Libyan civil war

Written by Henri Kouam 6:47 pm Articles, Current Affairs, International Relations, Published Content

The Libyan Civil War: Another Battlefield for Foreign Powers

The highly divisive civil war in Libya, wherein the standoff is between some of the central UN member states and the UN itself, could either decimate Libya or pave a democratic path for the people of Libya.
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Henri is an economist and contributor to Nkafu policy, a think tank. Before this, he was an economist and macroeconomic strategist at Roubini Global Economics, one of the leading economic research providers in London.


The Libyan civil war continues to be stocked by diverging priorities amongst international actors, gullible militias, and a less than robust Khalifa Haftar who appears to be losing ground in his strongholds. The Libyan civil war is bracing to be one of the worst humanitarian crises in modern history and is characterized by geopolitical rivalry, with the quest for greater stability of oil exports taking precedence over non-violent outcomes. 

Of course, the most unfortunate outcome in Libya isn’t lowering oil exports or terrorized citizens, but the ever-growing civilian causalities that stood at 117 between January and March 2020, representing a 45% increase compared with an 11% increase in 2019. The United States supports Khalifa Haftar, a previously trained CIA operative who became an anchor for the U.S. in the oil-rich country, whereas Turkey and the U.N. support the Tripoli government.

After years of inter-militia conflict, Khalifa Haftar managed to bring warring sides together in order to ensure a more seamless operation of oil fields to protect its oil revenues, whilst managing to placate both President Donald Trump and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. For over a year, during the Libyan civil war, the land grab by the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by General Haftar has destabilized the country as they sought greater control of oil fields at the expense of domestic security.

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General Khalifa Haftar
General Khalifa Haftar. Source: Magharebia, CC By 2.0

However, on June 3rd, militias aligned with the U.N. backed Government on National Accord (GNA) took control of the international airport and Tarhouna, a city 90 km to the South East of Libya. As the fighting continues against the militias, the GNA will likely seek to force its way through the LNA in Sirte, a gateway to the Eastern heartlands controlled by General Haftar’s insurgent armies. 

Warring Sides Impede Prospects for Peace Across Libya

Frontline armies have poured into Libya due to its oil reserves – the largest in Africa – and its Mediterranean coastline – thus exacerbating the Libyan civil war. In December 2019, support from Turkey surged, and President Erdogan is now a major determinant for how the GNA advances across the country. Turkey and the United Nations directly oppose Russia, Egypt, and the UAE for backing the LNA. After several years, the region will likely be divided into a Turkish zone to the West and a Russian zone to the East.

This is, of course, contingent on how much logistical and military support both countries are willing to invest in the country; it is, however, not clear that such an outcome is unlikely in the context of a war that reflects broader geopolitical disagreements and divergent ideologies regarding the legitimacy of the GNA and inclusion of the LNA in post-war reconstruction efforts.

A Turkish West and Russian East Divide Will Entrench Tensions in the Medium-term

Whilst a de-facto partition is anathema to the long-term political and economic stability, oil interest has become central to the Libyan dispute, a mishap could induce a renewed counterinsurgency from the Haftar-linked militia that will exacerbate the political instability and increase political risk. The calculus for President Erdogan has never been dimmer, and The Economist posits that his position is troublingly consistent with the broader quest for regional stability – one that prioritizes fairer elections from the current government although the specifics are difficult to decipher under war-torn foundations. 

U.N.-backed Militias Kept in Check by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi

Whilst some militias have equally supported the assault by the UN-backed Tripoli government, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi reiterated that Cairo would defend its interest in the 1200 km common border from insurgencies. This attempt could placate militias working with the GNA, but it is equally vital for stability over the long-run, as militias tend to pursue narrower goals when they pursue independent routes.

A less than fitting outcome could witness the militia’s demand for greater rights over specific regions, and experience from General Haftar’s handling of warring sides suggest that greater inclusion rather than gradual divergence will achieve twin goals. On the one hand, it will ensure that General Haftar’s repressive approach is choked out of the political discourse, whilst ensuring that democratic elections form the basis of future political opening. It is noteworthy that such an outcome is contingent on the cease-fire persisting and negotiations beginning between different factions of Libya’s militias.

Even the avenues for negotiations are fraught with undertones of disagreement among actors in the country. This is, of course, understandable as the parties involved in discussions are vital to improving trust amongst partners. Tripoli-based Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj visited Algeria to discuss possible mediation efforts after it vetoed an Egyptian proposal to hold an emergency session via the Arab League. The Prime Minister’s decision is equally driven by the criticism labeled from Egypt against a multibillion-dollar trade deal between Turkey and Libya.

France and the UAE, who support general Haftar’s receding government and influence, are equally concerned about the proposals as this will blunt their economic ascent into Libya. If the horrors of geopolitical divergence were not imminent, this comical stand-off could illustrate how ideological differences have failed to occasion cooperation when it matters, primarily where oil is the prize. With Russia and the U.S. locked into a global ideological battle, the latter has raised concerns about Russian warplanes and mercenaries that are based on the al-Jufra airbase.

However, each country is grappling with the economic implications of a Tripoli-based government and vice versa, positioning on the global stage and post-war relations with Libya. While permanent members of the U.N. Security Council – U.S., Russia, and France – are locked into a fight against a U.N. backed government, one can begin to see why the liberal world order is in dire need of reform. 

How Should Libya Navigate Ideologically-rooted Rifts in Its Relations with World Powers and Regional Actors?

Firstly, the Tripoli-backed government should prioritize long-term sustainable economic opportunities that will enable it to rebuild its infrastructure whilst ensuring a comprehensive diversification of the economy. If world powers can carve off spheres of influence within a country to strengthen military and economic linkages, they can equally prioritize Libya’s recovery over the long-run. Were the Tripoli government to tie its relationship to such powers based on its contributions to economic opportunities, it would create economic opportunities that discourage youths from joining militias, both achieving a long-run objective of de-radicalization and sustained economic growth. 

Secondly, monitoring and evaluation mechanisms should be sought at all levels of government, and the U.N’s push for increased digitalization could reduce corruption and formalize all processes of the Libyan security over the long-run. This will ensure faster and evidence-based recovery of sectors spanning healthcare, education, and electrification across the hinterlands and core regions. The U.N.–backed government must explicitly denounce the supporters of General Haftar who are fermenting terrorism against the Libyan people. General Haftar’s power grab suggests that he is much more interested in playing a role on the global stage rather than prioritizing the needs of the Libyan people.

There is no shortage of counterarguments for why the U.N-backed government might be less suitable for the current context, but this falls short of pragmatism, effectiveness, and greater consideration for human rights. Lastly, elections in Libya should be guarded at all costs. While the current rates of digitization and internet penetration are low, e-voting will cause democracy to form the basis of any future Libyan state. By ensuring that citizens begin voting early, greater inclusion will facilitate agreements across opposing sides in the debate.

The conflict in Libya is not value-driven, but rather value-ridden; in other to escape years of post-war shock, policy inertia, and political unrest, the Tripoli-based government must begin to prioritize the longer-term priorities for the Libyan people. The solutions are not likely to emerge from warring superpowers, since they are locked into geopolitical rifts and quests to increase their spheres of influence. The U.N. must spearhead practical solutions that maximize the social and economic benefit for Libya’s society, citizens, and the enhancement of Libyan public institutions. 

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