The situation is moving quickly in Libya with serious implications for the region as a whole. David Seddon argues that the forces of General Haftar have now been effectively defeated. However, the country remains a battle ground between competing imperialist forces seeking control of Libya’s resources and its location as a gateway to the continent.
By David Seddon
In my blogpost on the early stages of the Covid-19 epidemic in North Africa, I wrote that: ‘Libya is a special case, as fighting has continued there ever since the overthrow of President Ghaddafi in 2011. The country is divided between the forces loyal to the Tripoli-based UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and those of Khalifa Haftar, the military commander who backs a rival administration in east -the Libyan National Army (LNA)’. The background to the conflict was discussed by Gary Littlejohn in earlier roape.net blogposts (see here and here)
Despite calls in mid-March for a humanitarian pause in the fighting made by the UN and several countries, in order to address the threat of an epidemic, the fighting continued over the next three months. In the last few weeks, however, the forces of the GNA have managed, with assistance from forces sent by Turkey, to achieve significant progress.
They took Tripoli International Airport on Wednesday 3 June and the LNA base of Tarhuuna, some 60 kms to the south east of Tripoli on Friday 5 June. The next day, the Supreme Council of Libyan Sheikhs and Elders in the city of Zintan (170 kilometres southwest of Tripoli) welcomed the victories of the forces of the Government of National Accord (GNA) against Haftar’s militias, and the liberation of the entire western region.
The Council commented, in a statement issued on 6 June, that it ‘Blesses and congratulates the Libyan people and army for the victories in the legendary battles they fought against the enemy, and the liberation of the entire western region’. The statement concluded that ‘The vicious plans of the forces of evil represented by some Arab regimes supporting the return of dictatorship, tyranny and military rule, have been defeated’.
The Council stressed the need to end the presence of Haftar’s forces in the country and hold them accountable for the crimes they have committed, while reiterating its refusal to negotiate with the ‘war criminal’ or to recognise him as a partner in the peace process. It also demanded that Haftar ‘be brought to justice’. In the meanwhile, Haftar left the country to seek support from Egypt. His meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, however, failed to result in the commitment to provide military support that he was looking for. Instead, Egypt proposed an initiative which included a ceasefire that might pave the way for a new political process in Libya.
A senior official in the LNA fighting under Haftar’s command was reported in the Egyptian media as saying that ‘Haftar will not be fully pushed out of the picture immediately but will remain in Cairo indefinitely under close monitoring.’ In the meanwhile, Russia and Egypt are working to formulate a plan for the east of Libya.
In the meanwhile, the Supreme Council has called for a strategy on the part of the GNA for the post-conflict phase, focusing on rebuilding the army and ‘crushing foreign agendas aimed at destabilising Libya.’ By this they meant the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, France and Russia, all of which have been supporting Haftar and the LNA in recent years, against the UN officially recognised GNA and those supporting it.
It looks as though the forces of General Haftar, which first launched an assault on Tripoli, a GNA stronghold, in 2017, when roape.net carried a piece by Gary Littlejohn to which I added a commentary and update, have now been effectively defeated and that it is end-game for strongman Haftar himself and for the LNA. But this raises questions about the future of Russia, which has played a major role in support of Haftar and of an alternative government for Libya.
In 2011, as the West prepared to intervene militarily in the North African country, it needed a United Nations (UN) Security Council resolution. It was expected that Moscow would vote this down. Its ambassador to Tripoli had already urged the Russian president, Dimitri Medvedev, to intervene. Instead, he was fired, and Russia abstained, allowing Resolution 1973 authorising the use of forces against Libya to pass.
It was never likely that Russia would simply stand by and watch the armed forces of the West and key Gulf States engineer the overthrow of President Gadhafi and his regime. But, already heavily involved in Syria in support of Bashir al-Assad, it was slow to react.
During 2011, Moscow went along with the UN-sponsored efforts to mediate the conflict. It even voted for UN Resolution 2259, establishing the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli and recognising it as the only legitimate authority in Libya. As it began to look as though the Assad regime was secure and General Khalifa Haftar appeared on the Libyan scene, Russian diplomacy actively sought to reactivate its links to Libya.
