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Libya: The Ultimate Free-For-All Foreign Intervention

Why are Russia, France and Saudi Arabia squared off against the U.S. and Turkey in this war ravaged North African state?

Members of the self-styled Libyan National Army, loyal to the country's east strongman Khalifa Haftar, practice firing a Kalashnikov assault rifle as they rest following clashes with militants in Benghazi's central Akhribish district on November 9, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Abdullah DOMA (Photo credit should read ABDULLAH DOMA/AFP via Getty Images)

After longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi was driven from power during a NATO-led intervention in 2011, the election of a temporary national unity government in 2012 was supposed to have opened a new page for the war-ravaged North African nation.

As with all fragile democracies in which festering wounds and ethno-political fractures have yet to be resolved, this bright, new beginning quickly began to fall apart. Today, malicious foreign influences playing international games of power are taking a major role in shaping in Libya’s future. Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Russia, and France are clearly working to undermine a democratic movement that began nearly a decade ago. 

The interim government, which called itself the General National Congress, took over in August 2012. Two years later it voted to replace itself with a House of Representatives, a step to which all parties involved did not agree. All was apparently settled by year’s end, however, when the United Nations brokered an agreement on the division of power that vested executive authority in a new Government of National Accord and legislative authority was given to the House of Representatives. 

By the end of 2016, that consensus had fallen apart, creating an ongoing dispute that continues today. The challenge to the GNA’s authority, which most of the world recognizes, is led principally by Khalifa Haftar, a renegade military commander who now leads the Libyan National Army in an ongoing military action that forced the cancelation of scheduled elections in 2017 and 2018.  

 A Libyan National Conference to set new election dates were supposed to be held in April 2019. It was called off after Haftar announced a military offensive against the GNA and an effort to capture the capital city of Tripoli.  Since then, the crisis has intensified. Haftar’s LNA forces are bringing death and destruction to much of the country. Attempts at a ceasefire and blocking foreign intervention have been unsuccessful while Haftar continues to pose a serious threat to the GNA and Libya’s future.

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Foreign states meddling in Libya’s internal affairs have exacerbated the conflict in pursuit of their own economic and political gain. This has led to increased violence on the ground with Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey playing a primary role. Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Russia, and France are involved at a secondary level. All, except for Turkey—which is supporting the democratically elected GNA—are backing Haftar.  

Egypt has funneled money, weapons, and logistical support to the LNA as part of its effort to wipe out political Islam. Going as far back as 2014, Haftar has been trying to eradicate these groups in Libya.  Under the guise of national security, claiming this is an anti-terror campaign, Haftar calls himself a secularist fighting against extremism. Egypt is providing intelligence support to the LNA and has joined with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to vocally support Haftar’s drive to take Tripoli. Egypt has also violated U.N. sanctions by taking delivery of weapons before shipping them to LNA strongholds in eastern Libya.

Like Egypt, the United Arab Emirates is heavily supporting Haftar out of a desire to stamp out the influence of political Islam in the Arab World. It’s engaged in a disinformation campaign to discredit the GNA because the success of democracy in Libya is existentially dangerous to dynastic power structures and the other Gulf monarchies. As the emirates see it, Haftar as an autocratic leader, could ally with Egypt to form a bulwark against democratically elected governments in North Africa. 

Turkey, meanwhile, supports the GNA. In January Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent troops and armed drones to Libya, with which it had signed a November maritime agreement in November redrawing maritime borders to give Turkey control of recently discovered Mediterranean gas fields. 

Since entering the conflict, Turkish air support helped repel Haftar’s attack on Tripoli. More recently, GNA forces backed by the Turks captured several key positions held by the LNA including the strategically vital al-Watiya airbase. 

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Saudi Arabia has sided quietly with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates in the crusade against political Islam. The democratic aspects of the Arab Spring threaten the authoritarian structure of the Saudi royal family. Its leadership, led by divisive Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, sees Haftar as an ideological ally. 

Most of its assistance comes as financial aid. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Saudi Kingdom offered tens of millions of dollars to Haftar, which he accepted, before the April 2019 offensive.

Jordan is also backing Haftar for his self-professed ability to rid Libya of extremists. King Abdullah II expressed his support for the LNA’s campaign against terrorist organizations after a 2015 meeting with Haftar. His group has subsequently been given counterterrorism and other military training by the Jordanian armed forces. The U.N. United Nations says Jordan, along with Egypt and the U.A.E., is violating its arms embargoes. 

The Russians are also destabilizing Libya for economic and military reasons. It wants to exploit Libyan oil and gas fields, broaden its sphere of influence in the Middle East, and to supplant the U.S. and NATO as the dominant regional power broker. Haftar has given Russia access to oil fields under his control in exchange for economic support, diplomatic cover at the U.N, and military advice. 

France’s role in Libya is more obscure. The European Union may be the GNA’s biggest backer, but France is giving Haftar financial and military support. Driven by concerns over terrorism at home, French policymakers have decided installing an authoritarian strongman is the best way to prevent radical groups from attaining a foothold in North Africa. 

Paris has provided Haftar with advisers, clandestine operatives, and special forces and took responsibility for its weapons being used by Haftar’s forces in violation of the U.N. arms embargo, caveating it with the excuse the equipment has been “lost” by French troops. 

While Washington has backed the GNA, U.S. military and diplomats have maintained contacts with Haftar and Trump himself has raised eyebrows about where he stands. Last year after the president had a conversation with Haftar, the White House saidTrump “recognized Field Marshal Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources, and the two discussed a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system.” However, after more recent reports about Russia and Egypt sending reinforcements, the White House seems to sense urgency and two weeks ago called for a ceasefire. Trump also spoke with Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, on June 7 and the issue of Libya was reportedly raised.

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Malicious foreign actors have prolonged the conflict in Libya. Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Russia, and France are complicit in the undermining of the GNA, and sustaining the years of bloodshed there. The Turkey has defended the elected government there and as a result, for now, the GNA has gained the upper hand over Haftar. Had the destabilizing actors never intervened, however, Libya would be an unquestioned Arab Spring success. 

This week Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said his country has a legitimate right to intervene in Libya. The regional conflict is about to heat up, with U.S. allies pitted against one another. America needs to put major diplomatic effort toward defusing things before they erupt. All parties should pull their troops out, the arms embargo should be enforced, and a major peace conference should be convened. Otherwise, a bloody war that repeats what happened in Syria, with similar consequences, is likely in the offing.

Khaled Saffuri, an Arab-American political activist and media commentator, is the president of the National Interest Foundation in Washington D.C., a libertarian think tank focused on U.S. foreign and domestic policy. 

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