Jalel Harchaoui and Bernardo Mariani


The authors used a mixed methodology to produce this report. A literature review of secondary sources related to Libya’s political analysis and security situation, including international media reports and specialist publications, was combined with primary-source data acquired through six semi-structured interviews.

These were conducted with two Libyan senior politicians, one Libyan high-ranking military officer, one Libyan former ambassador, one Libyan political advisor and one senior Western diplomat.

The semi-directive interviews focused upon how local actors and Western policy experts perceive both the current and prospective contributions of the non-Western countries that have maintained the most assertive posture in the Libyan crisis—namely Russia, Turkey and the UAE.

Although secondary and limited by comparison, the balancing act pursued thus far in Libya by China was also discussed. The data collected was used to update and complement the ongoing, day-to-day discussions held by one of the authors with his on-the-ground networks in Libya spanning government and military authorities, civil societies, and communities.

In line with the approved ethics protocols of the project, we withheld the names of the interviewees to stimulate free and candid discussions and to protect confidentiality.

Western Divisions and Ambiguities

Before addressing the motivations behind non-Western interference in Libya, the ambivalent posture and deep divides of Western powers since the start of 2011’s NATO intervention must be reviewed.

The U.S.-led military intervention of 2011 was intended to demonstrate that Western nations can intervene efficaciously without “boots on the ground”.

Starting in the immediate wake of Gadhafi’s demise, the main Western powers—namely the U.S., France, and Great Britain—revealed themselves to be increasingly aloof regarding Libya, particularly in contrast to the 2011 war against the autocrat’s regime.

After the killing of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens in September 2012, Western commitment to the North-African nation became even more tenuous and risk-averse. By the mid-2010s, Western attitude towards Libya was dominated by three main concerns, which had little to do with promoting peace amongst Libyans.

These three focus areas of Western-led efforts can be described as follows: (a) containing the Islamic State terror organization, (b) minimizing the flow of irregular migrants into Sicily, and (c) encouraging Libyans to refrain from imposing oil-and-gas blockades (Harchaoui, 2018).

In 2016, when non-military action was required against the Islamic State enclave in Sirte, the U.S., the U.K. and Italy enacted the majority of efforts. The latter was also a particularly active interferer in northwestern Libya during 2017, in pursuit of Rome’s goal to reduce the number of irregular migrants reaching Sicily.

This culminated in the 2017 signing of a controversial memorandum of understanding between the Italian government and the Libyan GNA, intended to strengthen their cooperation in the field of migration.

The superficial and often contradictory character of Western engagement with Libyan factions has made it possible for non-Western states to take bolder action, with stark effects on the North African crisis — diplomatically, politically, militarily, and economically.

Qatar, Turkey, Egypt, the UAE, and Russia have all benefited from the de-facto passivity of the main Western nations. France and Italy, for example, largely agreed with the actions taken in Libya by the Emirates and Turkey respectively.

This “outsourcing” mentality informed much of Western diplomacy in Libya during the second half of the 2010s and contributed to the outbreak of the civil war of 2019-2020. Western nations’ lack of assertiveness can further be ascertained in the EU’s failure to make a firm contribution to denouncing violators of the UN’s arms embargo in 2020.

The European Union Naval Force Mediterranean Operation “Irini” that officially started in March 2020 was politically biassed, concentrating primarily on maritime transfers of weapons by Turkey, while placing much less emphasis on the numerous aerial transfers of weapons by the UAE and Russia.

Resultantly, illegal arms deliveries continued unabated. In July 2022, Operation Irini intercepted a weapons shipment bound for Libya, an occurrence which was among only a small handful of successful seizures performed in more than two years.

The substantial number of large-scale weapons deliveries carried out by Russia, the UAE, Turkey, and Egypt after Irini was instituted have been neither affected nor denounced publicly by Irini.

The relative quiet that characterised the year 2021 in Libya was an opportunity for Western powers to restore their credibility by actively supporting elections, which they promoted rhetorically as part of the UN’s comprehensive peace-building roadmap.

However, that chance was not seized; once again Washington and the other Western capitals proved unwilling to exercise their full diplomatic capacity to contain the Libyan and foreign forces committed to ensuring elections do not take place.

Such Western ambiguity was partly responsible for the failure to hold elections in December 2021. Since 2011, Western states have exerted modest influence on the Libyan crisis because of their reluctance to either deploy military assets directly on the ground, or to engage their full diplomatic capabilities in support of one specific goal pertaining to the core of the Libyan conflict. In contrast, the UAE, Russia and Turkey were far less hesitant to take such risks.

Involvement by Non-Western Actors

Unlike the UAE, Russia was not instrumental in precipitating Haftar’s April 2019 aggression against the Libyan capital, although it provided material support for Haftar’s offensive against Tripoli starting in September 2019.

This included the deployment of up to 3,000 private military contractors (PMCs) from the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary organisation, as well as the delivery by the Russian Air Force of supplies and lethal equipment to the Wagner Group.

Russia seized the opportunities afforded by its support of Haftar to present itself as a diplomatic arbiter, burnish its regional status, and secure hydrocarbon businesses. In 2011, Russia witnessed the U.S.-led and U.N.-mandated intervention against the Gadhafi regime render uncertain the prospect of approximately $6.5 billion worth of signed or verbally promised contracts.

Since 2013, Moscow has been interested in reviving its business fortunes in Libya through energy contracts, infrastructure projects, arms deals, and sales of agricultural goods. On a geostrategic level, Moscow also seeks to exert greater control over the flow of hydrocarbons entering southern Europe.

Lastly, military entrenchment in Libya gives Russia a valuable passageway into sub-Saharan Africa and, at the same time, a strategic position on the southern flank of NATO, which Russia perceives as a hostile entity.

