The great Libyan game


Peace, Security & Defence

Until recently, the fierce competition for power among Libya’s rival factions has resulted in military and political stalemate. Of the three governments and the complex assortment of armed blocs vying for power, none has proven strong enough to achieve a decisive military victory, yet each is too strong to accept a compromise that can end the fighting. 

External actors with interests in Libya’s social and economic dynamics have pursued a range of policies that, to this point, have only entrenched the face-off. But now, those sponsoring General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) may be having the greatest effect on Libya’s future. If Libya’s current security trends continue, European states would be wise to think about their relationships with Haftar pragmatically but cautiously. 

Up until this point, the fighting between the major factions in Libya has largely been shadow boxing. Haftar’s forces in the east and militias affiliated with the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in the west have each largely been consumed with consolidating power in their own regions. But lately the political and military momentum on the ground in Libya has begun to shift in favour of Haftar, the powerful self-appointed military commander who controls the eastern half of the country in collaboration with the Tobruk-based House of Representatives. 

Having expanded their control over parts of central Libya, Haftar’s forces achieved a major victory this summer by securing Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city, after years of bloody street-to-street fighting against Islamist militias. With more territory under his belt and victory over his most troublesome enemies in the east, Haftar is now free to take on the GNA and its embattled leader Fayez Serraj.

Outside actors should be cautious about rushing Libyans into elections, given that contested electoral results in 2014 fuelled civil violence

Recent events suggest a grisly and bloody fight could lie ahead. Forces on both sides appear to be preparing for an expansion of the conflict. In May, a GNA-aligned militia launched a surprise assault on a military base in southern Libya controlled by Haftar, capturing more than 140 troops and civilians and later killing them in a mass execution. While Serraj denounced the attack and suspended his defence minister, the grisly episode demonstrated the GNA’s deep internal divisions. The GNA largely relies on the mercurial loyalties of militias to fight in its name while its control over Tripoli and western Libya is nominal. The worst may well be ahead if Haftar makes good on his threats to resolve the conflict through military force and pushes the LNA out of its eastern strongholds to try to seize Tripoli and other areas of western Libya, where two-thirds of Libya’s population lives. 

While Haftar and Serraj have agreed in negotiations with European leaders to implement a ceasefire and to work towards holding new national elections, there are deep apprehensions both inside and outside of Libya about whether a sustainable political equilibrium can be found. Even if a safe, credible vote could be organised, there is little chance the losing parties would lay down their arms and accept the outcome. In fact, outside actors should be cautious about rushing Libyans into elections, given that contested electoral results in 2014 fuelled civil violence. Moreover, Haftar has stated his interest in running for the presidency, furthering fears that his ultimate political intentions are to impose military rule over the splintered country.

These political-military dynamics are playing out against a backdrop of looming economic chaos. Libya’s state budget is operating a massive deficit. The country has survived the civil war by drawing down its large cash reserves gained from oil exports, but those reserves are nearing depletion. While Libya’s oil exports have experienced a recovery this year – in part due to Haftar taking control of the major oil export terminals – recent production boosts cannot fix the situation in the absence of major economic reforms that reconcile revenue and spending. 

At the same time, international terrorist groups continue to present a clear danger to the West. Although the Islamic State group, or Daesh, has been unable to hold territory since its defeat in Sirte last summer by GNA-aligned militias backed by American airpower, it continues to operate low-profile networks in many areas.

Among outsiders, three general approaches to Libya have emerged. The first is diplomatic mediation – efforts at power-sharing negotiations attempted variously by the United Nations, the United States, and Western European governments. Such efforts produced the fractured GNA in late 2015, but have yet to inspire national political legitimacy or achieve actual reconciliation. 

The second approach is a mitigation strategy – attempts to stem the flow of smugglers and asylum-seekers sailing across the Mediterranean, as well as foreign fighters making their way to jihadist hotspots in the Middle East and South Asia. Ahead of national elections in 2018, Italy has become increasingly aggressive in its efforts to shut down migrant routes. In early August Rome announced a controversial deal with Serraj’s government that has allowed Italian naval forces to operate in Libyan territorial waters and help its coastguard block vessels, resulting in large decreases in migrant numbers so far. 

The Trump administration simply looks the other way as allies and partners in the Middle East play out their rivalries in the Maghreb

The third approach is direct sponsorship of a combatant – in effect, taking sides. At the moment Haftar enjoys the balance of outside patronage. Once ostracised from international negotiations and viewed as a power-hungry renegade, he increasingly enjoys quiet political support from European governments, including France, and even the US due to his eagerness and demonstrated ability to fight Islamist militias. While Washington once restrained the United Arab Emirates’ and Egypt’s military support for Haftar, the administration of President Donald Trump has seemingly relaxed such pressures: Cairo and Abu Dubai are increasingly providing Haftar with air support and supplies. Meanwhile, Russia circles the periphery, courting Haftar with promises of political support and likely arms and supplies. Other forces inside Libya also enjoy a meaningful share of outside sponsorship. In mid-August, Qatar openly played host to a delegation of GNA-aligned militia commanders. 

Washington has remained largely detached from these dynamics. The Obama administration, while putting some effort into mediation and political support for the GNA, as well as modest counter-terrorism capacity-building and restraining Arab interference, never sought to lead the international community in post-conflict stabilisation or peace-building. Now the Trump administration simply looks the other way as allies and partners in the Middle East play out their rivalries in the Maghreb. The UAE and Egypt have long jockeyed with Qatar and Turkey for influence in post-Gaddafi Libya, where the two camps have backed opposing factions. The continuing schism in the Gulf between Qatar and its Arab neighbours threatens to sink any diplomatic progress and intensify factionalism in Libya. In all of this, Moscow probably sees a presidential run by Haftar as an opportunity to expand its influence and perhaps carve out another foothold along NATO’s southern flank.

Haftar appears emboldened by his recent territorial consolidations, his Arab backers, and the support he is gaining in Europe from those that prioritise the terrorism threat above all else. Unless a viable political solution can be reached, Haftar is poised to exploit his strong position and launch a new and bloody phase of the civil war into western Libya. A collapse of the Libyan economy is conceivable and could spark a major humanitarian crisis. Given the trends, Western governments would be wise to keep lines of communication with Haftar open, but must be cautious as they move closer, encouraging him to use his leverage to craft a negotiated settlement with Serraj and stabilise Libyan governance without resorting to violence.

This article was first published in Europe’s World print issue number 35

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