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  • Centro para el Bien Común Global

Libya, the return of the competition for power

Jorge Torres

Almost eight years after the fall of Gaddafi, Libya still does not know peace. The country that was once a land of opportunity for millions of immigrants (mainly from Mali and Niger), is immersed in a civil war that has divided the country. Following the overthrow of the dictator at the hands of an international coalition led by the United Kingdom and France, a plethora of actors have emerged in the North African country. Virtually every town has its own militia, terrorist groups thrive on disorder and chaos, and the Tuaregs and various tribes in the south act independently.

The current situation is in danger of stagnating sine die, condemning the North African country to drift and even disintegration[i]. Against this backdrop, the question arises as to whether the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi has been positive, both for Libyans and for the rest of the international community.

Despite being backed by the United Nations, operations "Dawn Odyssey" and "Unified Protector" have been seen as Western interference in an Arab country that also has one of Africa's largest oil reserves. As Professor Echeverría points out, other international actors have pointed out that "the West still seeks to dominate the world" (China) or described the intervention as a "medieval crusade" (Russia)[iii]. However, it is worth noting the acquiescence of the Arab League, and the great importance it played in preventing the more than likely massacre of civilians at the hands of Colonel Gaddafi's forces. However, the intervention in Libya highlighted three realities:

First, despite Franco-British political leadership, U.S. involvement has been vital to the success of the operations. Without the stealth bombers of the B-2s, or the Tomahawk missiles from the Sixth Fleet, the defeat of the troops loyal to the dictator would have become more complex. In addition, as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stressed to his counterparts in NATO, the organization had become an alliance of two circles: those countries specialized in soft security, such as peacekeeping and humanitarian aid, and those countries that are willing to fight by providing means for it by another.

Secondly, the European Union once again showed its weakness. While France and the United Kingdom led the operation, Germany abstained in the vote on Resolution 1973. Moreover, only six of the 28 Member States participated in the Coalition.

Finally, it seems clear that the intervention has not fulfilled its objective of protecting the population. As we will see below, today the conflict has become entrenched. The various militias, which numbered in the hundreds, have reduced their numbers, which has increased their power. Inter-ethnic violence has intensified, and the shadow of terrorism is still present.

Current situation, both sides of the conflict

There are currently two main sides in the conflict. On the one hand, the Government of National Accord (GNA), chaired by Fayez Al-Sarraj and based in Tripoli. This regime is the result of the Libyan Political Agreement, signed in the Moroccan city of Skhirat in December 2015 and supported by the United Nations[iv]. However, despite having a mission deployed there (UNSMIL), this international support is more nominal than real. The main internal support of the GNA regime are several militias in the west of the country whose common denominator is their Islamist ideology[v], with Misrata being its greatest exponent. On an international scale, its main supporters are Turkey and Qatar. The territory under its control comprises the capital, Tripoli and the coastal cities to the west.

On the other side of the board, is the House of Representatives (CR). After the victory of the liberals in the last elections (June 2014), the Islamists staged a coup d'état and took Tripoli. Unable to remain in the capital, the elected members moved to Tobruk and Al Baida. As its main national support, the RC has the Libyan National Army (LNA) under the command of General Khalifa Haftar.

Khalifa Haftar was a former general in the Gaddafi regime. During the war with Chad, he was captured by enemy forces and rescued by U.S. special operations. After this, he joined the opposition against Gaddafi and supported several coup attempts against him. After his failure, he lived in the United States for twenty years, even becoming a naturalized citizen. After the Arab Spring in Libya, Haftar returned to Libyan territory. But it would not be until 2014 when he launched his "Operation Dignity" against the Islamists and terrorists of Daesh in the east of the country. Since then, and after his success in wiping out terrorist groups in the region, the RC has appointed him Commander-in-Chief of the Libyan National Army. Haftar then marched through the south-west of the country (Fezzan) in September 2016, taking the so-called "oil crescent", the country's most important energy centre, near Sirte. In addition, he managed to take Benghazi in 2017, after a three-year siege. These victories have given Haftar and the RC control of 80 percent of Libyan territory. This government, despite not having official recognition from the United Nations, has powerful international supporters: the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Russia.

The situation is much more complex than this schematic summary reflects. There are a number of groups and tribes that operate independently, especially in the south and south-east of the country (especially the Tuaregs). In addition to this, there are many factors that make the resolution of the Libyan conflict very complex. However, there are two determining variables that condition the rest. One domestically, and the other internationally.

Libya is a tribal country. As the current conflict shows, almost the entire war effort falls to the local militias of each city. In the face of General Hafter's offensive on Tripoli, for example, the GNA forces had barely 5,000 militiamen under their command, while the Islamists of "Libyan Dawn", who dominate Misrata, had 18,000. As Professor Echeverría points out, "the countries that contributed to the overthrow of Gaddafi did not take into account the most essential consideration in relation to this North African state: the nature of the Arab-Berber world and tribal aspects in particular."[vii] This multiplicity of actors confronting each other makes it almost impossible to find a solution that pleases everyone. In addition, the motives behind these disputes go beyond politics, which makes it an added difficulty to resolving conflicts.

