Jalel Harchaoui and Bernardo Mariani
After ousting Colonel Moammar Gadhafi from power in 2011 with the aid of a NATO bombing campaign, the Libyan rebel groups that fought the autocrat turned on each other in a struggle to fill the country’s power vacuum. This led to several bouts of civil war, a proliferation of armed groups, and additional foreign military interventions.
This paper focuses on the engagements of countries that have recently had the most sizable role and the most assertive posture in the Libyan crisis—namely Russia, Turkey, and the UAE.
The latest political analysis, media reports, and original interviews with Libyan and foreign stakeholders allow us to empirically substantiate how local actors interpret the role and effect of non-Western actors that are involved in Libya, and permit us to sketch out possible future scenarios.
Interviewees view the competing interests between foreign powers as exacerbating existing tensions in Libya. Those interviewees’ responses exhibit a highly polarised range of perceptions about foreign actors that corresponds to the deeply fractured character of Libya’s political landscape.
Unlike Russia, Turkey, and the UAE, China has so far avoided becoming entangled in the conflict, preferring instead to watch for opportunities to achieve economic penetration by means of low-key diplomacy.
In general, Libyan elites perceive foreign powers’ ability to mobilise economic assets and expertise in Libya’s reconstruction as positive: a platform through which novel forms of dialogue and communication can be fostered.
Indeed, all Libyans interviewed for this essay believe that such a new economy-centred approach could and should be leveraged for peace-promotion purposes. Since June 2020, Libya has experienced a precarious peace across most of its territory. However, there is great uncertainty about its immediate future.
A relapse into “hot” conflict isn’t inevitable, as Libya may still manage to avoid further polarisation. But after months of relative quiet, the overall trend in 2022 has presented a return towards greater dysfunction and instability, particularly in the economic realm. Amid this domestic deterioration, foreign states remain almost as divided as before, despite some differences in attitude.
They include the primary interferers of Turkey and Russia who may no longer be satisfied with the post-June 2020 status quo and, for that reason, may resume supporting war efforts in Libya.
Additionally, Russia’s 2022 war in Ukraine has increased the probability of potential military action in Libya by Great Britain, Italy, Turkey, and the United States in support of Libyan efforts to expel Russian forces from the North African country.
Key Findings and Recommendations
Drawing on the latest political analysis, media reports and interviews with Libyan and foreign stakeholders, this report has uncovered some key findings:
_ The interference and competing interests of foreign powers – both Western and nonWestern – active in Libya, have exacerbated existing tensions and fuelled conflict.
_ The ambivalent posture and deep divides of Western powers since the 2011 NATO intervention have paved the way for deeper engagement in Libya by non-Western states.
_ Russia, Turkey and, to a lesser extent, the UAE are currently the primary “meddlers” in the Libyan crisis.
_ Recognising the conflict’s unpredictability, China has avoided taking risks. Instead of becoming entangled in the conflict, it has focused on economic penetration and lowkey diplomacy. It has also kept channels open with both the Tripoli government and its HoR-aligned rival.
_ Russia’s war in Ukraine has had a noticeable effect on the transnational dynamics affecting Libya, increasing the probability of actions by Western countries and Turkey aimed at weakening Russia’s presence in the North African country.
_ Libya’s fractured political environment is characterised by a highly polarised range of perceptions. Every foreign state involved in the country appears as the most constructive peacemaker in the view of some interviewees—and as a deleterious interferer and warmonger according to others.
_ Even the interviewees displaying the most pronounced political bias regarding foreign powers expressed a potential willingness to allow those nations, with which they bitterly disagree, to play a greater economic role in Libya.
_ The current peace in Libya is precarious. Libyans are not waging war against each other, but neither are they agreeing to a national election, nor truly reconciling
Avoiding a relapse into war will primarily depend on the following factors: a continued entente between Turkey and Russia; the UAE’s continued willingness to avoid the level of bellicosity that it displayed in 2014-2019; and, crucially, a willingness amongst the most influential Libyan parties to entertain temporary arrangements, including financial ones, instead of reverting to economic sabotage and armed violence.
