Libya is the battlefield of a full-fledged proxy war, the end of which requires a homogeneous push from neighboring countries.
Rabat – The civil war in Libya is taking a distinct trajectory, full of uncertainty and risks.
Between July 27 and 29, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud paid visits to Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco to discuss the Libyan crisis. The tours, official but unplanned, aimed at addressing the Libyan civil war’s challenges and exchanging views on the possible mechanisms of conflict resolution. The diplomatic exchanges revealed an agreement on the dangers of foreign interference terrorism and violence and the necessity of a Libyan solution.
Still, the timing of the visits generates mixed feelings on the motives of Saudi Arabia and the evolution of the Libyan civil war. Saudi Arabia was not explicitly present in the Libyan scene, let alone the Libyan battlefield. And the foreign visit coincided with a number of incidents.
In June, the Government of National Accord (GNA) achieved a major territorial victory. Turkey and Russia signed a ceasefire agreement. Various countries condemned Turkey’s military involvement, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi threatened to launch a military intervention, and the United States expressed its discontent on the worsening landscape. Morocco received Libyan representatives Aguila Saleh Issa and Khalid al-Mishri to discuss Morocco’s role in ending the crisis.
With this, the Libyan conflict is taking a new trajectory, the end of which is difficult to foresee.
Turkish intervention: A turning point
On January 2, the Turkish Parliament approved a one-year mandate to allow Turkey to deploy troops and weaponry in Libya, strengthen the Libyan elite forces, and merge intelligence and expertise to better track illicit operations. The intervention, conceived to level up the power of GNA leader Fayez al-Sarraj, depicts Ankara as a strategic stakeholder in the conflict for two rationales.
First, the geopolitical position of Libya, in the Mediterranean basin and in proximity from Europe, is opportune for Turkey at the symbolic and the material levels.
The arena recalls the grandeur of the Ottoman Empire as space and idea. President Erdogan wants to revive the legacy of Ottomanism, according to which Turkey is to be a model country in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Besides, the prevalence of gas and oil across the Mediterranean is crucial for a country whose economy needs regular boosts.
In November 2019, Turkey and the GNA signed a maritime deal to legalize the former’s exploitation of mineral resources in the Libyan shores, which demarcated the maritime borders between the two countries in the form of a corridor crossing the Mediterranean.
Second, Turkey intervened militarily to counterbalance the weight of foreign actors that support Khalifa Haftar and the Libyan National Army (LNA).
In 2011, the collapse of institutions in Libya, the rise of political Islamism in some MENA countries, and the security vacuum that emerged in other countries compelled the pro-Haftar camp to take revisionist actions to uphold their economic and regime security.
The UAE’s military support was unique since it stood vigorously to strengthen the posture of Haftar and expand the control of the LNA over eastern Libya. One instance is the growing number of Wing Loong II drones in the Libyan battlefield to arm Haftar with sophisticated weaponry.
Facing this reality, Turkey was in no position to remain neutral, mainly because the external efforts to support Haftar were paying high dividends. Hence, it used all the means possible to safeguard the area of al-Sarraj.
Distinctly, Turkey sent Syrian mercenaries to join the lucrative battle against the LNA. On the ground, it was estimated that some 10,000 fought alongside the GNA forces. Turkey has also deployed armed drones and air defense systems, thus joining the UAE in transforming Libya into a drone theater. Bayraktar TB2, a product of the Turkish company Baykar Makina, has notably altered Turkey’s intervention mode because it is lethal and relatively cheap.
In this lucrative battle, the forces of Haftar began suffering a string of defeats. In June 2020, the GNA gained full control over the Libyan capital of Tripoli. Its forces regained control over al-Watiya Air Base, the international airport, and Tarhunah. The victory disrupts the internal balance of power and disrupted the “game of foreign powers.”
Response to the GNA’s victory
Foreign assistance transformed Haftar into Libya’s strongman for a while. His supporters poured massive flows of money and weaponry to place him a guardian of their interests in Libya, the Mediterranean, and Africa. Yet, his failure to retain control over Tripoli culminated in a sharp escalation of the conflict. The clashes have intensified around the coastal city of Sirte, located at the boundary of eastern and western Libya.
On June 6, Egypt issued the so-called Cairo Declaration, a ceasefire proposal between President Sisi, Khalifa Haftar, and Aguila Saleh to achieve three goals: ending foreign presence, disarming the population, and scheduling national elections.
Later, the Egyptian president threatened to intervene in Libya militarily if foreign mobilization culminates in an assault on Sirte and Jufra. The districts form a frontline between eastern and western Libya and a gateway to oil fields. To support his claims, Sisi referred to some tribal leaders who sympathize with Haftar and who favor the Egyptian option of military intervention to counter Turkey’s maneuvers.
