The fires of Libya’s 10-year war

After nearly a decade of war and foreign interventions, the Libyan conflict is nowhere near resolved. With deep divides in both the international community and Libyan society, the situation is unlikely to change in the near future.

Ghassan Salame and Antonio Guterres at a press conference
Ghassan Salame (L), UN Special Envoy for Libya, and Antonio Guterres (R), Secretary-General of the United Nations, attend a press conference after the Berlin peace talks, where participants pledged to end support for opposing parties in the Libyan civil war. © dpa

In a nutshell

  • Libya has been at war since the fall of Qaddafi in 2011
  • Foreign actors are pursuing their own interests by backing different sides
  • The conflict is creating a security vacuum in the Sahel

On Sunday, January 19, 2020, peace talks between the two main parties in the Libyan conflict began in Berlin. Russia, Turkey, the United States, China, Italy and France had sent representatives. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Russian President Vladimir Putin were among the attendees. Libya has been at a low-level state of war since 2011, when its dictator Muammar Qaddafi (1969-2011) was deposed following an attack led by France and the United Kingdom with support from the U.S. 

First war

The story begins in January 2011, in the wake of what is commonly known as the Arab Spring, when uprisings shook neighboring Tunisia and Egypt. Libya felt the ripples of that movement and the rebellion against Mr. Qaddafi, the region’s longest-serving dictator, started. The protests broke out on February 15, 2011, in the eastern city of Benghazi, in the Cyrenaica region.

Cyrenaica had long been hostile to the country’s central government and had been regularly sending battalions of jihadists to Afghanistan and Iraq since the 1990s. At the same time, certain cities in the west of the country, such as Zintan, were also rising. In El Beida, in Cyrenaica, the police joined the insurgents on February 17. Within a week, unrest had spread all over the country and large ethnic groups such as the Toubous and the Warfallas joined in. A National Transition Council (NTC) was set up in Benghazi. In Tripoli, the capital, the conflict took hold.

Libya was effectively cut in half, with the east – where the oil and gas fields are located – entirely in the hands of the insurgents. On March 12, France was the first to recognize the NTC as the sole legitimate interlocutor. At the same time, loyalist forces launched a counteroffensive and retook several cities, getting dangerously close to Benghazi. Under pressure from the international community, which feared a massacre, Resolution 1973 was passed by the UN Security Council, creating a no-fly zone over Libya. On 19 March, a French- and British-led international coalition was formed and proceeded to bomb forces loyal to Qaddafi.

For some time now, new foreign actors have been taking advantage of the West’s inability to gain control of the situation.

On March 31, however, following the failure of these sporadic bombings, NATO itself took charge of the operations, basing its actions on a very broad interpretation of Resolution 1973 to “protect the civilian population against a situation which could degenerate into a humanitarian catastrophe.” Fighting spread all over the country and lasted until the end of October when Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte finally fell. This was also where Qaddafi himself was captured while trying to flee into the desert.

It is estimated that this first civil war claimed between 12,000 and 15,000 human lives (on both sides).

From a strategic point of view, aside from avoiding a potential massacre in Benghazi, the gain was small. Libya, although freed from the dictatorship, quickly regressed to its previous state of inter-tribal rivalries. The infiltration by jihadist groups also destabilized society in general and led to the military coup in nearby Mali in 2012. Unlike the Qaddafi regime, the new authorities were unable to regulate the number of migrants who began to pour into Italy by the hundreds of thousands. Oil exploitation in the region also crashed.

Internationally, the free rein given to France and the UK to bomb the loyalist army at will was later denounced by U.S. President Barack Obama. Powerful countries such as Russia and China also felt they had been duped and thus harbored a resentment that would soon surface, especially in Syria, with Russian support for President Bashar al-Assad.

The years that followed were chaotic. On July 7, 2012, elections were held to create a General National Congress (GNC), a legislative body to replace the NTC. It was first chaired by Mohammed Magariaf, described as a “moderate Islamist.” Power then fell into the hands of Nouri Abusahmain, who, after becoming head of state in 2013, decided to apply Sharia law in the country and extend his own mandate.

Second war

In February 2014, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, a former officer long exiled in the United States, intervened and announced that he was dissolving the GNC and would create an interim government to oversee new elections.

On March 11, then-Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, unable to perform his role, was deposed. Field Marshal Haftar then launched an offensive in May 2014 on the areas under the control of Salafist armed groups in Benghazi, while rival militias clashed to gain control of Tripoli airport.

Two blocs formed: the coalition dubbed “Libya Dawn,” dominated by the Islamists and the Misrata brigades, and the forces gathered around Field Marshal Haftar, whose Operation Dignity offensive lasted for the whole of 2014. During that time, his forces were dislodged from Tripoli and driven back from Benghazi by the jihadists. The year 2015 saw more chaos with the emergence of the Islamic State in Sirte and the Fajr Libya coalition militia controlling Tripoli.

