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The global competition over Libya spreads to Moscow and Beijing

Umberto Profazio
By Umberto Profazio

Libya analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies

Posted on Tuesday, 10 September 2019 15:35, updated on Tuesday, 8 October 2019 14:46

French President Emmanuel Macron (R) speaks with Libya's UN-recognised Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj (L) during late Tunisian president Beji Caid Essebsi's state funeral at the presidential palace in the Tunisian capital's eastern suburb of Carthage, Tunisia July 27, 2019. Fethi Belaid/Pool via REUTERS

On 26 August 2019, the G7 meeting in Biarritz, France, produced a common declaration on the world’s most pressing issues.

The leaders of the largest and most advanced economies specifically mentioned the conflict in Libya.

  • They called for a truce to pave the way for a ceasefire, as the premise for a political solution.
  • The G7 also called for an international conference on Libya, backing the efforts of the UN and the African Union (AU) to arrange an intra-Libyan meeting to reconcile the conflict among rival factions.

Considering the increasing number of regional and international powers involved in the conflict, the call for an international conference is hardly surprising.

The most recent attempts to negotiate an acceptable solution have been unsuccessful so far.

While much attention has been given to the overt interventions of the main regional players, showcased by the constant delivery of drones, armoured vehicles, and sophisticated anti-tank missiles, some global powers are silently preparing the ground to exercise decisive influence over Libya’s future.

The collapse of the Libyan state following the revolution favoured external interventions.

This intensified as a rift emerged in the region after Egypt’s military coup.

  • Unable to maintain its monopoly over the use of force, Libya’s weak central institutions were further undermined by two more conflicts, namely Operation Karama (Dignity) and Operation Fajr (Dawn) in 2014. Launched by General Khalifa Haftar, Operation Karama was supported by regional powers that were looking to restore their prestige (eg. Egypt) or assertive regional actors trying to impose their agenda (eg. the United Arab Emirates – UAE).
  • Both Abu Dhabi and Cairo share the fight against ‘political Islam’, which is seen as a fundamental threat to the legitimacy of hereditary monarchies in the Gulf, and Egypt. Banning the Muslim Brotherhood in both Egypt and the Gulf represents a turning point. It marks a regional watershed for the counter-revolutionary front, comprising Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and the pro-Islamist powers of Qatar and Turkey.

The 2014 conflict in Libya perfectly reflects this regional divide. The lack of rule of law, the fragmented process, and the looming terrorist threat, allowed regional powers to turn Libya into their battleground.

This exacerbated the political, social and ethnic tensions, deepening the country’s polarization. International efforts to heal the fracture resulted in the Skhirat agreement, which in 2015 led to the establishment of a Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Fayez al-Sarraj.

Lacking internal legitimacy and forced to rely on powerful militias in Tripoli, the GNA was the result of a collaboration between the US and Italy.

It was warmly welcomed by Libya’s neighbours, Algeria and Tunisia. They were worried that Libya could threaten stability in the region, and diffident towards General Haftar who was backed by Egypt.

However, since the inauguration of the US President Donald Trump and the election of Emmanuel Macron in France, the geopolitical dynamics have drastically changed.

  • Washington has progressively pulled away from Libyan politics, focusing exclusively on the fight against terrorism. America’s disengagement and Italy’s isolation has led to the French administration taking the lead in the negotiations.
  • France has arranged two major events (the meeting between Sarraj and Haftar at La Celle Saint Claude, near Paris, in July 2017 and the International Conference on Libya in the French capital in May 2018).

Both events have given international legitimacy to Haftar and irreparably altered the balance of power in Libya. At the same time, the appointment of the UN envoy Ghassan Salamé perfectly reflects these new dynamics. His UN Action Plan, pushing Libya to an election, was accommodating towards Haftar, and surprisingly open to the former officers of the Gadhafi regime.

Interestingly, in the same year, the Gulf crisis had deep reverberations across Libya.

It progressively reduced the legitimacy of the Islamist factions, while confirming the regional divide. At the same time, the rehabilitation of officers of the former regime proceeded. Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, groomed as successor by late dictator Muammar Gadhafi, was allegedly released by Zintan militias in June that year.

The release of Saif al-Islam added a new variable to the game. He appeared to be interested in running for the upcoming presidential elections, despite an uncertain support base. When he called on relevant constituencies to mobilise in his favour, it backfired.

As the UN Action Plan collapsed on 4 April 2019, the third phase of the civil war in Libya was officially inaugurated with the launch of Operation “Flood of Dignity” by the LNA. The offensive was anticipated by General Haftar who pushed southwards in January-February 2019.

The move coincided with upcoming elections in Algeria and Tunisia.

The internal convulsions among Libya’s western neighbours favoured Haftar’s moves. Haftar’s attack on Tripoli occurred two days after Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika resigned. Haftar has previously accused Algeria’s military of infiltrating Libyan territory.

Despite multiple reports highlighting the role of regional players in supporting their Libyan proxies, the diplomatic moves of two major powers have gone unnoticed. They could create relevant consequences to support Libya’s future, and restore the balance of power in the region.

Russia has established excellent relations with Haftar and the LNA. It shielded the General from international criticism, providing a diplomatic cover at the UN for his actions.

  • At the same time, Moscow publicly backed a ceasefire deal, implicitly condemning the offensive, while expressing support for a political solution.

Russia’s public diplomacy is driven by the lucrative economic deals agreed in the past years with the GNA, in particular in the oil sector. This ambiguity allows Moscow to advance its influence in the region. It has a traditional partnership with Algeria, and growing economic and military ties with Egypt.

Russia is also exploring other options. For example, two Russian nationals were arrested in July 2019 for allegedly attempting to influence the upcoming elections. Reports suggest that before their arrest, they would have been in contact with Saif al-Islam, who also sent emissaries to Moscow to lobby for his presidential aspirations.

The other major player, acting from the shadows, is China. It’s strengthening its bilateral relations with Libya, in particular in the oil and gas sector.

  • On 25 July, a high-profile delegation from the Libyan National Oil Corporation (NOC) visited China to hold talks with the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC). The meeting is part of China’s strategy of expanding its influence in the Mediterranean Sea. Chinese officials want to buy Libyan crude oil, and collaborate on the exploration and development of Libya’s oilfields and its services.
  • Libya has expressed an interest in China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The GNA Foreign Minister Mohamed Taher Siala has already signed an MoU with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Beijing in July 2018.

Moscow and Beijing had economic interests in Libya before 2011. They were caught on the wrong foot during the fall of the Gadhafi regime. They have also attempted to recover their positions.

As regional powers continue to meddle in Libya’s internal affairs, producing devastating consequences for the country’s social fabric, only China and Russia seem to have a long-term vision of advancing their interests.

Moscow won’t be putting all its eggs in one basket, but it will be ready to reap the rewards when the time comes.

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