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 internationalization of Libya’s civil wars since 2011 has resulted from a confluence of global disorder and regional and local dynamics:
The erosion of multilateral norms on embargo enforcement and protection of human rights, paralysis and disunity in Europe, military assertiveness by Middle Eastern powers with hegemonic aspirations, and Russian opportunism and gray zone adventurism.
Added to this is America’s longstanding retrenchment and ambivalence on Libya, accompanied by a tacit tolerance of and, under the Trump administration, support for its increasingly interventionist Middle Eastern allies.
Regionally, Libya fell victim to a rivalry between two competing visions of Middle Eastern order, led by Turkey on the one hand and the Emirates on the other.
A defining feature of this rivalry has been a disagreement about the political inclusion of Islami concerns about their transnational spread. Yet the more relevant divide is over the nature of political pluralism itself:
This is not to say that Ankara is pushing liberal democracy, but Turkey, along with Qatar, has been inclined to permit a multi-actor type of governance that included Islamists.
Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi prefers to see a more centralized rule in the form of an aspiring strongman. Washington’s longtime backing of and deference to Abu Dhabi as a regional proxy, along with French support and the lack of a unified policy in Europe, has been a crucial enabler of the Emirates’ efforts to implement this vision in Libya.
More recently, elements of the U.S. government, namely the U.S. Africa Command and the State Department, have evinced a tacit acceptance of and limited support for Turkey’s role in Libya, until the standoff at Sirte, principally as a counter to Russia.
For all the foreign powers’ influence on Libya’s scene, it is important not to completely deny agency to Libyan actors. Outside support has indisputably been a conflict amplifier and prolonger. And access to foreign patronage has disincentivized Libyans from reaching an accord.
And yet, in the near-decade since the overthrow of Qadhafi, Libyans have exerted more agency in these proxy conflicts than is commonly assumed.
Many Libyans admit that it was precisely the divisions of Libyan society and politics—most of which were not primordial but arose during and after the 2011 revolution—which gave foreigners openings to exploit.
Libyan political elites and armed group leaders have proven skillful at soliciting and manipulating competing offers of outside patronage—and they often do not follow the wishes of any of their patrons’ lockstep, as evidenced by Haftar’s walkout of the January 2020 Moscow summit.
Their negative influence in this regard is bolstered by their control of Libya’s oil wealth as a source of leverage. Personal networks of intermediaries, brokers and fixers, further complicate the patron-client relationship and dilute the control of outsiders over local allies.
Moving forward, several trends bear watching to discern the course of foreign involvement in Libya’s conflict. The first is the spread of the coronavirus to Libya in March 2020.
From the outset, the contagion did nothing to lessen the tempo of the fighting—in fact, the opposite has occurred.
Outside calls for a humanitarian ceasefire to deal with the virus have largely gone unheeded and Haftar’s LAAF took advantage of international distraction to escalate attacks on civilian targets in Tripoli. Simultaneously, the flows of foreign arms and fighters continued.
Yet the pandemic’s long-term economic fallout, combined with a sustained plunge in global oil demand, could shape the capacity and willingness of foreign forces to intervene.
As oil-exporting states enter a period of austerity, cuts to defense budgets may result in less Gulf military adventurism.
For their part, America and European powers, especially France, could see budgetary and health-related constraints on their intelligence and defense sectors that may limit their ability to intervene in areas like train-and-equip, overwatch, collection, direct action, or sanctions enforcement, especially at sea.
In contrast to this trajectory, another and perhaps more likely scenario is continued and reconfigured interference, using foreign auxiliaries and drones, which are relatively low cost and, in the case of mercenaries, insulated from concerns about infecting the interveners’ home-based troops.
More advanced weapons systems could also arrive, as shown already by the Russian air defense build-up. The drift toward greater intervention might increase as Libya’s conflict becomes more fractious and localized.
Having “defeated” Haftar’s forces, armed groups and political actors within the GNA coalition could splinter into pro- and anti-Turkish elements, especially with Turkish offers of security sector assistance.
Eastern Libya could become similarly rife with divisions if Haftar falls, or when he dies, inviting Emirati and Egyptian (and possibly others) meddling to influence the fallout.
Taken in sum, Libya’s confluence of foreign predation and technological innovations has led some observers to speak of the Libyan war as a uniquely post-modern or even science-fiction conflict, conducted by robotic drones, Twitter bots, and foreign mercenaries, with Libyans acting as bystanders.
But such a framing does not completely capture realities on the ground or aid in a clearer understanding of the conflict’s stakes or potential outcomes.
To be sure, foreign mercenary fighters drawn to Libya’s conflict marketplace have contributed to the prolongation and intensification of the combat.
And Libya is indeed being used as a laboratory by outside powers for advanced drones and informational warfare tactics, whose full implications may become fully apparent in future wars, much as the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) was a trial run for terror bombing of civilians by fascist air forces.
Yet combat on the Libyan frontlines has always been a viciously intimate and human affair, ultimately waged between Libyan citizens.
And this human element is even more evident in the devastation the war has wrought:
In the shattered psyches and ruined bodies of the young fighters, in the hundreds of thousands of people uprooted from their homes, in the civilian lives lost to mines and booby traps, and in the tears to the country’s social fabric that may take generations to mend.
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.