This piece is part of a series titled "Nonstate armed actors and illicit economies: What the Biden administration needs to know," from Brookings's Initiative on Nonstate Armed Actors.
Ten years after the 2011 revolution that overthrew Moammar Gadhafi, Libya’s civil war has not been resolved. The October 2020 ceasefire between the two main warring parties — Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar on the one hand (who leads the armed wing of the House of Representatives, or HoR, in Tobruk) and the Government of National Accord (GNA) — remains fragile. The country’s potential, as a result of its energy riches, is undermined by a parochial and divided ruling class.
Its important geostrategic location in the center of the Mediterranean basin is a source of trade power and a source of its troubles, as foreign powers seek to establish footholds. These foreign powers are showing no willingness to comply with the request of Haftar and the GNA to withdraw their proxy forces by January 23. That could set the country on a new precipice. Meanwhile, both Libyan sides have been rearming, setting the stage for the resumption of even more intense conflict. The already terrible humanitarian disaster is likely to become much worse.
An unsettled Libya, caught up in persistent civil war, destabilizes North Africa and generates uncontrolled migration flows and terrorism threats for Europe. External powers and nonstate actors have exploited the prolonged diplomatic absence of the United States. Yet recent history shows that the U.S. diplomatic involvement is key for restoring balance to the country and warding off destructive influences.
How we got here
Since Qaddafi’s overthrow in 2011, Libya has gone through three phases of civil war. Its internal instability risks becoming chronic.
The latest phase started in April 2019, when Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA) — with the crucial support of Egyptian military advisers, Emirati funds and weapons, the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group security company, pro-Bashar Assad Syrian fighters, and Sudanese and Chadian militias — sought to expand his control beyond Benghazi and Cyrenaica and take over Tripoli, where the U.N.-backed GNA is based. The external support allowed Haftar to bring fighter jets, attack helicopters, Emirati drones, Russian surface-to-air systems, and 2,000 Wagner Group contractors to the fight. Haftar claimed Tripoli was infested with Islamist militias connected to the Muslim Brotherhood. The attack eviscerated an important planned peace conference. GNA Prime Minister Fayez al Serraj rejected the possibility of a future deal.
Months into the siege, the GNA accepted help from Turkey — military advisers, in addition to advanced combat systems such as combat drones, medium-range surface-to-air missiles, naval frigates, and air intelligence assets — as well as merceries from Sudan, Chad, and Syria (the same countries whose other militia groups support Haftar). In August 2020, Turkey, Qatar, and the GNA signed the so-called Trilateral Protocol to establish a training center for GNA forces and a platform for lasting military cooperation. As a result of Turkey’s military assistance, Haftar not only failed to take Tripoli, but eventually lost significant territory. Nonetheless, the GNA has not been able to defeat him either.
After a year and half of large casualties and refugee flows, representatives of GNA and Haftar — the so-called 5+5 Libyan Joint Military Commission — reached a ceasefire deal on October 23, 2020. If honored, it could provide a basis for peace. But contrary interpretations of the agreement persist, and none of the key players (Haftar and the GNA, their senior military commanders on the ground, or their foreign backers) have fully bought into it.
Troublesome foreign influence
External actors are drawn to Libya for geopolitical, economic, and ideological reasons. In the center of the Mediterranean basin and close to Italy, Libya’s deep-water ports provide a chance to control a substantial sea area and vital trade routes. Libya can also be an important energy power: It has one of the world’s most productive oil fields, as well as natural gas and solar power potential. But while rich in energy resources, Libya needs to import everything else. Moreover, the post-2011 civil war has destroyed much of its infrastructure.
Libya has also become the locus of an ideological competition over political Islam between Turkey and Qatar on one hand, and the Arab quartet of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain on the other.
geopolitical competition has intensified in recent months. Turkey and Qatar support the GNA. Turkey has taken over the al-Watiya airbase, where its F-16 airplanes could be based in the future, and the Misrata naval base. Ankara has extended its military support to the GNA through June 2022, and appears on the cusp of sending more Syrian fighters to Libya. Turkey has an expansionist foreign policy. From Sudan to Somalia, Turkey has exhibited a desire for a robust presence in Africa. In the past 15 years, it has opened 42 embassies on the continent and established 54 airline destinations there. It has signed numerous bilateral deals with African governments. The government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan may be trying to distract from Turkey’s severe domestic problems, which may also partially explain recent provocations toward Cyprus, Greece, Israel and Egypt.
On the rival side, Egypt, the UAE, and Russia support Haftar. Egypt has historical ties with Libya’s eastern coastal region of Cyrenaica, which is under Haftar’s rule. An increase in Egypt’s influence would benefit millions of Egyptian workers working there. The UAE seeks to weaken the Muslim Brotherhood around the world, including in Libya, and seeks access to the ports of Benghazi and Tobruk to augment its influence in maritime trade — a central policy objective throughout the Middle East and Horn of Africa.
