Benoît de la Ruelle, associate member of the Mediterranean and Middle East Strategic Monitoring Centre (OS2MO).
The brutal fall of Colonel Gaddafi’s regime, a consequence of foreign intervention in 2011, certainly put an end to the Libyan dictatorship but it introduced a decade of violence and disorder that regional powers, local actors, terrorist and criminal groups have taken advantage of to further their political, security and economic interests. These contradictory ambitions have prevented the emergence of an undisputed national authority able to rely on the tribal network that is still important in Libya. After the fighting reached its peak in 2019-2020, a political process steered by the United Nations has finally seen the light of day and can pride itself on some undeniable successes. Nonetheless, the road to success is littered with obstacles and Libya today has several options to choose from, with some actors seeing a restart of hostilities as the best option for achieving their goals.
10 years after NATO’s Operation Unified Protector, is Libya engaged in a virtuous political process that will finally be able to put an end to violence and instability? As for the political and military dialogue carried on in Libya under the aegis of UNSMIL (United Nations Support Mission in Libya), that started at the beginning of 2020 and led at the start of February 2021 to the approval of a new Presidential Council, will it be able to change things given the upcoming legislative and presidential elections in December 2021? Will the Libyan people finally be able to enjoy peace and the riches of their country? Will foreign enterprises now be able to plan for a return to the country to pick up, or develop, their affairs? Will Libya cease to be the stage for confrontations between the different foreign influences? Will the foreign mercenaries who have arrived since 2019 leave the country? So many questions which will influence the future of both Libya and the Libyans, and the answers to which remain uncertain. The past inclines us to be cautious because of the many episodes of violence that have taken place over the last decade. Even if the positive signs are increasing and lead to optimism, some ambiguities that have not yet been clarified persist, harbouring a potential for instability. Good cause for optimism must not go without a healthy dose of realism.
A decade of permanent confrontation
A decade of instability has caused deep and severe internal wounds. To revise the principal episodes of repeated violence: revolution and foreign intervention in 2011; confrontations between Zintani and Misrati militias in Tripoli in 2014; the struggle of the Misrati coalition Bunyan al Marsous against Islamic State (IS) in Sirte, Derna and Sabratha (2014-2016); the LNA’s (Marshal Haftar’s Libyan National Army) Operation Karama, with Egyptian and Emirati support, against the Islamists of the Shura Council of Benghazi and Derna revolutionaries in Cyrenaica (2014-2019); confrontations for control of the Oil Crescent (2017-2018); fighting in Tripoli between Tripoli and Tarhouna militias (September 2018); interethnic violence (Arabs against Toubous) on several occasions in the south; Marshal Haftar’s offensive to take control of Fezzan (January 2019); continuous Islamist terrorist attacks throughout the decade.
These confrontations came to a head in 2019 when Marshal Haftar launched his offensive to seize the capital from the “militias who are stealing the Libyan state” and from “terrorists”, even while Antonio Guterres, secretary general of the United Nations was in Libya. As to why the offensive was launched with such a swift timetable, it appears that on one hand Marshal Haftar was certain of winning a swift military victory, and on the other hand he had no confidence in the national conference being prepared by UNSMIL because it was bringing his enemies (Gaddafi loyalists and Islamists) into the political arena, and he would have had to come to terms with them.
Within a few days of the start of the offensive, the LNA came to a halt at the suburbs of Tripoli because the Tripoli militias had made common cause and stopped his advance. The confrontations also took place in the skies because the LNA and the army of the Government of National Accord (GNA) of Tripoli were each able to deploy some aircraft that were used in a ground support role. The LNA suffered its first important setback after a local militia changed sides following the loss of the town of Gharyan, the site of a command centre situated 80 km (50 miles) south of Tripoli.
