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There have been major shifts in Libya’s conflict in recent weeks, as changing dynamics in the country’s proxy wars have led to military developments on the ground that are fundamentally changing the battle lines of the war. Since the fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi in 2011, Libya’s stability has been challenged by internal cleavages and external rivalries. Libya has the largest oil reserves in Africa and has become a battleground for proxy wars over geostrategic influence in the eastern Mediterranean. Divisions within Libya and foreign intervention in the war intensified after General Khalifa Hifter launched a military offensive against the United Nations-backed government in Tripoli, the Government of National Accord or GNA, in April 2019.
It is difficult to keep track of all the foreign actors providing military and financial support to Libya’s factions. Currently, the scene is dominated by Turkey and Russia, as well as the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and France, and to a lesser extent, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, the European Union and Germany have made efforts to quell the level of foreign intervention. The Berlin Process at the beginning of 2020 was a solid effort, but it did not prevent external powers from continuing to violate the U.N. arms embargo and provide military support to allied militant groups, leading to widespread attacks on civilians. The U.S. position on Libya has been marked by contradiction and confusion, and the United States has remained largely on the sidelines in military and diplomatic efforts.
Beyond regional rivalries, Libya is quickly becoming a site for great power competition, as the United States and Europe grow increasingly concerned about Russia gaining a foothold along the southern shores of the Mediterranean.
General Hifter on the Defensive
After suffering several days of defeat at the hands of GNA forces, on June 6 Hifter announced he was prepared to take part in Egypt-led cease-fire talks. He made this announcement from Cairo, standing next to Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, one of the Libyan general’s key regional backers. The GNA has rejected the cease-fire proposal. Hifter’s announcement comes in the aftermath of weeks of intensified fighting between the Tripoli-based GNA forces, supported most overtly by Turkish military power, and Hifter’s eastern-based Libyan Arab Armed Forces, also known as the Libyan National Army, which is supported primarily by Emirati and Egyptian military power, as well as Russian mercenaries.
This week alone, the GNA forces recaptured the entire city of Tripoli, key air bases, and strategic cities along the coastline. Reuters reported that oil production resumed at the enormous Sharara oilfield in the south after Hifter’s forces withdrew.
Hifter launched a military offensive against Tripoli in April 2019 in an attempt to overthrow the GNA. This strategy seemed to be succeeding until Turkey inserted itself more aggressively in the Libyan conflict in January, following the signing of agreements on maritime rights and security support in November 2019. Turkey sent in Syrian mercenaries and began supplying the GNA with armed drones, missile systems, other military equipment, and military trainers. Turkish support for the GNA in western Libya has led to major military setbacks for the Hifter campaign. The GNA regained control of several key strategic cities along the coastlines, as well as critical routes between Tripoli and the Tunisian border and Tripoli and Misrata. Perhaps most critically, the GNA regained control of al-Watiya air base near the Tunisian border on May 18. This base was used by Hifter’s forces for years to launch attacks in western Libya. According to many analysts, this fundamentally altered the military realities on the ground and shifted the military advantage in western and southern Libya in favor of the GNA.
On June 5, just before Hifter’s cease-fire announcement, forces aligned with the GNA captured Tarhuna, 40 miles south of Tripoli. The city is a major cornerstone of supply lines from the Al Jufra air base in central Libya to Hifter’s forces in western Libya. On the same day, the GNA launched an offensive on the city of Sirte, another key Hifter powerbase 230 miles east of Tripoli, sparking heavy fighting. There are reports that 19 government soldiers were killed in the fighting over the weekend and that Turkish drones killed 10 civilians.
The GNA forces are on the offensive and Hifter is backed into a corner. As Tarek Megerisi of the European Council of Foreign Relations argued, “All of our bearing points are changing … It’s very unclear what things will look like once the dust settles. But this is Hifter on the ropes. It’s the first time we’ve seen him make any compromise or concession since he returned to Libya in 2014.”
There are some key dynamics to follow in the coming days. First, how will Turkey and Russia react to these rapid changes on the ground? Could a deal be struck between these two powers to implement the cease-fire on the ground? And what will happen to Hifter’s alliance base?
Regional Rivalries and Great Power Competition
Since the June 2017 boycott of Qatar by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt, Gulf rivalries have led to a cleavage between rising middle powers: Turkey and Qatar on one side and Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt on the other. In Libya, these regional rivalries manifest in a setting of domestic conflict through military and financial support for a plethora of armed factions. Given Russia’s increasing ability to influence the conflict, great power competition is also set to play an even larger role. Libya has become the site of a multitude of proxy wars. The conflict has become symptomatic of an international order in complete disarray.
