Small Wars Journal

From Foreign Interference to Failed Diplomacy, Libya’s Conflict Drags On

Sat, 03/28/2020 - 7:36pm

From Foreign Interference to Failed Diplomacy, Libya’s Conflict Drags On

Ultimately, Libyans will need to come to the table in a spirit of collective compromise to bring the war to a close.

Thomas M. Hill and Nate Wilson

Back in November 2019, the foreign minister of Libya’s U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), Mohammed Syala, told USIP that the key to ending Libya’s civil war was the cessation of foreign involvement. Yet, despite international efforts, foreign interference—from Turkey to the UAE, from Russia to European states—has only deepened. What’s next for Libya’s civil war and how can the U.N. and European Union (EU) play a constructive role in bringing the conflict to a close? USIP’s Nate Wilson and Thomas Hill discuss the EU’s effort to enforce an arms embargo, the impact of the conflict on Libyan society, Turkey’s involvement in Libya and more.

The EU has agreed to increase their enforcement of the Libyan arms embargo. How are these new measures going to be enforced?

Wilson: There is little likelihood that the measures will be enforced comprehensively or in a neutral manner. Different EU member states have different interests, as is well-documented. In order to stop the weapons, European nations would have to confront allies. Or they would have to risk angering Turkey, which has leverage over Europeans with its ability to manage migrant flows north into the EU.

Generally, Europe sees Libya as a threat, as a migration transit point, as well as a safe haven for terrorists. It is also an opportunity for European companies to continue to exploit Libya’s oil wealth. European military capabilities and will have long been dormant and it has enjoyed (although occasionally bristled at) the American security umbrella. American unhappiness with NATO countries’ contributions coupled with the U.S. strategic shift in focus, cause some Europeans to see Libya as a test-case for a renewed aggressive foreign policy. On top of that, there is  a lack of commitment to the arms embargo, which puts it at risk of becoming a “joke,” as the new acting U.N. special representative of the secretary general and U.N. Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) warned. These factors present a good chance to test a new EU stance: the practice of “raw power politics” and avoidance of becoming “losers,” as the EU’s foreign policy chief Josef Borell said. This has coincided with some calls for European boots on the ground.

The mission, EU Active Surveillance, has promised to enforce the arms embargo off the coast. But arms shipments via air and sea have continued to arrive as the initiative has thus far failed to get off the ground. The fears of the military mission turning into a humanitarian one to rescue migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean has already shown cracks in the political will. EU officials pledged to stop the mission if it seems like the presence of ships prompts more migrants to take the dangerous journey. The optics of warships turning back migrant boats is also problematic.

The coronavirus may have proved more influential than the proposed European military action. It has caused Libya’s East- and West-based governmental authorities to close borders (although there are reports of high-level officials bringing in foreigners with little regard to new regulations). Though the problem remains that there are likely more than enough weapons in the country to keep fighting sustained for a long time.

As Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) continue their assault on Tripoli, what effect has the civil war had on Libyan society?

Wilson: All sides in Libya bear responsibility for manipulating facts and overreaching when it suits them, as well as using severely inflammatory language. This is on top of the Qaddafi regime distorting the truth for decades to Libyan society.

The longer the war drags on, the more stereotypes people will have against each other and the harder reconciliation will be. For instance, people from Libya’s southern region, or Fezzan, have joined Haftar’s forces. If the fighting stops tomorrow, people from the south will be seen as leaning toward the East. These kinds of regional differences have existed for a long time and the war is making them worse.

But beyond technical issues like maintaining national institutions, a broader dialogue process needs to happen. Libyans need to come to the table in a spirit of collective compromise, not self-interest. Reports are that the recent talks in Geneva were marked yet again with participants more concerned with their own positions than the country. If the same people are engaged as before, the international community can expect the same outcomes—continued war and fraying of the social fabric. This will have profoundly negative impacts on politics and close space for Libyans to negotiate their national vision and identity.

After repeated attempts to broker peace failed, the U.N. special representative for Libya resigned recently. Could a change in representative help rebuild trust in a U.N.-led process, or is the resignation a sign of lessening U.N. influence in the conflict?

