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Grigory Lukyanov

Senior Lecturer at the School of Political Science, Faculty of Social Sciences of the Research University – Higher School of Economics, Researcher at the Center for Arabic and Islamic Studies of the Institute of Oriental Studies RAS; RIAC expert

Ruslan Mamedov

Ph.D. in History, RIAC Expert

In the spring of 2020, the forces of Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) succeeded in pushing Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) back from the country’s capital, seizing control of Tarhuna and Bani Walid and laying siege to Sirte on the coast. As part of Operation Volcano of Anger, the capital city’s metropolitan area was now controlled by the forces of General Osama al-Juwaili and Minister of Interior Fathi Bashagha, acting on behalf of the UN-recognized GNA led by head of the Presidency Council of Libya Fayez al-Sarraj.

In an article published back in 2017 called Playing Pick-Up-Sticks in Libya, we noted that external intervention was required to change the balance of forces that dooms Libya to a stalemate. Deliberately involving Turkey in the conflict between the GNA and the LNA acting on behalf of the House of Representatives (HR) constituted just such an intervention. Turkey entered the conflict on the side of the GNA. Since then, not only have regional actors continued to invest in the Libyan conflict, providing military, political and economic support for one of the sides, but they have also engaged in more stridently aggressive rhetoric against each other. Consequently, they have not so much advanced the resolution of the Libyan conflict as they have made Libya hostage to their rivalry for regional leadership. These actions consistently contributed to the escalation of violence and the internationalization of the conflict.

Until now, Moscow and Washington had preferred to keep their distance from the Libyan issue, but now they may face the need to become more actively involved in its resolution. This is a wholly undesirable scenario. Yet the risk of it materializing is increasing, since international security institutions in the Mediterranean and North Africa have become dysfunctional when it comes to political settlement, the groundless ambitions of regional powers and the unprecedented degradation of relations, not so much between Libyan leaders (who play secondary roles in this whole affair) as between Libyan regions, cities and population groups. Libya needs civil peace, yet this is something the war-torn country does not have. In the medium term, exceedingly cautious, not to mention wary, forecasts of the future of the global oil market see Libyan fields as both a tasty morsel for regional actors and a stumbling block for domestic forces. The fight for these oil fields will invariably provoke a confrontation between the country’s regions and between regional powers. Destroyed by the Western military intervention in 2011 and then abandoned altogether, Libya has become a hostage to the regional actors, a field for their rivalry and then a proxy war between regional alliances. Unfortunately, under these circumstances, we have to admit that we are only at the beginning of a very complicated and difficult journey, the outcome of which is not yet clear.


In the spring of 2020, the forces of Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) succeeded in pushing Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) [1] back from the country’s capital, seizing control of Tarhuna and Bani Walid and laying siege to Sirte on the coast. As part of Operation Volcano of Anger, the capital city’s metropolitan area was now controlled by the forces of General Osama al-Juwaili and Minister of Interior Fathi Bashagha acting on behalf of the UN-recognized GNA led by head of the Presidency Council of Libya Fayez al-Sarraj.

In an article published back in 2017 called Playing Pick-Up-Sticks in Libya, we noted that external intervention was required to change the balance of forces that dooms Libya to a stalemate. Deliberately involving Turkey into the conflict between the GNA and the LNA acting on behalf of the House of Representatives (HR) constituted just such an intervention. Turkey entered the conflict on the side of the GNA. Since then, not only have regional actors continued to invest in the Libyan conflict, providing military, political and economic support for one of the sides, but they have also engaged in more stridently aggressive rhetoric against each other. Thus, they have not so much advanced the resolution of the Libyan conflict as they have made Libya hostage to their rivalry for regional leadership. These actions consistently contributed to the escalation of violence and the internationalization of the conflict.

NATO and the West: Getting to the Roots of the Libyan Chaos

Grigory Lukyanov, Ruslan Mamedov:
Playing Pick-Up-Sticks in Libya

The meeting on the Libyan settlement held in Moscow in January 2020 under the auspices of Russia and Turkey and the international conference held in Berlin that same month stirred, at least somewhat, the morass into which the process of political settlement had sunk, but did not introduce any radical changes into the dynamically deteriorating military and political situation in the country. Given the balance of forces that existed at that time on the ground and the impossibility of reversing the situation through the military power of either side, both the LNA and the GNA forces used the hiatus to build up power and prepare for a new decisive clash. The Berlin Conference and its final communique were prepared virtually without any input from Libyan representatives. Consequently, no one in Libya took it seriously: neither Fayez al-Sarraj and Khalifa Haftar, who were present at the conference as mere figureheads, nor all the other actors in the Libyan crisis who are less visible from abroad, but are often very important in Libya itself. Even those who attended the Berlin conference as representatives of the states concerned perceived Germany’s peaceful initiative in a very subjective way: not as grounds for a consensus, but as a means to achieve a tactical advantage that would profit them alone.