Since 2011, much of the country’s conflict has been defined by disinformation and deniability, as argued by Libya specialist Wolfram Lacher. There are many narratives surrounding the nature and extent of foreign intervention. At an international level, there is also denial of the role played by the UAE, for example, by the United States, which has not acknowledged Abu Dhabi’s involvement. The United States is more preoccupied with Russia’s role than anything else. Turkey and Qatar have been supporting Tripoli’s forces against Hifter’s forces for several years, but Turkey didn’t begin to intervene more directly until the end of 2019. Ankara went to the Turkish Parliament to get approval for sending troops in January. In many ways, Turkey’s increased intervention was a reaction to the growing support for Hifter from powerful camps. Besides receiving support from the UAE, Egypt, and Russia, Hifter’s forces also have received financial support from Saudi Arabia and military support from France, according to Claudia Gazzini at the International Crisis Group.
Campaigns of disinformation on social media by Gulf states and powers like Russia aim to confuse and cloud any potential for serious dialogue between Libya’s divided society and the various armed groups. There is also a fixation on the worn and inaccurate Islamist/anti-Islamist divide in Libya, as the propaganda efforts of many states argue that Hifter represents a strongman who would put a stop to the regional expansion of Islamist groups.
However, actors do not fall along the lines of such a superficial divide, which is complicated by internal schisms within the GNA and Hifter’s forces, shifting alliances among armed groups as the realities of the battlefield rapidly change, and influence from various external actors. The recent rise of violent groups such as the Madkhali Salafis have military influence in both western and eastern Libya; they represent an especially significant part of Hifter’s Libyan National Army. Furthermore, each state has its own specific set of geopolitical interests in the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa, and Libya’s various factions have carefully set up systems of patronage and protection to try and ensure survival in the midst of a violent civil war.
After Hifter’s Tripoli offensive began, Human Rights Watch accused the Emiratis of unlawful drone strikes, including one that killed civilians in April, and reported that the UAE is Hifter’s primary military backer. However, as analysts have pointed out, it is often a guessing game as to which actors are responsible for which airstrikes. Rights groups publish the evidence they have available, which has implicated not just the UAE, but also Hifter’s forces and Egypt. A study conducted by the New America Foundation and Airwars found that airstrikes and civilian deaths surged after Hifter began his Tripoli offensive. Human Rights Watch called for an international inquiry into civilian deaths in Libya after reporting violations of the U.N. arms embargo by the UAE, Turkey, Sudan, and Jordan.
Fomenting the Flames of War
Both regional rivalries and great power competition are playing a role in fomenting the flames of Libya’s war and limiting the Libyan people’s ability to decide their own fate. Gulf states have intervened in various ways since 2011, providing military and financial support to both sides of the conflict. This includes primarily military support from the UAE and financial support from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Gulf intervention, coupled with Russia and Turkey sending Syrian mercenaries to fight on opposing sides, has even led some observers to argue that “the Syrian civil war is being fully exported to Libya.”
Echoing a Syria-like scenario, Turkey and Russia could continue to cooperate and settle on separate spheres of influence. But Hifter is a wild card. He has shown disregard for Moscow in the past, and he could be getting desperate. In a similar fashion to past cease-fire talks, Hifter (and his international backers) took advantage of the international attention on talks as a means to distract and continue fighting.
The United States has signaled its concerns about Russia. U.S. Africa Command commented that, “As Russia continues to fan the flames of the Libyan conflict, regional security in North Africa is a heightened concern” and it announced it may deploy a “Security Force Assistance Brigade” in Tunisia. A greater U.S. role in diplomatic efforts (rather than military support) could help, especially since it has allies on both sides of the conflict.
While the United States officially supports the U.N.-backed government in Tripoli, President Donald J. Trump made a phone call to Hifter in April 2019 that was viewed as a sign of support for his Tripoli offensive, as well as support for allies like Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia. On June 6, the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli tweeted its support for Egypt’s cease-fire initiative. While the White House has mostly stayed on the sidelines, viewing the conflict as more of a security concern for Europe, there has been congressional interest in Libya, as well as a desire to establish a clearer policy position, notably through the bipartisan “Libya Stabilization Act.” Given these recent transformations in the Libyan civil war, Russia’s expanding presence in North Africa, and congressional pressures, the United States may not be on the sidelines of this conflict for much longer.
is the senior Gulf analyst at International Crisis Group and a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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