The catastrophe that has befallen Libya since its leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was assassinated reads like a movie script about war – except that this is real life. The country is in tatters because of the internecine warfare that has raged on since the 2011 Western intervention in Libya.
The people are dying because of the devastating effects of a populace that is bombarded with weapons from external actors. Social services such as power and healthcare have deteriorated to abysmal levels. Even if Muammar Gaddafi were to come back to life, he would be incensed with what he would see – but not incredibly surprised, because before he was killed, he saw this crisis coming. The conflict in Libya today is a manifestation of what happens when several world powers fight for oil in a country.
Gaddafi saw the proxy war that has ravaged Libya coming. He was always fearful that the West would unseat him from power so that they could dictate the future of Libya’s oil. Having this in mind, he called on his fellow countrymen to defend the sovereignty of their country. He called on his people to protect Libya from foreign invaders and their agents and fight them until the “last drop of blood.” He foresaw the calamity that was to descend on Libya because of one crucial resource that keeps the world running, which is oil.
In August 2011, just when NATO and its allies were bombing Tripoli, Gaddafi made a spirited speech as a rallying call for unity to the people of Libya. “There is a conspiracy to control Libyan oil and to control Libyan land, to colonise Libya once again. This is impossible, impossible. We will fight until the last man and last woman to defend Libya from east to west, north to south,” he said in a television broadcast.
Gaddafi’s words are not remote from the truth. Libya has now morphed into a battleground for foreign powers as they fight each other for oil through a protracted proxy war. Regional powers are also battling for geostrategic influence over Libya and the Middle East at large. The parallel governments in Libya (one in the west and another in the east) are failing to reach a political settlement as the influence of external powers (who provide both governments with arms and ammunition) is enormous.
The fate of Libya has eluded the Libyan people, and instead, this power is now in the hands of the following countries – Turkey, Qatar, Italy, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. The role of the United States, which played a gigantic role in the assassination of Gaddafi, has been reduced in light of the influence that the above-mentioned countries now have. Sirte (Gaddafi’s hometown and the gateway to Libya’s vast oilfields) has become the focus of the war. Whoever gains significant control of this city increases their chances of controlling much of Libya’s oil. And neither side is stopping.
With a proliferation of arms after Gaddafi’s overthrow and the defection of several military members to rebel forces, the country saw the renewed conflict as several armed groups sprung, seeking to control Libya’s territory. The West pushed the narrative that it was bombing Libya for purported democracy but all it did was to make Libya a country full of weapons, and that is a recipe for long-drawn wars. Chief among these groups fighting to control Libya and its riches are the Tripoli administration, which is known as the Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Tobruk administration which chose the eastern city as its camp after disputed elections.
The GNA based in Tripoli is led by Fayez al-Sarraj. The United Nations recognizes the GNA as the legitimate government of Libya and al-Sarraj as the legitimate prime minister of Libya. The Tobruk government, which is the strongest in eastern Libya, chose rebellious general Khalifa Haftar (a former army commander under Gaddafi and later one-time CIA asset) as its leader to restore its sovereignty through the Libyan National Army (LNA). The GNA was meant to be a coalition between the Tobruk government and the General National Congress (GNC) or National Salvation Government (which is Islamist).
After the Tobruk group decamped to the city of Tobruk after disputed elections, the GNC remains the sole group in the GNA and even though they are recognized by the United Nations, they have little power and control on the ground. The Islamist government of the GNC however has control over western Libya. Members of the Tobruk side question the Islamist politics of the UN-recognized GNC. Haftar’s supporters thus push the argument that they are fighting the extremism of the GNA but to many Haftar is just a bloodthirsty dictator who has his eyes set on monopolizing Libya’s oil.
And this is where the foreign powers now come in. Foreign powers have intervened in the war, choosing their sides (the GNA and the Tobruk government led by Haftar) not because of an altruistic desire to see Libya achieve peace but for their own strategic and economic interests. The GNA based in Tripoli is supported by the United Nations and some Western allies, but its major supporters are Turkey, Qatar, and to a lesser extent Italy.
The Libyan National Army, led by Haftar, is supported by Egypt, UAE, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser extent France and Jordan. These foreign powers have flooded Libya with weapons and drones, ignoring a UN arms embargo in the process. Russia has sent mercenaries to Libya in support of the Libyan National Army and the Tobruk administration. Russia recruited Sudanese men to fight alongside the LNA. Turkey sent Syrian recruits to fight on behalf of the Tripoli government.
These rival governments, supported by the above-mentioned foreign powers, are contesting for control of Libya’s oil. The foreign powers now call the shots in Libya. Even the routine audit of Libya’s revenues is now controlled by these foreign powers. These foreign powers have widely differing ideological, political, and economic interests regarding Libya. But is clear that oil is central to these divergent interests. Political initiatives to reach for a political settlement are dictated by the foreign powers, who insert conditions that serve their strategic and economic interests. In essence, the Libyans have lost control of their country due to this meddling.
One cannot throw away the context of the Arab Spring from these current maladies. The Islamist blueprint of the Tripoli government is drawn from the Muslim Brotherhood – and Turkey and Qatar are sympathetic towards the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamist politics of the Tripoli government.
