The Gulf crisis is complicating the state of play in Libya
The diplomatic crisis in the Gulf is complicating the state of play in Libya. The rift between Qatar and a Saudi-led bloc threatens to harden opposing factions that are engaged in a worsening proxy conflict.
The outcome of the Gulf dispute will have major implications for the Libyan crisis, as the country has become an arena for competing regional and international interests.
I released a report with Karim Mezran at the Atlantic Council titled, “Libya: From Intervention to Proxy War,” which examines how regional and international actors have driven the conflict in Libya by pursuing competing self-interests. The Gulf rift demonstrates the effect of regional conflict in exacerbating and prolonging instability in Libya.
Libya’s UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, has struggled to impose its authority throughout Libya, to say nothing of its precarious hold on the capital of Tripoli. The GNA has secured recent successes, most importantly a surge in oil production to more than 1 million barrels per day. While maintaining that level of production is not certain, this is an important symbolic victory for the GNA and Libya’s severely weakened economy.
Sarraj also released a road map for Libya to end the conflict and have parliamentary and presidential elections in March 2018. It remains unclear whether the road map can be achieved but it is an important move by Sarraj and should be recognised as such by the international community.
However, the Gulf crisis threatens to disrupt the GNA’s progress and prevent Sarraj from initiating the proposed road map. While both the Saudi-led bloc — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt — and Qatar formally recognise the Libyan Political Agreement that established the GNA, the two sides’ support for opposing Libyan factions threatens to eclipse the GNA and further curtail its authority.
Qatar has lent support to a competing rump government led by former Libyan Prime Minister Khalifa Ghweil and pro-Islamist forces in the country. The UAE and Egypt have been critical supporters of eastern strongman Khalifa Haftar, who opposes the GNA and has led a self-styled battle against Islamists primarily in eastern Libya.
Haftar has declared victory against Islamist forces in Benghazi and reports circulated that suggest his Libyan National Army is planning alliances with factions in Tripoli and will move towards the capital.
Haftar may be emboldened by the way the rift in the Gulf has played out. The Saudi-bloc likely anticipated a quick capitulation by Qatar in the face of heavy sanctions. However, Doha has staunchly refused to acquiesce.
As the crisis worsens — it has expanded as Qatar deepens ties with Turkey and Iran — Haftar could seek to move on Tripoli to push forward the anti-Islamist campaign in Libya and gain further support from the UAE and Egypt. An attempt by Haftar to take Tripoli would be disastrous and would plunge Libya into perpetual instability.
US diplomatic efforts have proven ineffective at resolving the Gulf crisis. Mixed messages from the Trump administration contributed to hardening the stances of the two camps.
In his initial rhetoric following the split, US President Donald Trump expressed support for Saudi and Emirati accusations levelled against Qatar for funding terrorism. Weeks later, after his failed bout of shuttle diplomacy, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson publicly signed a memorandum of understanding with Qatar aimed at countering terrorist financing. The optics of the Trump administration’s engagement in the conflict certainly appear to be doing little to ease the tension between the Saudi-led bloc and Doha.
Yet strong, responsible and consistent US leadership is more important now than ever considering the Gulf conflict and its effect on the Middle East and North Africa.
As Mezran and I explain in the Atlantic Council report, the United States is the only country capable of leveraging sufficient diplomatic weight to bring regional and international actors engaged in Libya and their proxies to the negotiating table in good faith. The stability of Libya is a crucial issue of national security for the United States and it cannot be separated from the larger context of regional developments.
Rather than address these regional conflicts at an arm’s length or in a piecemeal manner, it is critical that the United States acknowledge the significant threat that the continuation of the Gulf crisis poses to the stability of the region and Western security interests.