Aspects of the Gulf conflict have trickled down to North Africa and fault lines have further hardened in various states due to their own internal political and socioeconomic dynamics.
After nearly 18 months of protracted armed conflict, Libya’s warring factions agreed to a cease-fire in Geneva on October 23, after four rounds of negotiations. The United Nations led the mediation efforts among representatives from the main factions fighting in Libya, who comprise the 5+5 Joint Military Commission. Soon after, Acting Special Representative of the Secretary General for Libya Stephanie Williams launched the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum process, emanating from the January Berlin Process and endorsed by U.N. Security Council resolutions 2510 and 2542. The first in-person meeting for this dialogue process started November 9 in Tunis and lasted one week.
The United Nations selected the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum’s 75 participants from the country’s principal political institutions and civil society. According to the U.N. Mission to Libya, “The overall objective of the LPDF will be to generate consensus on a unified governance framework and arrangements that will lead to holding national elections in the shortest possible timeframe in order to restore Libya’s sovereignty and the democratic legitimacy of Libyan institutions.” The meeting generated consensus on holding presidential and parliamentary elections on December 24, 2021, but it did not name a unified government to oversee the transition. The forum plans to hold virtual meetings to continue the process. Williams said that the following meetings would “agree on the selection mechanism for the coming authority.”
From November 10-13, the 5+5 Joint Military Commission held a sixth round of parallel talks in the centrally located Libyan city of Sirte, the current flashpoint between western and eastern forces (as well as their foreign backers). The political leaders of Libya’s two main factions – Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj of the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord, based in Tripoli (western Libya), and Speaker Aguila Saleh of the eastern-based House of Representatives, which appointed General Khalifa Hifter the commander of the Libyan National Army in 2015 – announced a cease-fire and freeze in military movements around Sirte and Al Jufrah in mid-August. This ended months of fighting between the Government of National Accord forces, supported by Turkish military power and Qatari financing, and Hifter’s Libyan National Army. These eastern forces are supported primarily by the United Arab Emirates, Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and France.
The commission includes five senior officers each from the Libyan National Army and the Government of National Accord. Given Sirte’s strategic significance in the conflict, it has become the permanent headquarters for the military commission. The commission reportedly discussed the implementation of the October 23 cease-fire agreement and how to build on the fifth round of talks that took place the week prior, especially the formation of military subcommittees to oversee the withdrawal of domestic and foreign troops from the battle’s front lines.
These efforts demonstrate a renewed momentum to resolve Libya’s conflict, but the question is whether key foreign powers like the UAE, Turkey, and Russia will abide by the terms of the new cease-fire agreement, notably that “all mercenaries and foreign fighters shall depart from the Libyan territories.”
The Role of U.N. Security Council
The Libyan Political Dialogue Forum’s decision to hold elections is a positive step forward. However, the more fraught political question is the establishment of a unified transitional authority to oversee this process. This remains a major sticking point. Moreover, the most pressing concern is the implementation of the cease-fire agreement and how to ensure that Libya’s various militias and foreign backers respect the terms of the agreement, especially the U.N. arms embargo. This has been the major obstacle to the effectiveness of U.N. conflict resolution efforts in Libya. At various points in the last 10 years, foreign powers have promised to abide by cease-fire terms publicly while at the same time providing military, financial, and diplomatic support to Libyan factions.
In a July interview, former U.N. Special Envoy on Libya Ghassan Salame accused members of the U.N. Security Council of sabotaging mediation efforts. After Hifter launched a military campaign to overthrow the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord in April 2019, Salame said that he felt “irrelevant” and “stabbed in the back by most of the Security Council members because, the day he attacked Tripoli, Haftar had most of them supporting him.” Salame argues that Hifter never would have considered such an aggressive move without the support of key U.N. Security Council members.
Even though Salame never mentioned the countries by name, he likely was referring to Russia, France, and the United States. Indeed, just before Hifter began his military offensive, he received a phone call from U.S. President Donald J. Trump. According to a White House statement, Trump “recognized Field Marshal Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources, and the two discussed a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system.” Then-Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan clarified that “What we need through General Haftar’s support is in building democratic stability in the region.” To add insult to injury, the seemingly U.S.-supported offensive took place while U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres was himself visiting Tripoli.
