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.
Background and Recent History
Libya is the world’s most perplexing conflict. Less than a decade ago, the country’s plight was cause for rare consensus among world powers (including Russia), which joined the U.S., Britain, and France, as well as the Arab League, and prominent humanitarians in backing military intervention.
Today, Libya remains in the grips of a multi-faceted conflict that has brought regional, religious, tribal, personal and financial differences to the fore. It has also ripped apart international consensus, driving Russian resentment (manifested by its Syria policy and its rediscovered interest in Libya), dividing Paris and Rome, and fueling a self-generating regional conflict pitting Turkey and Qatar on one side, (with latent Algerian interest), and the United Arab Emirates and Egypt (with latent Saudi interest) on the other, alongside a newly engaged Russia.
Libya is also the source of one of the most politicized foreign policy events in US history: the tragic attack on the U.S. presence in Benghazi in September, 2012.
In retrospect, Libya seems like an unlikely candidate for intractable conflict and contentiousness. The country has a small population of about 6.7 million citizens, the largest oil and gas reserves in Africa, a relatively strong Libyan national identity, an educated elite, relative respect for women’s rights, and it lies far from the ‘Shiite crescent’, meaning no possibility of the sectarian conflict that has torn apart the Levant and Gulf.
In short, there was and is no “perfect storm” of conditions that primed Libyans to go to war with each other and have attracted outsiders to take sides. 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:
There is little discernible order, and yet the country is not completely chaotic.
The country is at risk of splitting up, yet the conflict – with all its bitter, historical regional differences – does not appear to be headed in this direction.
There is fighting in the current civil war, yet casualties are relatively low.
There is also massive corruption, and distrust, yet the National Oil Corporation and the (main) Central Bank seem to function (although the seizure of the Sirte Basin by forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar, who has the title Field Marshal from the breakaway government in Tobruk for his misnamed Libya National Army (LNA), has put severe pressure on revenues.) In short,
Libya is no Venezuela, which has seen its oil infrastructure collapse.
Neither the Government of National Accord (GNA) in the West, nor its rival in the East provide much in the way of services amidst the conflict, and while there has been internal displacement, and through-migration of foreigners, there appears to be no mass movement of Libyans fleeing the country.
The role of Islam is a significant element in the conflict, yet there are sharp disagreements from Libyans themselves and outsiders about whether the GNA government in Tripoli is Islamist (its backers insist that it is not) and whether the opposing LNA coalition and related institutions in the East led by Marshal Haftar is largely secular (its critics insist that it is not, pointing to Islamists in the coalition; LNA defenders say these are ‘Madkhali-Salafists’ who are not as extreme.)
Libya is not a first-rank jihadist state, yet a not insignificant percentage of Libyans joined the jihad in Syria, and Libyan nationals, trained in the country, carried out a terrorist attack in Manchester, England in May, 2017.
There are Islamists in the country, including jihadists like ISIS and Ansar al Sharia, and yet both the recognized GNA and the LNA have participated in anti-jihadist operations.
Each has suffered from direct terrorist attacks. In short, Libya is a country that is in much more disarray than it should be. Indeed, the very absence of obvious drivers of conflict is why Libya has become such a cautionary tale – a case study in the perils of humanitarian intervention.
The name, “Libya” has today become a by-word for mistake, for morass, for the unintended consequences of noble actions. President Barack Obama has ruefully acknowledged that Libya, particularly the failure to plan adequately for the aftermath of the intervention against Qaddafi, as among his greatest regrets.
Libya has defied repeated domestic and diplomatic efforts to emerge from revolution and subsequently to arrest the slide into fratricide. Following the initial post-revolutionary efforts, Libya has seen three major endeavors:
First, a Libyan-organized election in 2014 that capped a period of rising tensions and insurgent violence beginning in 2012. The election sharpened political divisions, leading to open civil war, the establishment of a breakaway government, House of Representatives, central bank and military in the East of the country, in opposition to Tripoli.
