By Giorgio Cafiero
On 7 November, Haaretz reported that Saddam Haftar, the son of Khalifa Haftar, flew on a private French-made Dassault Falcon jet out of the United Arab Emirates and landed in Israel for a 90-minute visit before flying to Libya. The purpose was for Haftar and his son to pursue ‘military and diplomatic assistance from Israel’, according to the report.
With Libya’s elections scheduled for 24 December, this brief landing at Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv was part of Haftar’s electoral campaign. The eastern commander, who led the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) during Libya’s civil war, wants to differentiate himself from other Libyans seeking to become the country’s head of state.
‘It’s a way of distinguishing Haftar from the rest of the candidates and promising something that is supposed to have value in the eyes of the United States, but also in the eyes of other countries that embrace whatever the UAE – the main sponsor of Haftar – has been doing through its activism in the region, which means Egypt, France, Morocco, and you can go down the list,’ said Jalel Harchaoui, a researcher at Global Initiative, in an interview with The New Arab. ‘It’s a way of Haftar saying “If you support me becoming president, here’s one tangible thing that I can deliver for you and no one else can.”’
The relationship between Haftar and the Israelis is not a new partnership; it dates back to 1987. ‘Contacts between Libyans and Israelis have been underway for some time – probably through the Mossad and other organisations – and it is not surprising that they have intensified lately, given the proximity of the elections in Libya,’ explained Dr Federica Saini Fasanotti, a non-resident fellow at the Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution.
What made Saddam Haftar’s brief visit to Tel Aviv significant was not the substance of the relationship between his father and Israel, but rather the decision to make it known to the whole world rather than concealing it.
Libya’s fractures and divisions
Politically speaking, eastern and western Libya have major differences that are relevant to any discussion of the North African country entering the Abraham Accords, the agreement brokered by the former US president, Donald Trump, between Israel and a number of Arab states. In Libya’s east, political Islam does not exist; n western Libya, political Islam might not necessarily be extremely popular, but it exists. Whereas eastern Libya is somewhat reflective of the UAE and Egypt’s political systems, the west has much more in common with Tunisia and Algeria, where the Palestinian cause is considered ‘sacred’, as Algeria’s President Abdelmadjid Tebboune put it. Also, the Turkish influence in western Libya matters too, particularly considering Ankara’s efforts to position itself as a defender of the Palestinian struggle.
Within this context, Haftar being the head of state and deciding to bring the country into the Abraham Accords risks reigniting major tensions in Libya. ‘If you broach a topic like normalisation with Israel, you’re going to intensify what differentiates the eastern part of Libya from the western part,’ according to Harchaoui. The implications could be toxic from the standpoint of bringing Libyans together in a post-conflict era. ‘The western part of Libya is the most populous part, containing more than two-thirds of the population,’ said the Europe-based Libya expert. ‘When you look at that part of the population and you say, “I hereby declare normalisation with Israel”, you go [against] all the [UN-led] efforts…to try to avoid a partition of the nation, try to promote unification, reconciliation, and integration.’
US foreign policy implications
Like his predecessor, President Joe Biden and those in his administration believe that adding more Arab countries to the Abraham Accords must be a US foreign policy objective. A bipartisan consensus behind this stance exists among American lawmakers. Hence it is fair to conclude that Haftar promising to bring Libya into the Abraham Accords could help him a fair amount in Washington despite condemnations which the eastern commander has received from certain American officials over the years as well as lawsuits filed against him in US courts.
‘There are many decision-makers [in the USA] who don’t really care about the reality of Libya,’ according to Harchaoui. ‘They say, “If we could have a high-profile leader that embraces Israel, I don’t really care about the details of what happens on the ground. It’s still one step forward.” It’s basically the same reasoning that led Trump to recognise Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. Like you disregard the consequences of the actual stability on the ground, and you say, “It’s a very nice victory from the point of view of acceptance of Israel, and I don’t care what happens on the ground.” You have a whole faction in Washington, DC that thinks in those terms.’