At the end of the year, a presidential council, meant to be led by Chairman Fayez al-Sarraj, was created by the United Nations. However, the Haftar-controlled House of Representatives refused to recognize it, and Chairman al-Sarraj was stopped in Tunis because the forces in Tripoli refused to let him enter. In March 2016, he finally managed to enter the capital by boat and was recognized by many people in the armed forces and by the western tribes. For the next two years, a low-intensity war continued between the al-Sarraj’s Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Haftar parliament.

In fact, despite multiple attempts to reach an agreement, the country remains divided in two. In the west, the GNA rules from the capital, Tripoli. The east is dominated by a government and a parliament led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, head of the Libyan National Army (LNA), which controls a significant part of Libya’s energy resources.

Although the Kremlin claims not to be involved, it is an open secret that Moscow has been supporting Field Marshal Haftar.

While the GNA is recognized by the United Nations, the LNA is supported by Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The former has been weakened after the Tripoli offensive was launched in April 2019 by the forces of Field Marshal Haftar. Also, at the end of December, the president of the Libyan House of Representatives, Aguila Saleh, called on the international community to withdraw its support for the GNA. A cease-fire was accepted in Moscow by Prime Minister al-Sarraj, but Marshal Haftar refused to sign it. A cessation of hostilities has nevertheless been in force since January 12, 2020, and is generally respected.

While still awaiting a lasting truce, Tripoli has to live with regular bombings. Since the start of the offensive, more than 280 civilians and 2,000 combatants have been killed, according to the UN. Some 146,000 Libyans fled the fighting.

On 26 January, 2020, the UN was dismayed to discover that weapons were still entering Libya, despite hypocritical assurances of different parties. “This fragile truce is now threatened by the ongoing transfer of foreign fighters, weapons, ammunition and advanced systems to the parties by member states, including several who participated in the Berlin Conference,” stated UNSMIL (United Nations Support Mission in Libya), without identifying the countries by name. According to the UN, “cargo and other flights,” have landed in airports in the western and eastern parts of the country to deliver “advanced weapons, armored vehicles, advisors and fighters,” to the two feuding parties. These “ongoing violations” threaten to plunge the country into “a new spiral of intense fighting,” UNSMIL warns.

Foreign actors

For some time now, new foreign actors have been taking advantage of the West’s inability to gain control of the situation. “We’re losing control of things in Libya,” EU Minister for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell exclaimed on January 15, 2020, in Brussels. 

Turkey and Russia, although allied in other theaters of conflict in the world (in Syria, for example), have taken different sides in Libya. Turkey decided to support the GNA. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj signed a protocol of “military and security cooperation” last November, angering Field Marshal Haftar. 

Turkey also voted on January 2, 2020, to send soldiers to Libya to help the GNA, though Ankara has only provided logistical support since the summer of 2019. The Turkish president claims that, without Turkish intervention, the LNA would have taken control of the whole country. “We will never hesitate to teach the putschist Haftar the lesson he deserves if he continues his attacks against the legitimate administration and against our brothers in Libya,” warned Recep Tayyip Erdogan on 14 January.

“We will not hesitate to work with anyone who could help us in any way in responding to this attack,” Prime Minister al-Sarraj told the BBC on 20 January. “It is true that the international community did not run to the aid of the GNA”, acknowledged Ghassan Salame, the UN special envoy to Libya since June 2017. He said that he was “disappointed and hurt that after nine months of fighting in Tripoli, we still have no Security Council resolution calling for a cease-fire.” By playing on this, Turkey tried to give the impression that its intervention was necessary when, in fact, several interests motivated it.

Officially, Ankara has sent military equipment to Libya, such as drones and armored vehicles, and a few dozen “consultants.” But behind these military “experts” are pro-Turkish Syrian militiamen. The Guardian reported on January 15 that more than 2,000 Syrian mercenaries had been brought to Tripoli – a figure that has been confirmed by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR). According to American researcher Elizabeth Tsurkov, a specialist on the Syrian opposition, the groups sent to Libya are said to come from the Liwa Al-Mutas’im, Sultan Murad, Hamza, Liwa Suqour and Liwa Sultan Suleyman Shah Syrian divisions. All of these brigades are active in northwestern Syria in the Idlib region, the last stronghold of the opposition to the Damascus regime, which Turkey is supporting at arm’s length. The men were allegedly promised salaries of $2,000 a month, as well as Turkish citizenship after six months of combat.

Libyan militiamen exercising at a training station
Many Libyan militias are trained in former military camps, giving the men access to weapons once used by Qaddafi’s forces. © dpa

In addition to deploying human resources, Turkey also helped strengthen Tripoli airport’s antiaircraft defenses, as well as the port of Misrata, to respond to the air superiority of Marshal Haftar (gained thanks to the support of the United Arab Emirates and Egypt).

