is the united states set to increase its involvement in libya? summary and thoughts on senate testimony
Two weeks ago (Feb 12), the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee invited the State Department to address the ongoing crisis in Libya and offer directions for US policy. Testimonies were given by Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Christopher Robinson, with opening remarks from Senator (R- ID) Jim Risch from the Foreign Relations Committee.
Senate testimonies on key issues can help gain understanding into the thinking and possible direction of the administration. On Libya, American leadership has been noticeably absent. The overthrow of Ghaddafi by Libyans was facilitated by Europe with American backing. However, as Libya broke down into a civil war that continues to this day, Europe has only recently attempted to return to a productive role in brokering a ceasefire. The US, aside from keeping ISIS at bay, has largely distanced itself from this conflict. This vacancy has allowed Russia, Turkey and other regional powers to step in, pumping arms, cash and mercenaries into the ongoing fighting.
Where is the US? Where is American leadership? Where is the one power that has the weight to balance out Russia and Turkey and help bring stability to the region?
In his opening remarks, Senator Risch referred to troubling developments in Libya that warrant American attention. He points out that months of fighting, referring to Haftar’s renewed efforts since April to take Tripoli, have left the sides in a stalemate. Risch describes the growing foreign influence that is complicating matters on the ground, including the inflow of illegal arms and military training, all of which are in violation of the UN arms embargo, especially Turkey and Russia who are pursuing agendas that run contrary to and at the expense of the Libyan people. He noted Turkey has deployed uniformed troops and now Syrian militia most recently to the fighting.
Risch further points to the burgeoning relationship between the Tripoli GNA and its “troubling” agreement with Erdogan’s Turkey, which granted Turkish military assistance to the GNA in exchange for a rewriting of the exclusive economic zones of both countries in order to lay claim to gas resources in the Eastern Mediterranean. This agreement helped Turkey cement its growing influence in the region.
Russia too has increased its in influence through sending mercenaries in what he called the “Syrian model” to Libya, whereby it floods the arena with arms and mercenaries, and then uses its newly created leverage to take over a UN-led “sham” political process intended only to grant it influence.
The Senator expressed concerns that the growing Russian foothold in Libya will let it leverage the flow of refugees to Europe, will complicate America and Europe’s counter-terror mission and generally sow discord within an already distracted European Union.
Risch noted that the US is concerned with a potential terror threat re-emerging, especially ISIS, an increasingly militarised southern Mediterranean region, an area vital for trade, and the destabilising threats to Europe of migration and terror that Russia could exploit. He further pointed to the importance of Libyan oil to the stability of global markets and how Haftar is currently undermining the supply.
Risch suggested the US continue supporting the GNA and actively work to discourage foreign intervention, while pushing all the sides to resume peace talks, and asked the administration expert witnesses to testify as to what the US can do to further promote stability.
Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs David Schenker offered that the best way for the US to help stabilise Libya is to limit the foreign intervention, which has escalated the conflict and is threatening regional order and American interests, through halting the flow of arms, funds and personnel into Libya.
In late January and into February, the UN managed to convene the two sides for ceasefire talks, the first such in nearly a year. A part of this will require the incremental withdrawal of foreign mercenaries active in Libya. For a ceasefire to have any success, it will require a sustained effort by the US to press both sides to engage.
Schenker noted the threat to civilians, infrastructure, commercial aviation and the increased threat to already vulnerable migrants and refugees stuck in Libya. He also discussed the ongoing almost total shutdown of the petroleum sector by the LNA, and stressed that Libya’s National Oil Corporation must be allowed to continue its work for the sake of Libya’s financial stability.
The US must continue to emphasize to all parties involved that there is no durable military solution and continue promoting the UN-led political process. Ultimately, the Libyans themselves must resolve this crisis, de-escalate, honor the ceasefire and focus their energies on the political process.
He suggested that the US can help address the issues driving the conflict, including militias that operate freely, Islamist extremists and helping to push for a reunification and transparency among economic institutions, including the just distribution of economic resources.