Indeed, among US officials there has been a total lack of concern for how the Abraham Accords have played out on the ground in the Arab region. In a Machiavellian manner, many policymakers in Washington believe in encouraging more Arab countries to normalise with Israel, regardless of the consequences. The fact that the transactional nature of Morocco entering the Abraham Accords in exchange for US recognition of Rabat’s sovereignty over Western Sahara has revived decades-old tensions between Morocco and Algeria doesn’t matter much to Washington. The same can be said about the tensions which the Abraham Accords have heightened in Bahrain between the government and opposition groups, as well as how the Trump administration’s extortion of Sudan severely harmed the country’s fragile democratic transition.
Israel becoming more and more accepted in the Middle East and North Africa’s diplomatic fold is what matters to officials in Washington and Abu Dhabi. ‘You have this complacency that leads the Biden administration to support the UAE worldview,’ explained Harchaoui. ‘The UAE worldview, acceptance of Israel – all of these philosophies require you to ignore what goes on in the real world.’
Israeli stakes in Libya
Libya-Israel ties would not only serve the interests of Haftar. Benefits could go both ways. Israel has many interests in Libya, from the North African country’s ‘highly strategic geographical position to unlimited energy’, explained Dr Fasanotti. ‘In this chess game, we must not forget the consistent presence of Turkey in Tripolitania which, given the tense relations with Israel and other countries over the issue of offshore gas in the eastern Mediterranean, certainly plays a primary strategic role.’
In eastern Libya, which is the part of the country closest to Palestine, there is a security architecture and political order that suits Israeli interests. The absence of any Islamist political opposition or pro-Palestinian/pro-Hamas groups in Libya’s east is satisfactory to Tel Aviv. It’s safe to bet that the Israelis would take steps to help this Egypt-like order survive over the years by strongly supporting Haftar if he becomes the next Libyan head of state. When asked if Haftar is the ‘Israeli horse in the [Libyan election] race’, Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the US, replied, ‘Yes, he’s in the race and it’s a track that has been well run.’
By having his son land on Israeli soil, shake hands, and signal a determination to normalise with Israel, Haftar is giving Israel a vested interest in his becoming Libya’s leader. As Marco Carnelos, a former Italian diplomat, noted, considering Haftar’s health issues he may be looking to establish a family dynasty in Libya that could put his son at the helm down the line. Therefore, having Saddam Haftar land in Israel could be about making a powerful statement about how much Haftar would like to invest in a partnership with Israel for the long haul if he is to win the 24 December elections.
At stake for Tel Aviv are also ‘the prestige and this impression of momentum with more Arab centres of power that one by one decide to embrace Israel,’ explained Harchaoui. ‘If Israel could actually maintain that narrative of a persistent momentum in that direction of more acceptability, it’s a form of a win.’
Impact on the Arab region’s geopolitical order
Libya entering the Abraham Accords would further signal success on the part of Emirati activism in Africa following Sudan and Morocco’s normalisation with Israel last year in deals that the UAE helped push through, plus Tunisia’s 25 July 2021 autogolpe which constituted another win for Abu Dhabi. A Haftar-led Libya formalising relations with Tel Aviv would serve the interests of the UAE, USA and, obviously, Israel too. But not all states in the Maghreb would see Libya’s entry into the Abraham Accords as good news.
From the perspective of Algiers, the expansion of Emirati influence in North Africa and the trend to normalise with Israel both threaten Algeria’s national interests. A concern among officialdom in Algiers is that Emirati activism in North Africa, specifically Abu Dhabi’s efforts to bring countries in the Maghreb and Sahel into the Abraham Accords, is leaving Algeria in a weaker and more vulnerable position. For example, after Rabat normalised with Israel in exchange for Washington’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, the Algerian Prime Minister said that there was a ‘real threat on our borders, reached by the Zionist entity’.
‘Algeria would see any normalisation of ties with Israel by Haftar as evidence of the general’s designs on its stability and a grave escalation on his part,’ Sami Hamdi, the Managing Director of the International Interest, a global risk and intelligence company, told The New Arab. Indeed, there would be a concern that with both Morocco and Libya locked into diplomatic agreements with Israel, such relations with Tel Aviv could be weaponised against Algeria down the line.
* Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics.
** This article was first published by The New Arab
Disputes within Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA), highlighted last week by the suspension of the interior minister, Fathi Bashagha, suggests a power struggle within the GNA that could be an obstacle in the implementation of the 21 August ceasefire announced by the Tripoli-based GNA and the House of Representatives (HoR) based in the east of the country. Bashagha was suspended on 29 August by GNA head Fayez Sarraj, ostensibly because of his handling of protests in Tripoli and Misrata against Libya’s worsening living standards, where some militia indiscriminately fired on protesters and abduct a few people.