Russia’s involvement with Haftar does not reflect a belief that the rebel commander possesses the capabilities to unite Libya under his rule. Rather, Russia exploited the weaknesses of Haftar’s 2019 offensive on Tripoli to achieve greater influence in Libyan affairs.

By assisting the LNA militarily—and by supplying it with unauthorised Russian-printed dinar banknotes amid a persistent liquidity crisis—Moscow’s clandestine mission in Libya succeeded in acquiring strategic bases and physical access to oil facilities held by Haftar’s forces.

It remains intent on using these sources of leverage as a means of influence over all main poles of Libyan power. Partly due to Russia’s scepticism about Haftar’s leadership capabilities, Moscow increased its arbitration role in Libya in 2020, cultivating a diplomatic channel with the Tripoli authorities.

This was with the aim of obtaining energy concessions and construction contracts similar to the pre-2011 project involving a $2 billion Benghazi-to-Sirte railway line. As early as January 2020, Russia hosted diplomatic negotiations on Libya. However, these talks failed when Haftar left Moscow without signing a ceasefire agreement.

Despite the setback, Moscow—in coordination with Ankara—was able to impose a lull in the fighting in May 2020 by withdrawing Russian forces, paramilitary and regular alike, from the Tripoli area.

The move, which caused the collapse of Haftar’s offensive in Western Libya the following month, turned Moscow and Ankara into de facto key guarantors of peace. In the subsequent months, the UN, the US, and European nations engaged with Moscow on the Libyan peace process.

Notwithstanding Russia’s armed presence in Libya, the period between mid-2020 and mid-2021, approximately, showed Moscow’s potential in the way of conflict resolution. Beginning in the second half of 2021, profound disagreements with Western powers resurfaced on several topics, including the modalities of Libyan elections.

Moscow believes Saif al-Islam, the son of Moammar Gadhafi, must be allowed to run for the presidential elections, while the United States does not. Turkey’s agenda in Libya bears some similarity to that of Russia.

Ankara is interested in recouping the $20 billion of pre-2011 energy, construction and engineering deals that it held with Gadhafi’s regime. Geopolitically, it also sees its growing military presence in the Maghreb country as a stepping-stone for expanding Turkish influence into sub-Saharan Africa.

Crucially, Ankara’s maritime ambitions in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea require it to guarantee — mainly by military means — the survival of a pro-Turkish government in Tripoli. Ankara believes that an as-yet-unratified memorandum of understanding, signed in 2019 with Tripoli, can help justify its expansionism and sea exploration activities until Greece accepts a redrawing of the maritime jurisdiction zones between the two countries (Yüksel, 2021).

For instance, at a more sustained pace in 2020, Turkish seismic survey ships, accompanied by navy frigates, made explorations for natural gas close to Greece’s territorial waters (Hope, 2020). Ankara maintains that these waters should be part of Turkey’s own exclusive economic zone.

Within that framework, Ankara uses its memorandum with Tripoli as a legitimising argument. For the UAE, economic and geostrategic considerations matter, however, its primary preoccupation regarding Libya has been its ideology and mode of governance.

Indeed, the North African country’s wealth and structural advantages, including a small demography with no sectarian divide, a strategic location, and vast natural resources result in the close monitoring of its fate by political constituencies and factions across the rest of the region.

If a form of government that grants a degree of influence to political Islam holds onto power in Tripoli in a peaceful context, Abu Dhabi worries that neighbouring Sunni majority countries might be inspired by the precedent set in Libya. The Emirati state fears a domino effect across North Africa that could extend into the Arabian Peninsula and, ultimately, jeopardise its own survival.

Because it wishes to prevent this “political contagion” from starting in the first place, the UAE is committed to eradicating any mode of governance that may accept or defend the Muslim Brotherhood, or a similar faction, as a legitimate political strand in Tripoli. An inevitable corollary of these threat perceptions is that Abu Dhabi will not cease its attempts to influence the political orientation of the Tripoli government.

Lastly, although Abu Dhabi is aware that Moscow regards Ankara as a partner in certain circumstances, it has itself sought strategic ties with Russia. Abu Dhabi views Russian influence in the Arab world as a desirable, stabilising factor.

This Emirati conundrum has significant ramifications for Libya, where Abu Dhabi may again become tempted to derail Turkey’s plans in the hope that Moscow will adopt a less conciliatory stance vis-à-vis Ankara.

If such Emirati activism against Turkey is absent, Moscow and Ankara may work out a durable arrangement whereby the two Eurasian powers would coexist in Libya and share the spoils—an outcome that Abu Dhabi prefers to avert because it would mean losing all influence on the prized North African nation.

Emirati leaders have been less aggressive in Libya since 2021, with one Libyan senior politician interviewed for this paper mentioning visits to Ankara by the UAE National Security Advisor, Sheikh Tahnun Bin Zayed, in September 2021 and Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed in November 2021.

Further examples of such a détente are the facilitation of negotiations between the LNA and political leaders who are aligned with Turkey, and a visit to Abu Dhabi in December 2021 by the Libyan interim Prime Minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, Turkey’s and Qatar’s favoured candidate in the planned Libyan Presidential election.

This overall détente effort with Turkey has been one of the reasons why the UAE has significantly reduced its support for the LNA. Although not identical, Egyptian motivations in Libya resemble those of the Emirates.

The poor Arab nation of 102 million believes its wealthy neighbour to the west, with a population fifteen times smaller, should be governed by politicians aligned with Cairo and pursue an economic policy friendly to its own interests.

For instance, Egypt wishes to see its companies win more business in Libya and see more Egyptian workers find long-term employment in Libya.


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.


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