How Libya Became a Battleground for Foreign Powers

The first armed conflict of the Arab Spring is now a playground of intervening foreign powers out for themselves. It won’t be the last

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How Libya Became a Battleground for Foreign Powers
A member of the Libyan National Army, forces loyal to Haftar, fires his weapon during clashes with jihadists. Abdullah Doma/ AFP via Getty Images/ Newlines.

Libya was the first Arab Spring revolution to be militarized and the only one to be met by humanitarian Western intervention. Nine years on, the country has turned into a proving ground for a new Great Game, one played between the old and recrudescent empires and abetted by middleweight Gulf states. It is a sign of things to come for the broader Middle East. 

For all the second thoughts and revisionist historicizing of the Arab Spring, the deficiencies we’ve come to associate with it were mainly brought on by counterrevolutionary forces, particularly those bankrolled by the United Arab Emirates, fearful of what democracy without its borders would mean for the political system within. Nowhere has this been more evident than in Libya, where in the absence of American ownership over its own led-from-behind intervention, Abu Dhabi crept in to patronize particular military and political groups in the hopes they could dominate the new Libya. However, Libyan politics proved to not be so straightforward: The UAE’s political proxies were largely outmaneuvered by other parties as well as rival alliances patronized by their Gulf opponent, Qatar. 

The policy that indelibly changed Libya after the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi was the imposition by Egypt and the UAE of retired Gen. Khalifa Haftar and an accompanying propaganda campaign that blamed the country’s failed transition on Islamism and presented a rogue caudillo, once the hireling of the CIA, as its salvation. Haftar, who had disappeared after failing to take control of Libya’s revolutionary forces in 2011, re-emerged in Libya in 2014 as the country was mired in a political stalemate and increasingly fractious militia violence, calling for a military coup against the incumbent parliament if it didn’t step down. Haftar’s return was sponsored by Cairo and followed a similar path to the ascension of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in neighboring Egypt. Media channels aligned with Egypt and the UAE blamed a country’s political failures on democratically elected politicians, and a general with a tenebrous record was sanitized and portrayed as the only force capable of channeling popular discontent. Finally, a coup was mounted and branded as legitimate and stabilizing, couched in the Western-palatable grammar of “counterterrorism.” 

Unlike Sisi, however, Haftar wasn’t the only one with guns. Given his proximity to Sisi and his Egyptian-style putsch, the full spectrum of Islamist militias inevitably rallied against him. They found useful allies among myriad local armed groups, which identified themselves as guardians of the stalled revolution and condemned Haftar and his foreign backers as counterrevolutionary interlopers. A civil war was unleashed, and Haftar’s ambitions of a national power grab were improvisationally localized. He hunkered down in a base in el-Rajma in eastern Libya in an area replete with political allies and those seeking to hitch themselves to his bandwagon, and over the coming years he would fight a long, destructive war for Benghazi, the capital of the region, and continue westward into the hydrocarbon-rich “oil crescent.” Cairo supplied Haftar with the strategic and organizational support he needed to transform his breakaway group of Salafist fighters and Gadhafi-era army officers into something resembling a military institution. 

His successful half-coup gave way to a series of interlocking sideshow conflicts across Libya, all of which worsened throughout 2014 and climaxed the following year with the arrival of ISIS, which conquered the central Libyan city of Sirte. People-smuggling gangs launched hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants on barely-seaworthy vessels across the Mediterranean from western Libya. The depravity of Libya’s situation demanded action. Western states came together in a rare moment of alignment in 2015 to call for a negotiated settlement to the civil war, and a U.N.-mediated Government of National Accord (GNA) was born, something Washington and Brussels could feasibly partner with in the now all-consuming fight against ISIS and a spiraling migration crisis. 

The Emiratis nominally supported the U.N. track and the birth of the GNA; in reality, they also developed an airbase at al-Khadim, near Haftar’s headquarters in the east. This base would become a crucial point of military support from Abu Dhabi and Cairo to Haftar’s various military campaigns in the coming years. 

Moreover, Emirati-aligned groups in Libya boycotted the GNA almost as soon as it was inaugurated on Dec. 17, 2015. Libya’s partition endured and the United Nations returned to the mediation table. The UAE saw yet another opportunity, to nimbly operate within Libya’s congested diplomatic space and exploit and deepen European divisions over the Middle East. Mohammed bin Zayed, the UAE’s crown prince, leveraged his burgeoning relationship with France, now mired in a national security crisis of repeated domestic ISIS attacks carried out largely by Francophone children of North African immigrants. 

