Foreign nations destabilise Libya

Libya has been torn by conflict since 2011, when a rebel coalition with support from NATO began an uprising against Libya’s then ruler Muammar Gaddafi. Since then many foreign actors have become involved in the conflict, each pursuing their own political strategies. Since 2014, Libya has been largely split between forces loyal to the UN recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli, and the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Benghazi-based Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

In June of this year, with foreign help, the LNA were finally repelled after a 14-month offensive on Libya’s capital city, Tripoli. The foreign help has come at a price, that of the geopolitical interests of the intervening nations. These interests seriously threaten the chances of securing a quick and peaceful resolution to the conflict in Libya. And meanwhile the central Libyan city of Sirte is now where GNA and LNA forces are squared off against each other. 

Although internationally recognised, the GNA received limited international support until Turkish military intervention helped drive General Haftar’s forces towards Sirte ending their 14-month Tripoli offensive in June 2020. General Haftar and the LNA are themselves principally backed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt and Russia. They have also received support from Saudi Arabia, Greece and France. Although two main sides exist in the conflict, each side is backed by multiple nations who have their own geopolitical ambitions for the region. As these nations, particularly Turkey backing one side and Russia backing the other, become more assertive, the interests of international parties involved in the conflict are becoming more important than building a peaceful and stable state that reflects the aspirations of the Libyan population. However the fragmentation in Libya is not merely a binary contest between two geopolitical camps and although foreign interference is having a greater influence over proxies in the conflict, the sparring sides are not completely obedient to their foreign sponsors. With the growing geopolitical interest in the region and with nations becoming more willing to act on these geopolitical ambitions, reaching a peaceful solution that can satisfy all of these conflicting interests becomes increasingly difficult.

Although Turkey’s strong military intervention in January 2020 could be seen as supporting the internationally recognised GNA against a rogue warlord accused of war crimes, it has also been about increasing Turkey’s strategic influence in the Mediterranean arena. On the 1st October 2020, the UN registered a maritime deal agreed last November between Turkey and the GNA, in which an exclusive economic zone was created in the Mediterranean, providing both nations with rights to ocean bed resources in this zone. This has been a highly contentious deal with Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, France and the UAE denouncing the arrangement in a joint declaration on the 11th May 2020, arguing it infringes their sovereignty and rights of access in the Mediterranean. All the nations who denounced the deal have also been supporting the LNA in direct opposition to Turkey and the GNA. Any agreement to settle the conflict in Libya will therefore also have to satisfy the dispute over Mediterranean access. With these parties unlikely to give up on their strategic ambitions in the Mediterranean, it makes a peaceful solution less likely.

Russia has been supporting Haftar’s LNA because it provides them with a strong military presence on the southern flank of NATO. With both Turkey and Russia investing heavily in opposing sides to gain favour with a future Libyan government, geopolitical concerns are at odds with creating peace and unity for Libya. Neither side will surrender their interests lightly, and it is more likely they will only agree to a deal in which the side they have backed assumes power.

When looking at the involvement of Arab nations in the conflict, similar tensions arise. General Haftar and the LNA have been heavily backed by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and particularly the UAE. Qatar on the other hand is a strong supporter of the Tripoli-based GNA. It is important here to link the Libyan conflict to wider dynamics in the Arab world. In June 2017, a blockade on Qatar was imposed by Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt while diplomatic ties were also completely severed (largely in response to Qatar’s perceived backing of the Muslim Brotherhood). The opposing sides in the Libya conflict have therefore also come to represent sides in this broader political dispute. As these states currently have no diplomatic relations, achieving agreement on Libya becomes difficult. Even if discussions are held, the primary focus for these nations will be the opportunity to gain leverage in their own political disputes, rather than creating a Libyan peace.

For multiple foreign ambitions to be neglected in favour of peace, any agreement will need to be mediated by a powerful international coalition who can convince nations to abandon their ambitions in the region. However, within much of the international community there has been a lack of decisive action regarding the Libyan conflict. Germany has taken the lead in trying to build on agreements signed in Berlin in January 2020. The aim is to form a new national unity government in Libya before proposed national elections, building on promising talks held recently in Morocco, Egypt and Switzerland. However, with the rest of the EU being indecisive they have given the initiative to Turkey and Russia who have each deployed more weapons and personnel in Libya. The weakness of the EU has allowed foreign geopolitical interests to further militarise the conflict. EU policy regarding Libya since 2015 has been heavily concerned with containing refugee movements. Initiatives that funded local militia to hold refugees in Libya have fuelled violence. The EU has been more worried about preventing refugee movement than about building a strong and peaceful Libyan state.

Although the UK played a pivotal role in initially destabilising Libya, it has also done little to return stability and peace to the nation. In London, the current government views Libya in the same way as their European counterparts, in that British commercial and political interests trump those of achieving peace. As foreign secretary in 2017, Boris Johnson suggested to UK business investors that the now front-line city of Sirte could become the “next Dubai”, before adding “the only thing they have to do is clear the dead bodies away.” These comments, although crass and appalling, serve to outline the way in which international powers have been viewing the conflict in Libya – that the horrific human cost of the conflict is a secondary concern compared to the commercial and geopolitical interests of foreign nations.

No international nation or bloc has managed as of yet to cast aside their own strategic interests in favour of securing a peace agreement in Libya. The civil conflict in Libya has descended into an international battleground in which international parties are pitting their strategic ambitions against each other at the expense of Libyan peace.

The USA could be in a position to pressure intervening powers to behave better, as with the exception of Russia all foreign states meddling in the conflict are allies or partners of Washington. However the USA remains disinterested in view of the upcoming US elections.  With both Turkey and the UAE increasing the shipment of arms to Libya, in violation of the UN embargo, foreign powers are continuing to drag Libya into more proxy war and further away from lasting peace.

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