The fighting and associated loss of governance paved the way for extremists including ISIS to consolidate their positions in Libya. The presence of extremists was the catalyst for the formation of the Libyan National Army under former 6Libyan general Khalifa Haftar, appointed Field Marshal by the breakaway Eastern government based in Tobruk.
In 2014, Haftar’s forces launched a multi-year assault initially on Benghazi, ultimately succeeding in dislodging extremists from the town, but at the cost of massive physical destruction. The LNA went on to launch a similar anti-extremist effort in Derna, which ultimately succeeded in 2018.
Meanwhile, a similarly destructive endeavor took place against ISIS in the western town of Sirte with the combined backing of militias loyal to the Tripoli Government of National Accord, militias from the town of Misrata, both with the backing of US forces. These parallel successful anti-extremist endeavors did nothing to bridge the gap between Eastern and Western Libyan factions.
Second, a UN-led effort in late 2015 in Skhirat, Morocco among contending Libyan leaders who signed 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 leading figures hand-picked by the UN, as well as the requirement to subordinate command of the military to the Presidency Council in Tripoli, 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, but remains a government of “national unity” in name only.
Third, recognizing 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, commander of the East-based Libyan National Army began his 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: in Paris in 2017, at least two meetings in Abu Dhabi, in 2017 and 2019, in Palermo in 2019, and most recently in Moscow, in January of this year.
None of these gatherings led to any lasting understanding or cessation of hostilities or advancement towards critical milestones like new elections. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin this past January failed to browbeat his nominal client, Khalifa Haftar, commander of the breakaway coalition of forces known as the Libyan National Army (LNA), to accept and abide by a ceasefire.
The recent major international effort, held in Berlin in late January under the auspices of Chancellor Angela Merkel and former UN envoy Salame for the first time brought only outside actors – not the Libyan belligerents themselves –to the table.
The resulting communique is an impressive, comprehensive specimen of conflict management with five core elements: ceasefire; arms embargo; return to the political process; security sector reform; economic and financial reform; respect for humanitarian law and human rights.
Though it lacks some important details, the “Berlin Process” final communique represents agreement at least by the enablers of the conflict (and others) to the foundation for an eventual negotiated settlement.
Unfortunately, on the ground, the parties are currently engaged in fierce fighting in and around Tripoli’s main airport. The all-important political, military and economic talks held in Geneva under Salame’s auspices, meant to undergird the shaky truce, have been suspended.
Salame initially declared the truce “on the verge of breakdown;” his subsequent resignation served as confirmation. Effectively, Salame’s departure has shattered the notion that, with a few concessions here and there and a bit more restraint by outside enablers, the 2015 Libya Political Agreement could be resurrected.
Indeed, while the signatories in Berlin once again declared that “there is no military solution to the conflict,” the parties on the ground at the moment seem intent on proving them wrong. Military dynamics have overtaken political ones as the fighting enters a dangerous, potentially decisive stage:
The internationally recognized, beleaguered Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli is determined to drive Haftar’s LNA out of Tripolitania, a setback that could presage the collapse of Haftar’s loose coalition of forces. For his part, Haftar is determined to drive out the approximately 00 Turkish and Syrian mercenaries brought in by Ankara.
Haftar would also like to achieve his long standing goal of disbanding the Tripoli militias, in part through financial pressure brought by LNA control of key oil terminals it now controls in the Sirte Basin. Each side apparently believes it can achieve its aims.
Turkey is under increasing pressure due to the severe escalation in Syria. This could affect its ability to resupply the GNA at this potentially decisive clash.
o o Haftar’s benefactor Egypt was taken entirely by surprise by Turkey’s deployment of critical defensive and offensive assets immediately after the declaration of the ceasefire. In response, Cairo may be willing to respond directly, with its own forces, to ensure that the LNA does not fall back beyond a set limit.
The risk is real of escalation which would bring Egyptian and Turkish and/or Turkish supported forces into contact.
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?”