Where France had once been the keenest of NATO member-states to intervene in Libya against Gadhafi’s promised depredations, now it was driven almost exclusively by a counterterrorism program led by its defense and intelligence establishments.

Where France had once been the keenest of NATO member-states to intervene in Libya against Gadhafi’s promised depredations, now it was driven almost exclusively by a counterterrorism program led by its defense and intelligence establishments. The UAE, reading this volte-face in priorities, created a strategic partnership with the Elysée encompassing territory from the Sahel to the Persian Gulf. Islamism, both agreed, was the underlying problem, whether it expressed itself in shredded corpses at the Bataclan or Muslim Brotherhood-led challenges to politics in Abu Dhabi. Under the outgoing Socialist presidency of Francois Hollande, France fully invested in Haftar’s “counterterrorism” program in 2016, going so far as to supply him with special forces, undermining the agreed-upon U.N. protocol of fostering the GNA, which at the time was fighting to liberate Sirte from ISIS. 

Hollande’s successor, the young centrist Emmanuel Macron, has only furthered France’s strategic partnership with the UAE. A cocktail of American isolationism, Brexit, and sheer opportunism has convinced Macron that France should be primus inter pares of a new European foreign policy: ready to save Lebanon from itself, Russia from permanent pariah status, and Libya from its internationally recognized government. In a surprise conference in 2018 at La Celle-Saint-Cloud, Macron transformed Haftar from a quiet proxy to an avowed political ally, recasting Libya’s political process from an attempt to find cohesion among myriad competing groups to an oversimplified binary power-sharing arrangement between President Fayez Sarraj of the GNA and Haftar. Macron’s grand design reinvented Haftar from an upstart warlord among many to Libya’s heir apparent. It was an extraordinary moment. 

Since the conference in LaCelle-Saint-Cloud, France and the UAE have not only armed and financed Haftar’s conquests but also shielded him from foreign criticism and marketed his takeover of Libya as a desired inevitability. By the time he scuppered the United Nations’ planned National Conference by attacking Libya’s capital in April 2019, he could claim support from the majority of the U.N. Security Council, a stunning demonstration of how successful Paris and Abu Dhabi were in disrupting the Western consensus to make space for their own policy. 

France and the UAE also found themselves aligned with Moscow. Since Russia’s first currency delivery in 2015, which enabled eastern Libya to maintain breakaway status while Haftar waged his battles, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s apparent policy has been to deepen the political fissures between the myriad players in the country and perpetuate Libya’s frozen conflict, as the surest way to vouchsafe its interests. Putin backs Haftar, yes, but not categorically and insofar as Haftar doesn’t grow too powerful to eschew Putin’s military assistance or diplomatic cover. 

As is increasingly the case with all of Russia’s foreign adventures, the Libya file has been outsourced not to the Russian Defense Ministry directly but rather to its oligarchic contractor, Yevgeny Prigozhin, often referred to as “Putin’s chef,” owing to his catering empire in Russia. Having honed plausibly deniable dirty war in Ukraine, Syria, the Central African Republic and elsewhere, Prigozhin’s Wagner Group, a private military company, alongside political operatives tied to an unnamed “Company,” arrived in Libya in 2016 under contracts claiming they were repairing Soviet-era equipment and providing security for various industrial sites. 

They did not, at first, do much fighting alongside Haftar’s forces, although the warlord claimed they did, going so far in one instance as to append phony paper Russian license plates to his army’s vehicles as a show of foreign force. According to internal Company documents obtained by the Dossier Center, a London-based investigative unit, Prigozhin’s operatives took a dim view of Haftar’s attempt to retake Tripoli, as they did of his prospective candidacy for president. They even moved to import Sudanese Janjaweed militias, the genocidaires of Darfur, to counter Haftar’s advance on Tripoli. 

Nonetheless, his march on the Libyan capital was attended by hundreds of tons of Emirati armaments, which still proved insufficient to sway the battle in his favor. Haftar and the GNA forces reached a stalemate in 2019. Now Wagner was operationalized in earnest to correct for Haftar’s incompetence and, conveniently, position Russia above and beyond France or the UAE as the main external opponent to GNA rule. 

Haftar may well have sacked Tripoli but for the intervention of a fourth country in the civil war: Turkey.

