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ConflictsMiddle East

In Libya, mercenaries are not the only problem

December 4, 2020

Could talks that recently resulted in a cease-fire and set a date for an election finally help push dangerous international players out of Libya?

Libyen Proteste gegen Haftar-Truppen in Tripolis
A protest in Tripoli, Libya, against attacks by Khalifa Haftar's troopsImage: Hazem Turkia/AA/picture alliance

During the latest round of talks on Libya's future, the acting UN special representative Stephanie Williams warned this week of the dangers posed by the presence of 20,000 foreign fighters in the country and the 10 military bases occupied by them.

"You may believe that these foreigners are here as your guests, but they are now occupying your house," Williams told the 75 participants at the second round of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum on December 2, held online. "They are pouring weapons into your country, a country which does not need more weapons," said Williams, who heads the UN Support Mission in Libya. "They are not in Libya for your interests: They are in Libya for their interests. You have now a serious crisis with regard to the foreign presence in your country."

Stephanie Williams
UN acting special representative to Libya Stephanie WilliamsImage: Fethi Belaid/AFP

The foreign fighters Williams is talking about come from Syria, Sudan, Chad and Russia, and are there at the behest of their international paymasters. These include Turkey, Egypt, Russia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, all of which are pursuing their own agendas in Libya, by supporting one of the two rival factions that want to control the country. 

At stake in Libya are huge reserves of oil and gas. The country is also an important transit point for migrants heading to Europe, as well as a refuge for extremists and terrorists.

Proxy fighters are in Libya despite the fact that international representatives at the Conference on Libya held in Berlin in January 2020 had agreed to commit to an arms embargo and, as their joint post-meeting communique said, refrain "from interference in the armed conflict or in the internal affairs of Libya."

Clearly that hasn't happened. At the same time though, there has been some positive news. An October cease-fire between the two groups trying to control the country appears to be holding.

Since the downfall of dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, two opposing factions have vied to govern Libya: one headed by Fayez al-Sarraj, a former architect and leader of the UN-recognized Government of National Accord based in Tripoli, the other led by the rebel military commander Khalifa Haftar, whose Libyan National Army had, until recently, controlled much of the country. Haftar, who is based in eastern Libya, is backed by the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Russia; al-Sarraj is supported by Turkey, Qatar and Italy.

'Interests in Libya'

UN-led talks in Tunisia in November to set up a transitional government resulted in an agreement to hold elections  in December 2021. Could that mean that Libya is finally — after over six years of continuous fighting and nearly a decade of armed conflict — inching closer to peace, or at least some sort of peaceful resolution between the domestic factions and the external influences?

Unfortunately not, said Tarek Megerisi, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Affairs, who has monitored the conflict for the past decade. "From the outside, the situation in Libya never seems that bad, especially if you compare it to somewhere like Syria," he told DW. "But it is a deteriorating cycle. The Libyan crisis has this remarkable ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory."

A full-blown civil war is now unlikely, but, Megerisi said, "that doesn't mean there will be peace." Over their various meetings, the participants in the conflict have often reached more general agreements on policy, Megerisi said, "but it all breaks down when discussing operational details."

The researcher, who worked in Libya from 2012 to 2014, agrees with the UN's Williams that the presence of foreign fighters is an issue. But, Megerisi said, even more problematic are the countries that support them. Those countries "have very particular interests in Libya, which they are ring-fencing," he said. "That stops a solution being found because then it has to be about pleasing those countries. In the case of Russia, in particular, it is currently in their interests to keep the parties divided. So how do you deal with that?" he asks.

Oil Corporation's clout

Tim Eaton, a senior researcher at Chatham House and the author of a report on the evolution of Libya's war economy, isn't quite as pessimistic. In late November, Libya's National Oil Corporation announced that it would withhold funds from the sale of petrol — the country's only significant source of income — from the Central Bank until there was a political resolution to the fighting.

"The glass-half-full version is that this is a time of opportunity, to break Libya out of its status quo," Eaton said. It was always hard to find ways to motivate regional actors to settle their differences. "Will this combination of an emergency and the political process provide an opportunity to shift the needle a bit?" he asked.

On the other hand, Eaton said, the looming financial emergency could also cause Libyans who feel that their interests are threatened to become more unwilling to come together. And, Eaton said, this isn't just about the money: There are clearly the competing international interests to consider, as well as the fact that the National Oil Corporation is currently holding the country's leadership to ransom.

"This moment we are at now — where a national corporation is trying to move the political process forward — shows the extent of the dysfunction in the system," Eaton said. "The checks and balances that did exist in Libya have really eroded now. That's the result of long-term fragmentation. So I think it is unclear where we are going at the moment."

Cathrin Schaer Author for the Middle East desk.