A commentary provided by the International Institute for the Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES)
The rapid development of events in Libya has led to the consent of the rebel general Khalifa Haftar to talks with the internationally recognized government in Tripoli. The aim is to seek a peaceful solution to the six-year-long civil war based on the Cairo initiative of June 7, 2020. Haftar’s forces suffered more defeats in western Libya than the government in Tripoli, aided by Turkey. As a result, there was a withdrawal from all the cities in which their forces were stationed including the suburbs of the Libyan capital Tripoli.
Temporary military victories persuaded General Haftar to reject a peace solution at the negotiating table. He has made progress in the cities of western Libya, all the way to the outskirts of Tripoli, occupying the towns of Tarhuna, Bani Walid and the strategic town of Sirte, located on the Mediterranean coast and halfway between western Libyan capital Tripoli and eastern Libya – Benghazi.
The military victories convinced the retired military commander to reject the Skhirat political agreement signed between the Libyan factions on 17 December 2015 under the auspices of the UN. The peak of General Haftar’s power was when his LNA (Libyan National Army), composed of tribal militias and Sudanese mercenaries, was joined by Russian mercenaries from the Wagner group. Wagner is in fact a secret unit of the Russian Ministry of Defense and is used when it is necessary to deny involvement in conflicts (Donbas in Ukraine 2014, Syrian civil war 2015, Venezuela 2019, etc.).
The Cairo ceasefire initiative is an attempt by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Haftar’s financial backers, particularly UAE and Saudi Arabia. The aim of the initiative is to rescue Haftar after losing territories in the east of the country bordering Egypt. Turkey’s military aid, which halted Haftar’s 14-month advance and the siege of the capital Tripoli and took control of important military strongholds, had a decisive influence on the victories of the internationally recognized GNA – Government of National Accord.
The GNA-aligned forces advanced rapidly towards the central parts of the state, to capture the strategically important city of Sirte, which is a strategic hub for a campaign to the east of the state. Sirte also has a symbolic meaning: it was where the longtime Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was born. He was killed in the same city by armed militias from the western region. Sirte is the center of oil production and export in the Mediterranean.
Parties involved in the Libyan conflict and their motives
The war between the Government of National Accord (GNA) and Haftar’s army LNA became a proxy war between several other countries. Let’s explain which foreign countries support these two camps and what are their interests.
The war between the Government of National Accord (GNA) and Haftar’s army LNA became a proxy war between several countries
Ankara’s official support for the Government of National Accord (GNA) played a decisive role in their military victories. Turkey acknowledges sending drones, air defense, government advisers, and Syrian opposition fighters to the GNA.
Turkish support came to the fore following the 2019 Maritime Border Deal with the GNA government. Ankara wants the deal to protect itself from possible moves by Greece and Cyprus, which could limit coastal waters, leaving Turkey without the right to use oil and gas in the international waters, off the shore of Turkey and the unrecognized state of Northern Cyprus.
Because of its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, Turkey is embroiled in regional rivalries with supporters of the Libyan National Army (LNA) such as Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which are fighting the Muslim Brotherhood and, along with Russia, dominate the LNA government.
United Arab Emirates
The UAE’s stance in the Libyan war stems from its strong opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood, which has influence over the GNA, and opposes Turkish influence in North Africa. UN observers have confirmed that the UAE supplied drones, Russian-made air defense systems, and armored vehicles to Haftar, and provided funding for African mercenaries, especially from the Sudanese Rapid Support Forces (RSF), under the direct command of General Mohamed Hamdan Dagal, an indicted war criminal, and the deputy chairman of Sudan’s Transitional Council.
Russia reinforced its influence in Libya in the late 1990s. In 2011, following the NATO military intervention and the overthrow of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, Russia was pushed out of Libya for a while. The failure of international initiatives to unite the various Libyan factions on the one hand and Moscow’s role in the Middle East on the other, as well as its mediation in Syria, gave Moscow a chance to return to Libya and regain its economic and political influence in the southern Mediterranean. The Libyan operation is a kind of overture for Russia’s penetration into North Africa and the Middle East.
