March 26, 2021

IntelBrief: Ten Years After NATO’s Intervention in Libya, A Transitional Government Takes Control

A Libyan waves the national flag (AP Photo/Mohammad Hannon)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Led by Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, the Government of National Unity recently took office in Libya, beginning its nine-month mandate until December elections.
  • The estimated 20,000 mercenaries and foreign fighters remaining in Libya, most tied to Turkey and Russia, pose an ongoing challenge to the transition.
  • The interim government bodes well for improved humanitarian access to 1.8 million people in need; over two months, the UN presence has doubled. 
  • The United States remains concerned about terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS exploiting security vacuums as safe havens and sanctuaries.

At this month’s ten-year mark since the NATO intervention in Libya that toppled longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Libya strides closer to transitioning from conflict to a tenuous peace. As Libyans and international partners take stock of the intervention – which emerged from a contentious Security Council negotiation that has cast a long shadow over subsequent discussions on humanitarian interventions – attention has turned to the prospects for peace and a more secure future for Libya. Following the selection of the Presidency Council at UN-sponsored talks in February, the Government of National Accord based in Tripoli and the eastern administration in Benghazi have now ceded power to Libya’s new government, the Government of National Unity (GNU). With Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah at the helm, the Government of National Unity took office on March 16, a week after the House of Representatives met in Sirte to endorse Dbeibah’s chosen cabinet. The new 35-member cabinet includes representation from various regions, as well as women’s representation at 15%. A nationwide ceasefire by Libya's 5+5 Joint Military Commission (JMC) has been in place since October, showing additional signs of hope for the transition.

The nine-month mandate of this transitional administration, which unified two prior divided administrations in the east and west, includes preparing for elections on December 24. A recent poll of 1000 Libyan respondents by Diwan Research indicated 71% satisfaction with the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF), which selected the new leadership; 77% of respondents noted their intention to participate in the upcoming December elections.

The strides toward peace brokered over the past few months signal opportunities for hope in the transition toward unified governance. Still, significant obstacles remain. The UN estimates that 20,000 mercenaries and foreign fighters remain in Libya. The order for the withdrawal of proxy forces by January 23 passed unmet. Thus, Security Sector Reform (SSR) and Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) remain major challenges to the interim government’s mandate. Moreover, the Libyan government and international partners like the UN will need to grapple with questions of how to manage terrorist groups and the flow of weapons in the region, in addition to the migrant crisis which has been a strategic priority for many European receiving states.

During a United Nations Security Council meeting on Wednesday, UN special envoy for Libya, Ján Kubiš, warned of “ongoing fortifications and the setting up of defensive positions along the Sirte-Jufra axis in central Libya” that could complicate the ceasefire. U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield responded by emphasizing U.S. support for December elections and calling on all external actors to “begin withdrawing from Libya immediately,” highlighting the need to end violations of the UN arms embargo and support to proxy forces.

Over the past few years, Libya has seen an increased level of external involvement in the conflict, namely Qatar and Turkey supporting the Government of National Accord and the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia backing General Khalifa Haftar. Over 330 Russian aircraft reportedly entered Libya in the past 18 months; likewise, Turkey conducted at least 145 cargo flights to Libya in 2020. Russia has largely operated through private military companies, including approximately 1,500 mercenaries from private military contractor Wagner Group, particularly located around major oil infrastructure. Turkey, on the other hand, has dispatched Syrian anti-Assad militias to Libya, at least 5,000 strong, in addition to several hundred national troops. This approach to intervention is part of a broader evolution of cloaked great and near-power competition – nation-states are employing non-state actors to engage in asymmetric warfare to secure their foreign policy objectives, utilizing obfuscation and ambiguity while seeking to gain influence and avoid direct escalation. While the ceasefire has been largely successful thus far, the volatility fueled by the ongoing presence of Turkish and Russian mercenaries remains a major concern for the interim government.

Almost 1.5 million people have been displaced in the conflict. Arbitrary and decentralized detention also remains a serious concern – over 8,850 people are arbitrarily detained in 28 official Libyan prisons operated, and approximately 10,000 people are detained in facilities that remain under the control of militias and armed groups. An acute electricity and water security crisis is looming, with the potential to impact over 4 million people, including 1.5 million children. Humanitarian access in particular has been severely constrained in Libya due to bureaucratic obstacles, conflict dynamics, and violence directed against aid workers. If the ceasefire holds and the government can effectively centralize authority and administration, this bodes well for improved humanitarian access to the projected 1.8 million people in need. In the past two months alone, the UN has doubled its presence in Libya.

Since the September 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi – which resulted in four deaths, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens – many diplomatic missions departed Libya; a U.S. official diplomatic presence has been absent in Libya since 2014. However, in a sign of support and good faith for this new transition, France is reopening its embassy in Tripoli. Additionally, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Prime Minister Dbeibeh had a call on Monday to discuss the transitional period and upcoming election. The United States remains concerned about persistent use of governance and security gaps as safe havens for terrorist groups, like al-Qaeda and Islamic State. Many armed groups continue to operate with impunity, without any accountability for human rights violations. The recent discovery of mass graves in Tarhuna highlighted the issues of a pervasive lack of justice and accountability in Libya. With recognition of these ongoing concerns, this transition has prompted a reevaluation of the UN Support Mission for Libya’s (UNSMIL) role and ongoing needs, such as ceasefire monitoring, as the mission’s current mandate expires in September.