We should acknowledge that the diplomats and experts both stressed the principles of political resolution, recognized the need for a ceasefire and compliance with the weapons embargo, and worked out the mechanisms and aspects of the settlement according to the “baskets” principle. This is all well and good, but it is also highly idealistic and utopian given the modern realities of the Libyan conflict. The only talks that had any effect were those on military security held in the 5+5 (five representatives each from the LNA and GNA) format. Sceptics called the entire set of Berlin initiatives stillborn or at least ill-timed, and with good reason, since as of the time of writing, these initiatives have clearly either failed or been suspended. None of the parties or external actors was ever going to comply with the weapons embargo, as weapons were delivered openly and non-stop in violation of the UN prohibition that has been in place for several years. The LNA’s support for Operation Irini, which is designed to establish a maritime sanitary cordon to enforce the weapons embargo, was not aimed at stopping the uncontrolled import of weapons into Libya; rather, it was a ploy to put pressure on the enemy. This was to be achieved by restricting maritime shipments of heavy equipment and materials from Turkey intended for Volcano of Anger, while the forces running the operation would retain their own supply channel through the Libya–Egypt border.

When the LNA is overtly supported by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Greece and covertly supported by France, and the GNA is directly supported by Turkey and indirectly supported by Italy, Germany’s attempt to reconcile the EU states and put forward a unified Libyan strategy is a clear failure. There is also a crisis of solidarity within NATO, whose claims to a regional presence and a guarantor of regional security once again collapse in the face of internal discord.

The successes of the GNA and Turkey that pushed Khalifa Haftar back from Tripoli in May–June 2020 did not change the settlement process for the better, despite the ceasefire initiative tabled by Cairo. Like many initiatives before it, Cairo’s proposal is a forced step, a response to the changes at the frontlines that has only one objective: to prevent the military defeat of the LNA and stop the GNA forces from moving East, towards the Libya–Egypt border. However, it is not only North Africa and Europe that are concerned about the escalation in Libya, as the United States is also increasingly focusing on the issue.

The increased activity of the United States on the Libyan issue is mostly reactionary and not something based on a clear understanding of its own interests and a clearly articulated strategy. Instead, it is largely based on the need to respond to the situation surrounding the Libyan conflict and to the demands to intervene voiced by official allies and partners. Libya is a highly toxic issue that has remained on the periphery of Washington’s regional policies since 2012, when the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was attacked and its ambassador killed. All the political forces in the country sought to distance themselves from it. It was true of the Democrats under Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who were directly responsible for the policies that resulted in the collapse of Libyan statehood and the deaths of American citizens after the war had allegedly ended and peace had allegedly been established. Similarly, the Republicans under Donald Trump have not advanced the Libyan issue, with the exception of one of its aspects: combating international terrorism as embodied by Islamic State (a terrorist organization that is banned in Russia). This goal was an integral part of the electoral promises of the 45th president of the United States and could not, therefore, be abolished.

The current U.S. policy on Libya is affected by the turbulence in Washington’s relations with Ankara and is focused on searching for ways to counteract Moscow’s initiatives, or at least what it perceives to be Moscow’s initiatives. There are, however, other actors that the United States must account for, specifically Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. The Americans have to ask themselves what the real interests of their country are, and also analyse their previous actions, especially since there are two candidates for the position of Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General in Libya recently vacated by Ghassan Salamé. One is the American Stephanie Turco Williams, who is currently the Deputy Special Representative and acting head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya. Many do not like her as a candidate, and Moscow, too, has doubts about her. The post-Cold War era produced great expectations, when the management (not settlement) of any regional conflict could not be imagined without the main regional “gendarme” (with dozens of military bases in the region — sic!), i.e., the United States. Yet these expectations do not cancel out the fresh memories of the results of U.S. involvement in Iraq, Syria and Libya itself.

In June 2020, former director of Central Intelligence (1991–1993) and United States Secretary of Defense (2006–2011), Robert M. Gates published an article in which he noted that the Libyan case could be viewed as an example of a poorly planned military intervention that had catastrophic consequences.

