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.
Beginning in 2014, Libya’s internecine struggle became militarized, first in Benghazi and then in Tripoli, with a significant uptick in foreign weapons shipments to two opposing constellations of armed groups and political factions.
The first was the eastern-based “Operation Dignity” camp, led by General Khalifa Haftar and supported by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and France. The second was the anti-Haftar “Libya Dawn” coalition in Tripolitania and its militia allies in Benghazi and Derna, backed by Turkey and Qatar. Though outside forces intervened directly with airstrikes and limited raids by special operations forces, Libyans still carried out the actual combat.
Starting with Haftar’s attack on Tripoli in 2019, the international actors themselves have assumed a greater prominence in the conflict over local Libyan proxies, via foreign mercenaries, foreign-piloted aircraft, and other forms of interference.
A number of factors have driven the internationalization of Libya’s wars: global disorder and the weakening of multilateral norms and institutions, American ambivalence and mixed signals on Libya, European paralysis, military adventurism by regional powers, and Russian opportunism. However, Libyan elites and local actors themselves also played a key role in internationalizing the conflict by soliciting and manipulating foreign support for self-serving ends.
Amplifying these geopolitical and economic aspects is the convergence of military and technological innovations in the Libyan conflict, especially the widespread use of armed drones and foreign mercenaries.
Beyond this kinetic dimension, outside actors have waged a war for public opinion in traditional and social media spaces, often through disinformation tactics that conceal the foreigners’ influence. Even so, notions of a high-tech, sanitized, science-fiction war in which the human (and Libyan) role is absent are misplaced. The fighting remains highly personal for Libyans, who will bear its devastating costs for years to come.
• Libya’s post-2011 civil wars are a casualty of a broader global disorder and the deterioration of multilateral institutions and norms, as evidenced by divisions and paralysis within the United Nations Security Council. Compounding these trends are American retrenchment and mixed signals, European disunity and partisanship, military assertiveness and hegemonic aspirations by rival Middle Eastern powers, and Russian opportunism. A mix of ideological motives, economic interests, leadership ambitions, and geopolitics has informed the actions of Libya’s foreign interveners.
• In addition to ideological competition and geopolitics, Libya’s oil wealth indirectly drives outside intervention, fragmentation, and conflict prolongation. Libya’s hydrocarbon resources have long been an incentive for international involvement, though it was often not the main motivation for foreign meddling. Access to this wealth became a zero sum prize between competing Libyan factions, who wield it to gain domestic support and entice foreign sponsors. This marketplace dimension, while hardly the sole or even primary conflict driver, differentiates Libya from the Middle East’s other proxy wars.
• The increasing convergence of military and technological innovations has shaped the kinetic and informational war in Libya. Foreigner interveners in Libya have relied extensively on cheap armed drones, which helps mitigate risks to their personnel and evade outside scrutiny—an evasion that is also made possible by international divisions and, in the case of the United Arab Emirates, Western diplomatic protection. In addition, foreign mercenaries and auxiliaries have been used by both Libyan factions and their foreign patrons, reflecting a global trend toward the outsourcing of extraterritorial military force driven partly by the availability of itinerant, pay-for-hire fighters from failed revolutions and civil wars in Africa and the Middle East and the growth of private military companies. In tandem, outside states are using traditional media outlets, social media trolls and Twitter “bots,” co-opted journalists and commentators, lobby organizations, and agents provocateurs to wage a sophisticated war for public opinion in which the foreign hand is often obscured.
• Despite the war’s internationalization, Libyans play a vital role as intermediaries, brokers, and fixers for foreign powers. Bereft of institutions, Libya’s fragmented and hyperlocalized landscape has been dominated by Libyan political elites, armed group leaders, and foreign-based brokers who’ve solicited outside patronage to bolster their own power and agendas. Adding an unpredictable layer of arbitration to foreign influence, these brokers have competed with one another and sometimes defected or switched sides, diluting foreign control over local proxies. A net result of this individual, transnational activism has been an attenuation of Libyan sovereignty and a prolongation of the conflict.
