With a mix of condemnation, maneuver, and strategic calculation, Gulf countries are navigating the current crisis.
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Almost exactly 10 years ago, a coalition of NATO members and partners began to enforce an arms embargo and a no-fly zone over Libya, in response to United Nations Security Council resolutions 1970 in February 2011 and 1973 in March 2011, which highlighted a “grave concern” over the repression of a peaceful protest movement that originated in Benghazi. Resolution 1970 called for an arms embargo and a travel ban and assets freeze on members of the Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi’s family and other government officials. Resolution 1973 established a no-fly zone and authorized member states “to take all necessary measures … to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack.” Thus began what is still considered a highly controversial decision by the international community in favor of military intervention in Libya’s 2011 popular uprising, during a period of unprecedented protests across the Middle East and North Africa that became known as the Arab Spring. The legacy of this intervention is still debated, as Libya’s last 10 years have been marked by armed conflict, systematic attacks on civilians, and an onslaught of political and economic crises.
But 10 years later, there is some room for hope. The fighting mostly stopped in October 2020 when a tenuous cease-fire was agreed to by the various armed factions. A U.N. political process, the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, began in November and led to a vote in support of a new unity government, composed of Prime Minister Abdel Hamid Dbeibah’s Cabinet and a three-member presidential council led by Mohammad Menfi. This government won approval from Libya’s divided Parliament, which met earlier in March in the frontline city of Sirte. The unity government has replaced rival governments in the east and west of the country, and its success so far demonstrates a notable institutional shift toward unifying the country’s disparate institutions. This new government has been tasked with organizing elections in December and has been met with overwhelmingly approval by the international community. Neighboring Tunisia’s president, Kais Saied, already traveled to Libya on the first official state visit involving talks with the new government, and major powers like the United States issued strong statements of support.
In mid-March, the U.N. Panel of Experts released its 548-page report on Libya, in accordance with resolution 1973, detailing the host of challenges confronting the new government. Among them is the continuation of systematic human rights violations perpetuated against civilians, especially migrants and asylum seekers, the presence of terrorist groups on Libyan territory, and the continued presence of foreign military forces in the country. Perhaps the biggest problem confronting Libya’s unity government and the international community at this stage concerns the arms embargo, which, according to the report, “remains totally ineffective.” This creates challenges for the October 2020 cease-fire, which needs to hold for the country to move forward toward elections and limit the violence and human rights violations that the U.N. report outlines.
Foreign Mercenaries and Arms Embargo Violations Remain Major Problems
A significant portion of the report details the extent of foreign interference in Libya and how foreign mercenaries and arms imports threaten Libya’s stability and the success of its political transition. The report underlines the presence of Chadian and Sudanese armed groups supporting the forces affiliated with General Khalifa Hifter’s Libyan National Army, which is supported militarily by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and other countries. It also notes the larger numbers of Syrian mercenaries fighting on behalf of both the eastern-based Libyan National Army and the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord in western Libya, which is supported militarily by Turkey. The number of Syrian fighters has varied over time, from around 4,000 beginning in December 2019 to 13,000 in the last year.
The panel confirms several violations by member state of the 2011 arms embargo in support of both sides of Libya’s conflict. On behalf of the Government of National Accord-aligned forces, the panel confirms multiple violations by Turkey, and on behalf of the Libyan National Army-aligned forces, the report documents violations by the UAE, Egypt, Jordan, Russia, and the Syrian Arab Republic. It emphasizes that “For those Member States directly supporting the parties to the conflict, the violations are extensive, blatant and with complete disregard for the sanctions measures. Their control of the entire supply chain complicates detection, disruption or interdiction. These two factors make any implementation of the arms embargo more difficult.”
The U.N. Security Council attempted to better enforce the arms embargo by passing resolutions 2473 in 2019 and 2526 in 2020, which authorized a force to inspect vessels off of Libya’s coast. The European Union operation to monitor vessels, initially named Operation Sofia, “did not have sufficient naval assets to conduct physical inspections at sea and instead fulfilled mainly training and surveillance roles.” This operation was replaced by a larger mission, Operation Irini, in April 2020, whose mandate expires at the end of March. While Irini was more successful in monitoring vessels in Libyan waters than Sofia, the panel notes instances in which its inspections were impeded by “Turkish escort frigates.”
