Since the fall of Colonel Qaddafi’s regime in Libya in November 2011, Libya has been witnessing unabated political, regional, tribal and ideological divides. Today the country’s political landscape presents a picture of chaos. The warlords are in full control over oil wells, ports, communication networks and large parts of Libyan territory rendering the UN-recognised-but-fragile central authority defunct. Libya itself has turned into a battle ground for the strategic and political battles of regional and global actors.
The emergence of Colonel Khalifa Belqasim Haftar as an ‘unchallenged’ entity in Libyan politics has proven divisive and has led to further deterioration in the security situation. Colonel Haftar is wielding authority not only internally but has been receiving economic and military support from major regional and global players. Since the launch of Operation Dignity in 2014, his control over Libya has gradually expanded to eighty percent of the territories, most of the oil wells and revenue from eastern Libya is in the control of his loyalists. In the first week of February, the UN-recognised government of Al Saraj suspended air service at the Mitiga International Airport in Tripoli after it was hit by missiles by the Haftar forces[i]
Growing External Involvement:
The war in Libya may have ended much earlier but for the intervention by a multiplicity of actors including foreign states, their proxies and foreign private military companies. The current situation in Libyan should be seen through the prism of the ideological and strategic entrenchment of countries like UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey in the country apart from deep-rooted economic interests of France, UK and Italy. In Haftar, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have found a strategic partner in their ongoing battle against the Islamists across the region and hence they are extending all material and military support to him Haftar also has a large number of militias on his side. In the last few months, UAE is reported to have supplied forty cargo planes loaded with weapons and ammunitions for Haftar forces[ii] and according to Intelligence Online, UAE has also sent around 3,000 tons of military equipment to forces fighting against Al Saraj of Government of National Accord (GNA).[iii] UAE-based Black Shield, a manpower recruitment agency, is reported to have first recruited Sudanese youth to work in UAE who were later sent to fight along with Haftar in Libya. This became known after the Sudanese government asked the UAE government to send them back.[iv] The UN has also accused UAE of supplying arms to Haftar violating the arms embargo.[v] UAE’s interest in Libya goes beyond fighting Islamist extremism. It is driven by its deep-rooted economic and strategic interests: it is planning to construct many ports in the coastal Africa region as a Chinese Belt Road Initiative (BRI) signatory[vi] and that could be facilitated if Haftar is in power. Egypt, too, has its security concerns as it shares a long border with Libya and large number of Egyptians work in Libya. Any political instability or security deficit in Libya would naturally impact the security and economic situation in Egypt. Many Libyan Islamist outfits are active in the Sinai region, which, has recently emerged as a hotbed of Islamic extremism. Egypt was one of the earliest victims of terrorism in Libya when in February 2015, 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians were killed by the ISIS. It is not a coincidence that Haftar launched his April offensive only after his meeting with King Suleiman of Saudi Arabia in March, 2019 and two meetings with El-Sisi of Egypt in April 2019. On the other hand, Turkey and Qatar are opposed to Haftar because of their ideological sympathy towards the Islamist forces in Libya. The hostility between Haftar and Qatar-Turkey duo can be inferred from the fact that Haftar had once refused to participate in the Sicily Conference in 2018 because of the presence of Turkey and Qatar.[vii] The Sicily Conference was called in November 2018 by the government of Italy but failed to make any headway because of the competing agenda of the foreign powers and multiple differences among the stakeholders.
Colonel Haftar is not only an ally of Gulf rulers alone but also enjoys the support of the French and Russian Governments, which have verbally backed the UN-backed government but are extending support to Haftar’s military operations. It was way back in 2016 when three French soldiers were reportedly killed while fighting along with Haftar’s forces[viii] and many of the weapons snatched from Haftar fighters were found to be French-made. The closeness between the two can also be inferred from the report that Prime Minister Al Saraj had asked French President to advise Haftar against his April 2019 offensive in Tripoli.[ix] On the other hand, Italy is working in close alliance with the government of Al Saraj and has accused France of being the reason behind the current turmoil in Libya. Italy has alleged that “some countries” are fomenting crisis in Libya to serve their economic interests.[x]
Russia, after an apparent victory in Syria since it entered the Syrian civil war in 2015, has emerged as a new actor in Libya. Haftar has paid many visits to Russia in recent past and there are unconfirmed reports that local Russian mercenaries called the “Wagner group”, nurtured by an oligarch, Yevgeny Prigozhin, allegedly close to President Putin are collaborating with the forces of Haftar.[xi] These mercenaries are apparently being bankrolled by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.[xii] Russia is reportedly supplying sophisticated weapons to Haftar-backed militias in their assault in Tripoli. Like UAE, Russia too has both long term and short term objective in Libya and would be eyeing major contracts in Libya in the health, ports and roads sectors[xiii].