A Libyan crisis becomes a Mediterranean crisis
Between spring 2019 and winter 2019-2020 the conflict acquired a Mediterranean dimension due to the increasing, and ever less discreet, involvement of regional actors: for the LNA support came from the Emirates (UAVs and surface-to-air Pantsir missiles), Jordan (armoured vehicles and training), Egypt (tactical intelligence), Russia (logistics and mercenaries), Assad’s Syria (mercenaries), and Sudan (mercenaries); for its part the GNA had support from the Qataris (financial), but their support on the ground came essentially from Turkey, from May 2019 onwards (drones, armoured vehicles, special forces, advisors), but this support acquired a massive dimension when at the end of November 2019 two Memoranda of Understanding (defence cooperation and delimitation of maritime frontiers) were signed between Turkey and the GNA in Tripoli (leading to naval deployments, an increase in the number of advisors, the transporting of Syrian mercenaries from the Idlib pocket in Syria into Libya, and the training of Libyan soldiers in Turkey).
In the middle of December 2019, the LNA’s progress towards the centre of Tripoli halted because Turkish support for the GNA had become decisive and had reversed the balance of power locally. The LNA relaunched its offensive at the start of January 2020 in the region of Sirte, that it succeeded in capturing in the space of a few hours, once again because of a local alliance’s change of sides. It then continued the offensive along the coastal road in the direction of Misrata. The front finally stabilised about 100 km (65 miles) south of the city.
The spring of 2020 was marked by the advance of pro-GNA forces on several fronts: they took control of the west of Tripolitania, notably the airbase of Al Watiya, cleared the south of Tripoli, capturing the strongpoint of Tarhuna in a few hours and pressed home their advantage, pushing south in the direction of Shwayrif; in the east the front stabilised west of Sirte. The GNA was not able to retake control of the Sirte-Jufra line as it had initially counted on doing. Nor was it able to take control of the oil crescent, held by the LNA, because of the help of Russian mercenaries of the Wagner group who enjoyed dedicated air support (unmarked Russian MiG-29 and Su-24 fighter-bombers, stationed in Sirte and Jufra).
At the end of March 2020, the EU started Operation Irini, the successor to Operation Sophia. While the main thrust of Sophia was the training of Libyan coast guards, to combat human trafficking at sea, Irini is firmly focused on compliance with the arms embargo established by different resolutions of the UN Security Council, in line with Resolution1973 (2011). After a difficult start, Irini was fully operational in summer 2020 but the regular reports from UNSMIL calling on the international community to comply with the embargo show that it continues to be violated.
The conflict is also generating serious collateral damage: on the ground there has been the destruction of entire districts, large population movements south of Tripoli and the laying of landmines (to the south of Tripoli and around Sirte). In early July 2019, around a hundred migrants being held in a warehouse in Tajourah (the eastern suburb of Tripoli) were victims of a pro-LNA airstrike that was probably aimed at a GNA army maintenance centre. At sea, illegal immigration had been falling continually since 2016, thanks in particular to the Libyan coast guards trained by the EU; but from January 2020 it began to rise again. Finally, in the skies, desirous of having an independent appreciation of the situation, both Italy and the United States each lost a MALE UAV at the end of November 2019, shot down (in error?) by pro-LNA anti-aircraft fire, most likely by Russian speaking operators manning Emirati supplied Pantsir missile systems.
The dialogue initiated and led by UNSMIL in Geneva in spring 2020 seems to be producing results
Since 2020 and with the support of the international community, UNSMIL has sponsored many talks that have led to things moving forward in the areas of politics, security and the economy.
In politics, the various talks in Libya and abroad (Morocco, Tunisia and Switzerland) led to the election at the start of February 2021 of a new Presidential Council, consisting of one member from each of the three regions (Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan), and a prime minister assisted by two vice-premiers, with each of these from a different region. The missions of the new Presidential Council consist of unifying the country’s institutions and preparing for new elections planned for 24 December 2021, but also improving the living conditions of ordinary Libyans, particularly in regards to electricity supply and access to financial assets. Since its election in February the new Presidential Council has formed a new inclusive government of 33 members, approved by parliament on 10 March at a symbolic meeting in the city of Sirte. The formal transfers of power to the new council were made by the current prime ministers, Mr Al Sarraj in Tripoli on 16 March and Mr Al Thinni in Benghazi on 24 March 2021.