The US will continue to push for stability. The US, he pointed out, cooperated with both the GNA and LNA on counter-terrorist missions and is essential in preventing the resurgence of terror groups. The US can continue and enhance its use of sanctions to pressure those threatening stability, however this is not a substitute for diplomatic engagement. The US also has a strong humanitarian role, where it provides health care, food, water, sanitation, hygiene, protection and shelter. US AID has invested over half a billion dollars in Libya since Ghaddafi’s over throw, 164 million in humanitarian aid.
The US’ efforts are complicated by foreign actors, Russia, Syria, Chad, Sudan, the UAE, Turkey and others, who are increasingly fighting proxy battles on Libyan soil in pursuit of their own agendas. Schenker noted that Secretary of State Pompeo told world leaders (in Berlin) “there are things we can do today to foster a stable, sovereign, united country that is inhospitable to terrorists, and one day capable of generating prosperity through its energy resources. … we must support a lasting cease-fire between Libyan parties and not just with words. …end the violence and flow of arms.”
However, the powers gathered in Berlin are not upholding their commitments to a ceasefire, some are deploying fighters, mercenaries and arms to Libya. Schenker made clear the US should help enforce the UN arms embargo, call on all foreign fighters to leave Libya, and ensure those violating the Council Resolutions face appropriate consequences.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Christopher Robinson focused his remarks on Russia’s role in the conflict. He pointed out that Russia employs military power and proxy actors to expand its influence on other countries seeking to assert their independence and sovereignty, offering the Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and Syria as examples. Libya now risks being the next such venue for Russia to expand its influence, exploiting conflict to advance its own narrow gains. Robinson pointed to the wider work the State Department is doing trying to counter Russian “adventurism” throughout Africa, which can undermine American interests and lead to instability.
As to Libya, Robinson pointed to Russia’s destabilization, including the deployment of the Wagner Group (mercenaries) sanctioned by the US. He noted that Sec. State Pompeo called out Russia and Wagner’s role at the Berlin conference and is pressuring Russia to abide by the arms embargo. Russia denies it sent Wagner to Libya and seeks to maintain distance from the company. However, Robinson claims that Wagner and other mercenaries are really an instrument of foreign policy that carry low cost and low risk.
Robinson laid the blame for the continued conflict on actors like Russia, who push for continued conflict for their own interests in the region. In this regard, Russia can use its involvement to build a foothold, including military facilities and resources, in Libya.
The US must continue supporting the EU process and work to decrease Russia’s influence in Libya and the region, whether through public pressure or financial sanctions, and continue to press the EU countries to act in a similar manner. All this, to ensure Russia cannot act with impunity in Libya.
If the testimonies offer any indication, it is that the current administration recognizes the greatest challenge to improving stability in Libya at this time is to press both sides to continue talks, while working to limit foreign intervention, especially Russian and Turkish intervention. The testimonies also offer us an understanding that the US sees with growing concern Russia’s and Turkey’s increasing attempt to “take over” the conflict for their own interests.
The US can do much to help improve the conditions in which the two warring sides can come to the table and find a political solution, especially in providing a much needed counter-weight to Moscow and Ankara. It can use tools such as sanctions to help enforce this, along with its influence at the UN. The question is, as we head into the 2020 US Presidential elections, will the White House have the attention span to take on a greater diplomatic role in Libya? Will any candidate want to advance greater involvement in a foreign conflict? Its clear what the US should and can accomplish, the only question is whether it wants to.
According to Al-Monitor, Saudi Arabia seems to be increasing its presence and role in Libya in recent weeks, especially behind Haftar, and could become another potential power broker in a future political settlement.
Much of this stems from Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s concerns about Turkey’s growing engagement, especially as it sends Syrian mercenaries; Saudi Arabia and Turkey are long-time regional rivals. This involvement has been evident in both the diplomatic and military spheres, the website notes.
