In Libya, foreign interference knocks on an open door

Since 2011, foreign interference in Libya’s domestic affairs has been a feature, rather than an anomaly, of this protracted conflict.

Members of the Turkish-backed Libyan army at a graduation ceremony.
Members of the Turkish-backed Libyan army at a graduation ceremony.

In Libya, foreign interference knocks on an open door

Since the outbreak of the 2011 popular uprising that toppled longtime Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, foreign interference has been the norm rather than the exception in the North African country’s longstanding crisis.

In some cases, foreign actors have exploited Libya’s fractures and taken advantage of the fragility of the (non) state but blame also lies with Libya’s ruling elite for being overly eager to cheaply barter their country’s sovereignty.

Fighters loyal to Libya's UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) stand atop a tank in the town of Tarhuna, about 65 kilometres southeast of the capital Tripoli on June 5, 2020.

Despite shifting regional alliances, the international community should continue to use the Berlin architecture to support UN mediation and meet the aspirations of the Libyan people for an end to the country’s long transition.

A land of paradoxes

Libya is a land of paradoxes. A nation that was founded by the United Nations in 1951 and for 18 years, thereafter, basked in the warm embrace of international alliances was, in 1969, plunged into four decades of quixotic and brutal one-man rule.

During this period, Libya became an international pariah, under multiple sanctions, with its people increasingly isolated in the world.

That began to change in the early 2000s when Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi changed course, renouncing his WMD programme and the campaign of state-sponsored terrorism he had doggedly pursued for many years.

Libya began to interact with the outside world, but this was not enough to save Gaddafi from the internal uprising that overthrew him in 2011.

The rebellion that brought him down could not have succeeded without the direct military assistance provided by Nato and its Arab allies and the political support and cover provided by the UN Security Council.

Libya's quarrelling leaders seek legitimacy abroad

Since 2011, foreign interference in Libya’s domestic affairs has been a feature, rather than an anomaly, of this protracted conflict.

Gaddafi's political and military successors — most of them parvenus on the world stage — have awkwardly straddled between the domestic and the international, revelling in political tourism. Unable to attain legitimacy at home among their compatriots, these men have sought it abroad.

Unable to attain legitimacy at home among their compatriots, Gaddafi's political and military successors have sought it abroad.

The post-2011 Libyan ruling elite complains about foreign interference, especially if it threatens their personal standing, but the truth is that the interfering countries have, for the most part, been pushing on an open door, invited in by the quarrelling Libyan parties.

This pattern was partially established during the 2011 uprising when Nato members and their Arab allies established discrete relationships with various armed groups that had formed to battle Gaddafi's forces. 

Russia, Turkey and Egypt step up involvement

In the last half-dozen years, several countries that were less involved in the Libya conflict in 2011 – namely Russia, Turkey, and Egypt – have more forcefully come to the fore.

A Turkish-backed soldier removes a land mine south of Tripoli.

In most cases, the initial ties, especially between the Libyan armed groups and foreign elements were brokered through special forces and intelligence channels — elements who were more present on the ground during the rebellion and in the maelstrom that beset Libya in the years following Gaddafi's violent demise than their diplomatic counterparts. 

It was — and to some extent still is — the intel types that have filled the space in which too much of the international community's business has been conducted.  

In the last half-dozen years, several countries that were less involved in the Libya conflict in 2011 – namely Russia, Turkey, and Egypt – have more forcefully come to the fore.

The most recent chapter in this murky "mukhabarat (spy) story" witnessed the successive visits earlier this year of US CIA Director Bill Burns, then-Turkish Intel Chief Hakan Fidan and Egyptian Intel Chief Abbas Kamel. 

Countries with interests in Libya have used their armed proxies on the ground to advance the full range of their national (and competing) priorities:  counter-terrorism, counter-migration, oil, counter-Islamism, counter-democracy, exploitation of Libya's riches or to secure bases on the country's geostrategically valuable terrain. 

Read more: Libya's oil wealth: A blessing and a curse

The transactionalism that defines this type of opportunistic "diplomacy" is directly at odds with the mandate of the United Nations, tasked with brokering peace and helping the Libyan people to build a state with a representative government and accountable institutions. 

At no moment were the disconnect, dysfunction, moral bankruptcy, and transactionalism in the international community's approach to Libya plainer to see than in the spring of 2019 when the Security Council — spurning its own resolutions and ignoring the UN arms embargo — failed to condemn strongman Khalifa Haftar's assault on Tripoli. 

As the UN was putting the final touches on a meticulously planned National Conference, a significant number of its member states were offering political, material, and tactical support for Haftar's brazen attempt to seize power by force.