The Libyan issue and its economic dimension are politically important to the Kremlin. In 2011, when he was still president of the Russian Federation, Dmitry Medvedev refused to use the Russian veto in the vote on Resolution 1973 in the UN Security Council, which opened the door for NATO military intervention in Libya.
Libya was one of the few issues that led to the public expression of differences between then-President Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who demanded the use of the veto.
According to analysts, Russia has since suffered from the “syndrome 1973”, which largely explains its strong involvement in the war in Syria. Moscow has repeatedly used its veto in recent years when faced with any motion for a resolution criticizing or condemning the Syrian regime. Therefore, it appears that Libya will once again become an entry point for strengthening Russian influence in North Africa and the South Mediterranean, which borders the NATO countries of the northern Mediterranean.
Moscow has found in General Khalifa Haftar the reliable partner it was looking for in post-Gaddafi Libya.
Moscow has found in General Khalifa Haftar the reliable partner it was looking for in post-Gaddafi Libya.
The UN estimates that the Russian company Wagner sent up to 1,200 mercenaries into Libya. In early June 2020, the Pentagon confirmed that military aircraft (14 MiG-29 and Su-24 planes), which Russia had sent in support of retired General Khalifa Haftar, were stationed at the Al Yufra military base (central Libya). These data caused international concern and led to France’s warning about the repetition of the Syrian scenario in Libya.
Officially, Cairo has supported Haftar in his war against rival tribal militias in eastern Libya since 2014 and considers his group an opposition to Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood.
According to UN experts, Egypt is an important transit point for weapons and a route for foreign mercenaries to Libya. Egyptian territory is the starting point for airstrikes on GNA government forces in Libya.
Egypt is taking advantage of the Libyan crisis only to be able to benefit from the post-war reconstruction of rich Libya. At the same time, it exports its internal problems and diverts the attention of the domestic public to the danger of the Libyan conflict on its western borders. Analysts also say that this could be kind of a muscle-flexing towards Ethiopia due to the long-standing dispute over the waters of the Nile River.
The European Union
As is characteristic of the EU, which is often politically divided when it comes to important political and security issues, there is no single position on the Libyan conflict.
Italy and France are on two different hills in the Libyan conflict. Italy has sent troops to train the security forces of the GNA government and supports the Turkish military role, while France supports General Haftar and at the same time officially recognizes the GNA government.
Greece and Cyprus oppose the maritime deal between Turkey and the government in Tripoli and oppose its presence in Libya.
Rome has chosen a different policy towards Libya, one that is not completely in line with the positions of the European Union, especially France, and favors harmonization with Turkey, which has changed the balance of power in Libya in favor of the GNA with its military intervention. For a year now, Rome has been silently observing French policy in the region, which threatens Italian economic interests in Libya (e.g. the oil company ENI).
European states have not been able to agree on a single vision, which would put pressure on both sides of the conflict and the United States to support the UN’s efforts for an urgent ceasefire and the start of a political process.
Interestingly, Libya was an Italian colony after the defeat of the Turks in the Italo-Ottoman War of 1912 and under the Ouchy Peace Treaty.
Although seemingly small and insignificant, that war was one of the causes of the First World War. When the young Balkan states saw how easily the Italians had penetrated Libya and defeated the Ottoman Empire, they embarked on the first Balkan war on their own in October 1912 and tried to free themselves from the Ottoman Empire in the shadow of that war. And it is the Turkish defeat in Libya that counts as a precursor of their defeat in the Balkans. The Franco-Italian antagonisms on Libya are serious and run deep.
Rome expected an understanding stance from the European Union, yet found only modest sympathy due to the strong French influence in the European institutions (in the absence of Germany on the Libyan issue), so it stood alone in opposition to Paris on this matter. In order to preserve its interests, Italy sees Turkey as a strong ally in the eastern Mediterranean, which is also a member of NATO. Turkey expects Italy to prevent France, Greece and Cyprus from making any decision to condemn Turkey’s role in Libya in the EU institutions.
