Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jan 18, 2020
While intervening powers, except Turkey, eschewed sending combat troops to Libya till now, they have nevertheless used proxies, i.e., militias and mercenaries, in pursuit of their objectives.
Active in conflict, disinterested in peace: Foreign powers delay truce in Libya

Soon after the Turkish Parliament approved the deployment of troops to aid the besieged UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Fayez-Al-Serraj, rival strongman and leader of the Libyan National Army (LNA), Khalifa Haftar, called all Libyans on 4 January to deter any possible foreign military intervention. These developments exemplify how rapidly the Libyan conflict has escalated since LNA forces launched offensive to seize the capital Tripoli in April 2019.

The Libyan conflict, beginning with the uprising against the former Muammar Gaddafi regime in 2011, is a case of how haphazardly foreign powers intervened in pursuit of their objectives. While the commencement of UN-sponsored peace talks aimed at reaching a long-lasting settlement between rival factions raised hopes, sustained skirmishes between the Haftar-led forces and GNA have stalled such efforts for now.

Added to this, it seems that Libya’s neighbouring Arab states of Egypt and Sudan have little interest in brokering peace. Instead, they have allegedly sided with Haftar against the GNA, defying the UN arms embargo imposed on Libya, opposition against the Muslim Brotherhood aligned Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that have provided military aid to Haftar led forces. Armed contestation between the GNA and LNA is not limited to land offensives, UAE used Chinese made Wing Loong II armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to strike Tripoli and has reopened the Al-Khadim airbase in eastern Libya to boost LNA’s offensive capabilities. Against this, Turkey siding with the GNA, provided its indigenous Bayraktur TB2 UAVs to obstruct the advance of LNA forces.

While intervening powers, except Turkey, eschewed sending combat troops to Libya till now, they have nevertheless used proxies, i.e., militias and mercenaries, in pursuit of their objectives. Russian mercenaries from the Wagner group are allegedly present in Libya in aid of LNA forces, their growing role has prompted the US to review its Libya policy. Members of the US Congress in November 2019 moved to introduce legislation against Russian entities aimed at restricting such mercenary activities. However, the US position remains ambiguous. US state department had initially signaled Washington’s opposition to Haftar’s campaign against the Tripoli-based GNA. Surprisingly, President Donald Trump later demonstrated restraint in condemning Haftar’s push for Tripoli, a move that undermines the legitimacy of GNA. Haftar, who spent his exile in the US state of Virginia, was reported to have good relations with the former National Security Adviser (NSA) John Bolton.

Haftar also enjoys the confidence of Egypt, UAE and Saudi Arabia as they share close security cooperation with the US in the region. Additionally, Haftar gained international support by committing forces against Islamists in Libya, making the strongman a viable choice for Washington that suffered a tragic attack on its diplomatic mission in Benghazi in 2012 by Ansar-Al-Sharia — an Al-Qaeda affiliate group operating in Libya. Even as several Salafist factions are allied to Haftar, GNA’s weak authority makes it a less promising alternative for the West that is confronting Islamist militants in Libya and its neighbourhood. Interestingly, Washington, alongside Russia, opposed a UK sponsored UN Security Council Resolution that called for a ceasefire and end to Haftar’s Tripoli offensive.

Apart from this, Sudan and Chad have provided resources, including militias and military support to Haftar. Reports point out that paramilitary forces from Sudan have moved in Libya to aid Haftar, who is known to be leading a force of around 25,000 fighters. France, an important power in North Africa, has been accused of tacitly supporting Haftar, even though it confers support to the UN-mediated peace process in theory. Although French President Emmanuel Macron facilitated peace talks between Fayez-Al-Sarraj and Haftar in 2017, the rise of Islamic extremism in the region that threatens French economic and security interests, has led Paris to provide Haftar with advisors and special forces assistance. This conflicting role draws the ire of GNA that sought an explanation from Paris when French anti-tank missiles were found in possession of LNA. On the other hand, Libya’s former colonial power, Italy, has demonstrated more caution in approaching Haftar.

Libya’s geographical position and energy reserves galvanise the interest of European powers such as France and Italy that, as part of the NATO campaign, militarily intervened in support of Libyan opposition against the Gaddafi regime in 2011. Since then, successive efforts to form a unity government that is representative of all sub-regions, including Cyrenaica in southern Libya, Tobruk in the East, and of distinct ethnic groups such as the Touareg in the south seem to be failing.

Adding to the complexity, despite the victory of liberal and centrist parties in the 2012 election, the influence of militias and Islamists remains strong. On the other hand, a long period of instability and conflict in the country contributed to an unprecedented increase in migrant activity bound for Europe, both from and beyond Libya. Under increasing pressure from its member states to act, the European Union (EU) is funding coast guard operations of the Tripoli-based government that in turn has delegated part of its duties to militia leaders accused of violence and human rights violations. Moreover, EU funds for managing detention center for migrants and coast guard operations have reportedly been misused by Libyan coast guard members and militias.

Foreign powers escalating conflict: UN

UN special representative of the Secretary General, Ghassan Salame, in a recent media interaction after briefing the Security Council outlined how this enduring conflict is affecting the ordinary citizens. While reiterating the UN’s commitment to put forward a comprehensive framework for stability in Libya that includes Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR), Salame conveyed dissatisfaction over the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) failure to produce a ceasefire resolution. Salame also cautioned against any possible deployment of troops by Turkey, stating that further foreign involvement would only worsen the state of affairs. He underlined that Libya is already “suffering too much” from foreign intervention, where foreign powers are arming, aiding rival factions in line with their strategic interests and ambitions.

The opinion of neighbouring Algeria that is recovering from anti-government protests is noteworthy in the rapidly evolving situation. Algeria, under the new leadership of Abdelmadjid Tebboune, has indicated its support for the Fayez al-Serraj led GNA. As this emergent cooperation between Turkey, Qatar, and now Algeria in support of GNA is beginning to take shape, it is likely that UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, that are resisting the burgeoning Turkish influence in the region, would expand their roles in Libya further.

Therefore, various imperatives, including the struggle for regional dominance and their ideological affiliations, would influence the strategic calculus of these intervening powers in the Libyan war. In such challenging times, there emerges a need to develop a fundamental understanding on limiting the role of these intervening powers at the forthcoming Berlin conference, and move towards an alternative mechanism that is in line with the UN special representative’s plan.

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