Local Factions And International Rivalries Threaten Unity Negotiations In Libya

In the last week of January, Libyan representatives participating in United Nations-organized dialogue reached agreement on a set of rules for nominating candidates for temporary leadership positions to oversee national elections. This process is aimed at creating a unified Libyan government, bridging the rival governments of Tripoli, in the west, and Benghazi, in the east. The former is approved by the U.N. and supported militarily by Turkey. The latter is led by Field Marshal Kalifa Haftar and backed by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Russia, and France.

These two governments have been engaged in a fight for control of the country since 2014. While Haftar’s Libyan National Army (L.N.A.) made significant progress towards capturing Tripoli in 2019, the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (G.N.A.)’s army eventually repelled the offensive. A ceasefire was established in October 2020 along a line running through the middle of the country, from Sirte on the northern coast to the central district of Jufra.

Since the ceasefire’s establishment, the sides have begun to build a roadmap towards general popular elections for a unified government in December of 2021. However, various dynamics complicate those prospects. Both sides’ leaders have experienced a gradual decline of influence over their respective governments. According to the European Council on Foreign Relations, Haftar’s influence in the east has dwindled as his military failures racked up, leaving him with little support for his future leadership. Meanwhile, western support for G.N.A. President Fayez al-Sarraj has fallen off since he attempted to rid the G.N.A. of potential competitors in the Defense and Interior ministries and since militia forces violently put down protests in Tripoli.

These internal disputes in both governments have created more factions, each with their own visions and interests. Furthermore, according to the International Crisis Group, “all these factions have the political, military and financial means to spoil the voting process or reject its outcome.” The precarious state of these negotiations and the uncertainty among its participants threaten to derail the progress made since the ceasefire.

Although the conflict originated from a power vacuum following the fall of Libya’s long-time ruler Muammar al-Ghaddafi, it has taken on an international character as the warring factions landed competing foreign backers with their own aims of reshaping the Middle East. Particularly of note are the U.A.E., Turkey, and Russia, who have provided their sides with the bulk of their foreign military support. Turkey and Russia have pursued outsized roles in the Syrian Civil War over the past decade. Both have also contributed significantly to the fighting and subsequent peacekeeping efforts in the recent Armenian-Azeri war in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Meanwhile, the U.A.E. has attempted to establish itself as a leader in opposing what it claims are extremist forces in the region. The U.A.E. participated in a campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen and has opposed the growth of Qatari and Turkish influence in the region, which it claims is in support of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The international actors in this conflict further exacerbate the potential for a breakdown or political standoff in the unification efforts. On top of the internal factions and rivalries mentioned above, international backers have little incentive to compromise when they do not directly suffer the consequences of a protracted internal conflict. Dug into what they perceive as a fight for regional influence, and motivated by desires for economic and diplomatic dominance, regional and global powers exacerbate local disagreements by providing would-be leaders the political cover and tangible support to draw out conflict for their own benefit rather than compromise.

The peace process between Libyan factions is precarious and continues to grow less likely to succeed. Peripheral actors like France or the United States, as well as the United Nations, should develop mechanisms to punish actors for prolonging conflict, and should, themselves, stay away from endorsing or backing factional leaders.