Russia, for its part, seeks access to energy resources, ports, and naval bases in the Mediterranean, as well as infrastructure contracts and arms export opportunities (to the LNA and various other militia groups in Libya’s south and east). Russia’ proxy, the Wagner Group, maintains contingents at the al-Gardabiya and al-Jufra air bases in central Libya, and at the southern outpost of Brak al-Shati, apparently funded by the UAE. Russia also enables the presence of other foreign fighters in Libya (including hundreds of paramilitaries from the Sudanese Rapid Support Forces at the al-Jufra airbase), and has fighter jets in Libya, contrary to the October 2020 ceasefire. The Wagner Group is part and parcel of Moscow’s strategy in Africa over the past 15 years to seek military and economic deals with unstable governments and court Russian proxies. Between 2015 and 2019, Russian actors have signed 19 military cooperation agreements with African countries. In exchange, Moscow receives access to strategic locations, military bases (such as in Egypt), or valuable economic resources (such as gold mines in Sudan). In Africa, like elsewhere, Russia also exploits local socio-political instability to attempt to build influence.
All these external actors prefer an unstable Libya. A Libya unified under a single government that may not be dependent on their support diminishes their influence and jeopardizes their physical presence there.
European countries are most interested in suppressing terrorism and migration flows, as well as access to energy. But lacking a common strategy, Europe largely remains reactive to Libyan developments. With divisions among Brussels, Berlin, and above all Paris and Rome, European countries have adopted different — and sometimes outright competing and contradictory — approaches to Libya.
What Washington should do amidst dangerous trends ahead
It is likely that in early 2021 — despite the ceasefire, and despite the calls by the GNA and HoR for foreign powers to leave — internal instability fueled by outside actors will intensify, and violent conflict will resume.
The new Biden administration has three basic policy options in Libya:
- Washington could maintain the Trump administration policy of disengagement from Libya. Foregoing larger political involvement and a broader strategy, the Biden administration could limit its engagement to counterterrorism strikes against the remnants of al-Qaida, the Islamic State, and other terrorist groups. But while seemingly resource-light, such a policy concedes too much ground to Turkey, Russia, Egypt, and the UAE in this geostrategically significant country. And it does nothing to stabilize the country and limit, let alone stop, its civil war and the massive humanitarian catastrophe and degradation of civil society it has generated.
- The Biden administration could attempt to transform the meddling of external actors into localized “sheriff” role. Thus, Turkey’s military contingent in the region of Tripolitania would become the sheriff there; and Egypt would provide security in Cyrenaica. The arrangement would be akin to an observer-style multinational force. Not only would Turkey and Egypt maintain presence and influence in the Libyan regions of greatest interest to them, Turkish and Egyptian leaders could use their good “policing” to improve their domestic and global images. Such division of security responsibilities could be coupled with the presence of international observers and United Nations personnel, to increase accountability. Russia is likely object to such an arrangement. But perhaps somehow Libya would be an area of at least limited common ground between Russia and the United States, if their support could be won. Motivated by a desire to restore its important trade with Libya, China could possibly also play a role. Before 2011, China’s business with Libya was worth $20 billion and involved 75 companies with 36,000 Chinese laborers engaged in the construction of infrastructure and housing. Libya supplied 3% of China’s crude oil supply to the Chinese oil Sinopec Group. Being the greatest source of foreign direct investment in the Gulf, China could use its leverage with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE to press for Chinese involvement.
- Finally, the Biden administration could significantly increase its diplomatic involvement in Libya. Beyond U.S. counterterrorism strikes, such an “America is back” approach could — and should — include a wider menu of U.S. objectives, including encouraging fair distribution of oil revenues among Libyan actors. The United States would support transitional security arrangements to reduce conflict and gradually move toward more permanent security arrangements. The sequencing needs to be careful and gradual, since inducing the disarmament and demobilization of the various militias won’t be easy. With the plethora of armed actors and lack of trust among the warring parties, classic security dilemmas loom large. Moreover, militia members also obtain economic benefits and social status from their militia membership and are thus not keen to return to civilian life where they may lack any legal livelihoods. The United States could also encourage the GNA and HoR to invite a U.N.-sponsored military force to guard the country’s main infrastructure, supervise peace processes, and prevent counterproductive actions such as Haftar’s April 2019 attack. Because of colonial and recent history, including NATO’s air campaign to support the overthrow of Gadhafi, such a U.N. force would have to avoid a European contingent. The recent meddling of the UAE and Qatar also precludes drawing forces from the Gulf countries. However, such a force could seek to recruit participation from Muslim-majority countries in East Asia, such as Indonesia and Malaysia. Under this scenario, Washington would also work to dampen intra-European tensions about Libya policy, as well as those between Qatar and the Arab quartet (which have apparently improved in recent weeks), to synchronize policy and reduce external proxy competition Libya.