If foreign powers ceased their involvement in Libya, the country’s protracted civil war could come to an end quickly, said Mohamed Syala, the foreign minister of the Government of National Accord (GNA), in an interview with the U.S. Institute of Peace. The role of outside powers in Libya’s conflict has garnered renewed international attention in recent weeks as Russia has ramped up its support for Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar’s forces.

Forces loyal to the United Nations-backed government receive food in western Sirte, Libya, June 24, 2016. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)
Forces loyal to the United Nations-backed government receive food in western Sirte, Libya, June 24, 2016. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)

Libya has been in a state of conflict, declared a “civil war” by Foreign Minister Syala, since the overthrow in 2011 of dictator Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi. The ongoing battle between the GNA and Haftar’s Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) is another phase of the civil war that broke out in 2014, when rival governments in Tripoli and Tobruk both claimed legitimacy. In the intervening years, a host of outside actors have entered the fray, supporting one side or another in effort to promote their interests or project influence.

In April of this year, days before a Libyan National Conference aimed at organizing elections and a peace process, Haftar launched an assault to capture the capital, Tripoli. Despite some initial advances for Haftar, GNA-aligned forces and the LAAF have been at a stalemate for nearly seven months. However, that stalemate could soon break with Russia’s increased support for Haftar. “We are afraid that the Russians will help him” achieve his aim to take over Tripoli, Syala said.

Haftar’s assault on Tripoli has already displaced more than 120,000 people in Tripoli alone and killed hundreds of civilians.

Outside Powers

Given its geography and natural resources, Libya has long been of strategic importance to states in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Libya is a major transit point for migrants looking to reach Europe; it has extensive energy resources, pumping out 1.3 million barrels of oil a day; and it’s seen as the gateway to Africa for Europe and Russia. Libya’s lawlessness has also made it a safe haven for terrorist groups. So, it should be no surprise that regional actors and other foreign powers are looking to influence the conflict.

The Tripoli-based GNA in the west and the LAAF and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives in the east are each supported by a dizzying array of outside powers with conflicting interests and goals. In many ways, the Libyan civil war has become a proxy war between foreign powers.

“Outside countries are damaging everything we are trying to do [to build a democratic, civilian state],” Tripoli’s top diplomat said.

The GNA is backed by the U.N. and some European states like Italy and receives assistance from Turkey and Qatar. On the other side, Haftar has said he is the only one capable of preventing Libya from falling to Islamic extremists. Under that guise, he has received varying levels of support from the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Jordan. Because of this support, forces that have pledged loyalty to Haftar now control roughly 80 percent of the country’s territory.

The flow of weapons, troops and other military support is not only exacerbating and extending Libya’s civil war, but it is in violation of the U.N. arms embargo against Libya.

“They [outside powers] have interests in the country, some economic, some are worried about ideological problems … but we want to show them there is a reason to establish peace and security” in Libya, Syala said.

Echoing the foreign minister’s comments, U.N. envoy for Libya Ghassan Salame on Monday told the Security Council that foreign interference is damaging prospects for peace.  "The dangers and direct consequences of foreign interference are increasingly evident," said Salame.

Government of National Accord Foreign Minister Mohamed Syala speaks at USIP, Nov. 15, 2019.
Government of National Accord Foreign Minister Mohamed Syala speaks at USIP, Nov. 15, 2019.

What Does Moscow Want in Libya?

Amid this complex conflict, Russia has expanded dramatically its support for Haftar in recent weeks, using tactics they have employed in places like Ukraine, Syria and the Central African Republic (CAR). Under the pretext of counterterrorism, Russia has entered these conflicts to secure geopolitical goals. “We are afraid Russia will help Haftar do that [take Tripoli] because they are increasing their presence,” Syala said.

Moscow had largely played a secondary role among foreign powers, but increased its involvement in September as the assault on Tripoli stalled. 

Although Moscow says it supports a political process, it is subverting such efforts by providing weapons, expertise and snipers. The snipers are reportedly associated with the Wagner Group, a Putin-linked private security company that has led Russia’s interventions in places like Syria and CAR. A Russian-owned mint is even printing Libyan dinars to bankroll Haftar’s forces.

“It is very clear that Russia is going all in on this conflict,” said Gen. Osama al-Juwaili, the top commander of the forces aligned with the GNA, in an interview with the New York Times.  

Moscow has a number of interests in Libya, including its desire for a military base on the Mediterranean and to further establish leverage over Europe. Moreover, the Libyan conflict offers Russia the opportunity to enhance its relationship with Haftar’s backers. According to AEI’s Emily Estelle, “Libya reflects broader Russian ambitions in Africa that include expanding its military footprint and establishing an alliance network and information space that will allow Russia to challenge the U.S.-led world order.”

The Berlin Conference and U.S.-Libya Engagement

Several international efforts to find a political resolution to Libya’s conflict have failed at conferences in Palermo, Italy; Paris; and Abu Dhabi. But, an upcoming German-organized conference in Berlin will once again seek to end Libya’s destabilizing conflict.

Although Syala said that Libyans do not want outside powers determining the trajectory of their country, these international conferences are needed. Between the GNA and Haftar’s forces “[t]here is no level of engagement at all,” he said. “I hope the Berlin conference will put an end to this.”

Why could this Berlin conference succeed when all other efforts have failed? When asked, the foreign minister said, “I have only one reason: I am seeing the United States doing a lot of effort convincing these countries to withdraw and stop the war and stop Haftar.”

What about other European powers? Many observers believe that Europe is either too divided, particularly Italy and France, or simply doesn’t have the interest the conflict warrants—this despite Libya’s propinquity to Europe.

Syala lamented the lack of depth in the U.S.-Libya relationship since 2011 and said that he was in Washington with the chief aim of strengthening the bilateral relationship. “I believe in partnership with the U.S.,” he said, noting that the two countries were developing a strategic relationship in regard to energy. But, the more immediate need is for the U.S. to help end the conflict and bring peace.

The key question is whether the U.S. can foster a dynamic that demonstrates to the warring parties that they can better achieve their goals through negotiation. Continued fighting only exacerbates problems—like the role of militias—that both sides want to address.

“If anyone wants to help Libya,” Syala said, “do not bring weapons, but help the country conduct a political process leading to a democratic, civilian state.”

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