As far as the military is concerned, the discussions in Geneva of a group containing five military representatives from each side led on 23 October 2020 to the signing of a cease-fire, whereas only a simple truce had been in operation since the end of spring. As the discussions wore on over several months the claims of each side reduced considerably.
Economically the greatest progress was made in the ending of the blockade of the oil installations by Marshal Haftar’s forces, a blockade that had caused a loss of $10 billion from Tripoli’s budget according to the UN (at least double that according to the NOC – (Libyan National Oil Company)) over the whole of 2020. By the end of December 2020 oil production had nevertheless risen back to 1.2 million barrels per day, a level equivalent to that before the blockade. The lifting of the blockade by the LNA was only obtained thanks to guarantees on the use of the oil revenues and the creation of an account ring-fenced to the NOC, whereas beforehand the oil revenues had been used by Tripoli in less than transparent ways, especially as regards the financing of its war effort. Another advance economically was the agreement in December of common exchange rates between the central banks of Tripoli and Benghazi.
As a consequence of all this progress, encouraging signs are multiplying: embassies and consulates are reopening, even if only symbolically, airlines have announced the restart of flights and there is a marked economic interest in the country.
Ambiguities still exist
These high-profile successes remain fragile nonetheless, because two basic questions have not been dealt with. Firstly, the contradictory designs that regional powers have on Libya, and secondly the control of legitimate violence in the country. Despite the optimism it displays, UNSMIL is very aware of this. In its regular reports it never fails to remind all parties of the necessity for all foreign mercenaries and fighters to leave the country, and for the continued enforcement of the arms embargo.
Foreign fighters still present
Although the cease-fire may have been signed on 23 October 2020, the military forces available to both Tripoli and the LNA can still be mobilised at very short notice. Since June 2020, the Wagner Group’s Russian mercenaries have improved the defences of the terrain between Sirte and Jufra over dozens of kilometres (bunds, anti-tank ditches and mines) and more recently have done the same north of Fezzan to prevent any sudden attack by Tripoli’s forces.
Beyond this, there is the difficulty in being able to establish whether a group of foreign fighters is a group of mercenaries, or a foreign contingent invited by an official authority to help set up the Libyan army. If it seems simple enough to designate the African or Syrian contingents as mercenaries (several hundred of whom have already returned to Syria), it is easy to see that for Tripoli the Turkish contingent (which amounts to around 4,000 men) is a completely different matter, because according to the statements of both Tripoli and Ankara, the contingent is working to set up the regular Libyan army. On the other hand, it is perfectly legitimate to ask just how much control the authorities in Benghazi have over the Russian contingent. The most substantial contingents, the Turkish and Russian as a matter of fact, are therefore clearly present to provide leverage for their countries of origin and to help establish privileged relationships with the Libyan authorities. Seen from this point of view, Turkey has an undeniable head start on Russia because the GNA’s legitimacy is currently much more solid than that of Marshal Haftar.
But there are also other military contingents present in Libya: the Italians who never left the port of Tripoli or Misrata all through the war of 2019-2020, and who have recently strengthened their cooperation with Tripoli; similarly the British returned to Misrata a short time ago in the shape of contractors.
This question of foreign fighters and mercenaries risks becoming ‘weaponised’ and of not being addressed in the near future. And some of these contingents could become involved in a restart of hostilities.
The difficulty of controlling the militias
There is another difficulty facing the Libyan armed forces: in the west the militias remain very powerful, enhanced by the prestige of their victory against the LNA, strengthened not just by the equipment that has come in from outside, despite the embargo, but also that seized from the LNA’s depots when it retreated from the south of Tripoli in June 2020. Treated financially very generously by the authorities in Tripoli until the departure of the ex-prime minister Al Sarraj, they are theoretically under the control of the new government’s ministries of Defence and the Interior, but in reality they only obey their own local chiefs, all the more so because the new leader of the Presidential Council and minister of defence, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, is from Misrata and not Tripoli. The rivalry between these two Tripolitanian cities is still intense and a national authority that originates from Misrata but sits in Tripoli is living on borrowed time, reliant on the goodwill of the capital’s powerful militias.