The Berlin Peace Conference and Political Future of Libya:
After existence of two parallel governments for more than two years in Libya, a Libyan Political Agreement or Skhirat Declaration was signed on December 17, 2015. But the agreement failed to initiate a political process. The failure of the Skhirat Declaration was followed by a long lull that ended only recently after President Putin hosted President Erdogan of Turkey and Haftar of Libya in Moscow in January 2020 for a jointly drafted (Russia and Turkey) ceasefire Resolution. The ceasefire plan failed after Haftar reportedly insisted on a time-bound assurance from both Erdogan and Putin about the dismantling of Al Saraj-supported militias. In the backdrop of many failures, representatives of the five permanent UNSC member countries, UAE, Egypt, Turkey, Algeria, Italy, Germany, Prime Minister Al Saraj and Colonel Haftar and delegates from UN, EU, Arab League and African Union assembled on January 19, 2020 in Berlin to chart out a future peace plan for war-torn Libya. Apparently, the Berlin Peace Conference ended on an optimistic note after German Chancellor Merkel called for a comprehensive plan for permanent ceasefire; stricter application of arms embargo, complete disarming of militias and formation of a single government and free and fair elections at the earliest. Most of the Berlin recommendations are very much similar to what has already been laid down in the UNSC Resolutions. The agreement stipulates the creation of ten-member Libya Joint Military Commission[xiv] comprising five each from GNA of Al Saraj and the Libyan National Army (LNA) of Haftar The first meeting of this was held on February 3 as reported by UN-appointed envoy for Libya.
But subsequent developments in Libya have cast doubts on a successful outcome of this initiative. Just the day before the Berlin conference, Haftar’s forces took more oil wells under their control reducing the oil production from 1.2 million barrels per day to 320,000 barrels.[xv] All participating nations in the Berlin conference except Algeria can be said to be responsible for Libya’s current predicament. The Berlin participants are deeply divided and their motives are mainly driven by their economic interest. Two of the wealthiest nations of the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, two military powers, France and Russia and a major strategic asset, Egypt who participated at the Berlin conference are seen to be backing Haftar. The Berlin conference talks of setting up a ceasefire monitoring group. No such group would be meaningful without Haftar’s participation.
Turkey’s New Economic and Strategic Assertions in Libya:
It is no secret that Turkey’s foreign policy in the last decade has moved from a situation of zero-problem with neighbors to Neo-Ottomanism with an urge for Pan-Turkism and a Pan-Islamic ambition. First, Turkey was opposed to NATO intervention in Libya because of its deep economic interests. Moreover, Turkey did not want to lose the amount worth US $ 15 billion that the regime of Qaddafi owed to it for a long time.[xvi] Turkey had supported the Skhirat Declaration and promised all assistance to the GNA. Turkey opened a new front in pursuit of its interventionist policy when President Erdogan signed two agreements with government of Al Saraj in November 2019. The first was on the maritime border with Libya which gives Turkey control over vast areas of Mediterranean Sea- a huge reservoir of natural resources. The agreement gives Turkey lucrative rights to drill oil and gas in the northern part of Mediterranean Sea which is also claimed collectively by Greece, Egypt, and Cyprus. One Egyptian maritime expert has called Erdogan a marine pirate and other has said that energy deficit in Turkey is the biggest hurdle in the way of its Re-Ottomanism.[xvii] The EU has criticised the agreement and called it an open violation of United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), but President Erdogan on his part said that, by this agreement, Turkey has reversed the situation imposed by the Sevres Peace Treaty of 1920.[xviii] The 1920 treaty was imposed by the allied powers on the Ottoman Empire after the end of the First World War and led to the dismemberment and the partition of the Ottoman Empire.