If this is accurate, then Saudi Arabia’s new and growing involvement would differ from their previous cautious support for Haftar, who is backed by Saudi Arabia’s closest ally the UAE. Saudi Arabia’s role is less visible, including in the military, financial and diplomatic spheres however. There is also another aspect, in which Saudi media, think-tanks and diplomats have worked to delegitimize Turkey’s intervention in the country.
A Saudi foreign policy analyst stressed that the kingdom’s main motivation is to counter Turkey’s growing military and diplomatic presence there and in the region, and prevent Turkey from establishing a North African foothold. Turkey’s moves, tied to its Eastern Mediterranean steps, could be a catalyst for regional instability. Riyadh also seeks to back one of its other main regional allies, Egypt, another major rival for Turkey. The analyst also explained that Riyadh seems to be on Haftar’s side as the LNA controls 90% of the territory that is backed by the elected parliament, and that it is no surprise that Al-Sarraj has to go to Turkey, a non-Arab power for help, while most Arab states back Haftar and the East. He compared Saudi Arabia’s efforts to their similar opposition to Iranian interference in Yemen and Syria. Saudi Arabia is concerned Turkey could move in an Iran-like direction and develop proxies and influence around the region.
One Turkish analyst pointed out that it is Turkey that should be concerned with Saudi Arabia’s alignment with the Madkhali Salafi movement, one of the ultraconservative Islamist militias tied to Haftar. He suggested that Saudi Arabia could try to connect between the LNA Salafist militias and the Misrata Salafists, to expand Riyadh’s presence in Libya.
IN the meantime, we can estimate that Saudi Arabia can be expected to only increase its role so long as Turkey does. Riyadh can only hope that perhaps Turkey will dial down its involvement in Libya as it incurs increasing challenges closer to home in Syria.
Earlier this week, the European Union announced its intention to form a maritime and aerial monitoring program to enforce the United Nation’s renewed arms embargo on Libya. There has been such an embargo in place for the past 9 years, the problem is that nobody enforced it.
Just one month ago, Germany and the EU managed to bring together major regional and international powers to Berlin to jump-start political talks between the GNA and LNA, the two warring sides in Libya. One week before that, Russia and Turkey announced a truce they were brokering, having brought Serraj and Haftar to Moscow with short notice. This was no coincidence.
We observed at the time that Europe’s renewed engagement in the Libya crisis had much to do with a wake-up realisation that they were soon to be edged out by Russia and Turkey, two powers vying for regional influence, energy resources, an access point to Africa and a way to leverage Europe. France and Italy, Libya’s former coloniser, have long had interests in Libya, each for different reasons, and were seen to be among the backers of the rival sides. France has long supported Haftar, especially due to his anti-Islamist stance, while Italy backs the GNA, primarily to halt the flow of migrants into Italy. However, the EU has long been busy with itself, Brexit and other challenges that loom, and ignored the brewing challenge just across the sea. Until now.
The Berlin conference, the Geneva meetings and most recently the announcement of the naval and aerial presence on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, all involved commitments to uphold the ceasefire and arms embargo, as Turkey, Russia, the UAE and others continue defying it. This led the UN Deputy Envoy for Libya to note the “arms embargo has become a joke”.
Europe knows and now admits that the only way to stop the fighting is to stop the foreign intervention. This is beyond arms, Tripoli’s front-lines now have a significant presence of Russians fighting Syrians sent by Turkey, while the UAE and Turkish soldiers are fighting a drone war and Russians and Turks operate air defence systems. The war is quickly being overtaken by foreign parties for foreign interests. Surely Europe has its own interests in Libya – oil, gas, stopping migrants and preventing terrorism from spreading to the continent. However, for the most part, Europe wins when Libya re-emerges as a stable and sovereign country that helps ensure its own stability along its southern shores.
