A succession of meetings over the last two months in Berlin, Geneva and Munich has signified a renewed multilateral effort to resolve the Libyan civil conflict. With 13 nations led by the UN, seeking to enforce a brittle arms embargo and comprehensive cease-fire, the concerned parties have been seeking to resolve the rivalry between the UN-recognized administration based in the capital of Tripoli and the country's western regions with the backing of Turkey, Qatar and Italy, and the rival eastern-based government led by General Khalifa Haftar, with the support of Egypt, France, Russia and other states. While recent diplomatic efforts have produced a 55-point road map to resolve the conflict, a potential conflict resolution is still very much dependent on the complex interplay between internal and external actors and the willingness of all parties to observe the tentative internationally-led peace effort. With the humanitarian situation in Libya deteriorating due to the country’s contracting economy, a robust peaceful solution is urgently needed.
Libya as a proxy in foreign powers’ interplay
Nine years after the initial outbreak of violence against the regime of Muammar Al-Qaddafi, Libya is still at war, marred with the refugee and migrant crises, internal strife between opposing militias, haunted by Islamist groups, and unable to govern its own territory. In addition to an over-inflated narrative of Al-Qaddafi’s prominent role in inciting violence in 2011, the aftermath of the NATO intervention in Libya[i] left a jarring environment of tribal, ethnic, religious and ideological violence that had a negative spill-over effect on the neighbouring countries, the most prominent example being the case of Mali in 2013.
The 2012 parliamentary elections were initially seen as a promising development. With the turn-up rate higher than 60 percent, the elections brought to office a moderate, secular coalition government despite persistent instances of violence across the country. However, since mid-2014, the country has seen the rise and progression of two parallel governing systems, one based in Tobruk, controlling the Libyan National Army (LNA), the other based in Tripoli with the international endorsement and support of the UN and external allies, further complicating the already byzantine political landscape of post-uprising Libya.
As one of the key markers of the conflict, tribal violence has gone unaddressed under Al-Qaddafi and further exacerbated in the post-uprising Libya. While this item took a backseat on the agenda of the recent internationally-brokered peace talks, this issue remains crucial to tackling the country’s peaceful power-sharing. The inability of the dual government to impose a monopoly on violence has been further perpetuated by the 2013 Political Isolation Law, which came as an attempt to prevent members of the Qaddafi regime from holding public office during the country’s transition to peace and stable power-sharing. Moreover, most of the militias across the country have been paid by one of the two rival governments despite failed attempts to incorporate them in the budding, but still weak, national security forces. This is in addition to a massive number of weapons still in possession of private individuals.
Marginalized in the peace talks, one impeding factor that cannot be ignored is the rising influence of radical Islamists, including various branches of ISIS), aided by larger regional movements. Such groups have actively worked to undermine any progress toward peace, as stabilization is not in their interest. One particularly (unclear) has been garnering support from the local population by undertaking charity work, especially for martyrs’ families. They have positioned themselves as worthy challengers by providing socio-economic assistance where the government had previously failed. As a consequence, the Islamist agenda is becoming more attractive for Libyans, begging the question of potential legitimacy of either of the two competing governments in any post-conflict scenario.
Post-2011, the deep-seated tribal divisions that had been utilized by the Qaddafi regime have been left untouched, which has opened a Pandora’s box of difficulties for consolidating any power-sharing mechanisms and establishing peace. The tribe-state relations in Libya have been historically fluid, pragmatic and opportunistic, and the marginalization has reinforced the co-optation of some tribes, but contended to threaten the exclusion of others. The downside of tribal involvement in security provision is that protection is offered in selective manner, reproducing politics of co-optation and exclusion at local level.
The 2011 uprising led to a Libyan polity that was able to remove Qaddafi from power, yet remained short of addressing the tribe-government nexus, which was later swallowed by a vortex of militias, extremist groups and external players. This conundrum was furthered by the NATO intervention in Libya and the intense involvement of external forces in the country’s civil war, a factor that marks the conflict even today and continues to be one of the greatest impediments to any serious peace negotiation. As an antithesis to any on-ground progression toward peace, the role of external forces further complicates the situation in the country by internationalizing its conflict without tackling its domestic drivers.
