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.
Introduction .. cont.
Foreigners intervened according to the traditional definition of a proxy or surrogate war: funneling materiel, intelligence, training, and media support to Libyan military and political actors—many of them highly localized and acting through networks of foreign-based Libyan intermediaries.
The underlying driver for outside intervention during this phase was ideological—a struggle over Islamists’ place in Libya’s political order, though it also centered on control of economic resources and how much of the old Qadhafi-led order to preserve.
In April 2019, with the attack of Haftar’s forces on the outskirts of the Libyan capital, the mask of Libyan ownership of the conflict fell away. Though they continued to work through Libyan armed proxies and intermediaries, foreign states committed more of their own combat forces on the ground and in the air.
By the end of the year, Tripoli and the western region were flooded with thousands of foreign fighters from Eurasia, Africa, and the Middle East and hundreds of sorties by foreign-piloted drones and fixed-wing aircraft, whose strikes incurred mounting civilian deaths.
This phase also saw growth in the sophistication of the information war, led by foreign states in conjunction with Libyan actors or on their behalf.
The ideological component, while still a motive for the Emiratis and Haftar’s other backers, was accompanied by a fiercer geopolitical power struggle overlaid with a contest for economic spoils.
At the broadest level, Libya’s post-2011 civil wars have been facilitated by a breakdown in global multilateral norms, the diminished authority of the United Nations, American ambivalence and retrenchment, European discord and deadlock, and Russian opportunism.
The mounting disorder has been on display most starkly in the UN Security Council’s repeated failures to enact a meaningful ceasefire resolution and foreign states’ continuing contempt for a longstanding UN arms embargo on Libya, with key members on the council working in opposition to the UN Secretary General’s representative in Libya.
All of this stands in marked contrast to the relative diplomatic unanimity that defined the international response to the 2011 revolution.
Post-Arab Spring strategic rivalries compounded these trends in Libya. Though much attention—especially in the United States—has been focused on Moscow’s designs in Libya, the role of two Middle Eastern powers, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey, has arguably been more consequential for the fate of the country.
Abu Dhabi’s policies have been especially decisive at numerous junctures, reflecting a trend of Emirati military adventurism and economic expansion in the region, fueled in part by a “zero tolerance” approach to Islamists and political pluralism more broadly.
Turkey’s intervention in Libya, in turn, is also part of a bigger push for leadership in the Mediterranean by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that has deeper domestic, ideological, and economic roots.
Both countries’ hegemonic aspirations have been enabled partly by the vacuum of American leadership in Libya and also a degree of backing and acquiescence from Washington, given these states’ longstanding roles as U.S. partners in the Middle East.
Beyond this, Libya’s geographic position on the margins of America’s core security and economic concerns in the Middle East means that Washington has been unwilling to invest significant resources, either in Libya directly or in dissuading its regional allies from meddling.
This diplomatic absence, along with mixed signals on Libya and a markedly pro-Emirati stance under the Trump administration, has fueled the conflict. It has also contributed to European paralysis and invited Russia’s opportunistic intervention.
Despite the active role of foreign actors, Libyans themselves have been essential in internationalizing the conflict. Bereft of institutions, Libya’s fragmented landscape has been dominated by Libyan elites, many of whom solicited foreign patronage to bolster their position against rivals.
One outcome of this personalized transnational activism has been the erosion of Libyan sovereignty—a recurring facet of Libya’s modern history that has precedent in Libyan elites’ collaboration with the Ottomans, Italians, French and British.
In the post-2011 period, this personalization of the foreign proxy war has been exacerbated by Libya’s fragmentation but also Libyans residing overseas in Doha, Istanbul, Abu Dhabi, Amman, and other foreign metropolises.
Acting as power brokers and fixers for the flows of arms, money, and media support, these individuals complicated the principal-agent dynamic by inserting a layer of arbitration that introduced the possibility of miscalculation, errors, or outright defections.
This high-risk, multi-level chain of command, combined with the multiplicity of Libyan and outside actors more broadly, has protracted Libya’s chaos.
Added to this, Libya’s hydrocarbon resources have long been a magnet for international involvement and predation. In the wake of the Arab Spring, control over this wealth became a prize between competing Libyan factions, disincentivizing the forging of durable truces and also enabling local actors to solicit outside aid with promises of contracts and payments.
Relatedly, Libyan political elites and armed group leaders have parked oil-derived wealth in European and Middle Eastern banks and real estate, often cementing foreign partisanship, but also handing a degree of leverage to foreign actors in the form of asset freezes and sanctions.
The economic incentives wielded by local Libyan proxies, though not uniform across the country, differentiate Libya’s war from the Middle East’s other proxy conflicts, like Lebanon and Syria, where foreign states provide funding to local allies.
Commenting on the differences with Lebanon, the former UN envoy to Libya Ghassan Salamé controversially asserted, “the truth is that Libya can pay for its own suicide.”
Yet the inability of a single Libyan faction to achieve territorial or political dominance and—especially in the case of eastern Libya—international norms against the illicit export of oil have meant that local Libyan actors have often failed to meet the economic expectations of their outside patrons.
Seasoned observers of Libya have argued that Libya’s civil war, especially its post-2019 phase, embodies the intersection of several military and technological trends with potentially far-reaching consequences.
The nature of these shifts, combined with the multipolarity mentioned above, has given foreign competition in Libya a distinctive character marked by opacity, lethality, and toxicity.
The widespread deployment of armed drones, which mitigates personnel risks to interveners and affords a degree of clandestinity, is the result of the proliferation of these weapons across the Middle East from foreign suppliers, namely China, and indigenous manufacturing advances, in the case of Turkey.
Airstrikes in Libya from these craft, and also fixed-wing airplanes, have been insulated from serious scrutiny because of the aforementioned international disorder and scorning of embargo norms, but more importantly Western diplomatic protection of the most egregious of the violators, the United Arab Emirates.
In addition, all sides in Libya’s war have relied upon foreign contract fighters, mercenaries and—in the case of Russian and even Turkish involvement—“semi-state” auxiliaries.
This is reflective of a broader, global trend of privatizing and outsourcing expeditionary military force, driven in part by the lucrative rise of private military companies and availability of recyclable, pay-for-hire fighters from poorer, conflict-wracked states in Africa and the Middle East.
While generally exhibiting low combat proficiency, the impact of these foreign ground and air forces on battlefield developments in Libya has arguably been more decisive than that of foreign combatants in the Middle East’s other proxy wars, in Syria and Yemen.
On top of these military developments, Libya has seen an increasingly sophisticated informational battle for public opinion, waged by foreign states through traditional and social media channels, foreign lobby firms, and co-opted journalists, in which foreign influence is often difficult to discern.
This disinformation war is another means for outside actors to shape the Libyan conflict with minimal blowback or penalties.
The rest of this report is divided into four sections, examining the Libyan war chronologically to recount its history and draw out the above themes.
(a) The first addresses how foreign intervention and rivalries played out during the 2011 revolution and the post-revolutionary period until 2014.
(b) The second section addresses the proxy war in the context of the Dignity versus Dawn civil war and its aftermath until 2019.
(c) The third section examines the battle for Tripoli and the post-2019 phase, characterized by increasingly direct intervention by foreign powers.
(d) The fourth and concluding section offers scenarios for the future of international involvement in Libya and provides lessons from Libya’s experience of proxy warfare.
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.