Libya’s Fragile Deadlock
Central Intelligence Agency Director Bill Burns made whirlwind visits to Benghazi and Tripoli on January 12, asking contending Libyan leaders to expel roughly a thousand Russian personnel and help organize nationwide elections. But despite being the most senior U.S. official to set foot in Libya in years, Burns is unlikely to get his wishes any time soon.
What stands in the way is an intricate deadlock that has lingered across the divided country for months. Part of that can be attributed to the geographic distribution of hydrocarbons, which favors rebel commander Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and his so-called Libyan National Army. The Field Marshal’s failure in his 2019-2020 attempt to take Tripoli did little to jeopardize his control in the oil-rich east and south. Today, irrespective of Burns’ requests, Haftar refuses to share his strategic territories with Libyan rivals. In doing so, he enjoys the support of not only Russia but also U.S. partners Egypt and Saudi Arabia, not to mention France and Greece. Meanwhile, in the country’s northwest, Turkey uses its military presence to keep incumbent Prime Minister Abd al Hamid Dabaiba in power, long past the expiration of his mandate.
Against such a rigid backdrop, any attempt to force a diplomatic breakthrough could upset the ongoing calm and plunge parts of the country back into prolonged conflict. Yet, if Washington is serious about Burns’ objectives, it should convince leaders on both sides that sticking to their current practices and strategies will cost them. In addition to coercive measures targeting Libyan decision-makers, this requires bringing Washington’s main regional partners, namely Turkey, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates, on board.
Getting Better at Dividing the Enemy
Since his military debacle on the outskirts of the Libyan capital almost three years ago, Haftar has proved unexpectedly resilient in weathering financial strains and attracting new allies. In 2021, mere months after the Tripoli civil war ended, a U.N.-backed process designated Dabaiba as prime minister for a brief term in Tripoli pending general elections in December of that year. Haftar’s camp helped Dabaiba win the interim prime ministership, then weakened him by refusing to give him further recognition or even permission to visit Benghazi. The U.N.’s election plans eventually crumbled — allowing Dabaiba to hold onto office in the west. Both sides proceeded to build up their respective military forces while engaging in some economic cooperation through an Emirati-sponsored dialogue between Prime Minister Dabaiba’s nephew, Ibrahim, and Saddam Haftar, the most assertive of the veteran commander’s six sons.
Since his accession to the prime ministership, Dabaiba has often proclaimed a willingness to use his influence over the state’s ministries and economic institutions to accommodate other political factions — but regardless, his staunchest foes want him out of Tripoli. In February 2022, the eastern-based House of Representatives, which is more or less aligned with the Libyan National Army, appointed a rival prime minister: Fathi Bashagha. A prominent anti-Haftar leader during the 2019-2020 war, Bashagha, like Dabaiba, hails from the western city of Misrata. After the fighting ended, Bashagha and other high-profile northwesterners did a U-turn by embracing the Field Marshal and rejecting the authority of the new boss in Tripoli. Several times last year, armed groups in the city tried to help Bashagha challenge Dabaiba. One key Bashagha ally in that context was the Nawassi Brigade, which then controlled prime areas along the waterfront, including the commercial port. On August 27, when Nawassi and other militias clashed with their pro-Dabaiba counterparts, Ankara played a decisive role in helping maintain the sitting prime minister in power. According to three Tripoli-based sources, not only did Turkey provide coordination, advice, and surveillance, but it also deployed its TB2 drones to assist pro-Dabaiba militias in more accurately targeting their adversaries. Now, Nawassi’s and other pro-Bashagha leaders no longer even have access to downtown Tripoli. “Fathi Bashagha is our dearest friend,” Ankara’s chief diplomat explained later to the press. “But we informed him that, in our opinion, Dabaiba’s current administration is the legitimate one … until a new one comes along.”
Turkey Really Needs Cyrenaica
Notwithstanding all its stubborn support for Dabaiba, Ankara harbors many economic and geopolitical aspirations in Libya that will require sway in the eastern province of Cyrenaica. To realize them, Turkey prefers to woo the leaders already in place there rather than resort to armed violence. This wasn’t always the case. In June 2020, Turkish-backed forces tried to overtake the coastal city of Sirte, which separates Tripolitania from a series of five prized oil terminals in Cyrenaica. At the time, Haftar repelled the assault with the assistance of Russian forces.
