Foreign intervention has been a major problem for Libya because not all the foreign supporters agree on what a united Libya should be like and are unwilling to withdraw unless their local faction prevails.
Russia and several Arab nations have been involved in the Libyan civil war since 2015. Russia joined Egypt and some other Arab states in backing the LNA (Libyan National Army) that had the support of most Libyans because of LNA efforts to suppress Islamic terrorism and restore order to the country. Neighboring Egypt was the first to witness the effectiveness of the LNA approach as Islamic terrorist activity and weapons smuggling declined as the LNA operations increased in eastern Libya. Egypt already had contacts with some Libyan tribes there and there were also a lot of Egyptians who still had jobs in Libya, mainly to support oil production. The news was enough to get other Arab nations as well as Russia and some Western nations willing to quietly support the LNA, which meant these nations could send some of their special operations troops in to get a better look from a ground level up-front-and-personal look at the situation.
That worked until Turkey intervened in 2019 to support the unpopular, but UN-backed, GNA (Government of National Accord) opposition. Now the major obstacles to peace in Libya are the continued presence of Turkish and Russian forces.
The arrival of the Turks created a stalemate. Despite that Turkey agreed to withdraw in order to allow elections to be held. Since the Turks arrived under false pretenses, Russia refused to withdraw until the Turks did. This was unacceptable to the Turks and the GNA. Yet the Turks, Russians, GNA and LNA eventually agreed to withdraw their forces as part of a late 2020 ceasefire/national unification plan. This agreement called for national elections to be held by the end of 2021. Both major factions and the UN agreed to the formation of a temporary GNU (Government of National Unity) to deal with the details, like persuading the Russians and Turks to remove their troops, which would allow the GNU to access the entire country for voter registration and establishing voting locations.
Both Russians and Turks see a unified Libyan government as a potential customer for exports, including existing Russian participation in expanding Libyan oil production and Turkish offshore natural gas field development. Before the Turks arrived in 2019, Russia planned to withdraw most of its forces once the HOR (House of Representatives) LNA forces had taken Tripoli, the last stronghold of Islamic militias supporting the GNA. The Turkish presence in Libya has been a major source of Arab, European and Russian hostility towards Turkey.
The Turks had been trying to expand their influence in the Arab world since 2003, when an Islamic government took power in Turkey. Recep Erdogan was and still is the Turkish leader responsible for creating a Turkish Islamic party that got elected on the promise of reducing corruption in Turkey. Erdogan did that for a while before becoming quite corrupt himself. That turned many Turks against their Islamic government and they now threaten to vote Erdogan and his Islamic party out of office. In 2016 Erdogan sought to regain his popularity by invading Syria to establish an area where he planned to move millions of unpopular (with most Turks) Syrian refugees out of Turkey. The EU (European Union) states are threatening sanctions and other economic retaliation over what the Turks are doing in Syria.
The UN is now having an even more difficult time justifying the Turkish military presence in Libya since 2019. Arab hostility to the Turks helps the LNA and hurts the GNA. Erdogan proclaims Turkey the savior of Libya but the UN, along with West and Arabs, consider the Turkish intervention illegal as do the major donor nations like the Americans and Arab Gulf states. Turks in Libya are seen as especially disruptive to Libyan unification efforts.
Erdogan underestimated Arab hostility towards the this new Turkish presence in Libya and the importance of Arab memories of past Turkish treatment of Libya.
The Turks first showed up there in the 1550s as the Ottoman Empire conquered the coastal towns and cities of what is now Libya. Eventually the Turks advanced inland but there was no real incentive to because south of the coast it was mainly desert and, before oil was discovered and developed in the 1960s, there was little of economic value down there. Empires have bills to pay and tend to keep their soldiers where the money is. Arabs believe the Turks are back for more plunder.
From the 1550s to 1910 Libya was technically a province of the Ottoman Empire. In reality Libya was mainly run by local strongmen who were often Turks gone native. In 1911 Italy took advantage of the Turks’ weak control and invaded.
By 1912 Italy controlled what is now Libya. The Italians sent in colonists and brought the industrial revolution to Libya. Italian rule ended in 1943 when Italy, an ally of Germany during World War II (1939-45), surrendered to the allies. Occupied by allied troops, Libya was given independence in 1951 as a constitutional monarchy. The royal family was led by a prominent local religious leader who became king. Its parliament demonstrated the political divides between eastern and western coastal Libya and the less populous tribal interior. The discovery and development of oil fields down south in the 1960s brought unprecedented wealth and prosperity to Libya. It also brought a military takeover in 1969. This coup was led by Captain Kaddafi, an ambitious communications officer who organized other ambitious young officers into a movement that deposed the king and proceeded to misrule Libya until 2011 when he was overthrown and killed.