What is likely to worsen the situation further in Libya is the second clause of the agreement under which President Erdogan promised to send Turkish forces to help the GNA on the ground against the Haftar militias who the President Erdogan has called a paid mercenary of Egypt and UAE.[xix] Earlier President Erdogan had promised to send troops. However given the Russian involvement on the ground in Libya and growing differences between Russia and Turkey in Syria, Turkey has postponed the plan and has sent only dozens of military advisors to assist the Al Saraj forces. There are however unconfirmed reports that Turkey has sent 2000 militia of the Syrian National Army to Libya to fight against Haftar at the payment of US$ 1000 a month. Egypt and its allies have condemned Turkey and the Arab League has asserted that Turkey, as a non-Arab country, had no right to intervene in Arab affairs. The UN envoy has also questioned the legality of Turkey’s decision to send its forces and French President Macron condemned Erdogan for sending militia and called it a violation of Berlin agreement.[xx] One may recall that when Turkey had pledged to remove Assad, it had the support of sixty-five nations including Arab allies and the US but today it has none as an ally except Qatar. It remains to be seen whether Turkey is going to suffer a similar fate as in Syria where it had thought that President Assad could be removed within six-months. Libya is likely to become a second quagmire after Syria. Apart from strengthening the forces of Al Saraj, Turkey is however eyeing to revive the abandoned mega infrastructure projects, secure energy supply as it largely depends on energy import for domestic consumption and finally use Libya as a strategic base in pursuit of its Africa policy.
The emergence of multiple fault lines amidst the civil war now appear overlaid by a new political trajectory that is now being shaped and determined by the rivalry between the GNA of Al Saraj and LNA of Colonel Haftar. Given the political and strategic ascendancy of Haftar in the country the political tide seems to have changed in favor of Colonel Haftar whose forces today are in controls 80% of the territories. It seems to be no more a case when British envoy, Jonathan Powell had warned in 2015 that Libya might turn into another Somalia on the Mediterranean.[xxi] Haftar seems to be in full control of the situation on the ground and all major economic and military powers are on his side and those who are not on his side (US and Germany) are not supportive of Al Saraj. His anti-Islamist rhetoric may receive more and more support from his regional and global allies in the near future. The control over oil wells and oil revenues would further consolidate Haftar politically and growing economic hardship might deprive Al Saraj of whatever support he has now. The prospect of Turkey entering the Libyan war seems dim largely because of its overarching and futile involvement in Syria. Further, Turkey would not open a new front against powerful and wealthy nations (Russia, France, UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia), which are in support of Haftar. Turkey has already lost much of its credibility in Syria and one does not know whether its economy would allow for a new adventurism. Finally, the most talked-about Skhirat Declaration seems to have lost its relevance and Libya needs a new beginning. All talks of constitution and elections have lost its significance amid the unchallenged onslaught of Colonel Haftar.
*Dr. Fazzur Rahman Siddiqui, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[viii] Three French soldiers killed din Benghazi Plane crash, BBC Arabic , July 20 ,2016, Accessed https://www.bbc.com/arabic/middleeast/2016/07/160720_libya_benghazi_french_soldiers February 20, 2020
[x]EU President accuses Franc of being behind the Tripoli war The Libya Observer, A Libyan English Daily, Accessed https://www.libyaobserver.ly/news/eu-president-accuses-france-being-behind-libya%E2%80%99s-tripoli-war April 8, 2019
[xi] Who are the Russian Mercenaries Waging War in Libya, Euro News December 18, 2019 Accessed https://www.euronews.com/2019/12/18/who-are-the-russian-mercenaries-waging-war-in-libya 10 February 2020
[xxi]UK Envoy: Libya could be Somalia on Mediterranean, Guardian, February 16, 2015 Accessed https://www.theguardian.com/world/on-the-middle-east/2015/feb/16/uk-envoy-if-libya-fails-it-could-be-somalia-on-the-mediterranean February 11 2020