Some concerns have been expressed within the GNA about Bashagha’s growing popularity and his attempts to curb the powers of Tripoli-based militia groups, many of which celebrated his suspension, and some of which participated in the protest crackdown. Bashagha had supported the protests and criticised the crackdown. Sarraj, using a legalistic argument, said protesters had not obtained relevant permits. He suspended Bashaga, who was on an official visit to Turkey, for contradicting him. Sarraj also simultaneously replaced the defence minister and head of the army, giving credence to suspicions that the GNA feared Bashagha had been plotting a coup; he has a large popular base and is supported by Turkey and Qatar. The interior minister returned to Libya, saying he would subject himself to an inquiry but demanding it be held publicly. Meanwhile, the seventy-two hour timeframe that the GNA had set for an investigation elapsed with no date being announced for a hearing.
Bashagha’s sacking followed a rare mood of optimism in Libya after the GNA and HoR announced a ceasefire that could lead to restarting negotiations aimed at ending the country’s six-year-long civil war. GNA and HoR statements were announced simultaneously following German mediation, with the two parties agreeing to a ceasefire, an end to the oil blockade imposed by the HoR, and the holding of an election tentatively set for March 2021. They had also agreed to demilitarise the strategic western town of Sirte, birthplace of former Libyan leader Muammar Gadhdhafi, around which there has been a build-up of forces since June.
The agreement highlighted that differences between the GNA and HoR had already been narrowing, with officials from the High State Council (HSC), the GNA’s parliamentary arm, saying they were amenable to negotiations with HoR speaker Ageela Saleh. The ‘five-plus-five’ talks between military leaders from the two sides had resumed under UN auspices, and oil exports had already partially recommenced. Two foreign actors involved in the conflict, Turkey and Russia, supporting the GNA and HoR respectively, had agreed on intra-Libyan dialogue and considered forming a joint working group aimed at concluding a ceasefire agreement. Even Egypt, a staunch supporter of the east, feared being further dragged into the conflict and advocated negotiations. Moreover, senior officials from the GNA and the HSC had advocated negotiations with Saleh, with Cairo, Algeria and Moscow likewise holding talks with the HoR speaker.
All these initiatives suggest a change in the balance of power in the east; Saleh’s power has strengthened at the expense of Khalifa Haftar, the powerful leader of the Libyan National Army (LNA) militia. Haftar is determined to achieve a military victory over the GNA, believes it is possible – more than eighteen months after his failed April 2019 march on Tripoli, and has rejected the ceasefire. Until recently, Haftar had pretended that his militia was an army of the HoR, but, in reality, he exercised control over Saleh and the HoR. It seems that his foreign backers Russia and Egypt are switching their support to Saleh instead. A coalescence of domestic, regional and global actors around the ceasefire has thus occurred. Unlike the concluding stages of the December 2015 Libyan Political Agreement (Skhirat agreement), this ceasefire was not imposed by foreign powers, but was a culmination of global pressure and domestic realisation of the futility of hoping for a military solution.
Bashagha’s suspension might impede the ceasefire’s implementation since his support was crucial in enabling Tripoli to withstand Haftar’s assault. He is popular in Misrata, whose militia’s support is required for any ceasefire to be successful, and among foreign backers, including Turkey, Qatar and even the USA, which urged Sarraj and Bashagha to reconcile. This, together with the fact of Haftar’s rejection of the ceasefire, and that he still is the most powerful domestic actor in the east and heads the strongest militia, threatens the ceasefire.
Another factor is that the GNA and HoR statements disagreed on the areas to be demilitarised. The GNA claims the agreement calls for the demilitarisation of Sirte and Jufra, where Moscow has an airbase, while the HoR’s statement mentions only Sirte. Moreover, there is no agreement on who would be tasked with implementing and monitoring the demilitarisation and ceasefire.
