By Inga Kristina Trauthig
A group of countries involved in the ongoing civil war in Libya agreed at a meeting in Berlin on January 19 to uphold a UN arms embargo and stop international meddling in the country’s conflict.
Germany wants to find a way to end the ongoing conflict in Libya to prevent the North African country from becoming a “new Syria”. With Libya a key transit country for migration on the shores of Europe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her European partners have a keen interest in stabilising the country. Also present at the Berlin meeting were representatives from Turkey, Russia, the UAE, Egypt, Algeria, Italy, France, the UK, the US and China who all have interests in the country.
My own ongoing research is looking at the ideology of different Islamist and Salafi groups in Libya since the overthrow of Muammar Gadaffi in 2011, a dimension that is often underestimated in the dynamics of the conflict.
Since April 2019, Libya has been embroiled in another wave of civil war, initiated by the head of the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA), Khalifa Haftar, who aimed to take over the capital, Tripoli, from the Government of National Accord (GNA), which is backed by the UN.
While the attack by Haftar’s LNA caught the GNA – and the international community – by surprise, so far, he has failed to seize Tripoli from the GNA, led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. Both sides of the conflict rely on groups that carry ideological imprints that shape their behaviour and affect their international alliances.
For example the fall of Sirte to the LNA on January 6 was enabled by the changing of sides of 604 Brigade, that espouses Salafism, a branch of Sunni Islam, and specifically the teaching of Saudi scholar Rabee al-Madkhali.
Previously affiliated with the GNA, the group has now allied itself with the LNA, showing the potential repercussions of having Salafi-Madkhali groups present in the security forces on both main sides of the civil war in Libya.
Haftar’s military offensive has been characterised by repeated declarations of a “zero hour” and claims – none of them fulfilled – that Tripoli would soon fall to his forces. His offensive has been supported by foreign powers via arms shipments, and the deployment to Libya of military equipment and foreign fighters.
The new emphasis in Berlin on enforcing the arms embargo is crucial to the prospects of peace in Libya. Ending foreign interference is essential to alleviate the suffering of the local population who have been the target of multiple airstrike campaigns in recent years.
Ultimately, the Berlin peace conference was right to emphasise the importance of a political solution over a military “win”.
Nearly a decade of sanctions
The UN Security Council placed an arms embargo on Libya in February 2011 relating to the supply of arms and military equipment to and from Libya. Initially, the sanctions targeted the Gadaffi regime because of its brutal and systematic violations of the human rights of anti-government protesters.
The sanctions regime has been amended three times since then, most recently in July 2016 to authorise states to inspect vessels on the high seas off Libya’s coast believed to be in violation of the arms embargo.
From the start, there were challenges connected to the longstanding absence of a global enforcer that is capable, interested and willing to bring violators of the arms embargo to task.
Breaches of the arms embargo have come from different directions. First from states that intervene – usually on behalf of their local proxies. And second, non-state groups such as militias and smugglers, who are emboldened by official embargoes to import and sell weapons illegally.
These militias are, however, unlikely to be deterred by international naming and shaming or warnings of punishment.
Reports by multiple UN expert panels, the latest published in December 2019, have outlined breaches of the arms embargo. The experts reported that the UAE and Egypt have breached the arms embargo by supplying weapons to forces affiliated with Haftar’s LNA.
More recently, Haftar’s forces have also benefited from the support of the Russian mercenaries from the infamous Wagner group, accused of waging secret wars on the Kremlin’s behalf around the world.
The different armed factions fighting on behalf of the GNA have mostly received military support from Turkey, which has increased its involvement considerably in recent months to try and prevent Haftar’s military victory.
The presence of Chadian and Sudanese armed groups in support of forces affiliated with both the GNA and LNA have also been singled out by UN experts.
Chances for change are slim
The countries at the Berlin conference were therefore right to emphasise and agree a commitment to: Refraining from interference in the armed conflict or in the internal affairs of Libya and urge all international actors to do the same.
While this commitment is desperately needed, it’s not sufficient to end the conflict and the big challenge is how to enforce the embargo. The lack of an impartial, international enforcing power makes this all the more complex.
The theoretical structures are in place, the reporting mechanisms are clear, and the UN experts have provided thorough evidence of breaches of the embargo, but it’s unlikely that the UN Security Council will agree to apply sanctions as a result.
The ingrained wariness and diverging interests among international powers over Libya means they have little trust in the impartial implementation of sanctions.
The foreign states supporting the GNA and LNA don’t believe the other will stick to the embargo – and nobody wants to weaken their allies’ chances of victory.
Individual sanctions need to be decided by the UN Security Council, which is riddled by diverging interests and dictated by the veto power of its permanent members.
For example, one of the most obvious candidates for sanctions would be the UAE. But, given the closeness between the UAE and the US, which has military forces stationed in the UAE, the Americans are unlikely to want to jeopardise the relationship by pushing sanctions.
A stable truce in Libya needs an efficient arms embargo. The ultimate beneficiaries of such an embargo – the Libyan population – are unlikely to see any improvements soon.
The years of international meddling have led to many countries having steadfast interests in Libya, and as it currently stands, no one is willing to take losses.
Inga Kristina Trauthig – Research Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and PhD Candidate at King’s College, King’s College London.