To the east, the LNA has continued to receive enormous amounts of equipment since spring 2020, but the ones to benefit from it are above all those units most faithful to Marshal Haftar, including his son, Saddam’s, 106th brigade. This powerful unit regularly conducts air-land exercises with live ammunition, as if to deliver a message of resolution and independence to the provisional authorities in Tripoli.
Haftar losing legitimacy in Cyrenaica
Stable for a long time and in a position of strength, the political-military duo Haftar-Saleh (president of the House of Representatives and a native of Tobruk) has been losing ground for a year, since the failure of the military offensive that had aimed to take control of Tripoli. The Saleh-Bashagha (former minister of the interior in Tripoli) ticket has not succeeded since the beginning of March 2021in establishing itself as the new provisional executive. As for Marshal Haftar, he appears to be the big political loser. His support from the tribes in Cyrenaica is eroding and his only strength now resides in the control of his military apparatus. Politically side-lined from the structure being put together in Tripoli, with almost no chance of a role in a unified military, he could yet be tempted to use his armed forces from his position in the centre of the country to launch an offensive once more against Tripolitania, aiming for limited wins and to install himself as ‘king maker’.
The contradictory objectives of the foreign powers
The ambitions of the foreign countries can be resumed as follows: to capitalise on the risks and investments made by some (Turkey, Russia, the United Arab Emirates), or to obtain the departure of the Turkish and Russian contingents, stabilise the country and develop fruitful strategic and economic partnerships for others (EU, the United States and neighbouring Arab countries).
Turkey has shown itself capable of realising a large-scale projection of power and of reversing the course of the war, while from time to time paying a price in lives in the course of its military operations. It is counting on seizing a number of economic opportunities, primarily in energy (off-shore, in particular in the Gulf of Sirte), but also linked with reconstruction and the use of Libya as the entry point to the immense African market, into which it has successfully been advancing its pawns since the start of the 2000s. To this end it is working on the construction of a modern north-south logistics axis linking the Sahel to the Mediterranean. Its bridgehead in Libya will additionally allow it to project its Islamist ideology in the direction of Sahelian Africa.
Egypt has mourned Marshal Haftar’s capacities. Above all it is looking for stability in a country that is not led by Islamists, security along its western border, and hopes that the Libyan economy will recover its attractiveness for an Egyptian workforce in search of opportunities. Pragmatically, it renewed dialogue with the Tripoli authorities several months ago and is planning the symbolic reopening of its consulate in Tripoli.
The United States seems to have abandoned the studied neutrality that prevailed during the mandate of the Trump administration and is making the departure of Russian mercenaries from Libyan soil a priority. For the US this is about making sure that the maritime route from Gibraltar to Suez is not at the mercy of any kind of Russian naval base in Libya. In the event of hostilities restarting, it cannot be excluded that Tripoli’s forces (and thereby, Turkey’s) will benefit from American support.
The United Arab Emirates, having invested enormously in Marshal Haftar and having continued to violate the embargo throughout 2020, might encourage him to go on the offensive again, in order to obtain a larger and faster return on their investment than a possibly painfully pragmatic reconfiguration that would end up benefitting the Tripoli authorities.
Russia seeks to become an essential element in the new Libyan landscape. The presence of the Wagner Group remains a trump card in its power game, but even during the intra-Libyan confrontations of 2019-2020, in which it was involved, it was always careful to maintain dialogue with Tripoli. The building of a naval base in Tobruk on the model of the one in Tartous in Syria remains wishful thinking for the moment.
