The Beginnings of a Divided Libya: An Inexorable Fall to Frozen Conflict
The Arab spring or autumn as some might call it, witnessed the creation of new regimes, alliances and power shifts. The one country in the middle of it all, with no clear indication of light at the end of the tunnel, is Libya. Qaddafi was overthrown nine years ago, and since then the country has seen a long, costly civil war, and entered an era of warlords, defined by the lack of a central authority. Islamist terror groups became the prevalent form of local authority. The country has become a playground for international and regional proxy wars, where lines shift every day. Libya is where both the global and regional factional cold wars are concentrated, an uncertain mix of volatility. At the global level, there is the Russian-American competition, and at the regional level, a rivalry between the Saudi Arabian, UAE and Egypt faction versus the Islamists leaning towards Turkey and Qatar.
In recent weeks, the renegade General Haftar (backed by UAE and Egypt) was forced to retreat almost to the lines that he controlled before he launched his operation to take Tripoli in April 2019. The Al-Wefaq government, which is normally considered a part of the Muslim Brotherhood faction, not only kept control of the Tripoli region, with its administrative borders intact, but also recovered the city of Tarhuna, which was restored to their control after the withdrawal of Haftar's forces. Al-Wefaq’s forces recaptured the cities of Sabratha and Sorman, the then base of the strategic patriarchate, followed by the Tripoli airport; city after city kept falling to them in western Libya. Indeed, Haftar's forces were withdrawing from the territories they had taken ever since they had embarked on their offensive a year ago. What changed the balance of power is the direct involvement of Turkey in open support of the Al-Wefaq government. Turkey not just armed the Al-Wefaq government, but also provided air support and shipped thousands of Syrian Islamist mercenaries to Western Libya.
Published maps show that the Turkish backed Al-Wefaq attacked one region after another and city after city. There was even a widespread joke that before the recent attacks that the families of the fighters supporting Haftar were asking the Turks to publish their offensive maps several days before the attack, so that they could leave the city before the withdrawal of Haftar's forces, which is normally done without resistance.
The issue was not just that Haftar's forces withdrew without a fight, it was quite astonishing that the Turkish pilots targeted Russian origin air defense systems (Pantsir). Turkish pilots destroyed 15 Russian origin air defense systems, which reports claim that the UAE bought for Haftar. The Emiratis were annoyed by this and an Emirati broadcaster, who had previously spoken in defense of the Haftar forces, accused them of withdrawing and wasting expensive equipment. He accused them of not even trying to defend any of their territory, especially the strategic Al-Wattia base.
Haftar is widely considered to be heavily backed by Libya’s neighbor Egypt, traveling to Cairo for political and military support almost every month. In spite of that, Egypt's position wasn’t clear since Haftar announced the liberation of Tripoli position in April 2019. No official statement supporting this process was issued at the time. Egypt was not the only one being conservative. France was almost unyielding and significantly reduced its support for Haftar for fear of the return of terrorist militias in support of the Al-Wefaq government, and the West made a great effort to persuade Al-Wefaq to remove such groups from the political scene.
There is evidence indicating that Saudi Arabia and the UAE encouraged Haftar to initiate last year’s offensive, and funded the operation. It is not the first time that Haftar has manipulated his allies to benefit from one at the expense of the other. Haftar has close ties to both Russia and the US. He openly plays them against each other for his support. Haftar spent a decade in exile in Virginia before the US helped him to return to Libya after the fall of Qaddafi. Since then he has also benefited from Russian support.
Egypt is very invested in Libya’s future, largely out of national security concerns. Many Islamist forces in Libya are in direct contact with terrorist groups in Egypt. Egypt has been fighting Islamist insurgents for the last seven years in the Sinai, and terrorism remains a persistent concern. Turkish backed forces approaching Egypt’s western border can have consequences, especially with the current degree of animosity between the two countries. Therefore, Egypt’s approach to the chaos in Libya is from a national security angle, and largely defensive.
Turkey and Qatar on the other hand see the Libyan divide as an opportunity to expand their sphere of influence in the Arab world, especially after their recent failure in Syria. Turkey has been a ready supporter of Islamist political and military forces in the region. In addition, Turkey has also signed a sea border treaty with the Al-Wefaq government to legitimize its claims on the contested Cyprus gas fields in the Mediterranean. Turkey has quickly moved to capitalize on its new influence in Libya to make economic gains and signed an agreement with the Al- Wefaq government to develop a dozen oil fields.
The American position has been unclear. While they provide military and logistical aid to Haftar, they do not provide him with the international political legitimacy he needs. Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan claimed in a TV interview that after the start of direct Turkish military involvement, his intervention was coordinated with the U.S. This would explain why Haftar surrendered his positions without resistance and moved his forces back to eastern Libya. On the other side, Haftar currently has a shaky relationship with Russia, emphasized by his storming out of the ceasefire conference organized last January by Russian president, Vladimir Putin.
The current situation at ground zero is at a complete standstill. Military power is perfectly balanced between the two factions. Tribal allegiances are geographically divided between the East and the West. Both factions have strong and wealthy regional backers and global powers do not seem to intend to resolve the conflict anytime soon. Any advance at a particular point from one side meets a pushback at a different point from the other faction with international support. We are witnessing a classic protracted proxy war in Libya, with no clear sign of it ending anytime soon.
Thousands of lives lost, two thirds of its GDP gone, infrastructure collapse, and absence of the rule of law, with no domestic force with an upper hand to rule the entire country remains a sordid understatement. Libyans are in need of conflict resolution sooner and later. Libya has lost a whole decade, which has created a lost and deprived generation. Global macroeconomic conditions and technological shifts are putting pressure on oil prices, so if the country doesn’t resolve its domestic issues soon, it will be staring at either a severe humanitarian crisis or a border divide between the eastern and western parts of the country. The coming months will be decisive for Libya’s future, a future that unfortunately will be written by foreign powers and their Libyan proxies, not the Libyan people.
(The Authors views are personal).
(Ahmed Younes is from Cairo, Egypt and graduated with degrees in International Relations and Economics from the George Washington University in Washington D.C. in 2017. Ahmed is currently an analyst with the World Bank Group covering regulatory reform, access to finance for small & medium enterprises and political/macroeconomic credit risk).