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 Global Scramble for Libya, January 2020 to the Present
By creating a newfound equilibrium on the frontline, the Turkish-Syrian deployment, following on the heels of Putin’s gambit of the Wagner fighters, dramatically altered global diplomacy on Libya.
Specifically, it enabled a push by Moscow and Ankara to try and mediate an end to the conflict, or at least shape its course to their interests.
On January 12, Vladimir Putin, in coordination with Erdoğan, hosted a summit in Moscow attended by GNA prime minister al-Sarraj and Haftar, where the warring leaders held eight hours of talks, resulting in a commitment to a truce.
Al-Sraj signed but Haftar only gave a verbal commitment, walking out of the meeting—reportedly at the behest of the Emirates. It was yet more proof that even the strongest outside powers cannot fully control their local Libyan proxies, especially when there is a multiplicity of patrons.
On the ground, the meeting produced an uneasy lull in the fighting, with the Wagner personnel pulling back from the front, save for some desultory sniping.
According to a Western diplomat, the GNA had reportedly gone to the meeting after Erdoğan had “twisted its arm.” Meanwhile, some frontline GNA militia commanders were suspicious that a backroom deal was being struck in foreign capitals that would reward Haftar for his aggression on Tripoli. “Is this what our martyrs died for?” one of these GNA commanders angrily asked the author in early 2020.
Partially spurred by the Turkish and Russian summitry and the opening occasioned by Haftar’s walkout, the EU and Britain finally mobilized a consensus on talks of their own.
A long-planned international conference hosted by German Chancellor Angela Merkel convened on January 18 but in the shadow of the Moscow summit.
In the final 55-point communique, the international parties committed to enforcing the arms embargo and working toward a truce. Yet almost as soon as the conference ended, aerial and maritime shipments into Libya resumed, especially by the Emirates.
In subsequent weeks, the Emirates’ spoiler role proved crucial in the resumption of hostilities and in fueling Haftar’s determination to continue his military assault.
The months of January and February 2020 thus constituted a build-up and regrouping of the two sides, abetted by their foreign sponsors, despite their pledges at Berlin.
As it had in the past, hypocrisy and recklessness by regional and great powers was plunging the county toward a new phase of war.
Wrangling by these powers at the UN Security Council produced a watered-down resolution that endorsed the Berlin Conference’s communique but lacked any effective enforcement mechanism.
America’s backseat role was instrumental in all of this. In testimony before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on February 20, 2020, Assistant Secretary of State David Schenker provided the first public mention by a senior administration official of the Emiratis’ negative impact in Libya.
Though the secretary offered assurances that the United States was engaging Abu Dhabi behind the scenes, other U.S. officials privately admitted to the author that other U.S. priorities in the Middle East—namely Israel/Palestine peace efforts and countering Iran—in which Emirati partnership is deemed to be indispensable militates against more forceful pressure on Abu Dhabi from Washington.
With this reticence as a backdrop, U.S. diplomacy during this period focused on efforts to entice the Emiratis into a negotiating process by placating their fears about Islamist control over Libya’s financial institutions—a rubric known as the “3M,” or “Money, Militias, and Muslim Brotherhood.”
Multiple U.S. officials believed that these factors constituted the primary drivers of Libya’s endemic instability—downplaying the malevolent role of meddling by U.S. Middle Eastern allies.
The goal of the 3M, according to one U.S. official in Washington, was to cleave the Muslim Brotherhood away from the GNA “to bring the Emirates into the negotiating process.”
Yet on the ground, such an initiative did not lessen the Emiratis’ buildup or the ferocity of the assault on Tripoli, mainly because the Emiratis’ 2019 intervention in Libya was not solely driven by a concern over Islamist influence in Tripolitania—an influence which had at any rate receded since 2017, but ironically increased since Haftar’s attack on Tripoli.
As a corollary to this strategy, the United States pressured GNA Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha to accelerate his efforts at dismantling Tripoli’s more predatory militias and prying them loose from Libya’s state institutions.
These efforts had actually started before Haftar’s attack but were placed on hold because of the GNA’s priority of defending Tripoli.
Importantly, Turkish political and military backing and plans for security sector assistance bolstered Bashagha’s anti-militia program, especially against the Tripoli-based Nawasi Battalion and the Tripoli Revolutionaries’ Brigade, and, to a lesser extent, the Abu Slim Central Security Force led by Abd al-Ghani al-Kikli (a.k.a. “Gheneiwa”).
Yet Bashagha’s policies and the prospect of incorporation into the formal security sector opened up fissures and competition for appointments, and also spurred anti-Turkish sentiment among the Tripoli-based armed groups targeted by the interior minister.
As the United States focused on this largely technical approach, regional powers were shaping the Libyan battlefield in ways that gave them increased leverage in the political sphere.
In the weeks and months following the Berlin conference, the Emirates tried to compensate for the Turkish gambit by flying in equipment in heavy aircraft to eastern Libya.
Turkey sent hundreds of advisors and officers, self-propelled artillery, tanks, trucks, counter-battery radars, surveillance and armed drones, and naval frigates with helicopters.
This materiel would eventually be used in a counterattack on Haftar’s forces, dubbed Operation Peace Storm. In many respects, the military template followed a previous Turkish advance in Idlib, Syria in late February. The Turkish-backed Syrian mercenaries were thrown into the battle en masse, suffering mounting casualties.
Turkish air and drone strikes dealt a psychological blow to the LAAF by hitting its operations centers in Tarhuna, including Pantsir air defense systems supplied by the UAE, and in Sirte, which Haftar had earlier seized.
Turkish air forces were also able to hold at risk Emirati drones in Haftar’s rear areas, especially at the Jufra airbase, forcing the Emirates to re-deploy them further east, to the Emirati-refurbished al-Khadim airbase and to western Egypt.
Increasingly, Turkish commanders based on a frigate off the coast of Tripoli reportedly took a more active role in selecting targets for airstrikes; in many cases, they cut out elements of the GNA’s military leadership in this targeting process.
Eventually, by mid-April, the Turkish-led offensive succeeded in ousting the LAAF from its bases on Tripoli’s western flank, in the towns of Sabratha and Surman.
As this was happening, the Emiratis and their LAAF allies pressed on the attack in Tripoli, with indiscriminate targeting that produced mounting civilian casualties.
They also sought to counterbalance Erdoğan’s Syrian deployment with foreign manpower of their own. The Emiratis and the Wagner Group had already channeled Chadian and Sudanese fighters into the LAAF’s ranks—the latter under false pretenses of work in the Gulf.
But these were no match in skill or numbers for the Syrians—and, like other LAAF soldiers, were increasingly vulnerable to Turkish airstrikes. To compensate, the LAAF turned to a new foreign supplier of manpower.
Following their rapprochement with the Assad government, Abu Dhabi (along with Cairo) brokered a defense pact between Haftar’s camp and Damascus.
This resulted in the reported deployment of two thousand pro-Assad Syrian militiamen to support Haftar’s forces.
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.