The relative calm that characterised the Libyan political landscape during 2021 should not be taken for granted.
We suggest that international efforts should focus on maintaining an equilibrium on both a political and an economic level between the main sides, Libyan and foreign alike.
As underscored in our research, economic considerations—especially those around promoting the country’s reconstruction and creating opportunities for economic growth—are of key importance when it comes to consolidating peace in Libya in 2022 and beyond
Libya’s decade-long crisis started with the Arab uprisings of 2011.
The rebel factions that toppled Colonel Gadhafi with the military assistance of NATO and some non-NATO Arab nations then turned against each other in a fight to fill the country’s power vacuum. This led to several bouts of civil war, a proliferation of armed groups, as well as protracted foreign interference and intervention.
Overall, the crisis in Libya has seen tens of thousands of casualties since 2011, as well as the intermittent disruption of Libya’s economically crucial oil industry, as key facilities were sometimes blockaded by armed factions for months at a time.
With a population of only 6.7 million, Libya has vast natural resources and a littoral with immense potential for development. This, according to a former UN Special Envoy, helps explain why six to ten countries have interfered in Libya’s internal affairs.
Each one of these foreign meddlers is driven by a unique combination of motivations, some of which are not economic in nature. The eight-year period — starting in 2014, when the first post-2011 civil war erupted in Libya — can be summarised as:
(a) several phases of intensive fighting, in which various foreign states interfered aggressively while depicting themselves as both neutral and committed to peace in the context of U.N. talks; and
(b) several periods of quiet, which no peace process succeeded in transforming into a lasting form of stability with unified governance.
In other words, Libya has been in the grips of two levels of antagonism.
First, the nation’s own elites have failed to achieve coordination domestically, preferring to deploy armed violence and economic sabotage to advance their agendas.
Additionally, on an international level, foreign states have also failed to work together. This divisiveness exists not only among regional players such as Turkey and Egypt, but also among Western powers, such as Italy, France, and the UK.
In such a doubly fractured environment, there has been only one formal peace process since the 2011 war, which was officially spearheaded by the U.N. and often shaped by unilateral action from the U.S. or other member states, such as the UK, the UAE, Egypt, Germany, and Italy.
For example, when Paris took the initiative to organise its July 2017 peace conference in La Celle-Saint-Cloud, it portrayed it as an attempt to assist the U.N. even as it excluded Italy.
Moreover, several recent instances have seen non-Western rivals interfere in Libya by pursuing sustained diplomatic talks amongst themselves without consulting the U.N. One significant peace process pursued independently from the U.N. has been the informal Libya-related dialogue between Turkey and Russia, a somewhat close coordination that first began manifesting in the last days of 2019.
Within Libya itself, although the main fault line has been more complex and more versatile than a binary east-west divide, the country has had two principal competing poles of power since 2014: one in Tripoli and Misrata in the western region; and another in Benghazi and Tobruk in the east.
At the onset of the 2011 Arab uprisings, Khalifa Haftar — formerly a high-ranking Libyan colonel who, after a period of estrangement from Gadhafi, had lived in the United States for years — returned to Libya to fight the regime.
By May 2014, Haftar and his sons had started to consolidate power in the eastern province’s Benghazi area. This was achieved by leading an informal armed coalition dubbed the Libyan National Army (LNA) and waging a long, often indiscriminately brutal, military campaign against a diverse range of political opponents.
The Haftar-led effort, driven by a combination of genuine counter-terrorism and aggressive political ambition, contributed to the emergence of the eastern-Libyan centre of opposition to Tripoli and Misrata. Cyrenaica, Libya’s eastern half, is in great part dominated by the loose political alliance between Aguila Saleh—the president of the UN-recognized parliament or House of Representatives (HoR)—and Haftar, while northwestern Libya has been in great part dominated by the Tripoli-based government and various armed groups more or less aligned with it.