On July 20th, the Egyptian Parliament approved a possible intervention in Libya to uphold Egypt’s national and regional interests against what it perceives as criminal militias and terrorism. In this context, Saudi Arabia, a close ally of Sisi, resurged in the Libyan scene by endorsing Cairo’s moves and calling the LNA and the GNA to respect the ceasefire reciprocally.
The Cairo Declaration added more complexity to the conflict for three reasons.
First, it reflects bias since it does not objectively involve the GNA and the warring actors. An effective conflict resolution mechanism is one that includes all stakeholders to prevent future clashes. In Libya, the tribal composition of society is an extra incentive to consider the tiniest details.
Second, the Declaration merely reflects the interests of Egypt. Sisi wants a stronger Haftar at its eastern border. The Declaration is an attempt to strengthen Haftar rather than a sincere effort to end human suffering. Note that the eruption of COVID-19 in Libya has worsened its people’s situation as the vast majority faces precarity and humanitarian distress.
Third, the Declaration opened the room for more polarization between supporting and non-supporting members of the pro-Haftar and the pro-Sarraj camps.
At the regional level, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt are entitled to raise concerns about the worsening situation in Libya. After all, they are geographically proximate, and they share significant historical and cultural traits.
However, they have distinct reasons for why they want a stable Libya.
The first three are only concerned about regional stability. At different extents, Rabat, Algiers, and Tunis would be undergoing the consequences of any insecurity spillover that occurs in Libya. Their diplomatic circles reject foreign interference and endorse a solution that mirrors the will of the Libyan people.
On the contrary, Cairo looks beyond mere stability. President Sisi’s plan and rhetoric raise doubts about his honesty to help solve the Libyan crisis.
Egypt’s special interests
Egypt has three mainstream interests. First, Sisi is concerned about the spread of Islamist activities, particularly those associated with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Since his ascent to power in 2014, he has condemned religious discourse and rejected the religious state’s concept. Instead, he called for a separation between religion and politics. The past six years indicated that he played a dangerous game by keeping the Muslim Brotherhood away from power to manipulate religion to achieve political gains.
Sisi exerts pressure on the religious authority to support his moves and sustain his legitimacy. Egyptian society is conservative, and religion is a binding point among many citizens. On June 20, Egypt’s religious authority endorsed Sisi’s military plan in Libya had the forces loyal to the GNA took control over Sirte and Jufra.
Second, Egypt is concerned about the growing threat of terrorism. In post-2011 Libya, the absence of a robust security apparatus created a haven for terror proliferation. The ongoing chaos will give momentum to Daesh and Al Qaeda-affiliated groups.
Haftar, commander of the LNA, has always advanced a counterterrorism narrative to amass local support, secure regional support, and conceal his authoritarian aspirations. Consequently, Sisi considers western Libya a buffer that should remain free from terrorist activities. Standing behind Haftar is an obligation to maintain the internal security of Egypt.
Third, Egypt wants to curb the growing influence of Turkey in Libya. In a short interval, Ankara was able to disrupt the balance of power in Libya and restore the pre-April 2019 lines. The victory marks the beginning of a regional power’s journey.
For Egypt, the situation is alarming because it signals the arrival of a revisionist power in its immediate neighborhood. It is no surprise that Saudi Arabia reappeared on the Libyan scene by paying visits to Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. Since 2013, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have maintained a patron-client relationship. Together with Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and its allies endorsed Egypt’s intervention plan, and their officials described it as legitimate and permissible for the stability of the Arab world.
Read also: A Moroccan Perspective on the Libyan Crisis
An uncertain trajectory
The Libyan crisis is taking a distinct trajectory, full of uncertainty and risks.
Polarization is deepening, geopolitical interests multiply, the conflict is becoming global, uncertainty on post-war Libya is increasing. In short, Libya is the battlefield of a full-fledged proxy war, the end of which requires a homogeneous push from neighboring countries.
Without the pacific involvement of Maghrebi countries, local actors, and external backers, Libya is likely to remain in disarray for the next few years.
Since 2015, Morocco has been a cautious mediator by calling for a collective Arab vision that includes local stakeholders. Yet, those moves remain modest because the United States, the European Union, and MENA countries fail to cooperate with the sole motive of ending the crisis.
Morocco should enhance cooperation with its Maghrebi peers, namely Algeria and Tunisia.
The historical rivalry between Morocco and Algeria and the recent competition about the party that will play a more significant role in Libya will only delay Libyan peace. Instead, the two countries should align their forces in symbiosis.
Even if those efforts are unlikely to bring the Saharan conflict to an end, they will undoubtedly save millions of Libyans from humanitarian distress.