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.
The Interregnum: A Clandestine Proxy Buildup, 2018-2019
With defeat of the Islamic State and, more importantly, Haftar’s defeat of Islamist and allied militias in Benghazi and Derna in 2018, the civil war in Libya entered a cooling period that shifted, again, to behind-the-scenes jockeying and political competition from 2018 to early 2019.
The foreign balance of power shifted as the hardline Islamist component in Misrata and Tripoli diminished significantly through a combination of attrition, exile and imprisonment in 2017.
And, as mentioned previously, Turkish and Qatari military meddling had also declined after the arrival of the GNA in late 2015. In contrast, Emirati aid to Haftar’s forces accelerated, in the form weapons, intelligence, and training, especially to elite LAAF units like the 101st and the 106th Brigades.
Importantly, pro-Haftar foreign support increasingly shifted to clandestine influence, diplomacy, and military operations aimed at controlling or influencing the disposition of Libya’s vital financial organs: namely the facilities in the oil crescent and the Tripoli-based Central Bank of Libya.
Reforming the Central Bank and removing its powerful governor Sadiq al-Kabir proved an especially contentious issue; the nominally pro-GNA militias who dominated in the capital had long been pillaging its funds through fraudulent letters of credit and other
schemes, which contributed to serious outbreak of inter-militia fighting in the fall of 2018.
Ending this predation, improving the transparency and accountability of the bank, unifying its western and eastern branches, and rationalizing Libya’s distributive system thus became a core focus of United Nations and international diplomacy in late 2018, at the expense, some critics allege, of a more concerted effort to deter interference by outside powers, especially the Emirates.
By late 2018 and early 2019, the Emiratis embarked on a strategy of engaging with and trying to co-opt armed group leaders inside Tripoli whom they perceived to be anti-Muslim Brotherhood, allegedly Haytham Tajuri and Abdelraouf Kara.
In pursuing these activities, the Emirati narrative shifted: anti-Islamism still existed as a reference point, but was gradually emphasized in Emirati and pro-Haftar media outlets as a battle against corruption and the uneven distribution of Libya’s oil wealth, which the Emirates realized would gain greater traction in Western capitals.
Alongside France, the Emirates backed Haftar’s advance into the oil crescent and westward across the Fezzan region from mid-2018 to early 2019. Deploying Emirati cash and the promise of goods and weapons, Haftar’s LAAF loosely subsumed local militias across the Fezzan into its orbit.
The Emirates and France framed the operation as restoring order, eliminating criminal gangs, and denying safe haven in Libya to transnational rebel groups based in Chad. In addition, the GNA’s longstanding neglect and failed promises to southern communities in the Fezzan provided a pool of discontent for Haftar and his backers to exploit.
But Haftar’s operation was hardly a panacea; in a number of southern towns, LAAF rule ended up stoking communal tensions and violence. Moreover, Haftar’s goal in the Fezzan all along was to seize power in Tripoli, partly to get access to the Central Bank and alleviate a worsening financial crisis within his eastern power base.
International support and appeasement proved crucial in Haftar’s encroachment toward Tripoli. As noted, Haftar believed that Emirati clandestine diplomacy and money had induced some pro-GNA Tripoli militias, namely the powerful Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade, to flip to his side.
But beyond this Emirati campaign, Tripolitanian actors, including Haftar’s erstwhile foes, showed some receptiveness to the general’s advances. Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha, for example, acknowledged in a February 2019 interview that Haftar was providing much-needed law and order in the Fezzan and would be welcomed into a power-sharing deal, provided he subordinate himself to a civilian authority.
In addition, some Salafi factions in and around the capital, known as “Madkhalis” because of their reverence for an influential Saudi-based cleric named Rabi bin Hadi al-Madkhali, supported Haftar’s advance on Tripoli, driven mostly by self-serving calculations but also previous pro-Operation Dignity statements from al-Madkhali.
Yet the notion of these Libyan Salafis acting in lock-step as proxies for the Saudi government does not accord with their actions on the ground or their relationship with foreign clerical authorities:
The Libyan Madkhali current has been riven by personality conflicts and local agendas, and Madkhalis sometimes ignored Rabi’s statements or adapted them to suit their own political aims.
That said, the Saudi government did back Haftar’s Tripoli operation by reportedly promising him cash at a meeting before his assault, followed by supportive Twitter campaigns and favorable coverage on Saudi satellite television outlets.
Underpinning all of this was international appeasement of Haftar and acquiescence in his advance to Tripoli’s environs. Starting in mid-018, U.S. and Western diplomats expressed confidence that Haftar would agree to a power-sharing formula and eventual elections.
By early 2019, this confidence expressed itself as tacit support for his Fezzan operation was a way to jolt the moribund GNA into relinquishing power and set the stage for a more legitimate and inclusive government in Tripoli.
Such a path, they believed, would occur through a UN-brokered plan for a national conference and elections, to which Haftar had vaguely agreed (his backers in Abu Dhabi also, in theory, supported the plan).
Emirati support for the plan seemed to be reflected in a much-vaunted diplomatic meeting in Abu Dhabi between GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and Haftar, which secured verbal commitments from both leaders to work toward peaceful compromise via the UN process.