The EU sometimes united, sometimes divided, is looking for stability in its southern neighbourhood: control of the flow of migrants, of the terrorist threat and of economic activities form the triptych of its attention. Libya remains Italy’s priority when it comes to foreign policy because Rome has bright prospects in the country, as the president of the provisional Presidential Council, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, recently emphasised.
What scenarios are there for the months to come?
The first, optimistic, option. If the worst can never be certain, the hypothesis that the virtuous circle in motion for several months will continue cannot therefore be excluded. In this context, the elections will indeed take place on 24 December 2021 and the results will be accepted by everybody. The new authorities will be able to achieve the unification of institutions, will share harmoniously the benefits of the exercise of power amongst the different regions, towns and communities. Libya will rebuild itself while balancing its external relations, controlling its borders and hunting down traffickers and terrorists looking for refuge on its territory. This is without doubt the wish of the vast majority of Libyans. Is it feasible? The answer to that comes back to finding the person, or persons, capable of unifying the Libyans. And that is where things become complicated, because in the current political landscape it is difficult for such a personality to emerge. The least badly placed could be Seif al-Islam Gaddafi (the son of the former dictator) who cannot be held to blame for the last decade of instability. He would nonetheless have to appear in public, as the alternative to a new period of chaos and disunity. If he were unable to present himself for election (because of a warrant for his arrest from the ICC), he could nominate a candidate. Not all Libyans have a positive view of the Gaddafi era, but a decade of chaos has caused their view of that period to evolve, and if they could retain the benefits of the revolution of 2011 (access to a certain style of life, the opportunity to travel etc.) and they could reconcile them with the positive aspects of the Gaddafi regime (internal security, a balance between regions and cities), it is possible they might turn towards that candidate.
Second, pessimistic, hypothesis. Unfortunately, a restart of hostilities cannot be excluded, with failure or slowness of the political process lending fresh credibility to a new military campaign. This would be the result of the frustrations of some that they stand to lose everything, foremost amongst them Marshal Haftar. He has several challenges to face. He already faces discontent from his Salafist Madkhalist partisans who have taken refuge in Cyrenaica since their expulsion from the west of Tripolitania, in particular from the cities of Sorman, Sabratha and Tarhuna, following the GNA’s offensive in the region during the spring of 2020. These combatants now want to return to their homelands, but the tribal agreements that would allow this to happen exclude fighters of their religious persuasion. These fighters, in their hundreds, want to seize guarantees by force in order to negotiate their return.
Elsewhere, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah’s interim executive is under pressure from the Americans to reopen the coast road east of Sirte as well as the road from Misrata to Jufra. However, the control of this zone which includes the oil crescent, is Marshal Haftar’s last card of any value. He is therefore confronted with the dilemma of having to cede everything without opposition, or to put up armed resistance to avoid losing control of territory under his jurisdiction.
This hypothesis would derail the process of dialogue that UNSMIL has been engaged in for months. It could give Turkey the pretext to try to seize the oil crescent at the base of the Gulf of Sirte. That would probably lead to a more or less direct confrontation between Turkish forces and Russian mercenaries (as at the start of 2020). It could provide Seif el Islam with the opportunity to appear publicly as the solution of last resort.
Third, necessarily intermediate, hypothesis. The interim authorities (Presidential Council, government) exercise a façade of power, but their decisions come up against several obstacles. The electoral calendar is delayed due to local resistance in the shape of political personalities, tribal antagonism or the militias. Local baronies put their personal, local and community interests first and cannot manage to reconcile them with the higher interests of the country. The presence of foreign fighters is extended at the request of different local actors and the executive has to deal with pockets of resistance and phases of instability. Trafficking continues, mainly from the Sahel and emerges at the Mediterranean having put money into many Libyan actors’ hands on the way. Economic opportunities exist, but they remain complicated, opaque and below what had been hoped for. Scores continue to be settled and are not pursued by the justice system. In the end life continues on its ‘acceptable in Libya’ way as it seems to have done for the last 10 years.
 Adlene Mohammedi, “La stratégie russe en Libya”, FMES, 17 July 2020.