Therefore, Europe has stepped up its efforts and has launched this mission. Ending the fighting and drying up the foreign support will do much to facilitate a political process. The timing has much to do with the emergence of Josep Borrell as the new EU foreign policy and defence chief, who seems intent on reasserting Europe in a meaningful way. “Europe must develop an appetite for power” Borrell said in Munich. He clarified this was not necessarily only military power, but that Europe must be able to act forcefully in securing its interests.
The agreement to launch the naval mission is a victory for Borrell, who did not wait for unanimity among the 27 EU member states. We note that some of the more nationalist countries, like Austria, Hungary and Italy, objected to the mission as the ships could become a magnet for migrants, who could purposefully put themselves at risk near the ships in order to be rescued and taken to Europe. The compromise was a promise the vessels would operate further to the east, and away from human trafficking routes. This rejection is what brought and end to the previous EU Operation Sophia, which focused on rescuing migrants and refugees. Borrell further acquiesced to this pressure, saying the operation would stop if it was seen to be attracting migrants rather stopping the flow of arms.
We have a lot of questions however. The step not only to back the UN arms embargo in word but in deed is a welcom step. But what is next? What happens when an EU vessel or satellite or radar picks up a Turkish vessel or Russian or UAE arms shipment or planeload full of mercenaries? Will the EU risk a military escalation with Turkey or Russia? Just how far is Europe willing to take this? Europe certainly won’t want to risk open conflict with its regional rivals, and Putin, Erdogan and others must surely be aware of this.
Of course, between physically stopping those violating the embargo and allowing shipments to pass, the EU could run to the Security Council and play “name and shame”. Will that be enough? Or will this too simply be a “joke”? Looking forward, the success of this operation will also have a lot of influence on whether the EU becomes less or more assertive in regional security matters. Much is riding on this, and time will tell.
senate dems call on white house to sanction haftar - washington has a major opportunity to unite over libya and play major stabilising role
Leading Democrats in the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee are pressuring the White House to leverage existing Russia Sanctions legislation from 2017 in order to sanction Haftar.
Sen. Chris Murphy, (D-CN) at a senate testimony delivered by Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, David Schenker, pressed the administration as to why they weren't applying the mandatory legislation on Haftar. Wagner Group, a main private military contractor reported to be operating in Libya, was sanctioned in 2017 under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act - CAATSA. The sanction's language "mandates secondary sanctions on those who conduct significant transactions with the Russian defence and intelligence sectors". Wagner is believed to have close connections to the Kremlin. Murphy also wrote to Secretary of State Pompeo requesting a "comprehensive summary" of US efforts to counter Russia in Libya, and a "detailed analysis" of Haftar's relationship to Wagner, and whether this triggers CAATSA sanctions.
Schenker deflected the inquiry, noting Haftar was participating in the UN peace talks, and the White House did not want to discourage him. New Jersey Senator (D) Robert Menendez, who drafted the legislation, shot back that "CAATSA, it is not voluntary... it is not discretionary. It is mandatory." Menendez also pushed Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, who enforces sanctions, on the matter. Mnuchin replied that the decision to activate sanctions is a foreign policy one that must be made by the president, and that he only executes the directive.
Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine accused the administration of sending "mixed messages" on Libya.
Al Monitor reports that Congress' new and aggressive focus are the result of a major GNA PR push in Washington to pressure Russia and Haftar. Mercury Public Affairs, the group leading the lobbying efforts, is placing a spotlight on Haftar's connections to Wagner Group, and pointing to legislation that instructions the Director of National Intelligence to report on Wagner's role in Libya, Syria and elsewhere.
Republican Lindsey Graham (SC) also included Wagner Group in a new sanctions bill on Russia.
Al-Monitor points out, that the Trump Administration has also resisted pressure to sanction Turkey under CAATSA for its purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defence system. The report claims that Secretary of State Pompeo essentially "moved the goal posts further back" in activating the sanctions from Turkey's purchase to when it decides to "operationalise" the system.