The Tripoli executive, from 2016 until 2021, was the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA). In March 2021, the GNA dissolved and was replaced by a new UN-recognised executive called the Government of National Unity (GNU), while the main authorities in the East largely stuck to most of their previous defiance vis-à-vis Tripoli.
The Libyan conflict can by no means be attributed to external interference. It nevertheless is important to note that, since 2011, various foreign states have never ceased to interfere militarily, economically, politically, and diplomatically in Libya. Even at the time of writing, amid a polarised and fractured political environment, numerous foreign powers continue working through local proxies and/or intervening directly in Libya.
With no open warfare unfolding at present, Libya is experiencing a precarious lull across most of its territory. This imperfect calm has held since June 2020, when forces aligned with the Tripoli government and backed primarily by Turkey defeated the troops of General Haftar in western Libya, putting an end to his fourteen-month-long offensive on the capital.
In the wake of Haftar’s debacle in western Libya, the UAE, his main sponsor, relocated its personnel and military assets—such as armed drones—to western Egypt. By contrast, Turkish and Russian military personnel and hardware have stayed in Libya.
Since the war stopped in mid-2020, Haftar’s armed coalition, despite its military defeat in northwestern Libya, has survived for the most part in the rest of the country, due to Russia’s continued military protection. The lull since June 2020 owes less to genuine reconciliation amongst Libyan factions or to the UN peace process than it does to the entente between Turkey and Russia.
The two financially motivated Eurasian powers, after intervening on opposite sides in Libya, have deepened their respective military encroachment while also maintaining a restraint intended to let the rich North African nation pour billions into infrastructure development and imports.
Both main intruders hoped that such a period of quiet would be more beneficial to them than prolonged war. In effect, the military missions of Turkey and Russia — in north-western and central Libya, respectively — helped achieve a rough balance of power between the two main rival Libyan camps.
The UN used this opportunity to promote formal ceasefire declarations and, in late autumn 2020, to initiate the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum. This later resulted in a new Government of National Unity (GNU) in Tripoli led by interim Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah. The latter received a vote of confidence from the Tobruk parliament in March 2021, only to lose it six months later.
As part of the UN-sponsored peace process, presidential and legislative elections were expected to be held in December 2021. However, due to disagreements over the country’s election “laws”, tensions surrounding several controversial candidacies and, ultimately, the inability to finalise an official list of candidates, no elections took place in 2021. This failure reignited tensions and fragmentation within almost all state institutions.
The Tripoli-based GNU, which enjoyed the UN’s full recognition for nine months in 2021, refused to relinquish power at the end of its official mandate, invoking the absence of elections in December 2021.
The GNU’s leader, Prime Minister Dbeibah, relies primarily on Libyan armed groups. He receives a degree of support from Italy, Qatar, Britain, and, more importantly, Turkey. The GNU’s main rival, dubbed the Government of National Stability (GNS) and led by Prime Minister Fathi Bachagha, was designated in March 2022 by the House of Representatives (HoR) based in the eastern city of Tobruk.
The GNS is backed by Egypt, France, Russia, and, to a lesser extent, Saudi Arabia. The UAE, for several years the most consequential interferer in Libya, became significantly more subdued during 2021.
As a result of a deliberate restraint, Abu Dhabi’s influence was minor in Libya for approximately a year until it staged a comeback as a key mediator in May 2022.
The third section will discuss the divisions and contradictory character of Western engagement, and following this is an overview of involvement by non-Western actors.
Later, the paper will examine the prospects of the entente between Russia and Turkey, followed by an analysis of China’s engagement in Libya. A review of key perceptions and insights into non-Western approaches to peacemaking will be discussed in the penultimate section, while the last piece of discussion offers some final conclusions.
Jalel Harchaoui is a researcher specialising in Libya, and an Associate Fellow with the Royal United Services Institute, London. His work concentrates on the North African country’s security landscape and political economy as well as the role of foreign states.
Bernardo Mariani is a freelance conflict prevention and peacebuilding consultant based in Austria, with specialist knowledge of China. Since 2005, he has managed and implemented research and policy dialogue projects on the implications of China’s growing role in global security affairs.