External support

One of the most important factors in resolving any conflict is the role of external actors. In this sense, the greater their involvement, the greater the difficulty in resolving the conflict[viii]. In the case of Libya, there is significant participation of foreign powers on both sides.

As we noted at the outset, the HLG is supported by Turkey and Qatar. Both powers support the Tripoli regime for a variety of reasons. One of them is their affinity in the interpretation of Islam and its political representation. The fact that the GNA has ties to the Muslim Brotherhood is a key factor in this regard. In addition, it has the international recognition of the United Nations. Despite this, the House of Representatives also enjoys a large group of allied countries. This is the case of the United Arab Emirates, which, together with Egypt, is arming Haftar's LNA. Moreover, in the case of Egypt, its support for the RC and Haftar is due to the current Egyptian government's antagonism towards the Muslim Brotherhood.

Another of the RC's allies is Russia. One of the actions carried out by Putin's government is the printing of millions of Libyan dinars, an indispensable engine for the war. In addition, the United States has blocked any resolution in the Security Council that could affect Haftar. The next ally of the RC and Haftar is Saudi Arabia. In its struggle to become the predominant power in the Middle East, the Riyadh government supports General Haftar. The best proof of this is the Libyan general's visit to Riyadh on March 27, where he met with Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, who is also interior minister and head of Saudi intelligence. It is speculated that on this visit, Haftar accepted substantial financial aid that has made possible his offensive on Tripoli[ix].

But not all support for CR and Haftar comes from these countries. Within the European Union itself, there is a difference of opinion. The most obvious case is that of France. While on the one hand, as a member of the UN Security Council he supports the GNA, he also looks favorably on General Haftar and his fight against the Islamists. In fact, this is one of the trump cards that Haftar and the RC are playing to get the go-ahead from the international community. Championing the fight against terrorism, Haftar wants to identify the Tripoli government as a protector of violent extremists[x]. It should be noted, however, that the LNA itself counts Salafist radicals[xi] among its ranks, which calls into question the Libyan general's true intentions. Nevertheless, the French government sees Haftar as part of the solution. On the other hand, other European governments, such as Italy, are opting for the solution that emerged from the Skhirat process.

However, it is not only in the EU that there is a difference of opinion. In the United States, President Trump does not seem to share the opinion of his own Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo. After a telephone conversation with the Libyan general, the US president declared that both share the idea of a transition that would provide Libya with a stable democratic system[xiii]. The remarks came a week after Pompeo said there was no military solution to the Libyan crisis. With this assertion, President Trump seems to follow his own instinct and distances himself from the positions of his State Department. It is important to note, however, that Libya has never, since the fall of Gaddafi, been among the strategic priorities of the United States. It only became more relevant after the assassination of its ambassador in Benghazi in September 2012. And even after this event, Washington's interest has been limited to the fight against terrorist groups operating in he Maghreb and the Sahel. Therefore, we can say that the United States hardly has a tactical approach, which does not even resemble a strategy.[xiv].


Therefore, with a U.S. government that does not count Libya among its strategic priorities, with an inoperative and aimless European Union, with a multitude of actors with conflicting interests... is a peaceful solution possible? The answer is obvious: not for now. As the cases of Ukraine and Syria, among others, show us, we are in the midst of a paradigm shift. Or, rather, in a return. As Robert Kagan points out in his book The Return of History and the End of Dreams, the international order as we have known it is in crisis. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, some took it for granted that humanity had overcome the last obstacle to peaceful coexistence among nations. That democracy would spread to the farthest corners of the Earth and peace would reign among nations. The end of history, they called it. Quite the opposite.

The events of the last decade show us how erroneous these beliefs are, how ephemeral our international system is. Within our postmodern European societies, it is difficult to understand what the paradigm shift entails. And to some extent this reluctance to admit reality is understandable. A continent that has been ravaged by the power struggle will hardly be able to accept the end of the Kantian dream. However, it is imperative that European nations re-emerge and assume their role in the world. They must participate in the redesign of the international system, become "gardeners"[xv], assume the return of the competition for power.

What about Spain? We have talked about the position of the United States and the main European countries, but we still have ours. Our country's discreet contribution to NATO's mission in Libya highlights the need to reassess our national interests. It is not logical for our country to give greater relevance to the UN mission in Lebanon, for example, where Spain has deployed a contingent of up to 1,100 men and women[xvi]. By contrast, only one frigate, four F-18s and one maritime surveillance aircraft have been deployed in Libya. This participation is a far cry from both the French and British contributions, and very close to the Danish and Belgian contributions (which have contributed six F-16s). Therefore, there seems to be a great contradiction in our government.

