Bottom Line Up Front
- A serious military escalation is underway in Libya as General Khalifa Haftar and his forces move to take Tripoli.
- The battle is now unifying a range of violent non-state actors with the recognized interim government against Haftar, who is receiving significant external state support.
- For eight years, Libya has been splintered into a legitimate yet weak government in Tripoli and a rival government in Tobruk, with militias providing manpower to both sides.
- What happens next will have massive repercussions for the Libyan people, cutting across transnational issues such as refugees, criminal trafficking networks, and the energy sector.
The United Nations has desperately sought to avoid an escalation of the conflict in Libya, while external states have interfered by backing both the officially recognized government and forces who are in opposition to that government. Forces loyal to General Khalifa Haftar, who has enjoyed far more foreign backing than domestic support in the eight years since he returned from exile following the ouster of now deceased former President Muammar al Gaddafi, have reached the outskirts of Tripoli. On April 04, Haftar began his offensive against the internationally-recognized interim government, which has little power outside of Tripoli and is mostly sustained by militias tasked with guarding the capital port city. The United Nations, as well as the U.S. and others, have called for Haftar to pull back his forces and return to the negotiating table to reach a political settlement. To date, Haftar has expressed little willingness to do so, and the fighting will likely get worse as Tripoli becomes engulfed by urban warfare. The Europeans are split in how they see the recent offensive, with France blocking a draft EU resolution condemning Haftar and calling for his forces to stand down. The attack occurred during the U.N.-led peace process and is widely viewed as a betrayal of that process.
Haftar has crafted an image of the ‘necessary strongman’ who is the only one capable of cleansing the country of ‘terrorists,’ even as Saudi-linked extremists fight alongside Haftar’s forces. Since Gaddafi was toppled in 2011, the officially recognized Libyan government has struggled to maintain a monopoly on the use of force; a range of violent armed groups, from terrorists to criminals to militias, contribute to pervasive insecurity. These well-armed groups have thrived in the lawlessness of Libya, and some have consolidated enough power to control swaths of territory, essentially running the country as a series of sub-state fiefdoms. Haftar has undertaken campaigns to militarily defeat militias in cities such as Benghazi, enjoying several tactical successes while managing to fall far short of his strategic goal to unify Libya under his rule. The militias, well-resourced with weapons and money from the mafia-rule of their respective areas of control, still wield significant power and influence across the country. The confusion that dominates the conflict in Libya involves gangs, criminals, and jihadists switching sides in a complex patchwork of fleeting alliances.
Several major foreign powers have been backing Haftar for years. Haftar’s hatred for the Muslim Brotherhood, which maintains some influence in Tripoli and within pockets of the official government, has made him popular with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi view the Muslim Brotherhood as a considerable threat to their respective rule and both strongly support strongmen like Egypt’s al-Sisi and Libya’s Haftar precisely for their anti-Brotherhood stance. The week before he launched his offensive, Haftar was warmly received in Riyadh where he met officially with the King and Crown Prince, and unofficially with intelligence and military officials. In late March, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed visited Egypt to meet with al-Sisi, coincidental timing for such a meeting given Haftar’s offensive. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Russia have been Haftar’s primary backers, providing him with weapons and money – critical resources as Haftar attempts to co-opt militias and other armed groups across the eastern half of Libya. According to a recent article in theWall Street Journal, the Saudis pledged tens of millions of dollars to help pay for Haftar’s military operation.
Libya is a major oil producer and the recent fighting has been enough to spike oil prices in the days since Haftar started his offensive. If the fighting continues to escalate, there could be further disruptions in production and distribution. Libya is also the epicenter for thousands of refugees trying to make it to the southern shores of Europe. These refugees are exploited and threatened by human smuggling networks, and many have drowned as they attempted to cross the Mediterranean Sea in makeshift vessels. Sustained combat in Libya between the warring sides will complicate ongoing efforts to stem the flow of refugees trying to cross into Europe. The political impact of previous refugee crises is still reverberating across the EU; a subsequent crisis would exacerbate the already worsening trend of right-wing populist parties and anti-immigrant/anti-refugee sentiment across Europe. In 2019, all conflict is global. A civil war in Libya can have cascading effects that impact domestic politics in Europe, which in turn can fuel hateful ideologies that exacerbate various forms of political violence across the globe. The international community must not view these issues in isolation, but rather as interconnected, and meet these challenges with all of the tools at the disposal of multinational bodies and international institutions.