The Turks had good relations with the Libyan monarchy but initially less stable and cordial relations with Kaddafi. It took nearly a decade of effort for the Turks to gain the support of Kaddafi. The Turks were a member of NATO and many NATO nations lost billions of dollars in assets when Kaddafi seized foreign assets to support his revolutionary ideas, which included a merger with Egypt. This was rejected by Egypt and throughout the 1970s Egypt sought an opportunity to invade and annex Libya. The Turks were useful in helping convince the Egyptians to back off. Even more convincing was the Egyptian defeat in the 1973 war with Israel which eventually led to peace with Israel and military aid from the United States to guarantee that Libya would never be a threat.
Libyans took note of who supported the Kaddafi dictatorship and the Turks were on that list. The Turks returned in 2019 because the GNA was about to be eliminated in the civil war that came after Kaddafi was overthrown. The GNA had the backing of Islamic militias, which were seen as a major reason for the internal chaos since 2011. Kaddafi had also favored Islamic radicals and gave sanctuary to some Islamic terrorist groups. Kaddafi was also friendly with the religious dictatorship that took over in Iran during the 1980s. In short, Kaddafi and the Turks represented a past that was not popular with most Libyans, who have learned to fear the chaotic and unpredictable militias and their foreign allies.
UN peacekeeping efforts in Libya ignored the importance of suppressing the Islamic militias as well as the Islamic terrorists there. The Islamic militias were a major threat to the establishment of a democracy in Libya, while most Libyans backed a national election to settle the matter. This was not acceptable to many of the Islamic militias, who refused to disarm. The UN solution was to back the formation of the GNA and its policy of cooperating with Islamic militias to gain control of the two major cities (the capital Tripoli and neighboring Misrata). What the UN did not take seriously was that most Libyans saw the Islamic militias and Islamic terrorists as the major obstacle to peace and unity. To make matters worse the creation of the GNA required that the previous HoR government, which was unacceptable to the Islamic militias, disband. The HoR refused, moved to the eastern city of Tripoli and its military force, the LNA, continued pacifying Libya by disbanding or destroying militias along with the Islamic terrorist groups that had found sanctuary before or since 2011.
The LNA was created and led by Khalifa Haftar, an elderly former Kaddafi officer who fled Libya. By 2019 Haftar had the support of most Libyans along with Russia, most Arab states, especially Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE), and the United States as well. The UN opposes Haftar, as does ISIL, the Moslem Brotherhood and pro-brotherhood nations like Turkey, Qatar and Iran. The main argument against Haftar is that he could turn into another dictator like Kaddafi. Haftar was an early supporter of Kaddafi and a colonel in the Libyan army when, in the late 1980s, he and Kaddafi became enemies and Haftar was declared a traitor. Haftar got support from the CIA to form an opposition force (the first LNA) but no African nations were willing to host it for long and by 1990 Haftar was living in the U.S. and seeking citizenship. Haftar became a U.S. citizen and spent 20 years living in the West before returning to Libya after Kaddafi was overthrown.
By 2014 he realized that Islamic terror groups and independent militias were preventing the formation of a new government. His solution was to form the LNA in the east (Benghazi) and take on all the warring factions, especially the Islamic terror groups. Five years later the LNA, the only organized military force in Libya, was closing in on the last concentrations of militias in Tripoli and Misrata. At that point the GNA found Turkey was willing to provide military aid if the GNA illegally signed agreements with Turkey to create a military alliance which included Turkey sending troops to prevent the LNA from taking Tripoli and ending GNA operations in Libya. The UN protested this action, as did other NATO nations and all the countries supporting LNA unification efforts in Libya. The Turks ignored the protests and tried to use diplomacy and lots of “we are here to help” propaganda to prevent the situation from getting worse back home.
It is getting worse for Erdogan in Turkey where he is getting closer to losing the next national election in 2023. Erdogan realizes he has to succeed in Libya because withdrawing would also hurt his reelection prospects. At the same time, the longer the Turks remain in Libya the greater the Libyan and international pressure for them to get out. Turkish media, now largely controlled by Erdogan, pushes the image of Libyans unable to agree on unification because of issues that have nothing to do with Turkey, which has brought peace to Libya. The Turks also push the idea that Haftar was not an opponent of Kaddafi, but a rival and now wants to take over and rule like Kaddafi. Few Libyans agree with that because the LNA has been successful by undoing a lot of the disunity Kaddafi used to rule Libya for decades. Outsiders, even the Turks, don’t seem to realize how important that is to most Libyans.
Russia and Turkey both believe that expensive foreign military operations, like the ones in Syria and Libya will eventually pay for themselves by generating more exports and lucrative foreign deals. So far, this strategy has been running at a loss and the situations in Syria and Libya still have uncertain outcomes for Russia. It’s different with Turkey, which has created more local and international opposition because of their Syrian and Libyan operations. Their intervention in Libya caused more problems with existing allies in NATO and the Arab world.