The UN has been involved in the country since the beginning of the Libyan revolt in 2011. Following the NATO intervention in Libya, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), established in September of the same year, became the primary international body seeking reconciliation between various revolutionary groups. Egypt and Russia have steadily supported the House of Representatives in Tobruk in efforts to drive other groups out of Benghazi and Eastern Libya, according to some reports, while Turkey, Qatar and Sudan have supported the Tripoli-based government.
Ongoing efforts to resolve the conflict
Despite several meetings that have taken place and those that are scheduled in the old continent, the short- and medium-term future of Libya continues to hang on a thread. As the first meeting between Libya’s warring sides since early 2018, the Berlin conference failed to produce fruitful and credible results. The sequel, seen in the Munich Security Conference held in early February, merely addressed the failures of its predecessor. The most recent Geneva talks failed to even include the warring sides. These failures, especially the inability to stop the supply of weapons to various factions in Libya, indicate a lack of credible commitment by both local and international actors toward any sustainable peace efforts.
Following the latest peace effort in Geneva, the next meeting is scheduled for early March in Rome, though it remains uncertain which of the parties will attend. While the unprecedented frequency of high-level meetings indicates renewed global interest in resolving the conflicts in Libya, these platforms have also been used as an extension of proxy confrontations among various sides. For instance, the European Union has, thus far, used the UN arms embargo on Libya to cease its Operation Sophia and launch Operation EU Active Surveillance. In parallel, Turkey has used the very same political vacuum to send fighters from Syria to Libya.
These high-level discussions have largely contributed to the marginalization of previously-mentioned local processes within Libya, thereby undermining the efforts of local actors to maintain their step-by-step approach to forging the country’s peaceful future. Ensuring that no external party further complicates the on-ground conundrum has proven to be virtually impossible. In the short-term, the international community needs to work on establishing credibility and trust in order for all sides to step away from armed conflict. And in the long-term, all parties involved have to diligently and collectively work on securing a permanent cessation of hostilities as both a necessary and a sufficient condition for the resumption of Libya’s dormant political process.
The urgent need for a negotiated solution is compounded by Libya’s rapidly deteriorating economic situation, with a contributory factor in the UN’s prediction that more than 900,000 people in the country will be in need of some form of humanitarian assistance in 2020. Perhaps the right solution lies beyond regularly meeting and talking peace with the warring sides, in their presence or otherwise.
Competing external and internal factions
In an interplay between domestic forces and international actors, eastern Libya ports, controlled by the Libyan National Army (LNA) under the command of Khalifa Haftar, have shut down oil exports, resulting in national crude output being cut by more than half ahead of the Berlin summit. In addition, of the build-up to the Munich follow-up conference held on February 16-17, a period of calm was overshadowed by high-level discussions on the future of the UN arms embargo on Libya and the complicating factor of Turkish troops being deployed in the war-torn country.
As the first meeting between the warring sides since 2018, the Berlin summit left a bitter aftertaste for both the LNA Chief, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, and the Prime Minister of the GNA, Fayez al-Sarraj. In January 2020, as many as 11 world leaders and both warring sides of the Libyan conflict walked away with a diluted pledge to cease the flow of weapons into Libya and a promise to form a five-by-five military council to negotiate a ceasefire in the near future. In the event, the Munich follow-up meetings produced similar results to the most recent Geneva talks.
In the post-Berlin period, the international community has maintained its focus on the conflict-torn Libya despite the tensions and conflicting interests that undermined the negotiations in Geneva.
The renewed efforts to seek a solution have been galvanized by Turkey’s direct military intervention in the conflict. Even as Berlin prepared for the meeting, the UN called for an end to foreign intervention in Libya. Yet Turkey announced in January that it is sending troops to Libya in support of the GNA. The decision was backed by the deployment of hundreds of Syrian fighters to bolster the GNA forces’ efforts, envisioned to work in tandem with the Turkish forces. Around the time of the Munich conference, however, additional reports surfaced that Turkey sent fighters to fight in Libya, a move that underscored the extent to which the government led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan was prepared to disregard the UN-led principle of non-involvement. Although Erdogan stated that Turkish forces were involved in Libya for training purposes only, the intervention suggests that Turkey wishes to further assert its power in the Eastern Mediterranean in order to overcome its relative diplomatic isolation following recent agreements between Greece, Cyprus, Egypt and Israel on exploring local hydrocarbons reserves.