Egypt, UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan view political Islam as a grave threat to their power which must be thwarted by all means. And that is why Haftar is supported by Egypt, UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan – so as to dilute political Islam, which they view as a danger to their power. Italy supports the Tripoli government because the latter assist Italy with reducing the inflow of migrants to the European country. Russia’s successes in the Syrian War have emboldened the country to increase its footprint in the Arab world, Libya included.
Much of Libya’s oil is situated within the Sirte basin, and this oil is worth billions of dollars every year. Haftar’s forces are in control of Sirte. Russian mercenaries from the private Wagner Group (linked to the Russian state) dominate much of Libya’s functioning oil fields, alongside the LNA fighters. However, since the beginning of the year, oil terminals along the Mediterranean Coast have been shut. This is because in January Haftar’s force imposed a blockade on oil exports, causing revenues to drastically fall. Daily production plunged from around 1 million barrels to just 100,000 barrels a day.
This blockade was a dent in the confidence of the Tripoli-based GNA government. The blockade severed the supply of revenue to the GNA government. These conditions have compelled the Tripoli administration to cut the salaries of civil servants. The GNA is currently obtaining its money flow from reserves inherited from the Gaddafi era. This is why Tripoli is seriously desperate and frantic to defeat Haftar and his Libyan National Army.
With the LNA controlling Sirte, Turkish authorities want Haftar and his fighters out of the Sirte basin. The Turks see the oil but cannot reach. What they are proposing is that Haftar must concede control of the Sirte basin to the GNA government so that the latter has access to cash it desperately needs. Haftar is however obstinate. He is unlikely to leave the region, which stretches from Sirte in the north to the Jufra oasis, some 300 kilometers deep in the desert. Despite his stubbornness, Haftar is no longer in control of his fate. This fate has been overtaken by his backers – Russia, UAE, and Egypt. Haftar’s choices are limited because either he goes with the compromise reached by Moscow, Abu Dhabi, and Cairo; or continue on his own renegade path. Which is simply more destruction and zero progress.
Khalifa Haftar has been wildly ambitious, and his plans to seize Tripoli prove this. Haftar was close to taking control of Tripoli through major offensives at the end of last year but Turkey came through to prevent the capital from falling into the ambit of the LNA and Tobruk government led by Haftar. Turkey declared open military intervention on behalf of the Tripoli administration and acted by sending Turkish troops, drones, air defence systems, and Syrian fighters to drive the renegade general’s forces back. Haftar was then forced to withdraw from much of western Libya. Now the GNA is moving eastward in efforts to destabilize Haftar and LNA, thus forcing the Tobruk government to cede power. But Tobruk’s foreign backers continue to offer the LNA all the support they need. Which makes it extremely difficult to arrive at a reasonable peace deal.
Egypt has since declared open military support for the LNA should Turkey continue its military support for the GNA government in Tripoli. Russian mercenaries from Wagner, backed by Moscow and Abu Dhabi, are bolstering their influence at al Jufra airbase to the south of Sirte. They have deployed at least 14 MiG-29 and Su-24 fighter jets from Syria. Wagner mercenaries have also reportedly taken control of the largest oilfield in Libya, which is El Sharara and another exporting port called Es Sider.
The conflict is much more of a deadlock. Solutions for ending the crisis involving the warring parties sharing oil revenues from the Libyan oil fields. But neither side is willing to give its assets. The Tripoli administration is adamant it will not give up the capital city, while the Tobruk government makes it clear that it will remain in control of the oil fields it has won. The foreign powers fear an open, all-out conflict with each other. Turkey does not want an open conflict with Russia. And as it stands, Haftar is in charge of the oil and oil revenue. The fact that Haftar is being viewed as an alternative to being Libya’s ruler fuels the Libyan war. It is now an unavoidable position that Haftar is a key figure in any solution that may be reached to end the crisis in Libya.
Ceasefires with the local rebel forces could be an important step regarding the de-escalation of the war in Libya today. A negotiated settlement is a remote possibility considering how entrenched foreign powers are in the war. Each foreign power has its own interests and will continue to provide arms and drones to the groups in Libya until their goals are realized. Employing the UN as the best broker for a negotiated settlement sounds a feasible idea, but the UN is increasingly being sidelined from the latest political negotiations for Libya.
Before Gaddafi was murdered, Libya enjoyed a high standard of living. When Gaddafi got into power via a revolutionary, bloodless coup in 1969, he found solace in some socialism principles. This saw him developing Libya with universal access to primary education and healthcare using oil revenues. The provision of other social services such as power was not a problem. With the war raging on, Libya has become a shadow of its former glory. The economy continues to plummet, while the provision of social services such as healthcare, education, transport, and power has sunk to the lowest levels.
Medicine shortages are the order of the day and for civilians, life is a precarious thing now. Civilians are always in the danger of being caught in the unpredictable fighting. The situation in Libya is gloomy. More than 200,000 people are internally displaced and 1.3 million need humanitarian assistance. This is what Libya has become. All because Western powers decided that they had to meddle with the sovereignty of a country through military action in order to restore democracy (the irony is striking, to say the least).
It seems Gaddafi’s prophecy is turning true. Libya is being colonized again because of its oil and the fate of the innocent Libyan people is no longer in their hands. Would Gaddafi even recognize Libya today? With all the latest news from Libya regarding the war, is there still any hope for the Libyan people, and will they ever enjoy the fruits of their oil once again? But this is what Western “democracy” achieves – promote chaos and lawlessness all in the name of democracy so that they can siphon resources from other countries for their selfish benefits.