The panel also identifies a significant number of suspicious “air bridges” that enable the continued supply of arms and funding to support military operations. According to the report, the key ones are operating between “(a) the United Arab Emirates and western Egypt/eastern Libya (HAF); (b) the Russian Federation, via the Syrian Arab Republic, to eastern Libya (HAF)” supporting Hifter’s Libyan National Army and “(c) Turkey to western Libya (Government of National Accord).”
One of the main stipulations in the October 2020 cease-fire was the removal of all foreign fighters from Libyan territory, which the U.N. estimates remains close to 20,000. The United Nations and the United States have issued unequivocal statements about the continued violations of the arms embargo as well as public condemnations of member states that continue to intervene militarily in Libya’s war. Time will tell if pressure on countries like Turkey, the UAE, Egypt, and Russia will successfully lead to the withdrawal of foreign fighters from Libya. All of these countries have expressed support for Libya’s new unity government and a desire for peace in Libya, but many of them have done so while continuing to ship arms and fund foreign mercenaries in the country.
Turkey has expressed its willingness to withdraw its forces once other powers do, and the UAE has also publicly stated its support for drawing down foreign forces in Libya. European Council on Foreign Relations expert Tarek Megerisi tweeted, “Rumours picking up that Turkey will withdraw its Syrian mercenaries from Libya. It would cost them nothing, as they’ll keep a formal presence which they attest is fully legal due to security partnership … It’s unlikely to draw a reciprocal gesture from Russia, UAE, or Egypt … because unlike Turkey they have no formal presence; unlike the Govt, Haftar’s LAAF would likely collapse the minute they left, and they still need it.”
This position demonstrates a key difference between the Turkish military presence in Libya, which was requested by the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord, and the foreign forces supporting Hifter’s Libyan National Army, which are viewed by much of the international community as supporting a renegade general that attempted to overthrow Libya’s internationally recognized government. Turkey and the Government of National Accord signed a security and maritime boundary agreement in November 2019 that appears to be continuing under Prime Minister Abdel Hamid Dbeibah’s new government.
A Turkish decision to withdraw, if it is made, will likely stem from what some view as Turkey’s comparative advantage vis-à-vis the new prime minister, with whom Turkey maintains strong ties, as well as Turkey’s desire to cultivate some political capital with the new U.S. administration, which is currently still enforcing sanctions against Ankara for its purchase of the Russian-made S-400 weapons system. It is no secret that Turkey-U.S. relations have been rocky, and scaling back its use of foreign mercenaries in Libya could go a long way in improving its relationship with the United States and Europe.
Is There Really Room for Cautious Optimism?
Some progress was certainly achieved in Libya after the October 2020 cease-fire helped to halt major fighting. The relative success of the Libya Political Dialogue Forum reveals perhaps even greater room for cautious optimism. However, the U.N. Panel of Experts report illustrates exactly how militarized Libya remains today as well as how unsuccessful the international community has been in combatting foreign interference.
For Libya’s new unity government to succeed and lead the country to elections in December, the international community must play a larger role. This relates first and foremost to scaling back Libya’s proxy war, withdrawing foreign forces from Libyan territory (or pressuring allies to do so), enforcing the arms embargo, and issuing sanctions on key actors violating international law. The new unity government will also be embarking on the tasks of reaching a consensus on the budget, attempting to demilitarize or at least manage the plethora of Libyan armed factions that have mushroomed since 2011, unifying key financial institutions like the central bank, and battling corruption and widespread human rights violations. The U.N. Panel of Experts and news outlets have reported on allegedly unsuccessful attempts to buy votes on behalf of Dbeibah in the Libya Political Dialogue Process as well as accusations of corruption against the new prime minister. It will be important for the unity government to dispel these concerns and commit to transparency in the lead up to elections.
The U.N. Panel of Experts report does not paint an optimistic picture, to be sure, but there seems to be a spirit of greater cooperation in the Middle East since President Joseph R. Biden Jr. was sworn in on January 20 in the United States. This could offer up a window of opportunity for multilateral cooperation and conflict resolution efforts in Libya. The question is whether rhetoric and diplomacy will lead to concrete changes on the ground. The comprehensive U.N. Panel of Experts report provides a roadmap for key changes needed, but as is often the case with expert advice, it is easier assessed than implemented.
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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