Competing interests in Libya
As in 2011, when NATO launched its ill-fated intervention in Libya, it appears that the North African country has once again become a battleground for competing Western and regional interests.
Following the takeover of several of Libya’s main oil ports by strongman Khalifa Haftar, a number of Western and regional powers, including Italy, France, Britain, the United States and Egypt, issued a joint communiqué affirming “solidarity with the Libyan people”.
While such key international players regularly pay lip service to a Libyan-led peace process that preserves the unity and sovereignty of the country, on the ground those players seem to be doing little to support the Libyan people. Rather, it appears unlikely that foreign powers will place Libyans’ interest above their own.
For Italy, stabilisation of Libya is key, given the significant threat of migration and potential spillover of terrorism into Europe. For that reason, Italy has sought to stem the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) in its former colony. However, while Italy has allowed armed American drones to fly out of its Sigonella Naval Air Station to conduct operations against ISIS, it has refrained from committing more fully to rooting out the terror group.
Italy has endorsed the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Fayez al-Sarraj but key Italian officials have spoken of the need to “go forward in seeking an agreement with… General Haftar”. He leads the Libyan National Army (LNA) and is behind the House of Representatives’ (HoR) refusal to endorse the GNA. By expressing willingness to engage with Haftar, Italy, like many foreign powers operating in Libya, seems to be hedging its bets.
France, another major Western power supporting Sarraj and the GNA, has sent special forces to Benghazi to support Haftar’s LNA. Although French forces have withdrawn from Benghazi, security sources did not rule out their return. There have been reports that British forces joined those of France in supporting Haftar in Benghazi. Like France, Britain seems willing to play both sides by officially supporting the GNA while lending backing to Haftar to ensure that its influence is strategically well placed.
The United States, while wary of taking military action in Libya, has been more active in seeking to establish security in the country. In August, the United States began air strikes against ISIS in Sirte in response to a formal request from Sarraj’s government. This move signalled US commitment to the Libyan forces fighting ISIS in Sirte; however, it remains to be seen what role the United States will play following the operation to stabilise the city.
The rivalry between the inhabitants of Sirte and the forces of Misrata, who have been leading the charge against ISIS in the city, makes it impossible for the Misratan fighters to maintain a military presence there after ISIS is ousted.
Should the next US administration want to avoid the mistake made in 2011 by failing to ensure post-conflict stabilisation, the United States will need to stay engaged in Libya beyond the immediate goal of defeating ISIS in the country.
Egypt has a significant stake in the outcome in Libya, given the two countries’ shared border and the threat of ISIS. Egypt’s support for Haftar is rooted in his anti- Islamist campaign and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has repeatedly expressed support for the HoR as the government of the Libyan people and lauded Haftar and the LNA. Still, Egypt continues to join the international community in rhetorically recognising the GNA as the sole legitimate government of Libya.
Western actors seem willing to dismiss this contradiction; Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni recently stated that “Egypt has always said that it supports the UN-driven stabilisation process and that it supports Sarraj’s government”, a comment that seems naïve at best.
Amid this manoeuvring, the recent joint communiqué seems like a farce. The statement refers to the GNA as “the sole legitimate recipient of international security assistance” and urges Libyans to “decide their own future without foreign interference”. UN Special Representative for Libya Martin Kobler continues to call for a “unity of approach” among the wider international community towards the country. In the current environment, there appears to be little unity among the international actors engaged in Libya. The GNA continues to struggle amid a lack of credibility on the ground while international actors violate their own rhetoric regarding the body’s legitimacy and sovereignty.
Libyans are in need of stability and security. However, when international players act out of their self-interests and engage through proxies, the interests of ordinary Libyans are swept aside. The restoration of public law and order would not only benefit Libyans, it would benefit the international players intervening in Libya.
However, until long-term stabilisation efforts are elevated over short-term, self-interested actions, Libyans will continue to suffer.