Gregory Aftandilian

Foreign Complicity

Despite foreign governments’ pledges in recent years to desist from interfering in Libya, they have continued to do so, even with military force. The two main outside forces are Turkey and Russia, which have established a kind of modus vivendi over Libya with the former aiding the GNU and the latter aiding Haftar’s forces. It also appears that Russian mercenaries in Libya previously associated with the Wagner Group have come under formal Russian military command.

According to former UN special envoy for Libya Stephanie Williams, Turkey, which has admitted to training 15,000 Libyan personnel since 2020, is closely associated with the 444 Combat Brigade in Tripoli (one of the country’s strongest fighting forces) and “maintains a permanent presence” at al-Watiya airbase near Zintan and at the naval base in Misrata. Meanwhile, Russia has sent Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-bek Yevkurov to eastern Libya several times since last August, and may be seeking military basing agreements on territory controlled by the eastern faction.

In addition, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and possibly France have reportedly aided Haftar’s forces, while Qatar has supported Tripoli’s forces and Italy has supported the Tripoli faction politically. The involvement of these foreign countries makes it hard for those Libyans who want a genuine Libyan solution to prevail. If a unity government were to emerge, such foreign forces undoubtedly would come under greater scrutiny and face political pressure to leave. Hence, the presence of these foreign forces helps to perpetuate the country’s political divisions.

Human Misery Abounds

If all this were not bad enough, Libya has faced mounting humanitarian crises in recent months. The terrible flood in Derna in which as many as 8,500 people were killed, thousands more unaccounted for, and some 45,000 left homeless, was a devastating human tragedy made worse by the lack of accountability.

The fact that the area’s two dams failed so quickly showed negligence on the part of the authorities who should have used government funds for their upkeep. According to Amnesty International, neither political faction has undertaken a full investigation, nor have they facilitated the issuance of death certificates so family members can claim pensions for their lost loved ones.

The Public Prosecutor’s Office has initiated criminal investigations into the dam disaster, and eight officials were arrested a few months ago. It remains to be seen how far accountability will go. To its credit, the UN, with the support of humanitarian agencies, has aided hundreds of thousands of Libyans with emergency humanitarian assistance, including shelter, clean water, food, educational support, and medical and psychological treatment. Many Libyans are mired in poverty, ironic for an oil-rich country with a small population.

Meanwhile, Libyan officials have tried to deflect blame over the negligence in Derna. The LNA and its internal security agency even arrested civil society activists for protesting the mismanagement of the crisis and the lack of accountability. On top of this tragedy is the ongoing migration problem, where tens of thousands of destitute Africans, usually from Sub-Saharan countries, have arrived in Libya every year seeking to use it as a transit point to Europe.

Often trafficked by militias, many migrants have been subjected to extortion, sexual abuse, and even death. On March 22, the international press reported that 65 bodies of migrants were found in a mass grave in southwest Libya. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) said it believed that they died while being smuggled through the desert.

Earlier in the month, about 60 migrants who set off from Libya in a rubber dinghy perished in the Mediterranean Sea. Although Libyan Interior Minister Emad Al-Trabelsi of the GNU faction stated that his agency has “launched security campaigns to control human smuggling gangs, activate electronic surveillance towers to secure the borders” and train border guards “in a manner consistent with…respect for human rights,” clearly much more needs to be done.

As the US Department of State said in 2023: “Endemic corruption and militias’ influence over government ministries contribute to the GNU’s inability to effectively address human trafficking.” Finally, the sad fact remains that many Libyans are mired in poverty, ironic for an oil-rich country with a small population. They wonder why a country with this abundant resource is unwilling or unable to take care of its citizens. It is not surprising, therefore, that they blame the political class for negligence, corruption, and graft.

Although oil production has been affected by violence and protests, it has slowly increased over the past year and is projected to rise above 1.5 million barrels per day by 2025. To be sure, one of the reasons why the political factions are reluctant to move toward elections is their fear that the fed-up populace will vote them out of power.

The United States and the EU Need to Do More

Although the Biden administration has backed UN efforts in Libya and supports national elections, it has not shown enough attention to help bring the country out of its present morass. Granted, the Israel-Hamas and the Russia-Ukraine wars have occupied US attention, but the administration has not even moved the US Embassy back to Libya (US diplomats dealing with Libya operate out of Tunisia) once violence abated.

Moreover, to punt the issue to the United Nations as the United States and the European Union have done  without giving the UN real power is, in effect, evading Libya’s problems. At a minimum, getting countries in the international community to not be spoilers in Libya should be a start so Libyans themselves can work out their own differences. This will not be an easy task, but removing foreign forces and military assistance from Libya will at least not reinforce the political divisions in the country, and hopefully public pressure from Libyan citizens will force the two sides to compromise and hold elections.


Gregory Aftandilian is a Nonresident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. He is a Senior Professorial Lecturer at American University where he teaches courses on US foreign policy. He is also an adjunct faculty member at Boston University and George Mason University, teaching courses on Middle East politics. Previously, he worked for the US government for over 20 years in such capacities as Professional Staff Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Middle East Analyst at the US Department of State. He holds degrees from Dartmouth College, the University of Chicago, and the London School of Economics. Aftandilian is the author of Egypt’s Bid for Arab Leadership: Implications for U.S. Policy.


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