One snowy morning in February 2020, in the small Russian hamlet of Akbulak, near the Kazakh border, a line of funeral mourners filed into a movie theater to bid farewell to one of the village’s sons. The body of the deceased, a 27-year-old man named Gleb Mostov, had rested in a casket all through the night in the modest house of his father. Bereaved for his son, the father politely turned away reporters. “Sorry, guys,” he told them, “I’m dealing with my grief here.” Far less polite, however, were the plainclothes Russian security officers and soldiers who’d cordoned off the theater and prohibited the press from entering.
The circumstances of Mostov’s death had remained a mystery until his parents disclosed the truth to a local newspaper: he’d been an officer in the Russian army, a trained sniper, who’d been killed on the battlefield in faraway Libya. For some of the mourners, the news hardly came as a shock. “First, Afghanistan, then Chechnya, Ukraine, and now Syria and Libya. Why are you surprised?” a woman asked her husband as they entered the cinema. We don’t know exactly how or where Gleb Mostov died in Libya, though it was likely on the frontlines just a short drive south of the capital of Tripoli.
There, from the fall of 2019 until early 2020, roughly a thousand Russian paramilitary fighters from the so-called Wagner Group and some regular personnel fought alongside Libyan rebels led by a septuagenarian warlord named Khalifa Haftar in an effort to topple the internationally recognized government in Tripoli. This government, the Government of National Accord or GNA, has itself relied on foreigners to bolster its ranks, most recently in the form of thousands of militia fighters from Syria, including veterans of the years-long war against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Added to the mix are Sudanese and Chadian gunmen, fighting mostly on Haftar’s side, as well as pro-Assad Syrian fighters.
Foreign belligerents in Libya are not only on the ground. High above the mercenaries, fleets of cheap but lethal drones and foreign fixed wing aircraft have filled Libya’s skies, piloted by personnel from the United Arab Emirates (backing Haftar) and Turkey (backing the Tripoli government), as well as Russian aviators and mercenary pilots from other countries. In total, there are at least 10 foreign states that are militarily contributing to the current Libyan conflict. For many Libyans, the presence of these foreign combatants outside the capital and across the country have come as a shock. They are the most visible confirmation that the struggle for Libya’s future is being dictated not by Libyans, but by powerful outside states. “This war is out of our hands,” a Libyan aid worker lamented to the author in January 2020. A sense of weary resignation accompanies this observation.
After all, Libyans point out, predatory colonial powers in the last century jostled for influence over the territory that comprises the modern state of Libya—and this current conflict is also hardly the first time foreigners have used Libyan soil and Libya proxies to wage war on one another. The story of how the post-2011 Libyan civil war reached this state of internationalization contains multiple chapters. First and foremost, the political and social fissures catalyzed by the country’s 2011 revolution saw outside powers, some of them geopolitical rivals, lend military support to locally-based armed groups and factions. Many of these forces were deeply suspicious of one another but united to topple dictator Qadhafi. These fissures and competing narratives about the revolution contributed to Libyan elites’ failure to build inclusive political institutions and formal security organizations after Qadhafi’s death. The eruption of armed civil war in the summer of 2014, first in Benghazi and then in Tripoli, saw the foreign struggle for Libya move to a new level of militarization and violence, with a significant uptick in weapons shipments to two loosely-constituted factions.
The first was the eastern-based “Operation Dignity” faction, led by General Haftar and backed by the Emirates, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and France. Opposing this camp was the Libya Dawn coalition based in western Libya and its militia allies in Benghazi, which was backed by Turkey and Qatar. An array of locally based conflicts and rivalries permeated this conflict, presenting foreign actors further openings to exploit. Though outside forces intervened directly with airstrikes and some limited raids by special operations forces, Libyans still waged the actual combat.
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.