As the head of the Pentagon in 2011, Gates himself opposed the operation against Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, yet President Obama decided to intervene. According to Gates, back then, the administration made two strategic mistakes. First, it agreed to expand NATO’s original humanitarian mission. The second strategic mistake was the Obama administration’s inability to assume at least some international function to restore order and create a workable post-Gaddafi government. Gates stated that expanding NATO’s mission ultimately resulted in moving away from the original objectives towards toppling the regime, while Gaddafi posed no threat to U.S. interests. Gates notes that, due to the complete collapse of Gaddafi’s government, over 20,000 man-portable air-defence systems (MANPADs) and countless other weapons from his arsenal spread throughout Africa and the Middle East, caused a civil war in 2014, plunged Libya into chaos for years, strengthened ISIS’ positions and gave Russia the opportunity to claim the role of leader in deciding the future of the country. Libya is still plagued by disorder and chaos. The U.S. military campaign in Libya, like those in Somalia, Haiti, Afghanistan and Iraq, went beyond its original objective, but it caused only trouble and problems. This assessment of the 2011 events coming from a former U.S. Secretary of Defence brings us back to the destruction of statehood by an external force as a result of both the incorrect assessment of objectives during an operation and the lack of strategic planning with regard to rebuilding this statehood after the military operation ends.

Today, the U.S. policy in Libya is also dictated by the lack of a strategic vision and, consequently, offers nothing positive to other parties concerned. Moreover, the “doublespeak” in the spirit of the Cold War, typical for U.S. politics today, has a highly destructive influence on the very process of trying to find a way out of the impasse. At the same time, given that the regional policy of the United States still has considerable capabilities, such near-sightedness can produce unpredictable consequences.

Despite this, if the United States does come down on one side of the conflict, it still risks facing opposition from those partner states that have long defined their interests and are on different sides of the Libyan conflict. This applies to both NATO allies and regional partners.

Escalation of the Regional Confrontation Around Libya

The Libyan crisis, which has always been characterized by a kind of “stable instability” [2], turned out to be not only a “hard nut to crack” that proved the ineffectiveness of the existing approaches and entire institutions (such as the Office of the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General) in the settlement of difficult internal conflicts, but also an “apple of discord” that brought the region to the brink of a direct clash between two alliances — between Qatar and Turkey on the one side and between Egypt and the United Arab Emirates on the other.

At the regional level, the LNA’s openly aggressive actions against Tripoli prompted the open intervention of Turkey, which used its rich Syrian experience to overshadow Haftar’s allies (the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and France) in terms of its involvement in the conflict. Ankara supplied weapons and military equipment, as well as military advisors and specialists, and Turkish officers were directly involved in planning and conducting military action. Aid from Turkey radically changed the course of the 2019–2020 military campaign and saved the GNA from direct military defeat in the battle for Tripoli.

The Syrian vector has become particularly important because, through its intervention in Libyan affairs, Ankara launched “Syrian Express 2.0,” sending Syrian militants from Turkey-controlled Syrian National Army and Idlib groups to bolster the GNA’s positions. In response, the House of Representatives’ Provisional Government of Libya in Tobruk became friendly with the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic headed by Bashar al-Assad, which opened up opportunities to coordinate efforts on containing Turkey regionally (in which Abu-Dhabi and Cairo would happily assist). A steady UAE–Syria rapprochement is greatly advanced by their resentment of Turkey’s regional policies.

Turkey entrenched its Libyan presence by signing a memorandum of understanding with the GNA on maritime zones, and a memorandum on security and military cooperation. Doubts were raised about the legal status of the agreements, and its very signing drew harsh criticism from several countries (primarily Greece). This is why it has never been recognized at the international level. At that point, then Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General in Libya Ghassan Salamé said that the legal status of the agreement on maritime border demarcation should be considered by UN institutions, particularly the International Court of Justice. A number of Eastern Mediterranean countries, including Greece, Egypt, etc., opposed Ankara's actions. What is more, some analysts note that Turkey could be seen as being late to act, since Ankara took no part in earlier initiatives spearheaded by Israel, Egypt, South Cyprus and Greece aimed at extracting Eastern Mediterranean gas and building gas pipelines. Additionally, the Turkish analyst Arif Asalioglu notes that SADAT, a Turkish security contractor close to President Recep Erdogan, is involved in Libyan affairs. Additionally, Asalioglu says that “former Advisor to the President of the United States Michael Rubin noted that SADAT had played an important role in suppressing the attempted 2016 coup. He also said that SADAT had trained about 3000 foreign militants who are active in Syria and Libya, for which it received governmental subsidies. Rubin also said that groups whose members had been trained by SADAT included ISIS and Al-Nusra.”