Now, the Haftar-aligned Prime Minister Bashagha and part of his cabinet are based in that same Libyan National Army-controlled municipality. I met Bashagha on a visit to Libya earlier this winter. Sitting in his brand-new office, next to Sirte’s grandiose Ouagadougou Conference Hall, he appeared serene, as though confident Dabaiba’s tenure would not be allowed to outlast his own. “My government was born out of a Libyan-Libyan process within Parliament, but some foreign states haven’t accepted letting us govern from the capital,” he said, in an indirect jab at Turkey.
As of now, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan faces general elections in mid-May. The high-stakes contest makes it difficult for Erdogan’s government to engage in any protracted warfighting in Libya this year. He’d rather portray his permanent expedition across the Mediterranean solely as a source of economic rewards — an outcome that has not yet materialized. To be sure, since 2020, Turkey has won some electricity-plant and other construction contracts, mainly confined to the greater Tripoli area. But it is determined to go further and clinch billions’ worth of business across all three provinces. In Libyan waters, Turkey’s state-owned oil company has been seeking permission to explore for undersea gas reserves off of the eastern city of Derna, without any success to date. Unless it acquires access to the easternmost stretch of the Libyan littoral, Turkey cannot exploit the southern parts of the maritime Exclusive Economic Zone that it has endeavored to impose at Greece’s expense. On land, other Turkish energy companies are eager to become involved in major oil facilities, including in southern Cyrenaica. Another coveted market is Benghazi’s reconstruction, which has already begun in earnest. To fulfill these goals, Ankara needs to improve its relations with the Haftar family and its allies.
On the ground, several clues indicate Turkey’s lack of appetite for any new fighting. The village of Buerat al Hsun, west of Sirte, is now demilitarized, and no Turkish-backed force has conducted military exercises anywhere near the demarcation line in a long time.
That is one reason why Bashagha seemed less angry at Turkey than his Greek or Egyptian colleagues as he shrugged off the maritime memorandum of understanding that Ankara signed with the Dabaiba government in October. Even before a Libyan Appeals Court suspended its implementation earlier this year, Dabaiba’s main opponents understood that, for practical reasons, Ankara wouldn’t move forward without their consent.
The most vocal of those Dabaiba opponents is arguably the Egyptian-backed Speaker of the House of Representatives, Aqila Saleh. His proposed constitutional case for general elections by year-end ignores the U.N.’s preferred framework, and thus could lead to an impasse. When queried about Turkish interference, the shrewd former judge betrayed no animosity towards Ankara, preferring to lambast his Libyan nemesis, whose departure from office he demands as a precondition to any vote. “I came away from my [August 2] encounter with President Erdogan in Ankara convinced that his immediate entourage just doesn’t let him in on how minuscule the territory controlled by Dabaiba is,” Saleh told me at his compound, 30 miles west of Derna. “If Turkey truly cares about doing business in our region, then we, the eastern authorities, not Tripoli, should be its guarantors.”
The United States Has Worked With Both Sides in Libya
Cyrenaica isn’t the only province where the Tripoli government’s influence is thin. Most of the country’s southwest, called the Fezzan, is beyond its reach, too. For that reason, Washington — which has worked closely with Dabaiba on setting up a new U.S. embassy in Tripoli and transferring a Lockerbie attack suspect — nonetheless cooperated with his rivals to combat extremist groups in the Libyan Sahara. “Our joint work with the Americans has contributed to weakening the Islamic State in Libya,” said Salem al Zedma, Bashagha’s Deputy Prime Minister in charge of the Fezzan, in a late-evening interview in Sirte. “We are, unquestionably, counterterrorism partners of the United States.” From a village just to the east of Sirte, Zedma belongs to the Awlad Suleiman, an important Arab tribe of the Fezzan. His younger brother Hassan leads the 128th, a sprawling mega-brigade that became part of the Libyan National Army in 2016. With both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State thriving in nearby countries such as Mali and Burkina Faso, Washington will continue to need security cooperation with forces like Hassan’s — and its leverage over them will diminish as a result.
The same goes for a special-forces unit unofficially spearheaded by Saddam Haftar called the Tareq bin Ziyad Brigade, with whom the United States has coordinated on counterterrorism. Throughout my recent visit in Cyrenaica, from the tarmac of Benina Airport to various key locales in and outside Benghazi, the brigade’s red-bereted men were ubiquitous reminders of Saddam’s growing importance. Saddam’s policies have been somewhat distinct from — but so far always within — those of the larger power structure built by his father over the years. The 36-year-old colonel’s bold ambitions help explain Dabaiba and Ankara’s enduring attempts to cultivate him.
Disjointed Public Debt
If the map of geographic control in Libya is largely static, the institutional and economic realms aren’t. Increasingly, both sides of the Libyan divide are able to fund themselves by tapping into the nation’s public finance system through different channels. This disincentivizes current rulers from taking steps toward reunification or accepting the risk of change that would come with any genuine electoral contest.