Haftar may well have sacked Tripoli but for the intervention of a fourth country in the civil war: Turkey. Where its much-touted foreign policy doctrine prior to the Arab Spring was known as “zero problems with the neighbors,” now Ankara saw nothing but problems. These were either brought on by half-cocked or shortsighted Western interventions, which undercut Turkey’s longstanding national security interests (as in Syria) or created balkanized conflict zones and power vacuums, which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was all too keen to exploit, particularly if it meant outmaneuvering his Gulf rivals (Saudi Arabia, the UAE) and his increasingly alienated allies in NATO. 

With Haftar’s assault on Tripoli, Turkey felt the UAE was trying to create a fait accompli that would freeze Ankara out of the Maghreb and close off a valuable beachhead into sub-Saharan Africa. Gone, then, would be tens of billions of dollars in infrastructure and construction contracts that had been frozen since 2011; more important was the significant and perhaps unrecoverable strategic loss this would represent in Ankara’s regional battle with Abu Dhabi that used Haftar to outflank them in the Mediterranean.

But Turkey’s interests weren’t just defensive, and the GNA’s desperate situation gave Turkey the opportunity to make a fait accompli of its own. In exchange for the formal security partnership Turkey began with the GNA in December 2019, Ankara extorted an agreement on new maritime borders that underscored a bold Turkish play to prevent a group of adversarial states from exploiting eastern Mediterranean gas discoveries which would corner Turkey and eventually eclipse its regional status. 

It was a campaign mainly reliant on drone technology, which turned Russian air defense systems into scrap metal and provided the best possible advertisement for Turkey’s defense sector. Undergirding this aerial assault were Turkish warships in the Mediterranean, which fired missiles at Haftar’s forces, and conventional soldiers on the ground in Libya embedded with thousands of Syrian mercenaries drawn from the ranks of the former Free Syrian Army. 

Turkey’s superior technology and quick strategizing had Haftar on the backfoot. Not even Wagner and just over a dozen Russian aircraft – many flown from Hmeimim air base in northwest Syria – were sufficient to save the warlord; the best they could do was allow him to retreat back to his besieged city of Sirte.

The Kremlin was hardly distraught by Haftar’s defeat: Escalating would have increased its outlay against a NATO army on behalf of a general it never really believed in and who would now be even more reliant on Russian patronage than before. Haftar’s collapse allowed Prigozhin’s mercenaries to secure key tactical sites in his retreat, thereby making the Emiratis and those invested in routing the GNA and Turkey dependent on doing business with them.

But Macron’s approach only served to drive Turkey further from Western diplomacy on Libya and closer to Russia.

As the GNA’s counteroffensive to sack Sirte was halted by Russian jets, Putin began negotiating directly with Erdogan. Macron, meanwhile, found a hobby horse: denouncing Turkey’s controversial drilling for natural gas in the North Cyprus economic exclusion zone, an intense episode of demarches and gunboat diplomacy now eclipsed by the outbreak of war between Azerbaijan and Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh. Again, Erdogan has deployed Syrian mercenaries into yet another once-frozen, now-alight conflict zone. But Macron’s approach only served to drive Turkey further from Western diplomacy on Libya and closer to Russia. 

Meanwhile, the stalemate in Libya continues. The GNA is consolidating its position in the west as Turkey attempts to reform Libya’s militia-based security sector. The speaker of Libya’s House of Representatives, Aguileh Saleh, has been empowered as the new political face of the GNA’s antagonists following Haftar’s defeat. The political situation is extremely fragile across Libya, as popular frustration mounts against native elites who are looting the country while preventing any further political transition and against their foreign sponsors who enable them to do so. Libya’s oil infrastructure – the lifeblood of the country – remains Russia’s point of leverage in its ongoing competition for influence and hegemony with Turkey, thanks to the Wagner personnel who decamped from Tripoli’s frontlines to Libya’s oil fields and export terminals over the summer. 

Absent from this scene are the Libyan people. After nine miserable years of revolution, counterrevolution, and civil war, they find themselves back on the streets, railing against yet another failed state. This time, however, there is no one intervention to save them; there are several meant to further atomize them. 

The future Libya augurs for the region and beyond is bleak, a Frankensteinian patchwork of foreign tissues barely holding together the organic integrity of the state. If the Libyan prophecy is to be believed, then we have entered a new age of geopolitical brinkmanship, clumsily joined by expansionist authoritarians, unmanned aircraft, and roving soldiers of fortune.

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