Russia was giving financial and tactical support to Hifter well before the Tripoli offensive, which transformed into a more direct military intervention through mercenaries. After the cease-fire was agreed to in October, Russian mercenaries were spotted in Sirte in early November. Furthermore, on November 18 Russia blocked a U.N. Security Council resolution that proposed an asset freeze and travel ban on the al-Kaniyat militia and its leader, Mohammed al-Kani. The group has fought alongside the Libyan National Army and has been accused of targeted killings of civilians around the city of Tarhuna. Furthermore, as Anas El Gomati and Ben Fishman argue in their analysis on broadening the U.S. role in Libya, “Washington cannot focus solely on central Libya while ignoring the ongoing buildup of military hardware and personnel in the east (by Russia and the UAE) and west (by Turkey). Moscow’s footprint in central Libya is only an extension of its larger military and logistical presence in the east, including personnel stationed at the UAE-constructed al-Khadim Air Base.” Russian mercenaries also seized control of Libya’s two largest oil fields over the summer to support the Hifter-imposed oil blockade, which has since been lifted.
France has tacitly supported most of the Libyan National Army’s military campaigns, including the April 2019 offensive on Tripoli, by sending missiles and other weapons, as well as by giving diplomatic coverage to Hifter because the French view him as fighting the spread of radical Islamism in the region. And yet, at the same time, French President Emmanuel Macron called for a cease-fire and the resumption of U.N.-mediated negotiations.
The support from U.N. Security Council members for Hifter was given while these powers all claimed to back U.N. meditation efforts to resolve the conflict. It is therefore unsurprising that many Libyans are distrustful of the recent Tunis talks and the parallel military dialogue in Sirte. For many, this seems like more of the same with scant signals that foreign powers will actually abide by the conditions of the cease-fire.
The UAE’s and Turkey’s Outsized Role in Libya
The overriding role of international powers in the Libyan war, as well as the geopolitical and ideological divisions among them, is perhaps the greatest barrier to resolving the conflict. Foreign powers finance and support opposing parties, in some cases supplying ground troops, deploying drones, and providing an array of military equipment.
Libya has become a key fault line for the rivalry between the UAE and Turkey in a geopolitical battle rooted in in the legacy of the Arab Spring protests, including battles over democracy and authoritarianism, civil-military relations, political Islam, and the regional balance of power.
Both of these countries are the most important backers of opposing parties, providing the most sizeable military, financial, and diplomatic support. This gives the two countries an outsized role in determining the trajectory of the conflict and the political future of Libya.
Through the use of mercenaries and weapons transfers, the UAE and Turkey can remain integral power brokers in the conflict at a minimal cost to the two states. In his report on “How Mercenaries Shape Libya’s Conflict and its Resolution,” Andreas Krieg argues, “Mercenaries have given international actors on both sides substantial leverage in the negotiations and a hand in determining the final political settlement, dangerously putting them on par with Libyan actors in their bargaining power … external actors are likely hesitant to surrender a discrete and potentially very effective lever of power to keep the balance in a surrogate standoff, making it harder for the UN to supervise the departure of mercenaries, which can remain in the theatre with plausible deniability.”
Congress Targets Foreign Intervention in Libya
The U.S. Congress has recently ramped up pressure on countries intervening in Libya. Just after the Tunis talks, the House of Representatives passed the bipartisan Libya Stabilization Act, which names the countries intervening in the Libyan conflict that are violating the U.N. arms embargo, notably Turkey, Qatar, the UAE, Russia, Egypt, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia. China is also listed because its armed drones have been used by opposing parties in the conflict. The Libya Stabilization Act requires the secretary of state to launch an investigation and provide “a description of the full extent of involvement in Libya by foreign governments [including] which governments are linked to drone and aircraft strikes” within 90 days.
Republican and Democratic U.S. senators have also said they will propose resolutions condemning the Trump administration’s proposed sale of F-35s to the UAE. On November 19, Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, tweeted, “The UAE is our ally, but there is no escaping that the Emiratis have a history of transferring U.S. arms to extremist militias, and have violated international law in Libya and Yemen. At the very least, we should not rush this sale through in a lame duck session.”
Libya’s Tenuous Cease-Fire
Despite these efforts, the Libyan cease-fire remains extremely precarious. Reports have already begun to surface about Hifter’s forces mobilizing in western Sirte. Even if political talks continue through the Libyan Political Dialogue Process, they will be meaningless with resumed fighting. Until the foreign powers intervening in Libya actually abide by the conditions of the cease-fire, withdraw from Libyan territory, and cease their meddling in Libya’s conflict, the underlying barriers to conflict resolution will not go away.
is a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington and a contributor to the North Africa Policy Initiative.
Biden will likely put weapons sales to the Gulf on the back burner, but, at the end of the day, the administration’s positions on arms sales will reflect continuity, not change.
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