In Syria, Russia and Turkey are supposed to be Iranian allies but are less frequently acting the part. Russia sent forces to Syria in 2015 to help preserve its old Cold War era ally the Assads. This was done for the benefit of Russia, not Syria, Iran or Turkey. Russia was the second foreign power to come to the aid of the Assads. Since 2012 Iran has been helping keep their old Shia ally, the Assads, in power. Iran had more ambitious goals, as in increasing its threat against Israel once the rebels were defeated. A year after the Russians showed up, the Turks sent in troops, but used locally recruited Syrian mercenaries to do most of the fighting and dying. The Turks used the same mercenaries in Libya, where the Russians are the enemy rather than an ally. The Russian intervention is seen as more productive than hostile. The Turks are seen as unwelcome invaders by most Libyans but all the countries, including Iran, aiding one faction of another in Libya sees an economic benefit if their faction wins.
Some foreigners fear that Russia and Turkey will make a secret deal to control Libya and its resources. That idea does not have much credibility in Libya or the Arab world because the Russians already have good relations, and lots of legal deals with Arab governments. Turkey does not and is further tainted by its close ties with Iran. Russia also tries to maintain good relations with Iran but is not considered an “enemy of the Arabs” like Iran and Turkey.
October 22, 2021: The GNU held a unification conference in Tripoli, where a lot of foreign journalists and diplomats could see for themselves how dismal the prospects were for the elections being held on schedule (December 24, 2021). The foreign officials included representatives from the UN, European Union, the Arab League, the African Union, Algeria, Bahrain, Britain, Chad, China, Congo, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Kuwait, Malta, Morocco, Netherlands, Niger, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Sudan, Switzerland, Tunisia, Turkey, UAE and the United States. Iran’s interests were overseen by Qatar, which often cooperates with Iran, if only to maintain good relationships with a nation that considers itself at war with the oil-rich nations of the Arabian Peninsula. Iran sees the stalemate in Libya as potentially beneficial because the civil war is probably going to resume. That may be delayed by the GNU prime minister Dbeibah, who has already suggested that extending the life of the GNU might be the best possible option. Dbeibah, like most Libyans, understands the Turks will disappear if Turkish leader Erdogan is removed from office by the Turkish voters in 2023. An earlier solution would be major pressure by the UN and NATO on Turkey and Erdogan in particular. During the conference Arab officials, especially those from Egypt and the major Arab oil states, were seen conferring with EU and NATO members. There seemed to be general agreement that Turkey had to go and that Russia and Arab states with personnel in Libya were willing to follow as soon as the Turks and their mercenaries were gone.
October 9, 2021: In Tripoli fighting broke out between local militias who supported different ministries of the GNU. The Defense and Interior Ministries are both involved with restoring peace, especially in Tripoli. The Defense Ministry controls soldiers while the Interior Ministry controls police. Both ministries have few security personnel and both ministries are led by officials who have the support of different Islamic militias. The current fighting is all about Interior Ministry forces arresting four notorious gangsters who had links to a powerful militia that demanded the four men be released. The Interior Ministry refused and militias loyal to Defense Ministry officials fired on each other most of the day. There was no official comment on what this was all about and the four gangsters were apparently released with the understanding that they would stop selling liquor on the road to the Tripoli airport and find a less visible hustle to pursue.
October 1, 2021: It’s been over a year since there has been any serious fighting in Libya. There are deaths, mainly the result of illegal migrants from the south or from the east (Middle East and Afghanistan) who are willing to take risks to pass through Libya on their way to Europe. The illegals die when the overloaded boats the smugglers use sink or capsize before reaching an EU country. A more recent phenomenon is illegals arrested before they can reach a port controlled by a smuggling gang and put in prison until they agree to return, via free road or air transport paid for by EU nations. EU nations had unofficial agreements like this with Kaddafi and many other Moslem nations that were willing to stop the illegals, for a price. Libyan’s support blocking the illegals but because of the civil war and continued lack of policing in some parts of the country, the people smugglers can still find someone to bribe and let them pass. The smuggling gangs in Africa and Europe have turned these illegal migrant problems into a profitable business, bringing in over a billion dollars a year.
There are still some violent deaths related to the civil war, most of them the result of Islamic terrorist attacks, assassinations for political or personal reasons as well as tribal/ethnic feuds that will not wait for the promised new legal system to deal with such matters in courts. Most of the deaths from criminal activity take place off the northern coast where smuggling gangs operating in GNA territory make most of their money from illegal migrants seeking passage to Europe. A functioning national government would shut down most of the smuggling, as had been the case before 2011. Meanwhile the boats and methods used by the smugglers often result in many of the migrants being lost at sea. The LNA has been arbitrating and resolving as many of the feuds as possible and is the only one doing this the UN sees an opportunity to build on that. The LNA had shut down the people smugglers in areas it controlled and most of the smugglers ended up in areas near Tripoli where local militias were still willing to do business.