There were conflicting accounts of the meeting’s discussions. Senior UN officials at the time expressed optimism that they had obtained a good-faith pledge from the Emirates to rein-in Haftar and dissuade him from further military advances into the capital region by cutting off his cash flow.
U.S. officials were similarly appreciative of the Emirati role in brokering what appeared to be a de-escalation from a mounting crisis.
Foreign “Boots on the Ground”: The 2019 Battle for Tripoli and Beyond
In early April, weeks away from the UN-brokered national conference, Haftar launched a surprise assault on Tripoli, starting on the town of Gharyan on Tripoli’s outskirts. The shock of the advance was such that Libyans in Tripoli and some outside analysts still believed that this was just muscle-flexing to bolster Haftar’s negotiating position ahead of the conference.
Haftar’s disregard for that meeting and contempt for the UN’s authority more generally became fully apparent when he intensified his assault on April 5, the very same day the UN Secretary General had flown to Benghazi to meet the Libyan commander in a futile attempt to prevent a war.
Longstanding Emirati support to Haftar’s campaigns in the east and the south was a crucial precursor to the attack, though the Emirates maintained to diplomats and stated publicly that they had not sanctioned the actual assault on the capital.
At the very least, they may have given Haftar mixed signals or Haftar may have misinterpreted the signals. Once the attack started, however, the Emirati—and Saudi—hand became starkly apparent with the mobilization of pro-Haftar Twitter hashtags, amplified by bots and traditional media outlets, in what appeared to be a coordinated campaign by Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, with participation from Cairo.
Egypt had initially opposed the Tripoli campaign but had reportedly been pressured by the Emirates into backing it diplomatically, militarily, and in the informational realm.
And, as noted, France’s longtime accommodation of and clandestine support for Haftar’s ambitions was a key enabler as well.
Aside from these states’ varying degrees of backing, the explicit approval that Haftar received from Washington, D.C. was perhaps the most significant boost.
A day before the attack, Haftar spoke on the phone with then-U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton who reportedly urged the Libyan commander to “do it quickly.”
This was followed weeks later by President Trump’s phone call to Haftar, which praised the Tripoli attack as a counterterrorism operation.
It is important to note that this was not the first time Haftar had sought American approval for a seizure of power in Tripoli: In late 2016, the final months of the Obama presidency, he’d dispatched a delegation to Washington announcing his willingness to implement military rule.
The response was a firm rebuke from senior State Department officials. U.S. resolve and diplomatic leadership also proved crucial in preventing Haftar from illegally exporting oil and establishing a parallel oil administration in the east. But under the Trump administration, this pressure was exerted not necessarily to protect the GNA or prevent a Libyan conflict, but out of concern for the effect of Libya’s turmoil on global oil production.
nd, by late 2018 and 2019, the thinking in Washington toward Libya changed considerably, not only in the Trump administration, but among professional diplomats within the State Department, who evinced a cooler stance toward the GNA, while welcoming Haftar’s participation in a political process.
After the Trump phone call, which reportedly occurred at the encouragement of the Emirates and the Egyptians, Haftar received further support at the UN Security Council, where the United States joined Russia and France in blocking a British-sponsored resolution for a ceasefire.
It would be nearly a year before the United States finally singled out Haftar by name in its pronouncements on the conflict. These dynamics all played to Haftar’s favor in the initial stages of his assault, offering a clear illustration of how much the global order had split since the last phase of Libya’s civil war in 2014 and especially since the relative diplomatic consensus which underpinned the NATO-led intervention in 2011.
On the ground, the conflict quickly internationalized, with great powers, regional powers, and poorer neighboring states all contributing militarily. This was initially evident in the air with the widespread use of combat drones. Soon after, ground-based foreign mercenaries played a major role.
Importantly, because European states and America did not deploy military assets or fighters of their own in support of Libya’s warring protagonists, they effectively ceded political leverage to those outside states that did. Reflecting on this reluctance to play by the rules of this new game, a European diplomat lamented, “we are relying on words, just words.
These other countries have arms and fighters.” The United Arab Emirates was the most significant foreign intervener early on, especially in the air.
Chinese-made Wing Loong drones, piloted by Emirati personnel and stationed at LAAF bases in western and eastern Libya (and possibly in the United Arab Emirates itself ), struck GNA artillery, ammunition depots, and vehicles.
The Emirates also conducted fixed-wing strikes using French Mirages. These strikes, along with those carried out by drones, incurred mounting civilian casualties in and around Tripoli, exemplified most notably by the July 2 bombing by an Emirati Mirage of a migrant detention center in Tajura, which killed 53 people.
Yet international condemnation of this and other incidents has been stymied by international divisions and especially diplomatic protection of the Emirates by the United States and France; UN reports on the strikes rarely singled out the Emirates by name.
Yet the provision of Emirati aerial support, along with Emirati-supplied Tiger armored vehicles, still wasn’t enough for Hafar’s forces to break the stalemate or compensate for the LAAF’s lack of manpower.
Compounding this shortcoming, Haftar and his foreign backers, namely the Emirates, had hoped to flip GNA- aligned militias in and around Tripoli to his side though financial inducements.
But the defections failed to materialize and rival armed groups in and around the capital shelved their differences and offered up stiff resistance.
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.