Libya in Geopolitics

An excerpt from the Cambridge Middle East and North Africa Forum’s upcoming research project on “A Democratic Solution for Libya”.

International intervention is a defining feature of Libyan politics. Since the inception of the Libyan Civil War, international actors have gradually ramped up their involvement in the conflict. Foreign intervention in Libya has grown exponentially in the last five years. Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, France, and Turkey view Libya as a core national security issue, and for Russia, Libya’s power vacuum is a unique opportunity to acquire leverage over both Turkey and NATO and to further build its regional clout. Other players, including Italy, Spain, Morocco, Algeria, and the United Kingdom, also have a stake in Libya. Because of these overriding national interests, attempts by the United Nations to diminish international involvement in Libya have been uniformly futile.

Since its beginning, international actors have shaped the course of the Libyan Civil War.


Since its beginning, international actors have shaped the course of the Libyan Civil War. The downfall of Muammar Qaddafi was enabled by British, French, and American airstrikes in 2011. During the ‘Second Libyan Civil War’, the UAE allegedly outfitted the LNA with more than $200 million in aid
[i] and Turkey trained GNA forces. The rout of the LNA’s advance in Western Libya in June 2020 was the direct result of Turkish military intervention in February. The positions of regional actors in particular have changed little. For key regional players, Libya policy is determined through their own perceptions of the risks posed by alternative outcomes in Libya. For Egypt and the Gulf states, and for the UAE in particular, the need to intervene in Libya is driven by a fear of Islamism and the expansion of Turkish influence. For Turkey, a key driver is preventing Russian influence, and securing its own sphere of influence, in the Eastern Mediterranean. The net effect of international intervention has been the paralysis of Libya’s state-building process and a moribund democratic transition.

France

France suffered three major attacks in a short period of time: the Charlie Hebdo attack in January 2015, the Paris November 2015 attacks, and a brutal attack in Nice in July 2016. These events turbocharged an extant French fear of Islamism and drove France into an ideational condominium with the UAE. France is now the most active European country in the Middle East. France’s chief priority is, like the UAE, to counter the presence of its regional rival Turkey and to stem migrant flows from Libya that undermine the political stability of the European Union. As a result, France has been a major backer of the LNA along with the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The LNA has been found using French weapons systems,[ii] and French special forces soldiers died in Libya in support of the LNA.[iii]

The EU

The key priority for the European Union is stemming the tide of migration from Libya and further afield in the Middle East and Africa. The question of migration has critical implications for political cohesion within the Union and is a headline item for the Union’s counter-terrorism strategy. The Libyan Civil War broke out during a wave of terrorist attacks which shook many European countries; Within a NATO context, another key headline issue is preventing Russia from gaining a foothold to the south of the Union.

The EU has undertaken some effort to try and exert an impact on the ground. Operation EUNAVFOR MED IRINI[iv], launched in March 2020, has attempted to prevent violations of the UN-mandated arms embargo, having received a mandate from UN Security Council Resolution 2292.[v] Other European operations, EUBAM and EUNAVFOR MED Sophia, aimed to reduce the number of migrants reaching Europe’s shores. Alongside these operations, the EU has allocated several million Euros to try and stem Libyan migration, namely via the EU Trust Fund for Africa, and the EU Neighbourhood Instrument.[vi][vii] But because of internal divisions within the European Union, the bloc has not been able to effectively intervene in Libya or to exert a significant influence.

The United Kingdom

While the United Kingdom was considered a key actor in Libya in 2011 and 2012, its influence has considerably declined over time. While the UK was instrumental in establishing the no-fly zone in March 2011, its core contribution to stabilisation in the aftermath of Qaddafi’s fall came in the form of training Libyan cadets, which ended in 2014. No experts or officials view the UK as an important player in Libya today. Like other European states, the key priority of the United Kingdom in Libya is reducing migration flows and ensuring that Turkey and Russia do not acquire the ability to effect migration crises in Europe. Within a NATO context, the United Kingdom also has an interest in preventing the development of a Russian stronghold in Eastern Libya, which could affect European and NATO access in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The United States

The U.S. have also engaged at various degrees throughout Libya’s post-revolutionary history. While the United States took a leading role in effecting NATO intervention in Libya in 2011, the murder of United States Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens in 2012 caused the United States to distance itself from the Libyan question. While a significant amount of State Department and USAID funding is attributed to Libya, and while several American development organisations offer development programmes within Libya, overall American engagement at the political level has been limited, at times resulting in unclear policy. The overall rationale of America’s Libya policy began to change during the Trump administration, shifting from counterterrorism to great power competition. As a result, the United States has placed a wider policy focus on Russian and Turkish activity in Libya and has paid less attention to national-level political and military struggles involving local belligerents. In view of Russia’s growing role in Libya, the U.S. has started describing its priorities in the country as countering the “three Ms”–Money, Militias, and the Muslim Brotherhood.[viii]

 [i] Zenith. How people in Tripoli experience the battle for Libya’s Capital. June 21, 2019. https://magazine.zenith.me/en/politics/war-libya-and-battle-tripoli
[ii]  https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/04/21/libyan-civil-war-france-uae-khalifa-haftar/
[iii]  https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/french-special-forces-deaths-libya-illustrate-wests-difficult-position
[iv] The mission’s mandate document is available here: http://data.consilium.europa.eu/doc/document/ST-6414-2020-INIT/en/pdf
[v] The resolution can be accessed here: https://undocs.org/en/S/RES/2292(2016) It must be noted that the resolution grants IRINI the authority to inspect vessels in high seas if suspected to be carrying weapons to Libya, however IRINI’s mandate document also specifies, in article 7, that such authority doesn’t cover vessels entitled to “sovereign immunity” – a notion defined vaguely enough to hinder the mission’s practical impact.
[vi] More information on the ENI, including its six main targets, is available here: https://euneighbours.eu/en/policy#targets
[vii] Programmatic examples linked here amount to a total of 126.3 million Euros over three years: https://ec.europa.eu/trustfundforafrica/sites/euetfa/files/t05-eutf-hoa-reg-78_-_bmm_ii_ocnhpwq.pdf & https://ec.europa.eu/trustfundforafrica/sites/euetfa/files/t05-eutf-noa-ly-04_fin.pdf & https://ec.europa.eu/trustfundforafrica/sites/euetfa/files/t05-eutf-noa-ly-07.pdf
[viii] This was mentioned by Ambassador Richard Norland, and is available in the following telephone special briefing transcript, dated 4th June 2020: https://www.state.gov/special-briefing-via-telephone-with-richard-norland-u-s-ambassador-to-libya/#.XtlH-ozQnFg.twitter

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2 July 2022

“Economics and Rebuilding in the Middle East and North Africa” showcases articles about the various ways of conceiving the region’s economies as well as reconstruction.