Hill: It has been reported that the next U.N. special representative and head of UNSMIL will be Ramtane Lamamra, the former foreign minister of Algeria. If true, this would be a very interesting choice. Algeria has tried to insert itself as a peacemaker in the Libyan conflict for some time.

In 2017, Algeria was a signatory to the "Tunis Declaration"—along with Egypt and Tunisia—which outlined a five-point plan for how Libya's neighbors could facilitate an end to the conflict and a commitment to convene a "tripartite summit" in Algiers. In January, Algeria organized a meeting of the foreign ministers from six Maghreb and Sahel states (Tunisia, Egypt, Chad, Mali, Sudan, and Niger) to discuss ways to end foreign influence in Libya and maintain territorial integrity. 

The January meeting was largely seen as a way for Algeria (and others) to rebuff the higher-profile conference on Libya held one week earlier in Berlin. Following a visit in February of new Tunisian President Kais Saied, Algeria and Tunisia announced their intention to host a meeting of Libya's tribal leaders. If Lamamra is the U.N.'s choice to lead UNSMIL, will he try to create more opportunities for Algiers to be the principal intermediary and peacemaker in the conflict or try to reassert the role of the United Nations, something his predecessor tried and failed to accomplish? If the former, does Algeria have the ability and leverage to pressure external actors and internal combatants to make concessions? If the later, I think the events of the past year have shown that the United Nations does not have the support—and perhaps credibility with the Libyan people—to resolve the current conflict.

What is driving Turkey’s involvement in Libya? And with eastern Libya officials recently visiting Damascus regarding Turkey, what’s the relationship between the Libyan and Syrian conflicts?

Hill: Turkey's initial involvement in Libya was motivated by its desire to regionally balance with Qatar against the influence of the UAE, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. The rivalry between these two factions has deep roots and very little to do with Libya, per se. However, the escalation in support to Haftar from the UAE and, more recently, Russia prompted Ankara to double-down on its support for the GNA. 

Many analysts believe that if not for Turkey's increased support, the GNA and Tripoli would have collapsed and been overrun by the LAAF. At this point, Turkey has significant skin in the Libya game and cannot pull out without losing regional influence and prestige. In November, Turkey and the GNA signed a bilateral maritime agreement giving Turkey an exclusive economic zone over valuable eastern Mediterranean gas reserves. The Turkey-GNA agreement was rejected by Greece and Cyprus, which both make similar claims as well as the EU. 

For Ankara, the conflict in Syria is clearly a national security priority above Libya—Turkish diplomats have referred to the Syrian conflict as "existential" to Turkey. So, it would not be surprising to see the Turks cut a deal with the Russians on Syria that makes concessions to Russia in Libya. In the final analysis, Ankara is likely to trade its interests in Libya for an acceptable outcome in Syria.

Eastern Libyan forces are currently blockading Libyan oil production to deprive the GNA of export revenue. What impact will this blockade have on the conflict?

Hill: The blockade of oil has the potential to be a significant escalation in the conflict. The United States has made clear that one of its core interests in Libya is maintaining the consistent flow of Libya energy into global markets. However, the collapse in the global price of oil means that the decrease in Libyan oil output is less impactful and therefore of less importance to the U.S. For the Libyan people, oil, gas and related extractive sector revenue is the economy, accounting for 65 percent of GDP between 2014-2018. If Libyan oil is not being exported, Libyans will not get paid (the public sector wage bill in Libya is 48 percent of GDP). This could lead to either a public backlash against Haftar or increased public pressure on the GNA to make concessions. Once again, it's the Libyan people who likely to feel the effects of the blockade most significantly. If global oil prices start to rise once again, the blockade could prompt the U.S. to expand its engagement and perhaps apply direct pressure on Haftar, as it did in 2014.  

This article is cross-posted here with permission (on agreement) from the United States Institute of Peace.

About the Author(s)

Thomas Hill is the senior program officer for North Africa at USIP.  He most recently served as a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution where his research focused on reforming civilian U.S. foreign policy agencies.

Nate Wilson joined USIP after stints with the Partnership for Global Security in Washington, and at the Mossawa Center in Haifa, Israel. Nate has also undertaken Arabic-to-English translation work and research for the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and the Reponses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland-College Park, as well as the Brookings Institute.