by Rafaella Piyioti
At present, Libya’s two governments, each with their own parliament and central bank system, are competing for power. The situation is further complicated by the overlapping and intersecting involvement of regional and international actors. On the 23 October 2020 an UN-mediated ceasefire was signed to establish the foundations for peace in the country. This agreement is the result of a series of UN-led talks between Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, leader of the Government of National Accord (GNA), and General Khalifa Haftar, leader of the Libyan National Army (LNA). To ensure a successful peace settlement in Libya, the disarmament of domestic militia organisations and the withdrawal of foreign forces is of paramount importance. Moreover, to understand the complexities of the civil war in Libya and the fragility of the UN ceasefire agreement, it is essential to focus on the role of foreign actors in Libya.
Since the toppling of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, civil war has raged across Libya. While the Colonel’s pan-Arabist leanings granted the country strong regional influence, his financing of terrorism led to frequent confrontations with the West. After the collapse of the Gaddafi regime, Libya entered a new era of instability and insecurity. From this General Haftar has emerged as a self-proclaimed new Libyan leader, aiming to establish his own military rule over the nation with the support of various regional and international actors. The UN, in a bid to establish stable civilian governance and prevent domestic militias from gaining control of the country, instead supported the formation the GNA in 2016.
Failing thus far to unify Libya, the GNA has only managed to establish its authority in Tripoli and has been engaged in long-term fighting with Haftar’s LNA. Libyan domestic militias are divided between those who support the GNA and those who support Haftar. Haftar promised his supporters military control of the country based on the Egyptian model of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and his campaign against political Islam has led many regional actors to form alliances with him. Egypt, the UAE and Israel provided political support and funding to Haftar, in an attempt to prevent radical Islamist groups from gaining control of Libya and advancing their regional influence.
In the past year, the conflict between the GNA and the LNA has intensified, piquing when Haftar’s troops invaded Tripoli on the 4th April 2019. Since then, foreign actors have played an increasingly decisive role in how events have unfolded.
In January 2020, Turkey signed an agreement with the GNA to provide military support and send mercenaries to al-Sarraj’s army. Turkey’s alliance with the GNA is an extension of its current foreign policy, to advance its regional influence, using a politically pro-Islam rhetoric. Al -Sarraj, is accused of being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organisation known for its Pan-Islam ideology, that calls for the unity of all Muslims worldwide, and its alliance with Turkey. Erdogan’s support to the GNA led Israel, Egypt and the UAE to increase their support to General Haftar to counter the rise of political Islam.
Russia, although one of the ‘Permanent Five’ members on the UN Security Council, supports Haftar’s LNA, offering military aid in an attempt to advance its own geopolitical influence in the region. Post-Soviet Russia has struggled to establish itself as a recognised global power and Libya’s strategic position offers Russia options for both naval and air bases which could support its activities in the region. Haftar’s troops, establishing a number of defence contracts with Russia, have also served as an economic boon. Nonetheless, following the escalation of violence in Libya, President Putin has joined the German Chancellor Merkel and the British Prime Minister Johnson, in calling the two Libyan leaders to negotiate a ceasefire agreement.
France, another member of the ‘Permanent Five’, has also supported Haftar, though this has not always been the case, with its overarching foreign policy on Libya being more ambiguous. While initially a neutral actor, Turkey’s involvement in Libya pushed France towards Haftar’s LNA as the two countries are experiencing increased tensions over their conflicted interests in the Eastern Mediterranean. Macron’s opposition to radical Islam, is yet another contributing factor in France’s alliance with Haftar, who has established an anti-Islamist political campaign in Libya to counter the rise of Islamist militias.
In the absence of a holistic European Union policy towards Libya, France pledged an alliance with Haftar, joined by Greece and Cyprus. This is mainly due to their political dispute with Turkey on the Eastern Mediterranean oil crisis. Other EU states have formed their own policies on Libya. Italy has long established historic and strategic interests in Libya and is one of the only EU member states that supports the GNA over the LNA. Not only does Italy depend on Libyan hydrocarbons, but it has also reached a deal with the GNA to cooperate in countering illegal migration and human trafficking. Libya thus serves as an opportunity for Italy to maintain its interests and advance its own influence in the region.
Following a year of intensive fighting Haftar and al-Sarraj signed an UN-initiated ceasefire agreement on the 23 October 2020. The ceasefire, welcomed by the UN and the EU, is an important step towards the re-establishing peace in Libya. The UK and Germany offered to monitor the implementation of the ceasefire agreement, which has set a timeline of three months for the disarmament of domestic militias and for foreign actors to withdraw from Libya. Yet, there remains a feeling of mistrust between al-Sarraj and Haftar which could undermine the prospect of a long-lasting peace. The three months’ timeframe is almost over, and the LNA has already accused Turkey of continuing its presence in Libya. For peace and stability, it is necessary that foreign actors, whether regional or international, follow the rules of the ceasefire agreement and withdraw their troops from Libya.
The UN, as the body traditionally at the forefront of global conflict mediation, should therefore lead efforts to ensure that all parties are following the ceasefire rules. Still, even if Turkey exits Libya, important challenges will remain. A tenuous peace and real political unity are two completely different things. As long as the ideological and political differences between the GNA’s policy of promoting political Islam, and the LNA’s anti-Islamist campaign remain unaddressed, political unity cannot be achieved.
While the UN ceasefire agreement is an important step towards lasting peace, without the withdrawal of foreign troops and an end to the pursuit of regional interests through Libya, the conflict will inevitably continue. A ceasefire shows that there is a willingness, or at least a possibility, for peace. What remains now is for the GNA and LNA to be given the space and impetus to seize the opportunity for a lasting peace.
Rafaela is a part-time MA student in the Conflict Resolution in Divided Societies programme at King’s College London. She received her BA in War Studies and Philosophy.
She is a Staff Writer for the Shield and writes for a Cypriot newspaper. Currently, she is a Research Analyst for London Politica. Her main academic interest is on the role of intelligence in policymaking.
Rafaela is a Staff Writer at Strife.