European countries are concerned about the crisis in Libya because of migration issues, energy supply, and militant Islamist groups.
European countries are concerned about the crisis in Libya because of migration issues, energy supply, and militant Islamist groups. The EU recognizes the Government of National Accord GNA, but there are differences among member states.
The United States recognizes the GNA government and continues to emphasize that the future solution to the Libyan crisis must be political, with negotiations between the parties to the internal conflict to stop the war and start a political process that will contribute to the establishment of a democratic and civil state.
American views on both sides of the Libyan armed conflict remain vague and rather apathetic. While official policy supporting the internationally recognized GNA government on one side, US President Donald Trump at the end of last year praised the efforts of Haftar’s forces in the fight against the terrorist organization ISIS in the south of the country.
Yet Russia’s growing support for Haftar’s forces and the presence of the Russian paramilitary organization Wagner on their side have prompted the US Congress to start paying special attention to the situation in Libya.
On November 14, 2019, the US State Department issued an official statement calling on Haftar’s forces to end their offensive against the Libyan capital Tripoli and prevent Russian attempts to use the armed conflict to spread influence.
The U.S. interim strategies focus on putting pressure on both sides in the Libyan conflict to reject foreign interventions, especially Russia’s, and to continue unconditional negotiations under the auspices of the UN.
Foreign interventions and international law: examples of Syria and Libya
An essential provision of international law, related to international relations, is to prevent any interference in the affairs of sovereign and independent states. Foreign intervention is legal if it is in accordance with Chapter 7 of the founding document of the UN “Actions with Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace, and Acts of Aggression.” International relations between states are based on equality of treatment and duty, respect for independence and sovereignty, positive cooperation, and commitment to the peaceful settlement of disputes.
But the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of states was not always respected. There are three basic types of interference: Legal intervention, with the permission of the independent state and on its invitation, and in coordination with it; Prohibited intervention, which takes place without the permission of the state or consultations with it. There is a third type of intervention, under the UN Security Council resolution based on the “responsibility to protect” principle with the aim to protect or rescue civilians from possible massacres.
If we take a look at history, great powers have intervened illegally or without any permission on many occasions. But these international interventions targeted repressive regimes. There was no international consensus for their actions, but there was no wider opposition either. There are many such examples: India intervened in then eastern Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh) in 1971 to stop the killing of Bengals by the Pakistani army. Vietnam intervened in Cambodia in 1978 without an international approval to stop the Khmer Rouge massacre of the Cambodian people and overthrow the Pol Pot regime. Also, Tanzania intervened in Uganda without a mandate in 1979, to overthrow the bloody regime of Idi Amin Dada.
These are examples of unlawful interventions with a moral basis, which were accepted in 2005 in the form of an international document entitled “Responsibility to Protect“.
Legitimate interference in the internal affairs of an independent state is one that occurs with the official invitation of a recognized legitimate body or with a UN mandate. The international intervention in Kuwait to restore legitimacy under Resolution 678 (1990), which allowed the use of force, NATO intervention in Libya in 2011, which was carried out under Resolution 1973 (2011), are two such examples. Similarly, the intervention of the United States and the United Kingdom in northern Iraq in April 1990 followed the adoption of Resolution 688 (1990). Other international interventions have taken place on the basis of UN Security Council resolutions, for instance, in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Congo, Mali, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Haiti, and elsewhere. However, the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 remains illegal and without a UN mandate.
Interference and intervention at the invitation of a legitimate government is not contrary to international law if a legitimate government requests or seeks the assistance of another state, group of states or military alliance or the UN to intervene militarily to protect the state, its independence and its legitimate organs, regardless of how that government came to power, as long as it is internationally recognized.
In the case of Libya, the only legal foreign intervention is Turkey’s, which took place at the invitation of the legitimate GNA government, formed in accordance with the Libyan Political Agreement (Skhirat Agreement), which was accepted by the UN Security Council on 23 December 2015 by Resolution (2259). The Resolution recognizes the GNA government in the third clause as a recognized legitimate government.
Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj signed security and economic agreements with the Turkish government on 27 November 2019. Turkey, as a democratic state, sent both agreements to parliamentary procedures and the Turkish parliament confirmed them after an extensive debate on 21 December 2019. Since January 2020, Turkish military intervention has changed the balance of power on the ground. Government forces saved Tripoli from daily bombing and headed east of the state. Thus, Turkish interference is legitimate from the point of view of international law, while interference by France, the UAE, Egypt and Russia on the side of the rebel general Haftar appears illegal.
A similar case is the Russian intervention in Syria, when the government of Bashar Al-Assad, which believed that the armed opposition with the support of the Gulf states, Turkey, the United States, and Jordan would overthrow his regime, officially invited Russia and hence, on 30 September 2015, Russian intervention in Syria started with airstrikes on opposition positions.
Split of Libya into two states?
There is little hope or indication that the Libyan crisis will have a happy ending in the near future, which would mean a democratic, peaceful, stable, and united Libya.
The progress made by government forces a few weeks ago is psychologically and tactically beneficial, yet it is limited on the ground and its long-term effects are incomplete. Although the government in Tripoli is recognized by the UN and many other countries, they do not have the strength, influence, and the ability to establish absolute and long-term control over the entire Libyan territory. Such a situation will require the support and trust of the entire international community, massive financial resources, and decades of time in order to succeed in establishing a functioning state.
The forces led by General Khalifa Haftar lack the instruments to wield their influence over entire Libya, regardless of their control of most territories. Haftar’s forces are just scattered groups, motivated by a desire for revenge and the leadership aspirations of the 77-year-old retired general, who amassed numerous failures in his military career, including ending up as a Chadian prisoner of war and being the cause of Gaddafi’s defeat in the 1987 Libyan-Chadian war.
The main players in the Libyan crisis are now Russia, the UAE, France and Egypt on one side and Turkey and Italy on the other. The biggest threat is the fact that these countries are not concerned with the territorial integrity of Libya. Economic and strategic interests are what brought them to Libya.
Russia wants Libya to become its station on the road to Africa and thus push back Europe/NATO in the northern Mediterranean. Turkey seeks to support the ideologically akin GNA government; however, economic interests and trade agreements are equally important to Ankara.
France wants to be present in Libya to check African migrants and the threats of terrorist groups, and then there are economic interests and desire for Libyan oil, too.
The UAE is interested in Libyan ports, its appetites are still growing, except for its obsession with political Islam, which they believe could be imposed in Libya once again, and they want to prevent that based on the successful example of Tunisia.
Italy has historical relations with Libya in terms of its colonial past and its geographical proximity to the Libyan coast. Among these countries, Italy is perhaps the least detrimental to the future of a united Libya.
Russian-Turkish ministerial talks in mid-June 2020 concerning eastern and western Libya and a virtual red line in the city of Sirte, exactly halfway across the country, suggest that Presidents Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan will reach an agreement like in Syria so that the LNA still retains the eastern part of Libya, and the GNA government keeps its western part.
Analysts believe that the Libyan people can prevent this dark scenario, but they urgently need unity. They themselves must take the fate of the country into their own hands. The role of the United States in maintaining balance will be necessary and useful. The world will have to trust the UN and support its diplomatic efforts. And the EU will finally have to play a more active role in its neighborhood in the Mediterranean and Libya. Ljubljana/Tripoli/Benghazi 13 July 2020
 IFIMES – International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies, based in Ljubljana, Slovenia, has Special Consultative Status at ECOSOC/UN, New York, since 2018.
Khalifa Haftar is the commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) based in Tobruk, who on 2 March 2015, was appointed commander of the armed forces, which are loyal to the elected Libyan parliament in Tobruk.
The Skhirat Agreement (2015) or Libyan Political Agreement, accepted by the warring parties in the Libyan dispute, was reached under the auspices of the UN in the Moroccan city of Skhirat and signed on 17 December 2015 in the presence of UN envoy Martin Kobler. That would end the second Libyan civil war, which had been going on since 2014. The agreement entered into force on April 6, 2016.