Turkey’s support for the GNA had significantly influenced the restoration of the balance of power but did not ensure a decisive advantage for either side. Khalifa Haftar continues to control economically important territories from Sirte to the Egyptian border in the East. The immediate threat posed by Khalifa Haftar has faded somewhat, allowing Tripoli to return to the topic of the redistribution of power and influence and uncovering the problems within the GNA and the forces connected with it. For example, it is no coincidence that reports have appeared about Minister of Interior Fathi Bashagha of the GNA and Vice President of the Presidency Council Ahmed Maiteeq trading accusations. Such discord within the GNA can be linked to Bashagha’s growing personal ambitions: a native of Misrata, he also represents the city’s powerful clans and groups. His influence in Tripoli is rising, as is his coordination with Turks. It is noteworthy that Bashagha was named among the persons who coordinated the actions of NATO forces and Misrata’s anti-Gaddafi groups in 2011–2012. Bashagha is believed to be the key coordinator of a ramified network of militias in western Libyan. His opponents explain his appointment to the office of the Minister of Interior by the growing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood (a terrorist organization that is banned in Russia) with whom Bashagha has connections.

Bashagha’s rise to prominence has angered both the forces consolidated around the HR and the LNA inside Libya, as well as their foreign political partners. And their determination to oppose their coming to power stems not from a personal like or dislike of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, but from understanding their own national interests, the interests of national security, and Libya’s place in ensuring and protecting them.

Skhirat is Dead. New Agreements or a Military Solution?

The escalation of military hostilities can be considered a “litmus test” for the deterioration of local relations between political forces, as can the ultimate erosion and steady delegitimization of institutions recognized in 2015 as a result of the Skhirat Agreement. Established in 2015, the GNA was recognized by UN Security Council Resolution 2259, which legitimized the Skhirat Agreement. The same Resolution recognized the House of Representatives, the Libyan parliament that was elected in 2014 and is located in Tobruk. The GNA was supposed to be recognized by Parliament, but it never happened. Under Paragraph 3 of Article 1 of the Skhirat Agreement, any decision taken by the Presidency Council must first be approved by the President and his deputies. However, as the Libyan scholar Mohamed Eljarh notes, it has been impossible to reach such a quorum since January 2017, since several Council members resigned from the Presidency Council.

Musa al-Koni, who represented the south of Libya, was the first Deputy President to resign from the Presidency Council in January 2017. At the press conference that followed, he said he was announcing his resignation because the Presidency Council had failed, as it was responsible for murders, kidnappings and rapes that had taken place the year before. Any decisions taken by the Presidency Council since then were illegitimate. Nevertheless, the split within the Presidency Council continued to deepen. On July 18, 2018, Deputy President Fathi al-Majbari resigned in protest against the militias in Tripoli, controlling military and security matters. On April 8, 2019, Ali al-Qatrani left the Council. Al-Qatrani was the council member closest to Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army, and he had boycotted Council meetings in the past. He also believed that the Council’s President Fayez al-Sarraj stood out due to his uncontrolled use of the Council’s powers to promote armed militias that “used the force of weapons to take control” of the capital city, which, in Al-Qatrani’s opinion, violated the political agreement.

While the Skhirat Agreement supported by the UN and the EU envisaged a consolidated Presidency Council that assembled representatives of various political forces and parts of the county, the withdrawal of these three Council members marked the emerging marginalization of Libya's South and East (represented by Musa al-Koni, Fathi al-Majbari and Ali al-Qatrani). It should be noted here that the legitimacy of the GNA itself and the Presidency Council as an all-Libyan body was lost due to the significant changes to the institution. The GNA became “homogenized” as it progressively represented only the west of Libya. Additionally, under the Skhirat Agreement, the GNA had a two-year mandate that expired in December 2017. Since then, legal gaps began to emerge in the recognition of the government in Tripoli. Haftar seized the opportunity and, in April 2019, launched a military campaign in the west of Libya with a view to taking control of Tripoli. In April 2020, he announced the army’s intention to seize political power in the country.

