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Amir Asmar is a Department of Defense (DoD) analyst and CFR’s national intelligence fellow. Throughout his intelligence career, his primary area of focus has been the Middle East. He held a wide range of analytic, senior analytic, and leadership positions for the Department of the Army, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the National Intelligence Council. The statements of fact, opinion, or analysis expressed in this blog post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the DoD or the U.S. government. Review of the material does not imply DoD or U.S. government endorsement of factual accuracy or opinion.
In 2011, the United States supported UN Security Council Resolution 1973 to declare and enforce an air exclusion zone over Libya, just as Libyan forces loyal to autocrat Muammar al-Qaddafi were preparing to defeat much of the country’s army, which had sided with a popular uprising seeking his ouster. The U.S.-led coalition enforcing the no-fly zone destroyed the forces loyal to Qaddafi, permitting the opposition to remove the long-time dictator. The presumption by the intervening powers was that, once Qaddafi’s oppressive dictatorship was removed, Libyans would establish a popularly-elected government and new national institutions, and go about the business of nation-building aided by their vast fossil fuel resources. What subsequently happened in Libya could not be further from this vision. A functioning central government was never restored after Qaddafi’s fall, and neighboring powers suffered the consequences of a divided and failing Libya. A number of European and regional powers intervened, but they failed to stabilize the country—and some are capitalizing on the turmoil. As a result, despite recent efforts at peace, the country could be on the precipice of a long-term division.
Much has happened since Qaddafi’s defeat. Long-standing regional and social divisions, repressed by Qaddafi’s regime, re-emerged. Local structures, such as towns and tribes, became focal points of authority, defense, and sometimes aggression against neighboring communities. Terrorist groups and armed militias exploited the turmoil and used ungoverned areas as bases for radicalization and organized crime, contributing to the country’s fragmentation and posing threats to its neighbors. As local elements gained strength, the legitimacy of central governments and the elections that created them was diminished by low voter participation, armed militias, and judicial rulings. The House of Representatives (HoR), a legislature elected in 2014 by a low turnout of voters, abandoned Tripoli after it was overrun by a militia from Misrata and set up shop in Tobruk, the country’s easternmost city. Back in Tripoli, the Misratans restored the General National Congress (GNC), the government that the HoR was intended to replace.
On one side of the present-day conflict is Khalifa Haftar, a former Libyan general and Qaddafi loyalist who returned from exile in the United States after Qaddafi’s ouster. He raised a militia—dubbed the Libyan National Army (LNA)—from among Libya’s fractious and tribal society and began to conquer territory, initially in the east around Benghazi and later in the south and far west. He gained support from the HoR in Tobruk and, under a counterterrorism banner, earned extensive foreign assistance from states anxious about instability in Libya. The French and Russians have legitimate concerns about the spread of violent extremists in Europe and see Haftar as having the best chance of stabilizing Libya, reducing ungoverned spaces, and containing the Islamist threat. The Arab states that support Haftar—Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—considered the 2011 Arab uprisings a threat to regional stability and to their governments, and an opening to Islamic extremists. It is probable that Haftar, despite his many shortcomings from a Western perspective, is an archetype the Arabs understand: an authoritarian leader who is not reluctant to use violence to defeat Islamists and other challengers in the quest to restore and maintain stability.
On the other side of the conflict is the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), established by the UN in late 2015 to unify the HoR and the GNC. In addition to international recognition, the GNA has material support from some European states, Qatar, and Turkey, as well as some international organizations. Lacking its own resources, the GNA has been dependent on allied militias, but has been unsuccessful at unifying the competing political and military factions that support it. The HoR, despite agreeing to become part of the GNA, ultimately refused participation because it objected to members of the GNA’s cabinet, alleging they were Islamists. This allegation permitted Haftar to continue fighting—and to dismiss, if not undermine, diplomatic initiatives—and maximize his chances of emerging as Libya’s next strongman. After gaining control of most of the country, the LNA began a siege of Tripoli in April 2019 in a final effort to defeat the GNA, but the offensive has so far stalled at the outskirts of the capital.
As of February 17, 2020, the Libya conflict is now in its ninth year—and has spilled beyond Libya’s shores. Some of the countries that participated in the initial intervention in 2011 are now dealing with the consequences of Libya’s instability. It has become a haven for terrorist groups, including operatives of al-Qaeda and the self-proclaimed Islamic State who have sought refuge, trained, or staged attacks from there; the country’s lack of security has also led to it becoming a thruway for refugees from sub-Saharan Africa hoping to get to Europe, which is already struggling to manage refugees flows from Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere. Since the civil war began, European cities have suffered dozens of terrorist attacks, many conducted by Muslims of North African origin, at least two of whom had clear connections to Libya. Moreover, Islamist terrorists with links to Libya conducted multiple attacks in neighboring Tunisia and Algeria, attacked the French Embassy in Tripoli, beheaded twenty-one Christian Egyptian laborers they had abducted from the Libyan city of Sirte, and attacked U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, killing U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stephens.
Although the Libyan National Oil Corporation (NOC) says it takes no side in the conflict, control of oil facilities is now subject to the competition between the rival pretenders to central authority. Between 2014 and 2017, those rivals—each controlling various oil facilities—repeatedly fought for formal control of the NOC. Inevitably, the combination of insecurity and political competition caused a range of stoppages and disruptions in the oilfields and at export terminals. Although output increased from late 2016, due to tentative improvements in oil cooperation between the NOC, Tripoli, and Tobruk—and their associated armed forces—oil productivity and exports remain subject to the country’s broader instability and the continuing attempts to use oil as a weapon by one side against the other. In addition to their stated objectives of mitigating terrorism and migration, as well as stabilizing the country, many of the intervening powers are also motivated by the prospect of lucrative oil and reconstruction deals. The ultimate victor in Libya profoundly affects who will win which contracts. Samuel Ramani argues that if the status quo—wherein the GNA controls Tripoli and its surroundings and the LNA dominates eastern and southern Libya—“is formalized, Russia and China are poised to benefit the most, as they have potential business ties to both sides.” They have worked to maintain Libya’s division, as other actors have supported either the HoR and LNA or the GNA.
The result is that resolution of Libya’s conflict remains elusive. The country continues to suffer from significant displacement, and is a home for organized crime and terrorism; it represents a threat to its neighbors and to the United States’ European allies much more than it did under Qaddafi. There is probably enough weapon, mercenary, and air operations support to Libyan combatants to maintain the current conflict for some time, despite a nine-year-old UN arms embargo and a commitment by the intervening powers to stop combat support at a January conference in Berlin. The UN Security Council has passed no less than nine resolutions regarding the Libyan conflict going back to the immediate aftermath of Qaddafi’s fall. Its support mission in Libya (UNSMIL) has the broad mandate of helping the GNA to stabilize the areas under its control, build institutions, and coordinate international assistance. The two sides have periodically participated in UN-sponsored and other negotiations to end the conflict, but attacks have typically undermined the talks, and—as of 19 February—UN-hosted talks were suspended. Absent a genuine desire to end combat by the Libyans themselves—an unlikely prospect given Libya’s regional and social divisions and the proliferation of armed militias—the country will remain divided with outsiders seeking to play out other rivalries, to pick winners and losers, or to promote permanent division.
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