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Searching for Diplomacy in Libya

Libya is no stranger to conflict, having been embroiled in civil war since 2014. Nevertheless the past year has been particularly tumultuous, with rival leaders Khalifa Haftar and Fayez al-Serraj fighting for territory and influence after Haftar launched an attack on Tripoli in April 2019 in what was largely seen as a coup attempt. The intervening year has led to the growth of two important trends: First, Libya’s people and territory have gradually been partitioned as al-Serraj’s Government of National Accord (GNA) and Haftar’s House of Representatives (HOR) and Libyan National Army (LNA) have fought for control of the country. Second, players in the international community have staked sides with Egypt, the UAE, Russia, and France backing Haftar and Turkey, Italy, and the EU supporting al-Serraj. Although the United States has not formally backed Haftar, President Trump has spoken with the HOR leader and sent representatives to diplomatic summits, suggesting an American desire to have a say in the conflict’s outcome.  Libya is an illustrative case of the complexities emerging out of this era of proxy warfare, in which global powers are increasingly involved in local conflicts.

Libya Summit in Berlin, Germany, on January 19, 2020. [State Department Photo by Ron Przysucha/ Public Domain]

Foreign actors have worked towards a diplomatic solution in Libya since Haftar’s initial incursion in Tripoli. It was not until this month, however, that international partners succeeded in getting Haftar and al-Serraj in the same room. On January 13, 2020 the rival leaders joined Russian and Turkish officials in Moscow to discuss a Europe-brokered proposal for a protracted ceasefire — designed to be a first-step towards lasting peace. While al-Serraj did sign the agreement, Haftar walked away from talks. Just days later world leaders convened in Berlin to see if the EU could accomplish what Russia could not. While participants (not including Haftar or al-Serraj) issued a communique pledging to refrain from foreign interference and work towards a ceasefire, it seems unlikely that any of the world powers involved will feel much compunction about retaining their commitments.

With the number of competing interests involved in the fight for Libya’s future, it is unlikely that a substantive diplomatic solution can be reached that will be adhered to by all foreign powers, both democratic and authoritarian. Instead, the most likely scenario is a protracted Venezuela-like standoff in which two competing leaders weaponize natural resource markets and international backers to buoy their own causes, even as the living situation for their people continues to deteriorate.

The ongoing crisis in Libya is a situation that is uniquely positioned to draw in international actors. For many of the states involved in support of Haftar, Libya’s extensive oil fields (currently under control of the LNA) may well be a draw. Russia in particular is benefiting hugely from its support of Haftar, both in terms of increased clout within OPEC and payments for the Russian mercenaries supporting LNA troops. Libyan oil reserves seem to have enticed President Trump to tacitly offer U.S. support of Haftar, though the American leader’s decision may also have been influenced by his desire to break with Obama’s foreign policy in Libya and the Middle East more broadly.  Other actors in Libya are motivated by more concrete foreign policy concerns. As the Islamic State (IS) continues to expand influence through the Sahel region, Egypt’s decision to back Haftar may be motivated by the military leader’s track record of forcing out IS encampments, serving as an important ally in Egypt’s anti-terrorism operations. 

While international powers debate geo-political concerns, it is the Libyan people who are suffering from the protracted conflict between Haftar and al-Serraj. In addition to the airstrikes that have already killed hundreds of civilians, both sides have faced accusations of precision strikes on hospitals, leading to the closure of about a quarter of Libyan medical facilities. The resulting health impact has been staggering, contributing to a cholera outbreak and a shortage of first aid supplies throughout the country. In addition to these direct human health impacts, Haftar’s control of Libya’s oil fields is damaging the national economy. Haftar has effectively ceased oil production, weaponizing natural resource output in an attempt to force al-Serraj to capitulate. Instead it is Libyans who are most affected, facing economic downturn as oil prices plummet and foreign investors withdraw from the country.

Barring a major policy reversal, the communique that came out of the Berlin Summit will remain little more than a piece of paper. Although the UN has imposed an arms embargo on Libya since 2011, foreign partners have systematically flouted that restriction, smuggling arms into the country to prop up Haftar or al-Serraj. Given this legacy of subterfuge and the entrenched interests that have governed support of the rival leaders, it isn’t surprising that Libyans see multilateral negotiations as a sham, designed more to advance geo-political interests than to bring about peace. International partners should prioritize the serious human security crises taking place on the ground. Only then will they have secured the buy-in from the Libyan people that is necessary to effect lasting change.

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Kathryn Urban

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