But the Russian anger and feelings of being tricked by the West in Libya never went away. Vladimir Putin, after returning to the presidency in 2012, accused the West in repeated angry outbursts, of destroying Libya, murdering Ghaddafi and exceeding the mandate of UN Resolution 1973, which called for the protection of civilians, not a change of regime.
Moscow’s doors were opened to all Libyan factions. It hosted GNA leaders, tribal dignitaries and even representatives of Saif Al-Islam Ghaddafi, the son of the former president, while deciding on which horse to back in the conflict. General Haftar, in particular, with the support of Egypt’s Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, reached out to Moscow for assistance, despite his old connection to Washington. He belonged to the old Libyan military cadres who were no strangers to Moscow, he was familiar with its weapons, and once was Ghaddafi’s man, before falling out over the 1980s Chad war.
Moscow never accepted that the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011 was a spontaneous eruption against tyrants in the Arab world. Instead, it coined its own term for it, describing what happened as ‘coloured revolutions’, encouraged and even planned by the West. These ‘coloured revolutions’ included that of the Ukraine and other ‘near abroad’ countries, to use the Russian terminology. The overthrow of Ghaddafi and his regime by the West was yet another of these ‘coloured revolutions’.
Ghaddafi had also been, like Assad in Syria, a potential Russian client and regional lynchpin. After all, Putin himself had visited Libya in 2008 and signed lucrative hydrocarbon deals, infrastructure contracts worth billions of dollars and, as a gesture of good will, wrote-off about $5 billion of Soviet-era Libyan debts.
From 2015 onwards, Russia had provided assistance to General Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), while publicly denying it. Haftar, in return, promised Russia more lucrative deals and a bigger chunk of the post-war reconstruction that would follow on from his military success for Russian companies.
As the conflict began to turn against the LNA in the spring of 2020, Moscow’s immediate goal became to shield the LNA from total defeat – arguably as it has done in Syria. But now, it will have to re-assess its strategy for the medium and longer term.
Long-term strategic Russian objectives are several. Libya’s long Mediterranean coastline, its location as a gate to Africa and its oil and gas make the country highly attractive economically to Russia. However, its military concerns are NATO’s bases and Turkey’s ambitions in the region. A strong Russian presence in Libya would help hold Turkish ambitions in check. Turkey not only supports the GNA but wants to terminate any future role for Haftar.
Forces sent by Turkey to support the GNA, were arguably decisive in achieving the military breakthrough of the last few weeks. The recent developments in Libya were significantly affected by Turkey’s decision at the start of the year to send troops in support of the GNA, despite the reluctance of the main opposition party. Significantly, Turkish support on the ground has largely come in the form of up to 10,000 Syrian mercenaries brought in from Idlib. Yet it has been the use of armed drones that has been fundamental to the strategic gains made by the GNA, as they were able to successfully destroy many of the UAE-supplied Russian Pantsir S-1 systems. This game-changing element of modern warfare, which is now being increasingly used in such conflicts, has also served Turkey with some degree of tactical success in Syria’s Idlib province.
Ankara’s involvement in the Libyan war was a gamble which appears to have paid off. It serves to justify the so-called Blue Homeland policy, which is aimed at establishing Turkish hegemony in the eastern Mediterranean through exploiting the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) agreed between Ankara and Tripoli. What role Turkey will now play in future developments in Libya remains to be seen. Whatever happens will have wider implications for the geo-politics of the Eastern Mediterranean, particularly with regard to relations between Russia and Turkey, given their respective involvement in Syria.
Libya is at risk of becoming the site of a protracted proxy war, like Syria, as a patchwork of powers have lined up to back the United Nations-recognized GNA based in Tripoli, and others have backed Haftar’s LNA, which still controls the east. As in Syria, Russia and Turkey have emerged as the most consequential players, backing opposite sides of the conflict.