And what about the House of Representatives in Tobruk and the alternative Provisional Government it formed? Since 2014, this parliament has been the only democratically elected all-Libyan representative body recognized by foreign actors, such the UN and several international organizations. It also has some definite legitimacy in Libya itself. Until the spring of 2020, before Field Marshal Haftar announced his intention to transfer direct political power in Libya to the “army” he leads, the support of the HR led by its speaker Aguila Saleh, who had been quite loyal to the Field Marshal, was one of the cornerstones in the foundation of the LNA’s claims both to power and to being called an army, and not just an out-of-control militia, no matter how strong it was and how well it was armed. On the other hand, given the present realities, the HR’s deputies are very well aware of the costs of cooperating with Haftar and the fact that they have no other alternative. Just like in 2014, they will be very vulnerable if left one on one with the Northwest, which makes them stick with Haftar despite his unpopular decisions and tough measures.

Haftar’s military campaign in itself prompted a predictably harsh local and regional response. Locally, the groups from Libya’s west began to temporarily consolidate in the Northwest in the face of a common enemy. At the early stages, al-Sarraj played his card particularly well as he toughened his rhetoric on Haftar and the LNA. In turn, Minister of Interior of the GNA Bashagha became steadily more visible and independent the further the 2019–2020 military campaign progressed. He became a symbol of sorts standing for the “resistance to dictatorship.” Nevertheless, it is possible that this consolidation of the military and political groups of Libya’s west under the auspices of the GNA may be temporary and tactical. This is due to the fact that little has been done to overcome the major split between the natives of Tripoli, Misrata and Zintan, the three largest cities dominating the Northwest whose elites are not always homogeneous. There are reasons to believe that as soon as Haftar withdraws from politics, old differences will resurface and former allies will be ready to kill each other like never before. Even the Libyan ISIS branches that appeared to have sunk into oblivion may reappear. Incidentally, it was ISIS that assumed responsibility for several attacks on the LNA in the spring of 2020. On the other hand, it is noteworthy that, despite their differences and doubts about the current events and the LNA’s actions, the elites of the Northeast remained largely consolidated and relatively unified. The turbulent situation shows no signs of change despite the focus on Saleh’s peaceful initiative and draft “roadmap.”

Several observers hastened to interpret the lifting of the Tripoli siege and the GNA’s surging eastern counter-offensive as signs that the military resolution would soon outlive itself and the parties would inevitably go back to the negotiating table. This optimism looks someone naïve and premature. Haftar’s military defeat and even his complete withdrawal from politics will not serve as a panacea against all the ills plaguing today’s Libya, since the Field Marshal has never been their root cause. The economic and demographic disparity between Libya’s East and West, the lack of a common national identity, the mutual dissatisfaction of the elites and populations of Libya’s Northeast and Northwest — these are the reasons for, and not the consequences of, the ascendancy of Khalifa Haftar personally and the LNA as a project. As it is today, the GNA and the fragile and loose alliance of the forces of the Northwest formed under its auspices can offer the Northeast nothing but an a priori unfair redistribution of profits for the benefit of the majority. The Northeast, on the other hand, has large oil fields, the support of some foreign states and the country’s only legitimate parliament at its disposal. This means that nobody in the Northeast is waiting for “liberators” from the GNA, or for their Turkish allies.

***

Until now, Moscow and Washington had preferred to keep their distance from the Libyan issue, but now they may face the need to become more actively involved in its resolution. This is a wholly undesirable scenario. Yet the risk of it materializing is increasing, since international security institutions in the Mediterranean and North Africa have become dysfunctional when it comes to political settlement, the groundless ambitions of regional powers and the unprecedented degradation of relations, not so much between Libyan leaders (who play secondary roles in this whole affair) as between Libyan regions, cities and population groups. Libya needs civil peace, yet this is something the war-torn country does not have. In the medium term, exceedingly cautious, not to mention wary, forecasts of the future of the global oil market see Libyan fields as both a tasty morsel for regional actors and a stumbling block for domestic forces. The fight for these oil fields will invariably provoke a confrontation between the country’s regions and between regional powers. Destroyed by the Western military intervention in 2011 and then abandoned altogether, Libya has become a hostage to the regional actors, a field for their rivalry and then a proxy war between regional alliances. Unfortunately, under these circumstances, we have to admit that we are only at the beginning of a very complicated and difficult journey, the outcome of which is not yet clear.

1. Since 2019, they have officially called themselves the “Libyan Arab Armed Forces.”

2.K. M. Truevstev. “Libya’s Collapse As a Factor in Tensions in Africa and the Mediterranean” // Azia i Afrika segodnya (Asia and Africa Today). 2016 (10.711), pp. 12–20.


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