The US has been wary to get dragged into Libya, save for efforts to push back ISIS and other Islamic militant groups. Ironically, this is one issue that seems to have Democrats and Republicans united, even if they do not yet realise it. With Democrats pushing for pressure on Haftar and Russia, even if it is due to GNA lobbying efforts, and Republicans working to sanction Turkey, there is a rare opportunity for a divided Washington to come together, and help stabilise Libya in the process.
Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, should demand the White House investigate and sanction any outside actor providing mercenaries to the Libyan conflict. From a variety of international media reports, this most certainly includes the Russians with Wagner Group and others on Haftar's side, but also Turkey's introduction of Syrian militants in the past two months on the GNA's side. Both efforts are egregious violations of UN resolutions and US law.
We have seen from other instances, Iran being the best known, that US financial sanctions can be quite effective. As destabilising regional and international actors aggressively stake their claim on Libya, a stabilising American presence would be more than welcome, especially as the Europeans seem to be faltering in pushing back the Russians and Turks from overtaking the Libyan conflict. Moreover, at a time of great divisiveness in Washington, this could be a foreign policy issue that unifies both sides of the aisle, showing American leadership without dragging the US into another unnecessary conflict.
Algeria and Tunisia seek to exert a greater stabilising influence in Libya. Unlike Libya’s other neighbour Egypt, who has clearly chosen sides, Algeria and Tunisia have chosen a strategy of neutrality and working to limit foreign interference in the ongoing civil war. Tunisian president Kais Saied, meeting his Algerian counterpart Abdelmjadjid Tebboune, stressed the need for a political solution driven by Libyans themselves, and the need to fend off “foreign interference and weapons flows”. According to Tebboune, "Tunisia and Algeria want to make a solution for Libya with meetings in Tunisia or Algeria, to start a new stage there by building institutions and holding elections".
Both countries have stayed out of Libya until recently due to their own economic and political challenges. Tunisia has struggled to find stability after it overthrew its long-time dictator in 2011. Algeria remained largely sidelined as its long-time leader suffered a stroke in 2013, who only recently forwent reelection due to growing public pressure. It may be that Haftar took advantage of Algeria’s internal challenges to launch assaults on Fezzan and later against Tripoli.
As we have mentioned on this site, Algeria has a long political tradition of prioritising diplomacy and opposing foreign intervention. It recognises the GNA as Libya’s legitimate government, but at the same time recognises Haftar as a legitimate stakeholder. Until now, Algeria attempted to support bottom-up political dialogue in Libya, but this has failed to win the backing of Libyans.
Tebboune has described “Tripoli” as a red line that “no one should cross”, concerned that if Haftar breaks into the city, he will fail to hold it and only cause destruction, leading to instability that will spill over into his country. Algeria recalls a 2013 Al-Qaeda attack on its oil facilities carried out by Libyan extremists. Therefore, already in his first two months in office, Tebboune has made Libya priority. He has already organised the foreign ministers of North Africa to meet regarding Libya, and attained meetings in Berlin with Turkey’s Erdogan and UAE foreign minister Bin Zayed.
Tunisia holds similar views to Algeria, and the two are intricately linked in each other’s security space and thinking. Tunisia is even more at risk from Libyan instability, fearing an influx of refugees. It’s economy is also heavily reliant on tourism, and was hit hard in 2015 when an Al-Qaeda attack killed 60 at a beach-side resort. Thus, Tunisia as well places a heavy emphasis on maintaining stability.
Neither country wants or will allow a large-scale foreign military involvement in Libya. For now, they will push forward using the leverage of Algeria’s large military and their geographic positioning to “double down on diplomacy”.
Why is the Arab world becoming more involved in Libya? Because the Libyan conflict is increasingly becoming a showcase for the two competing visions of governance in the Arab world, according to the Christian Science Monitor. Libyans and the Arab world are caught between a vision of illiberal democracy, in which Islamists use democratic tools to reach power and gradually overtake various institutions of governance, or autocracies led by military strongmen. One model resembles Turkey, the other Egypt.
