Ten years after the beginning of the Libyan crisis, there seems to be no end to the country’s civil war in sight. Recent events, however, suggest that Libya is back on Washington’s radar. Can U.S. intervention help turn a new page on the Libyan crisis in 2021?
In a nutshell
- 2021 marks the ten-year-anniversary of the Libyan crisis
- Turkey and Russia failed to withdraw from the country as agreed
- U.S. engagement will likely play a decisive role in shaping Libya's future
The Libyan Revolution started on February 17, 2011, during the Arab Spring, as a protest against the regime of dictator Muammar Qaddafi. It almost immediately turned into a civil war. From the beginning, a long list of foreign powers supported the rebels against the loyalists.
Once Qaddafi was assassinated and the regime fell, those same forces sided in favor of one political group or the other, providing money and weapons – despite the arms embargo in place since 2011. What should have been a natural process of political evolution became a disaster of incalculable proportions.
Several thousand lives were lost during the first civil war, and Libya came out of it impoverished and harboring deep resentments. Revenue from oil production, the country’s main source of income, dropped by more than half from $49 billion in 2010, to $19 billion in 2011. Cities were left in ruins. In Benghazi, entire districts have yet to be rebuilt. Airports and other essential infrastructure, like water or electricity supply, are still frequently targeted by the militias.
The new administration in Washington called for the immediate withdrawal of Russian and Turkish forces from Libya.
In theory, Libya had everything needed for a prosperous future: a functioning transitional government and a secure income from oil exports. In practice, the country became mired in post-conflict issues. A dozen countries entered the fray, but none was interested in the official pacification process conducted by the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL); they were pursuing their own national interests. Depending on their agenda, they sided with either Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj’s official Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, or with the House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk led by Aguila Saleh Issa and Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.
Today, the UN-sanctioned GNA is supported by Qatar and, most importantly, Turkey. Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia are backing Field Marshal Haftar.
In April 2019, Field Marshal Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA) attacked Tripolitania. Turkey’s military intervention at the beginning of 2020 dealt a decisive blow to the LNA. Field Marshal Haftar, hitherto at a clear advantage thanks to high-tech military support from Russia and the UAE, had to move back to the strategic area of Sirte.
On 23rd October 2020, thanks to the enormous efforts of the American Stephanie Williams – former acting Special Envoy of UNSMIL – a committee created by the Libya Conference in Berlin sanctioned the beginning of a cease-fire. The agreement required that all foreign armed groups withdraw from the country on January 23, 2021. As expected, they did not.
The new administration in Washington, led by President Joe Biden, called on January 29 for the immediate withdrawal of Russian and Turkish forces from Libya. The request – a departure from the line of the previous administration – was made by the United States Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations, Richard Mills Jr. He asked during a Security Council meeting that all external parties, including Russia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, respect Libyan sovereignty and cease all military intervention, starting with the immediate “withdrawal of their forces from the country and the removal of foreign mercenaries and military delegates they recruited, financed, deployed and supported in Libya.”
Facts & figures
Libya’s three civil wars
The Libyan crisis, which began during the Arab Spring in 2011, led to a series of military conflicts. The first Libyan Civil War (2011) was fought between the forces of long-reigning dictator Muammar Qaddafi and foreign-backed armed groups trying to oust him. The Second Civil War (2014-2020) refers to a conflict between the UN-sanctioned Government of National Accord and the House of Representatives, a rival legislative body backed by the Libyan National Army. When the latter launched a new offensive against Tripoli in 2019, some observers described the development as the start of a third civil war.
The appeal indicated renewed American attention on the conflict. At the moment, the issue does not appear to be among the top foreign policy priorities for President Biden. But considering its strategic implications – stability in the Sahel, oil and intra-NATO conflict – it could soon become a more pressing matter.
Ambassador Mills’ request to “respect Libyan sovereignty” comes exactly one year after the Berlin summit, during which supporters of the main warring factions in Libya had pledged to end interference and work for a permanent cease-fire. Since then, an armed truce has been in place along the front line, between Sirte and the Al Jufra air base, exactly on the border between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. There, the Haftar militias and the Russian Wagner mercenary group have built a trench over 70 kilometers long. A wall in the desert does not bode well for the demobilization of external actors. According to reliable sources, it is clear that the two sides took advantage of the truce to reposition themselves on the ground and rearm.
The Libyan Crisis
On the political front, on January 21 the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) – an assembly of 75 representatives from the country’s three regions, Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan – voted in favor of the creation of a new interim executive authority, a sort of government of national unity to replace Fayez al-Sarraj’s GNA. General elections will follow on December 24, 2021. Each region appoints a member of the presidential council, while the prime minister is elected from among the 75 members of the Forum, with 70 percent of the votes. On February 5, UNSMIL announced that Mohamed al-Menfi had been elected president of the interim government, with Abdul Hamid Mohammed al-Dabaib as prime minister.
Meanwhile, the Security Council has appointed the Slovakian diplomat Jan Kubis as head of the UN Support Mission in Libya, a post vacant since last March when Ghassan Salame resigned due to stress and health concerns. According to the UN, there are about 20,000 foreign soldiers and mercenaries present in Libya at the moment. While Russia denies any responsibility for the presence of its citizens, last December Ankara authorized the deployment of troops until June 2022, in violation of the cease-fire agreement.
While Ambassador Mills was making his appeal, the White House also announced it was suspending the Trump administration’s agreement to sell 50 F-35 fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates. Both signal a potential change of attitude toward Libya. It is evident that the conflict could destabilize the entire southern shore of the Mediterranean, fueling uncontrolled migratory flows and potential terrorist threats. Over the past four years, external sponsors and non-state actors have exploited the absence of the U.S. to pursue conflicting economic and strategic interests. American involvement will be essential to restore balance in the country and avert its collapse. On January 28, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs Luigi Di Maio spoke on the phone. The head of American diplomacy expressed hope that the cooperation efforts between Washington and Rome in crises like Libya’s “can go on.”
Much of what will happen in the Libyan crisis in 2021 is related to how the U.S. will get involved. Without this effective diplomatic presence, it is unthinkable that things on the ground will soon change for the better.
1) The U.S. becomes actively engaged (unlikely in the short term; possible in the medium term)
If this turns out to be the case, peace in Libya will rest on three pillars: economic investment, fair and controlled distribution of oil resources, and disarmament. Each of these elements is essential. The last one is particularly complex, as the Libyans who joined the militias found in them not only economic benefits but also social status. For this reason, it would be highly unlikely for them to willingly surrender their weapons. There would have to be a foreign contingent on the ground, probably with a Muslim majority, one that would have been invited by the Libyans to guard the country’s main infrastructure and supervise every step of the ongoing peace process until the elections. This would prevent reckless actions like Field Marshal Haftar’s attack in April 2019.
2) The US. becomes partially engaged (most likely in the short term)
The U.S. can now depart from the policies of the Trump administration, which considered Libya an irrelevant dossier. The Biden administration could push for a series of intra-Libyan and international agreements, while maintaining a certain distance to avoid public disapproval, since many Americans are already deeply critical of U.S. involvement in the Middle East.
3) The U.S. does not engage with the conflict (least likely)
The third alternative for Washington could be to continue the policy of the last four years. This would mean disengagement and a lack of general strategy, only tactical actions against terrorist cells in Fezzan. Foreign powers would have more room for maneuver. This would spell disaster for the country – it would leave the field open to Russian and Turkish power games, from which Libyans clearly do not benefit.