There are also possible implications for the future of Yemen and the Horn of Africa, given Turkey’s influence in Yemen and geo-strategic interests in the Red Sea and Bab Al-Mandeb Strait. After all, Turkey has its largest overseas military base located in the Somali capital of Mogadishu, as well as its largest embassy.
Given the on-going US involvement in Somalia, through the US Africa Command (AFRICOM), as part of its ‘war against terror’ in the form of Al-Shabab, the potential for ‘a conflict of interests’ there between the US and Turkey is considerable. It was after all only in February this year that the AFRICOM commander, General Stephen Townsend visited Kenya and Somalia to discuss security and other issues.
A New Phase
On 7 June, it was reported that Russia had announced its support for the cease-fire in Libya proposed by Egyptian President Sisi. ‘We read the content of the Egyptian President’s offer, of course, we support all kinds of offers to stop the conflicts in Libya as soon as possible,’ said Mikhail Bogdanov, special representative of Russia to the Middle East and African countries, according to the Ria News Agency.
Haftar and his allies had gathered in the Egyptian capital on 6 June to sign the new ‘Cairo Declaration’. This called for a cease-fire in Libya and the establishment of a new organisation to form a House of Representatives and Presidential Council. Appearing at a news conference in Cairo alongside Sisi, Haftar agreed to this proposal even though it would inevitably reduce his power in his eastern home territory and probably reflects the growing impatience of his foreign backers.
The GNA seemed poised to reject Egypt’s proposals but its war with Haftar’s LNA in the east still seems far from over. Both sides’ foreign backers may be unwilling to curtail efforts to expand their regional ambitions. The LNA still controls the east as well as most of Libya’s oil fields in the south.
Libya remains divided, but if a ceasefire is agreed – which seems possible – then there will have to be negotiations between the two sides, with the ‘Western’ allies looking now far stronger than their opposition. A Syrian-style intervention by Russia in Libya now looks less likely, although on 18 June, AFRICOM released new evidence of Russian fighter jets being flown in Libya by state-backed Russian private military contractors. Moscow needs to decide what kind of compromises, if any, it is prepared to make with the other Western and Middle Eastern players supporting the GNA, which at the moment are triumphant.
Generally, the Trump administration has been retreating from the Middle East, while Putin has been advancing. But the situation in Libya now may change this. The alarm was sounded recently by General Stephen Townsend, the commander of AFRICOM, who only recently (on 29 May) accused Moscow of trying to extend their involvement in northern Africa, saying: ‘Like I saw them [the Russians] in Syria, they are expanding their footprint in Africa.’
On 15 June, it was reported that the Interior Minister of the GNA, Fathi Bashagha, said that any initiatives to end the political crisis and unify the Libyan state institutions are welcome. He stressed, however, that ‘these initiatives should include the civil authority that governs the will of the people and the submission of the army to civilian authority, as there is no place for war criminals who aspire to seize power by force’, in apparent reference to Haftar.
On 15 June, Reuters reported that Turkey is in talks with the GNA to use naval and air bases in Libya, although no final agreements have been reached. This would give Ankara considerable leverage over the other players on the GNA side. A high-level Turkish delegation that included the country’s Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, its finance minister, and its intelligence chief arrived in Libya later in the week for talks about the latest developments in the crisis and the military cooperation agreement signed between the two governments last November.
Turkey’s intervention in the conflict has prompted a rift with its NATO ally France, which has supported Haftar’s forces. On 17 June, the French ministry of defence accused the Turkish navy of behaving in an ‘extremely aggressive’ manner, harassing a French warship in the eastern Mediterranean as it tried to inspect a cargo vessel suspected of carrying weapons to Libya in violation of a UN embargo. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the next day that NATO was investigating the incident.
In the meanwhile, Algeria has offered to act as a mediator between the two sides and Egypt has called for an emergency meeting of the Arab League to discuss recent developments in Libya’s civil war.
David Seddon is a researcher and political activist who has written extensively on social movements, class struggles and political transitions across the developing world.