According to Libyan analyst Mohamed Eljarh, the Libyan conflict was initially an internal Libyan conflict. But as “regional powers (are) sending foreign fighters to settle scores on Libyan soil using Libyan money and Libyan factions”, the conflict has become internationalised. Moreover, the west, which helped remove Gaddafi and defeat ISIS, seems content with stopping the flow of migrants into Europe and little else.
This vacuum has led regional powers to flood in, competing on Libyan soil for their vision of the region to dominate. Qatar and Turkey back political Islam while the Gulf States back a strongman intent on cracking down on militant and political Islam. Libya expert Frederic Wehrey adds that “unresolved fissures and continuing proxy struggle for influence that started from the Arab Spring…(the) vacuum left behind by the west, the paralysis of the Europeans, and the ambivalence of the Americans has allowed the space for Arab states and Russia to step in and reopen them”.
Indeed, Turkey is seeking to expand its foothold in the Arab world, seizing an opportunity to back an Islamist government. The Saudis and UAE seek to prevent another Islamist government from taking hold and seek to protect their growing influence in Africa. Egypt similarly fears an Islamist government on its border, as well as any country beholden to regional rival Turkey. Jordan too, quietly one of Haftar’s biggest supports, is concerned Libya will turn into another ISIS hotbed like in Syria.
Other powers, like Russia, France and Italy, are also involved, each with their own interests in mind and backing opposing sides.
In the meantime, it seems that Libyans have to make an unenviable choice – democracy with weak institutions dominated by Islamists or an authoritarian one-state party dominated by the military. One seeks democracy first, the other stability over democracy. Eljarh explains that the GNA claims that security and stability are just code words for dictatorship, while Haftar is quite open in his claim that the country is simply not ready for democracy so long as the government does not have a monopoly on the use of force, and that this can only be established by armed force.
And yet, no actor can guarantee that Haftar would cede power to a democratically elected government were he to have full control. If anything, the signs point to moves he is making already to bring more aspects of the economy under his control. On the other side, the Monitor notes that the Islamist rhetoric on the radio in Tripoli sounds increasingly like Erdogan’s talking points. In the meantime, analyst Claudia Gazzini reports there is no progress on elections, no parliamentary oversight and rampant cronyism and embezzlement plaguing the country.
To be sure, Haftar’s model is not as anti-Islamist as he makes himself out to be. Rather, the article suggests, taking a page out of the Saudi playbook, Haftar could make a deal with extremist Salafists who eschew political involvement. Like in Saudi Arabia, the Salafists get fully dominance over the religious sphere while they remain entirely loyal to the political leadership.
Libyans must decide their own fate. However, it increasingly seems this is not being left up to them.
Libya analyst Jalel Harchaoui warns that the current lull in the violence is the “quiet before the storm” and expects “The next phase of the war… to be much more intense,” Harchaoui points to the “The physical amount of foreign weaponry and foreign manpower injected into Libya over the last five to six weeks, on both sides, is absolutely without precedent.”
Indeed, it seems, from looking at flight traffic from Syria to Benghazi in LNA-held territory that Russia is sending additional mercenaries. At the same time, there continued reports of Syrian fighters being shipped in to Tripoli by Turkey, as well as the advanced capabilities Turkey is bringing with it (air defence systems, jamming systems, etc.) meant to ensure the continued survival of the GNA.
While the rationale of Turkey might be to de-escalate and force Haftar to reach a political solution, Harchaoui warns this might lead to an opposite effect. He suggests the UAE, Haftar’s main backer, could push for a “shock and awe kind of assault from the air, to overwhelm whatever Turkey has been able to install since December. It could also use heavy artillery, which hasn’t really been used in the last 10 months”.
In light of these reinforcements, US Africom commander General Townsend commented that the escalation through the interjection of foreign troops from Turkey and Russia is leaving the international community paralysed. The US itself plans on further reducing its already small commitment of 6000 troops stationed across the African continent, a further sign of decreased US influence in a chaotic region.
