Is a Political Solution to Libya’s Civil War still possible?

Last month, leaders and senior government officials from eleven countries – most of which being major global powers – attended a UN summit in Berlin. Among their number were Vladimir Putin, Emmanuel Macron and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. What could compel such senior individuals to congregate for a one-off diplomatic event?

Since the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libya has been embroiled in a seemingly intractable civil war. In lieu of this, the aforementioned summit’s purpose was to locate a solution – or at least establish common ground from which work on a solution could be initiated – whereby peace could be restored to the oil-rich North African state. Nevertheless, while it certainly had the trappings of a serious diplomatic effort, make no mistake: the summit was no more than an exercise in vapidity. Irrespective of how many millions one could spend to give the contrary impression, a meaningful political solution to Libya’s conflict, at least at this stage, is not remotely feasible. There are two primary reasons for this. Firstly, the ideological dispositions of either side are such that any political compromise would debilitate their own claims to legitimacy. Secondly – and more crucially – the conflict has increasingly become a proxy war for various powerful regional and global actors alike, most of whom are pursuing strongly held, zero-sum interests; as a result, said actors have little to lose but a lot to gain by embedding themselves in and enflaming the conflict.

Within the country, the war is being fought between the Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Fayez al-Sirraj, and the Libyan National Army (LNA) under General Khalifa Haftar. The GNA is de jure Libya’s official national government, and is recognised as such by the UN and EU; however, its grip over the country is effectively non-existent. Not only does it only control the capital Tripoli and a pocket of surrounding territory, including the district of Misrata in the north-west, but the House of Representatives – one of the country’s two rival parliaments following an acrimonious, dysfunctional election in 2014 – withdrew its backing for the struggling administration in 2016.

While the GNA has been on the backfoot, the LNA has made significant territorial gains, and now controls two thirds of the country. The army was formed by Haftar, a military general and self-styled strongman, in 2014. Akin to the authoritarian Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Haftar depicts himself as the only figure who can restore order to a country that has been riven by factional conflict for nearly a decade. To his backers, as well as a coterie of international onlookers with a stake in the region’s stability, Haftar’s narrative is not only appealing but also somewhat legitimate; he has been credited with restoring security to the eastern part of the country currently under his rule. Nevertheless, as one might expect, this has come at a sheer cost. Haftar’s politics – if they can even called that – are highly authoritarian; he is known to have a penchant for brutality, and forces under his tutelage have been accused of perpetrating war crimes, including the murder of unarmed civilians and prolific use of torture.

It is in the character of the LNA leadership and its implicit manifesto that we can elucidate the first impediment to a political solution. Haftar is a strongman; he seeks to establish a secular, authoritarian and unitary administration over the country in its entirety. As a result, any concession to the fractious, decrepit GNA, or even any action that affords any other domestic actor political legitimacy, would critically undermine the validity of the above pitch. For Haftar, ruling Libya is an all-or-nothing affair. In the words of Fathi Bashgha, the interior minister of the GNA, “if there is a ceasefire or dialogue, that would be the end of Haftar. It would be like committing suicide for him”.

By extension, the GNA and many of its remaining subjects dread the establishment of a Haftar-led government on the grounds that it would constitute a return to the dictatorial, military rule of Gaddafi, resistance against which instigated the civil war in the first place. Neither force thus possesses even a shred of legitimacy in the eyes of their counterpart – a fact sufficient on its own to debilitate attempts to resolve the conflict politically.

Nevertheless, if pressure were imposed on the two sides by the international community to reach a solution – such that failure to do so would elicit the implementation of punitive diplomatic and economic measures – progress toward a political settlement could most likely occur, in spite of the difficulties outlined above. However, this scenario couldn’t be further from reality. A majority of the actors involved with the conference referred to at the start of this piece have with varying degrees of intensity provided backing for either the LNA or GNA, with clear strategic and political interests in mind.

Despite the formal recognition of his opponent in the eyes of supranational institutions, Haftar has undoubtedly received backing from a wider array of international actors, the most notable of which being Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), France, and to an increasing extent Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a private military corporation closely associated with the Kremlin.

For Egypt and the UAE in particular, preventing the emergence of Islamist governments – or even governments partially constituted by Islamists – is a key foreign policy priority. Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi only came to power after he led a coup in 2013 against the previous president, Mohammed Morsi, who was an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood. While Fayez al-Sirraj, the GNA’s leader, is by no means an Islamist himself, Haftar is perceived as a much more reliable option to clamp down on Islamism, especially in the face of allegations by the latter’s backers that the GNA is being propped up by Islamist militias. Additionally, the General National Congress (GNC), the second national parliament which didn’t withdraw its backing for the GNA, is partially comprised by representatives of the Brotherhood.

While France – having surreptitiously provided the LNA with special forces and advisers – has a lower stake in the intra-regional conflict, in its view a Haftar administration would be the most effective method of ensuring stability in North Africa. This fact is of considerable interest to Paris in lieu of the fact that successive French governments have had particularly trouble grappling with jihadism at home; a victory for Islamists in Libya would galvanise these forces.

For its part, Russia is most likely attempting to gain some leverage over Haftar that could be wielded in the future over a prospective LNA-led government, a state of affairs which could yield significant economic benefits for the former. The political benefits for Moscow vis-à-vis their intervention are already clear to see; Russian boots on the ground have been key to the LNA’s recent military successes, and Putin has cemented himself as a central player in all the recent diplomatic events dedicated toward resolving the crisis.

In contrast, the GNA counts among its backers Italy, Turkey and to a lesser extent Qatar. Italy’s political system has been convulsed by the country’s recipience of an influx of migrants across the Mediterranean, the bulk of whom travel from Libya. As a result, successive Italian administrations have possessed a clear incentive to cooperate with the GNA; the latter has committed to police its maritime territories and stem the flow of migrants, in exchange for aid from the former.

Turkey’s support of the GNA has been much more explicit, with its government even going as far as deploying its military to assist the fight against Haftar. Their rationale in this instance is twofold. On one hand, Turkey under Erdogan has become a key backer of the Muslim Brotherhood, in addition to soft-Islamists across the Middle East; it is similar to Qatar in this respect. Haftar’s authoritarian secularism threatens to wipe out the Brotherhood’s political presence in Libya, in contrast to the accommodating GNA.

However, just as crucial (if not more so) in Turkey’s decision to back the GNA is the geopolitics of gas. In November 2019, the two signed an agreement providing the former with extensive maritime jurisdiction over the eastern Mediterranean. Most crucially, the deal would grant Turkey exploration rights over a gas-rich area of the sea which is also contended by Egypt, Greece and Cyprus. In a manner flawlessly illustrative of the various factors discussed above, France and Egypt – staunch backers of the LNA – were quick to sign a statement condemning the deal and declaring it void. Notably, but predictably, the Italian foreign minister, who was present at the meeting where this course of action was settled upon, opted to abstain.

In lieu of the numerous actors that are now intimately involved in Libya’s civil conflict, to describe it as such would no longer be fully apt; we are now dealing with a full-blown proxy war, with high geopolitical, ideological and economic stakes for nearly every participant. Is there any hope of a peaceful resolution? Nothing is impossible, and recent political events have illustrated that reality is often stranger than fiction. Nevertheless, the respective dispositions and objectives of the LNA and GNA, in conjunction with the fact that several powerful nations have a significant interest in a single side achieving total victory, have rendered a political solution improbable.

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