One definite advantage that the Tripoli government still has over Haftar and his allies is its political closeness to Libya’s Central Bank, which controls access to public coffers and formal foreign exchange. But on my visit to Sirte, I saw nascent rehabilitation work underway in parts of the scarred city. This prompted me to ask Bashagha how he managed to raise funds without the official approval of Sadiq al Kabir, the all-powerful governor of the Central Bank. Bashagha indicated that his administration had begun borrowing from commercial banks in Cyrenaica, receiving a first installment of 1.5 billion dinars ($300 million) in the fourth quarter of 2022. “There is lots of money deposited in those balance sheets,” he added. In the first quarter of 2023, the Bashagha government borrowed an additional 2.8 billion dinars ($560 million), part of which has gone to the Committee for the Reconstruction of Benghazi.
Although Tripoli formally oversees Libya’s entire banking system, the latter has, in practice, been split for nearly a decade between east and west. In 2014-2020, the long-standing fracture enabled the eastern authorities to borrow 71.4 billion dinars (then equivalent to $53 billion) without consulting Tripoli. So long as public finances remain bifurcated, this will continue to exacerbate the country’s divisions.
To make matters worse, last November saw the dismissal of Ali al Hibri, a veteran functionary and economist who had been running the Central Bank’s eastern branch for eight years. Hibri had been sympathetic to Haftar, and often willing to act in defiance of Kabir. Despite that track record, Saleh’s House of Representatives — eager for even greater regional autonomy and more rapid mobilization of reconstruction funds — replaced Hibri with an eastern-Libyan banker close to Saddam Haftar. The maneuver backfired: two board members resigned in protest, thereby further strengthening the governor in Tripoli. Still, the Central Bank’s eastern branch may potentially raise several billion for the Libyan National Army through the sale of new bonds to commercial banks in Cyrenaica. This borrowed money would come on top of state funds that the Central Bank in Tripoli has funneled to Haftar’s armed coalition, according to two eastern-Libyan businessmen with inside knowledge.
Perhaps unsurprisingly in view of the enormous discretionary authority that Central Bank governor Kabir has wielded since 2011, Saleh says he intends on replacing him, “but the international community keeps blocking any change” — an allusion to the United States, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and other countries. “When households go hungry because of delays in salary payments and because of runaway inflation, are you going to speak to them about democracy? Or do you work on replacing the heads of all sovereign institutions?”
No Equilibrium Below the Calm
In recent remarks, White House Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Brett McGurk praised the “strengthening relations between Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.” In Libya, this rapprochement may be preferable to the strife that preceded it — but it is not conducive to Washington’s proclaimed objectives. Both Ankara and Abu Dhabi indulge Moscow. Both foster parochial quid pro quos between Libyan incumbents — and, in so doing, help the latter deepen their entrenchment in power.
The United Arab Emirates, previously the most aggressive booster of the Libyan National Army, has shown a keen interest in accommodating Dabaiba. It sees his transactional style of governance as an opportunity to build influence in Tripoli without abandoning Haftar. In July, Emirati mediation between Saddam Haftar and Ibrahim Dabaiba brought about the installation of a new National Oil Corporation chairman, whose financial decisions are already being scrutinized by several Libyan watchdogs. Doubling down on the same Dabaiba-Haftar channel, the Emiratis hope to bring about more economic bargains and security arrangements. To preempt critiques, Dabaiba once promised to stay away from “shady deals that are worked out here and there behind the scenes” but his reassurance was unconvincing. By encouraging secretive conversations between current Libyan powerbrokers, the Emirates and Turkey aren’t delivering any political reconciliation or stabilizing settlement. They are only sapping what remains of Libya’s formal state institutions and undermining the U.N.’s efforts to facilitate authentic elections.
In sum, almost every member of Libya’s present-day ruling class leans on foreign support and resists any fundamental change. Each is busy tweaking the current deadlock to their own benefit while hoping that the shift won’t be so transformative that their existing privileges might be diminished. Meanwhile, in the country’s west, unresolved enmity between Tripoli militias may still erupt in ways that Turkey’s combat drones cannot suppress.
Left to their own devices, neither Turkey, Egypt, nor the United Arab Emirates will tolerate any substantive departure from the current status quo. If constructive change in Libya is an actual priority for Washington, it should be prepared to spend political capital to jolt its regional friends out of their dogged inertia.
Jalel Harchaoui is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, London. His work focuses on the security and political economy of North Africa, with an emphasis on Libya.
Image: State Department