March 6, 2024

IntelBrief: Outside Powers Exploit Libya’s Divisions

AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev, File

Bottom Line Up Front:

  • Regional and outside powers are working with Libya’s rival governments to advance their own interests.
  • There has been little evident progress on UN and Western efforts to unify Libya’s political structure through the holding of national presidential and parliamentary elections.
  • Russia has used its ties to eastern Libya strongman Khalifa Haftar to extend its influence in Africa.
  • Türkiye and Egypt have backed the contending Libyan sides, but a Cairo-Ankara rapprochement might pave the way to unify Libya.

Libya remains divided between a UN-backed government in Tripoli, headed by nominal Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah and a “High State Council,” and a rival administration based in Benghazi, in eastern Libya. The eastern administration is formally supervised by Libya’s House of Representatives (HoR, parliament), but it is dominated in practice by the Libyan National Army (LNA) militia headed by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. Over the past several years, a succession of United Nations, U.S., French, and other mediators have sought to persuade the rival groups to agree to a new election law and hold elections for a unified president and parliament. During 2019-2020, Haftar sought to unite the country under his leadership by capturing Tripoli, but his offensive was ultimately defeated by western Libya militias allied with the Tripoli-based government and supplied with armor and armed drones by Türkiye. Since then, the rival leaders have repeatedly refused to schedule national elections, fearful of losing out to their adversaries and forfeiting their power and prerogatives. Expressing frustration at the lack of a political breakthrough, on February 28, the UN Security Council reiterated its “strong commitment” to an “inclusive political process” in Libya that allows for “free, fair, transparent and inclusive national presidential and parliamentary elections to be held as soon as possible.” The Council also expressed “strong support” for the role of the UN envoy to Libya, Abdoulaye Bathily, to implement a political roadmap, including updated electoral laws, agreed by a committee of representatives of the HoR (east) and the State Council (west).

Although still inflexible on the holding of elections, the UN-recognized Tripoli administration is taking steps to establish the rule of law and curb militia strength – a response to UN frustration over the stalled political process and public resentment of the many deaths caused by militia clashes over the past few years. On February 21, the Dbeibah government’s Interior Minister, Imed Trabelsi, announced an agreement with militia forces to withdraw from the capital and to be deployed “only in exceptional circumstances for specific missions." Under the deal, at least five armed groups will withdraw by the end of the Ramadan period on April 9, including one based in an area where ten people were killed in mid-February. Subsequent to the pullback, according to Trabelsi, “There will only be city police officers, emergency police, and those who do criminal investigations.” As an endorsement of the Tripoli administration’s efforts to rely only on professional security forces, on March 2, the U.S. Embassy in Libya announced a U.S. military delegation held a week of “productive discussions” in Tripoli with armed forces, ground forces, and navy leaders from western Libya. The Embassy stated: “The United States will continue to engage parties in all regions of Libya to support efforts to promote enduring peace and security, unify and professionalize the Libyan military, and safeguard Libyan sovereignty.”

Despite the steps taken to promote the rule of law in western Libya, the continuing nationwide duality of power enables regional and global powers to strike separate agreements with the two rivals to advance their own interests. In so doing, the outside powers have established lucrative business and illicit arrangements that enable the two Libyan administrations to flourish separately, reducing their urgency to forge a united political and economic whole. Of particular concern to U.S. officials, the Russian inheritors of the global activities of the private military company the Wagner Group (now rebranded as Africa Corps) are working with Haftar to advance Russia’s push further into Africa. In Africa, Libya possesses the largest oil reserves and gold deposits, estimated to rank among the world’s top fifty. Its geographic location, linking Niger, Chad, and Sudan to North Africa and Europe, makes Libya of vital strategic importance to the Kremlin. Russian military intelligence (GRU) senior figure, General Andrei Averyanov, who reportedly was given control of Wagner’s overseas presence after the death of its founder Yevgeny Prigozhin, met with Haftar in September 2023, followed by trips to Mali, Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic (CAR), and Niger. Some 800 Russian military contractors are deployed in Libya, and another 4,600 reportedly are dispersed across sub-Saharan Africa. Russian military contractors run three air bases in Libya – one in the oil basin of Sirte, one in al-Jufra in the interior, and one in Brak al-Shati. The Russian presence enables Haftar’s LNA, as well as Russia, to move goods between allies in Sudan and other sub-Saharan locations and provides Haftar with military leverage he can wield over his opponents in Tripoli. According to Tarek Megerisi, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, “Haftar needs Wagner…Furthermore, while [Haftar is] hosting them in Libya, [Wagner] can use its position to prop up operations in Syria, Sudan and elsewhere.” In addition, talks are reportedly underway to give Russian warships docking rights at the Haftar-controlled port of Tobruk in exchange for air defense systems and training for LNA pilots.

Haftar’s relationship with Russia has also enabled him to develop a degree of influence over the course of the civil war in neighboring Sudan. Haftar is reportedly permitting bases in territory under his control to be used to ship weapons to Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF), led by Mohammed Hamad Dagalo (Hemedti), which has been in an existential battle for power with the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) since April 2023. The conflict has resulted in the deaths of more than 14,600 people, according to data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED). Human rights groups and the U.S. State Department have also provided analysis and documented evidence of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing committed by members of the RSF and SAF during the civil war. Haftar, his Russian allies, and another RSF supporter, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), have not only moved weapons to the RSF but have also partnered with Hemedti on lucrative gold smuggling and illicit mining operations. To try to counter Haftar’s influence over events in Sudan, Dbeibah’s government has offered to mediate a settlement to the Sudan war. To advance its mediation role, Tripoli hosted Sudan Armed Forces commander Abdel Fattah Burhan for a one-day visit on February 26. That visit came two days after Dbeibeh and Hemedti spoke by telephone about the need to bridge the differences between the warring Sudanese parties.

Resolving the instability in Libya has become a key goal of two rival powers in the Eastern Mediterranean – Egypt and Türkiye. The two have been at odds for more than a decade over Türkiye’s support for some regional Islamist movements, access to natural gas resources in the Mediterranean, Libya, and other issues. Türkiye has been a supporter of Tripoli, whereas Cairo has backed Haftar and the eastern Libyan administration. Apparently, recognizing that the division of Libya has not benefitted either strategically, Egypt and Türkiye have tentatively begun to ease tensions. Türkiye requires stability in Libya to protect its national interests in the Eastern Mediterranean and to maintain its commercial ties with Libya. The government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo has, over the past two years, begun to distance itself from Haftar, concluding he cannot win control over all of Libya and that his support for the RSF in Sudan is contrary to Egypt’s interests. Egypt has been a key supporter of the Sudan Armed Forces under Burhan. Cairo also prioritizes the foreign exchange earnings of Egyptian workers in Libya and the potential role Egypt could play in Libya’s reconstruction. Suggesting Cairo and Ankara might benefit from cooperation, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an visited Egypt on February 14, indicating a pivotal moment of rapprochement. Still, Erdogan has signaled that détente with Egypt, and perhaps eventually with Haftar as well, will not cause Ankara to leave its allies in Tripoli vulnerable. On March 2, Dbeibah traveled to Türkiye to sign a bilateral agreement with Turkish Defense Minister Ya?ar Guler under which Ankara will conduct specialized training for the Tripoli-controlled Libyan armed forces. Still, an acknowledgment by at least some outside powers that a divided Libya is averse to their interests increases the potential for the UN-led reconciliation process to bear fruit.