Harchaoui notes he does not “see any effort that is genuine and forceful in terms of diplomatic push from any Western nation….The U.S. has clearly shown that it doesn’t care. Russia is very limited, and the EU is completely caught in a very binary, simplistic and mostly false depiction of what is about to happen.”
Perhaps more than just indifference, other experts point out that European states especially France and Italy, have even played a destructive role in Libya for years. They also point out that Turkey initially entered the conflict to protect billions in investments and contracts signed during the Gaddafi era, along with its natural affinity for Islamist-leaning regimes. Erdogan has said multiple times he sees no military solution for Libya. However, at the same time, he is sending thousands of Syrian fighters, including Islamic extremists, to prop up the GNA. This in turn, makes some European supporters of the GNA think twice, such as Germany, and when taken together with Turkey’s moves in the Eastern Mediterranean, has already caused Cyprus and Greece to shift their support to Haftar.
In the meantime, Harchaoui points that out everyone seems hesitant to call out the UAE for its backing of Haftar, along with France and Russia. While the various international actors calculated their increased support for their proxy was meant to deescalate, the end result might be only further escalation, death and destruction. In this scenario, it will be the Europeans who will be held partially responsible for not working harder to end the foreign involvement in the conflict.
Libya expert Frederic Wehrey writes that the international community must stop Haftar in order to end the bloodshed. Wehrey notes that continuing support for Haftar from the UAE, Russia and even tacit support from the United States is worsening the suffering of average Libyans. Imediately after the Berlin conference, Haftar’s militias killed 11 GNA fighters near Sirte, breaking what was already a shaky ceasefire and continues his attack on Tripoli.
Wehrey describes Haftar’s initial success in light of the GNA’s lack of popularity and it being “inept and beholden to corrupt militias”. However, Haftar’s move to take control of Libya torpedoed what looked to be a promising process underway led by the UN to bring into power a functioning government and address the “militias menace”. Haftar has managed to portray himself as an authoritarian and anti-Islamist, thus gaining support from key Arab states like the UAE, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The French as well, seeking to contain Islamic terrorism to Africa, also see Haftar as a stabilizing force and provide him with clandestine military aid.
However, due to Haftar’s ineffectiveness, he was not able to take Tripoli, even with significant foreign military backing. After tens of thousands were displaces, and thousands killed, including hundreds of civilians, Russia, sensing a geopolitical opportunity, began sending in mercenaries in September to help break the stalemate. With each move, Wehrey describes, Russia gradually increases its control over Haftar and pushes him into a ceasefire that suits Moscow’s interests more than anyone. That is, until Haftar walked out of Moscow without agreeing to a truce.
Russia’s increased involvement led Turkey to up it’s own involvement, forcing Libya to back its controversial claims to Eastern Mediterranean energy stores.
Wehrey concludes that the “much hyped” Berlin summit failed to formalize the ceasefire, and emboldened by arms from his backers, continues his offensive and shut down a big part of Libya’s oil exports, risking the country’s economic stability.
Wehrey calls on the international community to stop Haftar in order to “avoid catastrophe”, noting one GNA commander told him that “Haftar will not accept a ceasefire unless America twists his ear”. Wehrey specifically called on the United States to clarify its policy and apply its “unique leverage” to stop Haftar from illegally selling oil on the global market and not through the NOC, get the UAE and other backers to cease their shipments of arms, and back the UN Security Council’s ceasefire resolution with punitive measures against those who break the arms embargo and who abuse human rights.
Middle East expert Ethan Chorin warns that the international community may be condemning Libya into solidifying the split between east and west, LNA and GNA. Chorin blames the international actors pushing for various power-sharing agreements based on their own interests, whether halting the flow of migrants or stopping ISIS, and not necessarily finding what is best for Libyans.
