has a long-standing rivalry with Greece. In 2019, the Turks signed a maritime agreement with Libya that demarcated an exclusive economic zone (EEZ), effectively cutting Greece (and other EU countries) off from the eastern Mediterranean Sea. While the maritime EEZ has financial benefits for Turkey, the real benefit is in denying Greece access to territory it claims as its own.
Over time, Turkey’s involvement in Libya has expanded significantly reaching a point now where it would be very difficult for Turkey to withdraw. Increased Turkish military support (including hardware, reconnaissance and intelligence, and troops) has given the GNA a qualitative military advantage over the LAAF. This advantage allowed GNA-aligned forces to push the LAAF away from Tripoli and retake strategic cities in the west and south. While Turkey’s support seems to have been blunted by recent increased Russian support to the LAAF, there is no doubt that Turkey’s involvement in the conflict saved the GNA and Tripoli from a very destructive LAAF advance, saving countless lives of civilians who would have been caught in the crossfire of any attempted occupation.
2. The Libyan conflict is a multi-level game with broader implications for peace and conflict outside the country.
Aside from Turkey’s support for the GNA and Russian and UAE support for Haftar, a host of regional powers are invested in the conflict. Previously, the conflict involved a broad cross-section of actors who were all minimally engaged and could loosely be broken into two camps: pro-Haftar and anti-Haftar. At the time, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Russia, France, Italy, Sudan, Chad, Jordan, Turkey, and Qatar were all involved in Libya.
Today, Turkey, Russia, Egypt, and the UAE have really differentiated themselves from the others, providing significantly more money, military hardware, and diplomatic support. Egypt has threatened to invade—although that appears to be saber rattling. Russia, the UAE, and Turkey are on the precipice of direct military engagement that could have wider implications for NATO and U.S. alliances. The situation is quite unstable and volatile.
3. The United States has largely stayed in the background.
This is an incredibly complex situation for the United States and Washington has been rhetorically inconsistent on the conflict. The United States has allies on both sides, including NATO allies on opposite sides, as Turkey supports the GNA and France and Italy back Haftar. In many ways, it’s best for the United States—grappling with the COVID pandemic, domestic unrest, and election season—to keep an arm’s length distance at this point.
The State Department has recently called for a political settlement. However, until there is a military stalemate, it seems unlikely that either side will come back to the negotiation table. For the GNA, complete military victory—defined here as control over the oil infrastructure—seems close, perhaps too close to abandon for a compromise. For the LAAF and Haftar, a rout in Sirte or Jufra would probably lead to a collapse of his coalition of fighters; Haftar likely must win to maintain control over his forces. The United States remains an observer to the conflict and international efforts to come to a political settlement have received no traction.
4. The interests of Libya’s people have been sidelined.
Lost in all this discussion of external actors and escalating military engagements are the Libyan people, who remain the victims here. Their own political leaders have put parochial interests above those of the nation and external actors have exploited historical grievances and opportunistic Libyan factions to advance their narrow self-interests.
In addition, Libya—like so much of the world—is grappling with the pandemic. We do not have good statistics on how many people have been infected or died—but we expect that the numbers are quite high. Hospitals that would treat COVID patients are being deliberately targeted by Haftar’s militias.
This is all on top of an already overstretched health care system that was struggling to meet the demands of the current war. So, what you have now is a health care system beleaguered by a civil war and a global pandemic. International organizations are unable to fill the gap because of the war. It is a truly tragic situation.
Thomas Hill is the senior program officer for North Africa at USIP. He most recently served as a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution where his research focused on reforming civilian U.S. foreign policy agencies.