How to stop Libya's collapse
This op-ed was originally published by Foreign Affairs on January 7, 2020.
In April 2019, Khalifa Haftar, the militia commander whose forces control much of eastern Libya, began an assault on the capital, Tripoli, in an effort to topple the country’s internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA). But instead of a swift, decisive victory establishing Haftar as Libya’s undisputed leader, the offensive resulted in a stalemate. Militias from across western Libya came together to repel Haftar, slowly pushing his forces back into the southern outskirts of the capital. For the next six months, the fighting ground on like this, with drone strikes, artillery barrages, and mortar fire creating a humanitarian crisis but no clear advantage for either side.
"Instead of a swift, decisive victory establishing Haftar as Libya’s undisputed leader, the offensive resulted in a stalemate."
Then, in September, hundreds of Russian mercenaries arrived to support Haftar and shifted the battlefield momentum in his direction. Since 2015, Moscow has been gradually ramping up its engagement in Libya, where it sees economic opportunities and a chance to expand its influence at the expense of Western powers. It now supplies Haftar’s forces with antitank missiles and laser-guided artillery and supports them with paramilitary fighters from the Wagner Group, a shadowy military contractor that does the Kremlin’s bidding in a growing list of countries in Africa and the Middle East. Buoyed by the Russians’ tactical expertise, Haftar’s forces are now making slow territorial gains in the capital—and pushing the war into a new and more dangerous phase.
In the eight years since NATO intervened and helped to overthrow the dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi, Libya has attracted increasing foreign interference. In addition to Russia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and even France have all thrown their support behind Haftar, providing a mix of financial, diplomatic, and military aid. Turkey, meanwhile, has sent arms to the GNA, which is recognized—officially, at least—by the United States and other Western powers. In practice, the United States has avoided pursuing a clear Libya policy and tacitly supported Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli.
"Although Haftar bills himself as a stabilizing force to his backers and to the United States, a victory by his forces in Tripoli will only spur a new round of conflict."
The sudden influx of Russian fighters has refocused Washington’s attention on the neglected Libyan conflict, but so far it hasn’t elicited a meaningful policy shift. That needs to change. Although Haftar bills himself as a stabilizing force to his backers and to the United States, a victory by his forces in Tripoli will only spur a new round of conflict. The commander has vowed to crush Islamists and any form of political opposition, and his advance will trigger a prolonged insurgency by armed groups and towns that oppose his authoritarian vision.
More robust U.S. diplomacy is urgently needed in Libya, not just to halt Haftar’s destructive campaign but to salvage U.S. credibility in a region marked by multipolarity and increasing defiance of the West. The United States should engage more forcefully with the intervening countries, using a mix of private diplomacy and public censure. In addition, it should support a resolution for a cease-fire at the UN Security Council while at the same time working with Libyan officials and multinational actors such as the World Bank to address the economic grievances that fuel the fighting on the ground. Only by clearing the battlefield of foreign meddlers—including the UAE, Turkey, and Russia—and providing the space for economic recovery can the United States reverse Libya’s dangerous slide toward disintegration.