The announcement served as a prelude to ceasefire negotiations and a mini-summit between the GNA, supported by Turkey, Qatar and Italy, and the LNA, supported by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, France and Russia, that took place on January 13 in Moscow, reflecting the fact that Russia increasingly sees Libya as one of the focal points of its interest in the region. President Vladimir Putin’s interest in the conflict stems from his ambition to assert Russia’s interests in the Mediterranean as part of a strategic push-and-pull with the Western powers and a conviction that Russia’s status necessitates a say in the outcome of the Libyan civil war. However, the January talks in Moscow prematurely ended when Haftar requested more time for consideration, subsequently leaving Russia without a concrete agreement and signalling to Moscow and other capitals that Haftar’s objectives might greatly differ from their agendas.
With no concrete steps on the horizon, the reiteration of the urgency of obtaining peace in Libya was at the heart of the Munich debate. Despite the fact that the Berlin summit hosted all the key players of the Libyan conflict, including the Arab League and the African Union in an attempt to prevent the marginalization of Libya’s immediate neighbours, the ultimate conclusion did not progress from previous efforts. Moreover, the voices of both the Arab League and the African Union have gone unheard amid renewed tensions and the latest spill of weapons into Libya, despite prominent statements from the region repeatedly seeking consensus-based political arrangements.
The unofficial ceasefire declared by Turkey and Russia, who support the GNA and Haftar respectively, has reduced active fighting to Libya’s capital since it went into force on January 12; however, no official document detailing the ceasefire has been signed. Under the auspices of the UN special envoy for Libya, Ghassan Salame, Germany was hoping to finalize a political roadmap agreement during the Berlin summit in Europe’s latest and most concrete attempt to stabilize Libya; however, no concrete follow-up has been negotiated as of February 27th.
Viable future avenues
While the UN is seeking a step away from foreign interference in Libya, focusing on transforming the unofficial ceasefire into an official agreement with monitoring and separation of rival groups and repositioning of heavy weapons, the most recent wave of geopolitical focus on Libya paints a different picture. Turkey has sent troops to Libya, followed by a Russian-led ceasefire negotiation that was left open-ended, as a prelude to the Berlin summit and Europe’s increased involvement in Libya’s future. In negotiating the ceasefire and Libya’s post-conflict peace landscape, efforts to build a new Libya should take into account the country’s strong tribal character and should look into integrating tribal forces in a manner that favours the central state project while simultaneously allowing for true representation and inclusion of all local and tribal entities.
In the long-term, an improvement of the current situation in Libya is direly needed, especially in terms of the rule of law, the socio-economic sector; and infrastructure. Politically, such a leap toward peace could be achieved through federalism and a step-by-step approach in addressing the country’s system of dual governance and underlying tribal issues, that could further aid both national and international efforts in containing armed opposition and re-securing entire Libya’s territory.
Ultimately, securing Libya’s peace process will be a tedious and fickle process. The international community and the parties to the conflict have to stick to the step-by-step approach to tackling each issue that is undermining the credibility of actors and viability of a peaceful status quo. In the short-term, all sides will have to jointly and in good faith work on establishing and maintaining the credibility of intention and trust. In concrete terms, abiding by the UN arms embargo on Libya may not necessitate the cessation of other measures, which is what the EU had done with Operation Sophia to launch Operation EU Active Surveillance. This will also demand greater involvement by other parties as well, which have thus far been seen as marginal to the negotiations, including the African Union, with a stronger pledge to adhere to the UN embargo. In the long-run, such efforts will ensure a permanent cessation of hostilities within Libya along with a greater degree of certainty of not reverting to lawlessness.