On the one hand, in the main official documents we find North Africa as a "strategic priority for Spain..."[xvii] and even the case of Libya is pointed out as "of special mention, due to its geographical proximity and condition as a gateway for a large part of the irregular sub-Saharan immigration to the Mediterranean". However, the reality is the opposite.

Más allá de estas contradicciones, España debe replantearse si desea continuar con su vocación global, apenas creíble si quiera sobre el papel, o que se produzca una catarsis en el seno de nuestras instituciones que nos permita bajar a la tierra y establecer una serie de prioridades estratégicas únicamente acordes con nuestro interés nacional, porque “el que mucho abarca, poco aprieta”. Por tanto, si Europa y los países que la conforman no aceptan la realidad y siguen dormitando, serán otros los actores que ocupen su lugar. Como señala Kagan, “el futuro orden internacional será establecido por aquellos que tengan el poder y la voluntad colectiva de darle forma. La cuestión es si las democracias liberales del mundo volverán a estar a la altura de ese reto”[xviii]. Mientras tanto, Libia sigue esperando.


Jorge Torres, collaborator at the Spanish Institute for Strategic Studies (IEEE) and Master in Global Security from the People's Friendship University of Russia (PFUR)

[i] “La Libye, trois ans plus tard: un pays à l`abandon”, Le Monde Diplomatique, 19 de marzo de 2014. Citado en: FUENTE CABO, Ignacio: Libia y Túnez: dos transiciones contrapuestas, en: Evolución del mundo árabe: tendencias, Cuadernos de Estrategia nº 168, Instituto Español de Estudios Estratégicos, octubre 2014, Madrid.  

[ii] Resolución 1973 del Consejo de Seguridad de Naciones Unidas, de 17 de marzo de 2011.  

[iii] ECHEVERRÍA JESÚS, Carlos. “Revueltas, guerra civil tribal e intervención extranjera en Libia, Anuario Español de Derecho Internacional, v.27, p.185-201, junio 2015. Disponible en línea:  “Alianza Atlántica. Tiempos sombríos para la OTAN”, ISPE, nº750, 20 de junio 2011, p.4. Citado en: ECHEVERRÍA JESÚS, Carlos. “Revueltas, guerra tribal… op.cit. p.193.  

[iv] Apoyado por la resolución 2259 del Consejo de Seguridad de Naciones Unidas, del 23 de diciembre de 2015 

[v] ECHEVERRÍA JESÚS, Carlos. “La naturaleza de la inestabilidad crónica agravada en Libia desde 2011 y sus consecuencias en términos nacionales e internacionales”, Doc. Investigación-11/2016, IEEE, Madrid. Disponible en línea: 

[vi] ROBLIN, Sebastien. “You missed this: there is a strange air war raging over Libya. The wat in the sky the Media is not covering”, National Interest, 20-04-2019. Disponible en línea:  

[vii] ECHEVERRÍA…op.cit. p.4 

[viii] O viceversa. Puede darse el caso que el conflicto se resolviese si los actores externos, con capacidad de influir sobre los actores domésticos, orillasen a éstos a finalizarlo 

[ix] MALSIN Jared, SUMMER Said. “Saudi Arabia promised support to Libyan Warlord in push to seize Tripoli”, The Wall Street Journal, 12-04-2019 

[x] La propia Francia ha reconocido que sus fuerzas especiales han operado junto a Hafter en Bengasi. En RAGHAVAN, op.cit. 

[xi] Seguidores del líder espiritual saudí Rabee Madkhali.[xii] PEREGIL, Francisco. “Jalifa Hafter, el hombre fuerte de Libia que intenta tomar Trípoli”, El País. 16-04-2019. Disponible en línea: 

[xiii] COOK, Steven A. “Loving Dictators is as American as Apple Pie”, Foreign Policy, 26-04-2019 

[xiv] SAINI FASANOTTI, Federica. “With Haftar attacking Tripoli, the US needs to re-engage on Libya”, Brookings, 25-04-2019. Disponible en línea:[xv] Alegoría utilizada por Robert Kagan para explicar el papel de Estados Unidos como garante del sistema internacional. Véase: KAGAN, Robert. The jungle grows back: America and our imperiled world”, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2018.[xvi] Tarilonte, Elena, “Diez años en el sur del Líbano”, Revista Española de Defensa, octubre 2016. Disponible en línea: 

[xvii] Estrategia de Seguridad Nacional de 2017, p. 44. Disponible en línea:[xviii] Citado de TORRES SOSPEDRA, Jorge, “La Estrategia de Defensa Nacional Estadounidense: el retorno de la historia y el fin de la utopía”, Artículo de Opinión 01/2019, IEEE, Madrid. Disponible en línea: 



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