After a four-month offensive by the western U.N.-backed government, the Libyan conflict has fallen back into a stalemate. USIP’s Thomas Hill says the question now is whether the new stalemate “will lead to a political solution or is just another step in the road … until one side controls all of the oil wealth.”
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Tim Farley: If you look online and you do a search on the latest news out of Libya, you come up with several different headlines: “Who's flying those MiG-29s in Libya and what does it matter?” “Can Tunisia stay out of Libya war?” “Macron slams Turkey's criminal role in Libya, Putin's ambivalence” “Turkey navy commander visits Libya amid ongoing tension.” And you wonder, what's going on here? I haven't heard much about this lately because of all the other news with coronavirus. Well, let's get some information from Thomas Hill who follows this quite closely. Senior program officer for North Africa at the United States Institute of Peace tweeting @seatodca, Thomas Hill. Welcome, thanks for being here today.
Thomas Hill: Thanks for having me.
Tim Farley: There seems to be much to unpack, but obviously, you know, once we finished with Benghazi, I think most people are, it seemed that interest in Libya waned. What are the latest and what are the interesting developments? I was just touching on a few headlines. What are you watching closely?
Thomas Hill: Well, what we've seen is, given the Turkish support to the internationally recognized government that's based in Tripoli, those forces have really been on the offense for, now going on, four months, and have been pushing back against the warlord, an American citizen actually, Khalifa Haftar and his band of militias. And the offensive supported by Turkey, up until about two or three weeks ago, looked like it may wash over the entire country which prompted Russia and the Emirates to up their support to the warlord Khalifa Haftar. And now we've virtually reached a new stalemate. We had a stalemate before, now we have a new stalemate with new battle lines drawn. And it's yet to be determined whether this stalemate will lead to a political solution, or if this is just another step in the road as we get to a situation where both sides in this conflict are still unable to come to a conclusion until one side controls all of the oil wealth.
Tim Farley: So as you pointed out, this is a proxy war right now between Russia, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey. That's what it sounds like. And one wonders, at the end of the day, is this about the conflict between those two forces, or is there something within Libya that is forming the conflict?
Thomas Hill: Well, it's a multilevel game that these outside actors are playing in it and I'm reducing it to those three, but there are other actors as well that are involved, maybe not to the same degree. You have France; Italy; Egypt, which has threatened to invade Libya; Saudi Arabia and others, but the real players who have invested money, military hardware, troops and are really keeping this conflict alive is the three that you just mentioned: the Emirates, Russia and Turkey. And these three actors often work at cross purposes; sometimes their interests align and when they align, as they do in Libya in some cases, they join forces to fight against Turkey, but more often than not, their interests are really self-serving. And so, in Turkey's case, there are economic interests in Libya, but it's also an opportunity to create leverage for what the Turks want to achieve in Syria. And the Russians are in Syria. And in order to get a deal probably that is favorable from the Turkish perspective on Syria, they're going to use all the leverage they have in Libya to make it painful on the Russians. So it really has become a proxy war. There are a lot of different facets that drive different motivations of external actors, none of which serve the Libyan people in my mind.
Tim Farley: Thomas Hill, senior program officer for North Africa at the United States Institute of Peace on Libya. So the United States pretty much is in the background on this, good or bad?
Thomas Hill: At this point, it's probably a good thing. The United States hasn't shown an ability to get involved in a productive way. They've been rhetorically inconsistent. You had a call from the White House, when John Bolton was still there, between President Trump and the warlord Khalifa Haftar, but you've had the other staff of the White House and the State Department and Defense Department saying, “No, no, we support the internationally recognized government that's based in Tripoli.” We have friends and allies on both sides of the conflict. We have NATO allies, like Turkey. But then on the opposite side, we have France and Italy. So this is an incredibly complicated situation where diplomacy would really have to be at its premium, and right now, I'm not sure that the U.S. is well positioned internally, nor do I think we're putting forward our best face and our best foot with our allies in Europe and in the Middle East in order to be productive. And so it's probably best that we keep an arm’s length distance at this point. Tim Farley: Thomas, what's life like for people who live in Libya right now? For Libyans, you know, coronavirus obviously has not spared that particular country, but obviously with all of his conflict also ongoing.
Thomas Hill: Yeah. The coronavirus is grossly underreported. So we don't have good statistics on how many people have been infected, how many people are dying of COVID. Hospitals that would treat COVID patients are being deliberately targeted by the militias that back the warlord Khalifa Haftar. That has had a chilling effect on potential patients at hospitals who would otherwise seek treatment, but because they fear for their lives, don't go to the hospital. So we have no fidelity on the numbers of COVID patients in Libya, but we expect, or assume, that it is quite high. And that's on top of the already stressed healthcare system that was struggling to meet the demands of the current war that's been ongoing. And so you have healthcare workers who are understaffed, under-resourced, struggling with just the normal healthcare system. You layer on top of that, a civil war, and then a global pandemic and the system essentially collapses. And so what you have right now is a healthcare system that is totally inadequate for the Libyan people, and no international organizations that are able to come in and plug holes or fill gaps because of the war that's ongoing and the lack of safety. And so the Libyan people have really been left to themselves to figure this out. And thus far, it's been a disaster.
Tim Farley: And I don't want to necessarily relitigate to the past, but I wonder in light of where this situation sits today, was the action taken by NATO in Libya to remove Qaddafi, was that a disaster?
Thomas Hill: In my mind it was not a disaster. I thought that it was the right move to step in militarily to prevent a genocide. The problem that I see is in the execution of the follow through, which was so NATO stepped in to protect thousands of people who were going to be slaughtered by Qaddafi's forces and then said, “Okay, we did our job. Now, you Libyans take over and figure this out.” Well, though the Libyan state was a paper tiger, there was no institutions behind Qaddafi. There was no infrastructure to deal with any of the governing that would be required. And essentially the Americans and Europeans washed their hands of it. And of course, left to their own devices. The Libyan people were totally unprepared and incapable of setting up a state. And we see that is the situation nine years later. So I really think that the Americans and NATO intervention groups that intervened in 2011 had the best of intentions when they did, but it wasn't enough to simply oust the dictator. That if we were going to go in and try to be helpful, that it was really going to be in the years and months since, in the follow through, to ensure that Libya was on the right track. And we didn't.
Tim Farley: So demo day went well, but the house renovation project wasn't finished properly?
Thomas Hill: Yeah, to use that analogy. Yeah. We demoed the house in a bad neighborhood and then walked away and we came back and were surprised that everything that we'd used, all of our tools that we use to demo the house, got stolen and, and they ripped out all the copper wiring and ripped out all the plumbing and the people who are squatting there are asking us for food and medical care. I mean, it is really a bad situation.
Tim Farley: Thomas Hill, thank you for the update. It's an ignored story, but one we wanted to make sure people got an ear full of. Thanks for being on the show.
Thomas Hill: Thanks for having me.
Tim Farley: Thomas Hill, senior program officer for North Africa at the United States Institute of Peace. The latest on Libya, and again, not a story that you hear an awful lot about, but it is one of those hotspots and important parts of the world. And it shows that there's a proxy fight going on between, guess who, Russia, and also the United Arab Emirates and Turkey. The United States right now, a bystander probably for the best, for now, but we'll have to see how this develops. He is tweeting @seatodca.