Khalifa Haftar

But actions can have unintended consequences and Haftar's attempted putsch awakened a latent Turkish interest in Libya.  

The Turks had watched with alarm, while the Russians, with funding provided by Arab country, dispatched thousands of Wagner mercenaries to the frontlines in Tripoli where they coordinated tactically with Arab-operated Chinese drones to inflict heavy losses on the Tripoli forces. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's decision in late 2019 to come to the assistance of the UN-recognised government in Tripoli changed the course of the war. 

In exchange for offering to assist the internationally-recognised government, the Turks wrangled out of the Tripoli government several controversial maritime and military agreements. When Ankara finalised its arrangements with the Tripoli government, the Turks inserted their own advanced weaponry and thousands of Syrian mercenaries.

Read more: Will Wagner mutiny elicit more caution over mercenary use in the Middle East?

Libyan soldiers receive Turkish training.

Ankara-Moscow rivalry 

Brushing aside the Arab countries backing Haftar, Erdogan instead focused his Libya diplomacy on Turkey's traditional rival — the Russians. 

Ankara and Moscow used a series of bilateral meetings in late 2019 and early 2020 to strike a modus vivendi and, more importantly, to try to steal a march on the international conclave being organised by Germany and the United Nations. 

The Turkish-Russian compact encountered a hiccup when a 13 January 2020 meeting with the Libyan parties in Moscow failed to produce a ceasefire agreement, thanks to Haftar's legendary stubbornness (he still believed that his forces could prevail militarily). 

Instead, a larger international meeting took place on 19 January 2020 in Berlin in the presence of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan, producing the Berlin process and a broad umbrella under which to harness and coordinate international efforts. 

The Berlin process and resulting international working groups remain the international architecture for Libya to this day, albeit circumscribed at the highest levels by the diplomatic fissures caused by Russia's brutal invasion of Ukraine.

Within eight months of the Turkish entry on the side of the UN-recognised government, Haftar's forces — which had been at the gates of Tripoli — were pushed back to central Libya. 

Fighting wound down in June of 2020 and a formal ceasefire — which continues to hold — was signed by Libyan parties under UN auspices in October of that year. 

Libya carved up

On their part, the Turks and Russians carved up the country and created their own realities on the ground, occupying Libyan bases and maintaining their mercenary forces (despite a formal Libyan request, enshrined in the October 2020 ceasefire agreement, for the departure of all mercenaries and foreign forces). 

Russia has since used its mercenaries in eastern and southern Libya, along with their local allies, to assist the Rapid Support Forces in their battle against the Sudanese military across the border in Sudan. 

Meanwhile, the Turks have firmly entrenched themselves in western Libya, with a sprawling military, intelligence, political, and commercial presence.  They are also making significant inroads in eastern Libya where a Turkish business forum is taking place and plans are afoot to open a Turkish consulate in Benghazi. 

Libyan Polnocny class landing ship Ibn Ouf and the Turkish G class frigate TCG Gaziantep.

There is little doubt that amongst all the foreign powers, it is the Turks who wield the most influence on the ground in Libya today. 

There is little doubt that amongst all the foreign powers, it is the Turks who wield the most influence on the ground in Libya today. 

Other players in Libya's arena

The three years following Haftar's defeat have witnessed major realignments in the Middle East/North Africa region with the UAE and Turkey mending fences and a significant warming of ties in the last six months between Cairo and Ankara.  

Previously an ardent foe of the Tripoli government, Egypt has of late taken receipt of a $700 million loan from Libya's central bank. 

While Moscow keeps an eye on Libya and there is no indication that its mercenaries will be recalled, it is otherwise occupied with its own blundering invasion of Ukraine. 

On its part, the US has deprioritised the Arab world, returning to America's 20th-century myopic support for "stability". Seldom before has one seen so little overlap between America's so-called strategic interests and its democratic values. 

Meanwhile, the Germans and French are occupied with Ukraine while the Italians continue their own transactional approach in Libya, prioritising counter-migration efforts.

Libyan people's voice lost

Unfortunately, what gets lost in these international and regional machinations are the voices of the Libyan people, particularly the 2.8 million who continue to call for ending Libya's 12-year-long transition through presidential and parliamentary elections on a consensually-agreed constitutional basis.  

At the very minimum, the international community needs to honour their wishes and support the rule of law, respect for human rights and accountability in Libya. There is no need to reinvent the wheel with regard to international architecture, specifically, the Berlin Process and its associated working groups. 

The factors that formed the basis upon which the process was designed still pertain: a mostly dysfunctional and quarrelsome Security Council and transactionalism in bilateral approaches to the country.  

This international umbrella is also needed to support UN mediation and to put pressure on the Libyan protagonists. 

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