The Libyan conflict is currently experiencing its most serious escalation since the civil war started in 2014. Since April 2019, the Libyan National Army (LNA) under Khalifa Haftar has been engaged in an offensive against the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli.
Haftar’s latest offensive on Tripoli is said to have been spurred on by foreign powers that gave him the military support he needed to seek control of the capital. External actors with competing geopolitical and economic interests are heavily involved in the conflict. In addition to providing finances and the ‘illegal supply of arms, ammunitions and related technologies to the factions’, foreign involvement is creating a context for a proxy war.
Libya is currently both a transit route and a destination for arms trafficking, counterfeit products, drugs and migrant smuggling by organised criminal networks, armed militias and terrorist groups. The Libyan civil war, exacerbated by external interference, thus has dangerous implications for the entire region’s peace and stability.
AU and UN peace efforts
Apart from security implications, the LNA’s current offensive is affecting ongoing peace efforts for the country. Both a United Nations (UN) National Conference scheduled for April and an African Union (AU) reconciliation conference scheduled for July this year couldn’t happen as planned.
Both conferences had aimed to bring together Libyan stakeholders to resolve their differences regarding the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement, and pave the way for elections and a constitutional referendum by the end of 2019. Among other things, the latest offensive signals a breakdown of the 2015 peace agreement, which although contested, is the only viable political process for resolving Libya’s crisis.
Meanwhile, efforts by the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) and the UN Security Council’s (UNSC) African non-permanent member states to get a joint UN-AU envoy for Libya have again been thwarted.
The joint envoy was proposed by the PSC, which met at the ministerial level on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September. A joint UN-AU envoy for Libya could help combine all Libya’s peace processes under one initiative.
The PSC and UNSC also discussed the Libya situation during their Annual Joint Consultative Meeting on 23 October in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
The rejection of the planned special envoy, however, remains a sticking point.
The AU could provide the legitimacy needed for an international multilateral peace process, which is marred by the history of international involvement in the overthrow and death of the country’s former leader, Muammar Gaddafi, based on a stretched interpretation of UN Security Council Resolution 1973.
Military involvement of the West (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and members of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC), Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Qatar, which led to the downfall of the Libyan government in 2011, marked the beginning of foreign intervention in Libya.
Although this multi-state military intervention officially ended with Gaddafi’s death, several countries continue to be involved in Libya’s crisis. This is due to competition for access to the country’s oil resources and ports in the Mediterranean, supporting the war against various terrorist groups, European efforts to control the use of Libya as a migrant route and regional geostrategic competition among Gulf powers. Neighbouring countries with security interests in Libya are also involved.
External involvement, especially through military support, may be prolonging Libya’s civil war, as it encourages warring factions to opt for a zero-sum military victory rather than a negotiated end. As a result, Libya faces a complex and protracted humanitarian crisis and an inability to protect its people.
Foreign support to the different warring tribal groups and militia has the potential to permanently split the country into two or more regions by widening political polarisation and further fraying the country’s social fabric.
It has also directly contributed to the proliferation of arms, despite a UN arms embargo on the country. According to UN envoy for Libya Ghassan Salamé, ‘Libya has become a terrain of experimentation of new military technologies and recycling of old weapons.’ He says various types of weaponry have been ‘transferred to Libya with the complicity and indeed outright support of foreign governments’.
Such transfers have enabled terrorist groups and various criminal networks to wage war and engage in cross-border criminal activities across porous borders, undermining the peace and security of the whole region.
The dependence of foreign powers on various semi-independent militias to protect their interests in Libya, including counter-terrorism operations, the protection of oil fields and containing other factions, has also enhanced the capacity of armed militias. These factions now seem to prefer maintaining the status quo to a peaceful resolution.
External interference also perpetuates the perception among AU member states that the AU has been sidelined from the Libyan peace process due to differences in its approach to that of UNSC members, who have a direct stake in the Libyan conflict.
While some key UN and Arab League member states officially support and participate in international efforts to end the conflict, their support to militias directly undermines proposed multilateral peace processes initiated by the UN and AU.
These countries have also initiated parallel peace processes that have been unable to achieve a breakthrough. These disjointed processes weaken the synergy of action in Libya, which the AU has been calling for.
Both the AU and UN have reiterated that a military outcome is unlikely to bring about lasting peace and stability in Libya, which is divided along regional, linguistic and tribal lines. A countrywide consultative and inclusive peace process is the only way a government that is legitimate in the eyes of all stakeholders can be established.
However, any prospect for a ceasefire in Libya is grim given the level of political and military interference from external powers. Ongoing efforts between the PSC and UNSC should aim at consolidating a roadmap for responding to external interference in Libya, and bringing the different factions together.