Why ‘too many cooks in the kitchen’ could inhibit a peace deal in Libya
By Jacob Mundy
Libya has been deeply unstable, with outside powers providing support to rival armed factions since Muammar Gaddafi was toppled in a 2011 uprising.
In an attempt to break the cycle of violence, world leaders attended a peace summit in Germany at which they agreed to uphold a UN arms embargo and end military backing for the North African country’s warring factions.
Moina Spooner from The Conversation Africa asked Jacob Mundy for some background.
Would you use the description ‘failed state’ to describe Libya?
I wouldn’t use the term failed state. I would say it’s a divided state.
In Tripoli you have a United Nations-recognised executive authority called the Presidency Council. It is chaired by Fayez Serraj.
The authority is backed by powerful militias and interest groups, mainly in the west of the country, as well as Turkey and Qatar.
In the east there’s a parliament that supports Khalifa Haftar, who has managed to build a powerful rival coalition of militias called the Libyan National Army.
This has enabled him to extend nominal authority over most of Libya since 2014 – albeit with significant fiscal and military aid from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and at times France and Russia.
Haftar’s supporters often frame him as the best option for stability in Libya. Libya is also caught up in a complex regional struggle – as was Syria – where countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt appear to be on one side with Turkey and Qatar on the other.
France and Russia have historically been major arms suppliers to Libya, a role they would like to continue once a friendly government is in place.
Since April last year Haftar has been engaged in a ‘final assault’ on Tripoli. It is this fighting that tends to get all the international attention.
But there’s a lot more going on. Even after nearly a decade of civil war, there are still local and national state institutions that function, though the quality and legitimacy of those institutions varies a lot across the country.
There are also economic development initiatives, foreign investments, infrastructural projects and – recent disruptions aside – Libya often exports as much oil now as it did before the 2011 uprising.
It’s a complicated, often paradoxical picture in Libya today. One that easily defies descriptors, like ‘failed state’, or comparisons with other conflicts, like the war in Syria.
What are the main drivers that have got the country into this state?
The country experienced great national unity during the Arab Spring revolution in 2011 which resulted in the toppling of Gaddafi’s government. But this quickly dissipated as new and old ideological fissures deepened.
There were long repressed movements – like the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood – that were determined never to see the return of anything like the Gaddafi regime.
On the other hand, many communities felt that the 2011 uprising was being used as an excuse for all kinds of violence aimed at marginalising former regime elements and plundering the state.
As Libya became more insecure, more militias formed. Though some wanted to become professionalised security forces, others simply became extortion rackets and got involved in criminal activities. They looted state assets and basically held the country hostage.
A major problem was not only the lack of a legitimate transitional national authority, but also the lack of a neutral third party – like a multilateral peace-building mission – to disarm the militias.
The post-revolutionary fissures in Libya cracked wide open when an election in 2014 proved to be so indecisive that two competing governments emerged. It was also the year in which Haftar launched his military campaign from the east of the country.
His latest assault on Tripoli shows that his aim is to impose military rule over the rest of the country, as he has done in the east.
Which countries are best placed to broker peace, and why?
The biggest question in Libya today is whether the key external enablers of the conflict can also be peacemakers.
The United Arab Emirates and Egypt are Haftar’s strongest enablers. Russia also offered assistance to Haftar’s forces, notably a contingent of mercenaries that helped stave off his defeat in Tripoli this fall.
On the other side, Turkey and Qatar are important conduits of support for the coalition backing Serraj’s administration. Turkey has made matters worse by sending veterans of the Syrian civil war to Libya to bolster Serraj’s forces.
Despite this complexity, it’s nevertheless encouraging that Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, and Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, have recently joined Germany’s effort to enact a ceasefire.
Recently, the US has appeared to be supportive of the process in Berlin. But the Trump administration’s position has, for the most part, been ambiguous and not helpful.
Key to peace in Libya is support by states, and the Security Council, of the UN arms embargo. Since the beginning of the uprising in 2011, there has been an arms embargo on Libya, which is still present.
Yet year after year, a panel of UN experts consistently reveals the extent to which both light and heavy arms – from armoured personnel carriers to drones – have found their way from other states to the frontlines in Libya.
The most grotesque aspect of the civil war in Libya has been the naked violations of the embargo. But even if there was political will to enforce it, most arms come through Libya’s vast and porous land borders, not by sea.
Countries like Egypt, Sudan and Tunisia would have to help enforce the embargo, but they are some of the worst violators.
Is peace possible, and what are the biggest stumbling blocks?
A real ceasefire would be a good start, but a comprehensive peace agreement is a long way off. The Libyan peace process has suffered from a lack of effective international leadership and a case of ‘too many cooks in the kitchen’.
Currently German leadership is perhaps the only viable option, as Russian, French, Italian, Turkish, Arab and Maghreb-led initiatives have all suffered from being viewed as overly biased or weak. Germany might the best option to manage all of the players in the Libyan crisis.
But having come so close to taking the capital, it’s difficult to imagine Haftar giving up easily. It’s also difficult to imagine progress towards a comprehensive and durable peace without a more robust UN presence in Libya, one that not only has a serious disarmament mandate but also a mandate to enforce an arms embargo.
Jacob Mundy is an Associate Professor in the Peace and Conflict Studies program at Colgate University and is currently a Fulbright Scholar in Tunisia for the 2018–19 academic year.