The US-led NATO assault on Libya in 2011 set off a chain of events that have mired the North African state in conflict and crisis ever since. Following a popular uprising against dictator and erstwhile ally of the US, France and Britain, Moammar Gaddafi, and the western military assault, a range of tribes sought control of Libya in the power vacuum that emerged after Gaddafi’s ouster and very public murder. Competing fiefdoms were established across the country, which then formed armed militias to try to increase their power.
Commander Khalifa Haftar is the 76-year-old head of the Libyan National Army (LNA,) a faction that is loyal to the Tobruk government in the east of the country. In April 2019 the LNA announced an attack on Tripoli, attempting to oust the Government of National Accord (GNA,) the internationally-recognised government of Libya. The Haftar attack resulted in the LNA being expelled from several western cities by forces allied to the GNA.
António Guterres, U.N. Secretary General, was in Libya when Haftar’s advance was announced, and stated that he was leaving the country “with a deep concern and a heavy heart.”
And Magdalena Mughrabi, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Amnesty International stated: “As the battle for Tripoli unfolds, the warring parties have displayed a shameful disregard for civilian safety and international humanitarian law by carrying out indiscriminate attacks on residential neighbourhoods”.
The LNA has claimed that it was attempting a restoration of security and a move against terrorism. Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj of the Government of National Accord described the attack as an attempted coup.
Despite the existence of an internationally-backed national government, the pattern of lawlessness, instability and violence that has characterised Libya since 2011 has continued and more powerful states have circled the country seeking to influence its future direction.
The 2011 bombing of Libya led to its disintegration as a functioning modern state able to provide services to its population and to act as a plug at the extreme north of Africa, containing potential refugee crises. The numbers fleeing violence and poverty in the Middle East and Africa in the past decade is in the millions and Libya has been the gateway to Europe for many of those desperate to pursue hopes of a better life. European countries have tightened border controls and immigration policies in response to the crisis and European Union institutions and members have provided millions of Euros to the internationally-recognised government for its attempts to stop boats leaving the country and detain people who are fleeing.
The refugee crisis was once front-page news in the west but has faded from people’s minds and the political agenda. Those failing to make it to Europe’s shore often return to Libya, to live extremely precarious lives. Thousands of refugees in Libya are stuck at detention centres that have been described as “nightmarish” by Human Rights Watch: “people face inhuman and degrading conditions and the risk of torture, sexual violence, extortion, and forced labour.” In Libya, the phenomenon of slavery has re-emerged, and the state has lacked the institutional stability required to confront the powerful forces that benefit from criminality and instability.
Philippe Nassif, advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty USA, told The Intercept website: “All these refugees from all over Africa are stuck in this really dangerous situation where they have nowhere to go,”.
It was President Barack Obama, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who launched the attack that ousted Gaddafi and opened Libya to its current predicament. However, since 2012, American military involvement in Libya has largely been limited to drone strikes aimed at Islamic State.
The US is the one state that could force the warring factions to the table to negotiate a way forward for Libya that see the state re-established as a functioning country, which would then create some security and stability in a part of the world in which both these qualities are desperately needed.
But contradictory statements have come out of Washington, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemning Haftar’s 2019 advance on Tripoli. A week later President Donald Trump praised Haftar for his “significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources,” according to a White House statement, which also stated that Trump and Haftar “discussed a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system”.
Generally, the US has stepped back from involvement in the MENA region. The two other protagonists in the 2011 war on Libya have long-standing historical ties to the country. The UK has been relatively quiet on Libya and it has been France that has pursued a more aggressive policy towards getting a political settlement that suits its worldview. This has included uncritical support for the United Arab Emirates (UAE,) the state that has emerged as Haftar’s key supporter.
While the UK has turned a blind eye to the UAE’s involvement in the Libyan civil war, France has been enthusiastically supportive of Abu Dhabi’s attempts to push Libya into the hands of the prospective dictator, Haftar. This is despite the international support for the GNA and a UN Security Council report that identified up to three thousand Sudanese mercenary fighters present in Libya, funded by the Emiratis to do the bidding of the LNA.
The UAE-Sudan link extends further as it emerged in January that an Emirati security firm had tricked Sudanese workers into going to Libya to guard oil installations.
UAE Support for Haftar
The UAE provides vital support that maintains Haftar as a political force in Libya and keeps the civil war going. To secure victories in the cities Benghazi and Derna, Emirati support was crucial to Haftar. The Field Marshal’s territorial expansion was facilitated by the Emiratis building an air base in eastern Libya in 2017 in order to provide Haftar’s forces with air cover.
As well as continuing to recruit mercenary fighters in Sudan, the UAE provides direct military assistance to Haftar’s forces. Over 850 drone and jet strikes have been carried out by the UAE on Haftar’s behalf since April 2019, killing civilians and causing material damage to Libyan civilians rather than GNA forces. Since January 2020, there have been over a hundred suspected deliveries of arms from the UAE to Libya and Egypt, the Emiratis’ key regional ally in the Libya conflict.
As well as the civilian casualties from air strikes, the UN has described the “horror” of the GNA recently discovering mass graves in the Tarhana area liberated from Haftar forces. Jet fuel supplies continue to be provided to the LNA by the UAE, who have committed their unequivocal support to Haftar’s bid for power.
Haftar’s continued presence as a substantial player in the Libyan crisis is in large part thanks to the UAE’s diplomatic cover. While the US and UK very helpfully turn a blind eye to Abu Dhabi’s destabilising role, France finds itself in alignment with the UAE as an ideological supporter of Haftar and apparently feels no great pressure to pull away from the LNA despite the security crisis. Emirati-French security ties are being utilised to manipulate peace talks to prolong the civil war and reinforce Haftar’s position. Libya-related international conferences in foreign capitals have been succeeded by Haftar launching military operations that went directly against the conferences’ ostensible aims.
One example was in early 2019. After a French-backed military operation, Haftar expand into Libya’s southwestern region, Fezzan, taking control of the country’s oil infrastructure. The UAE then hosted Haftar and Prime Minister Sarraj to negotiate a power-sharing agreement. Haftar used the cover of the political talks to launch his April 2019 attack on Tripoli, supported by UAE drones.
The US and UK remain ambivalent and France is fully behind the UAE-Haftar approach. The European Union has not emerged as a force capable of acting decisively in Libya. Working against the UAE are Russia and Turkey, supporters of the recognised Libyan government. Unlike the Emiratis, the Russians and Turks face international condemnation for meddling in the Libyan civil war.
Libya’s war represents the wider struggle in which these same states find themselves on opposing sides. While Russia and Turkey favour conservative Islamist parties, the UAE and her allies, notably Egypt, seek to undermine political Islam at every turn, seeing it as a threat to their own power, domestically, regionally and globally.