So, what does Turkey want to achieve with its involvement in Libya? Firstly, it wants to prevent the planned overthrow of the GNA in Tripoli, which has been in bad shape in recent months, practically besieged by Field Marshal Haftar’s troops. Turkey needs the signature of the GNA government, recognized by the international community, to conclude an agreement concerning maritime borders in the Mediterranean.

The deal would allow Turkey to take over areas also claimed by Greece and Cyprus. These areas have recently become more important as vast deep-sea gas fields have been discovered there, and Turkey, Cyprus, Greece, Egypt and Israel are all engaged in hydrocarbon exploration activities. However, if Field Marshal Haftar took Tripoli, the agreement would be rejected under pressure from Egypt, which supports the LNA and opposes Turkish claims in the Mediterranean.

In this big game of hydrocarbon resources, it is interesting to note that the inauguration of the TurkStream gas pipeline – which links Russia, Turkey and the Balkans – at the beginning of January was preceded by the signing of the competing EastMed project, the result of a partnership between Greece, Cyprus and Israel, a few days earlier.

By supporting the GNA, President Erdogan also hopes to recover 25 billion dollars in contracts concluded under Colonel Qaddafi’s leadership, which were lost in 2011. It is important to note that before the fall of the dictator Libya was the third international market for Turkish companies. Turkey would like to regain a foothold in the region.

Although the Kremlin officially claims not to be involved, it is an open secret that Moscow has been supporting Field Marshal Haftar. Just like in Syria today, Russia and Turkey will not risk direct confrontation but are involved behind the scenes in areas that have been deserted by the West. This includes the deployment of some 200 mercenaries in Libya by the Wagner group, a Russian private security company with a presence in Central Africa, Syria and Iraq. Ahead of the Berlin conference, Field Marshal Haftar thanked President Putin in a letter: “My dear friend … I would like to personally offer my gratitude and recognition for the Russian Federation’s efforts to restore peace and stability in Libya.”

Officially, like everyone else, Moscow claims to be in favor of a sustainable peace process. “It is important to put an end to the confrontation between Marshal Haftar’s Libyan national army and Mr. al-Sarraj’s Government of National Accord,” declared President Putin on January 11. ”[It is] important to secure a cease-fire, to take measures to reestablish a political process with the ultimate objective of overcoming the division within the country and forming unified state institutions,” the leader of Russia continued.

Yet Turkey and Russia are not the only countries involved in Libya. The LNA is also supported by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Aside from Turkey, Prime Minister al-Sarraj also enjoys the support of Qatar.



The United States has long lost interest in this conflict, whether under President Obama or President Trump. France is the European country most involved for several reasons. It was under former President Nicolas Sarkozy that the trigger was pulled to overthrow Qaddafi. The alarming instability  in the Sahel region – which has directly resulted from the chaos in Libya – is a primary concern behind the French “stabilization intervention” in Mali.

President Emmanuel Macron received both Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and Field Marshal Haftar in Paris – two weeks apart – in the spring of 2019 as part of a conciliation process that was claimed to be neutral. France, however, is justly accused of supporting the latter more than the former. This suspicion was corroborated in July by the discovery of four French anti-tank missiles in LNA troop headquarters. The French, who view Field Marshal Haftar's breakthroughs in a somewhat positive light, trust his strong personality and believe him capable of securing the Libyan south bordering the Sahel. Paris hides behind the Russian veto so as not to appear too openly pro-Haftar on the Security Council. In reality, France itself is divided. Its Foreign Ministry prefers the GNA, in the name of international law, while the army supports Field Marshal Haftar, someone they believe can guarantee security in the region. Paris’s covert preference for the LNA will thus continue to trouble other European states, who will not know where to stand on the issue.

The conflict will also have further international repercussions, particularly in Africa. The crisis in Libya has created a security vacuum in the Sahel, enabling large-scale distribution of weapons, ammunition and explosives. This will allow the rise of jihadist groups in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.

In the Sahel, the situation is poised to worsen. In 2019, jihadist attacks left 4,000 dead in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, despite the involvement of France and the U.S. supporting national armies. Idriss Deby, president of neighboring Chad, said, “The battle against terrorism in the Sahel must include the resolution of the Libyan crisis. The chaos in Libya … remains the main source of destabilization for the entire Sahel region.” Tunisia and Algeria are likely to become increasingly frustrated with Western capitals leaving them out of the negotiations.

On the African Union (AU) side, the High Level Committee on Libya, chaired by Congolese President Denis Sassou Nguesso, has been active lately, demanding that its opinion be taken into account. An emissary of the Congolese head of state went to Algeria to discuss the means of “rejuvenating the negotiation process between the Libyan sides.” Yet all this might never happen if a joint decision is not made at the international level.

The intrinsic fragmentation of Libyan society, divided into tribes that generally ally themselves with the highest bidder, combined with the fact that jihadists, Salafists and Muslim Brotherhood activists are establishing themselves in the country, does not bode well for the future.

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