Chorin explains the Berlin conference failed because the two sides to the conflict are irreconcilable, the product of faulty handling of post Gaddafi Libya that left the country vulnerable. As the US and Europe then failed to finish what they started, Turkey and Qatar rushed in to “engineer an Islamist counter-revolution”, backing the GNA.
Chorin suggests that in order to bring stability to Libya, the European powers must finish what they started: disarm Tripoli’s militias. Haftar, he says, defeated ISIS and Al-Qaeda and proceeded to consolidate power over the east and south of the country. However, the continued failure of the Europeans and Americans to play a constructive role left room for Moscow and Ankara to sweep in, and push their own interests, which include undermining the West.
As the region’s leaders are distracted by Turkey’s moves in the Mediterranean, it continues to send “planeloads” of Syrian militia fighters, many of whom are Islamists, as well as sophisticated arms to counter the LNA’s advantages.
Chorin predicts that what could result is a permanent division of Libya into Turkish-controlled West and a Russian-influenced East, something each country can live with. Both regions have energy reserves, Russia could establish a military base on the southern reaches of Europe, and both would see their regional influence rise, with Turkey solidifying its role as the patron of Islamist regimes. Meanwhile, Russia sells advanced arms to NATO Turkey, and Turkey helps Russia bypass the Ukraine and pump its gas into Europe, all in efforts to undercut the EU, NATO and the US’ influence. As this happens, Tripoli will be controlled by Islamists and Haftar will move closer to Russia and Egypt, becoming another regional strongman. In all of this, Russia and Turkey will be able to influence and pressure Europe as they see fit, through controlling the flow of migrants and terrorists into the continent.
Libya expert Emadeddin Badi writes that foreign powers such as Russia and Turkey are fuelling the Libyan civil war, and have no real interest to help the sides reach a power-sharing agreement. Despite assurances and promises made in Berlin, the UN warns that virtually all the actors supplying the warring sides with arms prior to the cease-fire efforts are still doing so. The truce has, essentially, collapsed and the conflict has become fully internationalised. Turkey’s efforts to connect its moves in the Eastern Mediterranean to Libya have now dragged Athens into the conflict, indirectly, leading the EU to becoming increasingly critical of and distant from the GNA, as France has long backed Haftar to begin with. Badi claims that due to this dynamic, Europe has lost all credibility as a mediator for the Libya crisis at a time when Europe’s involvement is crucial.
The lack of European and American commitment and consistency has allowed Turkey and Russia to step in and fill this void, while the UAE sends more arms for Haftar, working to balance Turkey’s increased efforts. Libya’s future, he writes, has really been hijacked according to Turkish, Russian and Emirati interests and not Libya’s or Europe’s.
At this time, he points out that Turkey and Russia’s interests have converged and they are pushing a cease-fire that suits their own interests, turning their military and political investments into economic and strategic gains. The UAE’s own interests must also be taken into account. We will add that this goes along with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, who prop up Haftar as a force willing to take on Islamists – ISIS, Al-Qaeda and others.
Badi suggests that what could result is some temporary stability in which the foreign powers agree to apportion Libya’s various assets, essentially spheres of influence - basically split up the country. This would grant economic contracts, energy infrastructure, naval ports and air bases to each foreign power in their part of Libya. With this possible outcome in mind, the Libya crisis will never truly be solved as the various foreign powers don’t see a need to end it, quite the opposite.
We agree with Badi’s assessment. We have written multiple times on this site that the European powers and United States, working with the UN, must take a firm lead in ending the Libya crisis. Those powers currently involved in Libya, and who are increasingly expanding their role at the expense of the European powers, must reinvest in Libya, using much stronger diplomatic and economic tools to pressure Turkey, Russia and others to cease their interference. Sanctions on those breaking the arms embargo or on those sending mercenaries would be a useful and necessary next step in this regard.
Perhaps if the fighting parties realise their international backing is going down and not up as it currently is, they would be more induced to return to the table and reach an equitable solution for all Libyans.