Moscow, which has strong economic interests in eastern Libya, could also act as a spoiler if it believes that negotiations will jeopardise these interests. In May, it dispatched fourteen aircraft, including MiG 29s and SU 24s, to Jufra to halt the GNA’s march toward Sirte and Jufra. The Russian paramilitary company Wagner also consolidated control over the country’s oilfields in the south and east, and assisted Haftar to implement the almost six-month-long oil blockade. Likewise, the UAE remains opposed to Turkey and the Islamist component of the GNA, and is unlikely to end its support for Haftar soon. Between April 2019 and April 2020, UAE aircraft were involved in over 850 attacks on GNA targets; Emirati support was key in enabling Haftar to snub a 13 January ceasefire agreement mediated by Turkey and Russia.
Concretising the ceasefire into a genuine political agreement will prove difficult, especially with calls from the east for autonomy, and in light of the different foreign interests in the outcome. The UN has been unsuccessful, since 2018, in its attempt to hold new elections in Libya, and attempts to initiate talks between Sarraj and Haftar under the auspices of France, Italy, and even Russia and Turkey have all failed. Egypt also sent its head of Military Intelligence, Major General Khaled Megawer, to reassure Haftar; Cairo is hedging its bets by talking to both the LNA and Libyan tribal leaders in the east. The tribes form the backbone of Saleh’s influence, and have largely filled the vacuum left by the decay of the country’s political and social institutions. For its part, Turkey recently concluded a military agreement with the GNA and Qatar. These dynamics point to some of the major domestic and regional obstacles to the ceasefire’s success and to hopes that it migh pave the way for substantive negotiations.
Meanwhile, the situation facing civilians continues to worsen. The COVID-19 crises is intensifying; it has been cited by both the GNA and HoR as a reason for the ceasefire. Social services, especially health care, continue to deteriorate, and corruption remains rampant. The country lost much of its hard currency reserves, which are necessary to remunerate civil servants and restart public services. Only around 90 000 barrels of oil out of a possible 1.2 million were produced in June, netting the National Oil Corporation only forty-five million dollars; Libya lost over six billion dollars in oil revenue since January. Protests occurred in Tripoli and Misrata over the country’s dire economic situation, and spread to HoR-controlled Sabah and Qubah in the south and east of the country.
Despite these negative and cautionary factors, the ceasefire does provide some room for cautious optimism, especially if the oil blockade is fully lifted and fighting reduces steadily and substantially. However, much more is required for this to eventuate in a political solution. Bashagha’s suspension could hinder this progress since it will embolden Haftar, and because it could be the beginning of fragmentation in the GNA.
Azhar Vadi talks to Naeem Jeenah, Director of Afro Middle East Centre.
The Libyan conflict has endured for years despite numerous failed attempts at mediating a solution by the UN, African Union, and even Turkey and Italy. A 2011 arms embargo imposed on the country has been ineffective, mainly because France and Russia, which support one side in the conflict, are permanent members on the UNSC. Other states, including Egypt, the UAE and Turkey, have their own interests in the country and have thus largely ignored the embargo. Four UN special envoys have been appointed and have resigned, citing outside influence as an obstacle to their work. Despite this, foreign support for the belligerents continues to intensify, with Greece and Cyprus now also interested in the conflict’s outcomes.
Overview of the Libyan conflict
Since 2014, Libya has been divided between two governments and even, for a period between 2015 and 2017, three centres of power. This included a legislature in Tripoli, in the west of the country, formerly the General National Congress and now the High State Council (HSC); a parliament in Tobruk in the east, the House of Representatives (HoR); and the UN-recognised government, the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. The influence and power of various militia often supersedes that of these political institutions. The HoR is dependent on the support of the largest militia, the Libyan National Army (LNA), headed by warlord Khalifa Haftar, while the GNA relies heavily on the support of the Bunyan Marsus militia in the western city of Misrata. UN attempts to mediate a power-sharing agreement have repeatedly failed, mainly because foreign support has ensured obduracy from the LNA, which by April 2019 had captured much of the south of Libya and had besieged the capital, Tripoli. A year later, in April 2020, the GNA began reversing many of these gains, but the LNA remains in control of the east and much of the south.
Libya’s strategic position on the southern Mediterranean, its location as a transit route for migrants travelling to Europe, and its large oil resources have meant that it is regarded as a prize for Libyans and non-Libyans alike. Many foreign powers, including France, Russia and the USA, have significant economic and other interests in the country. Seemingly, the strategic importance of the country increased after the ouster and murder of Libya’s former leader, Muammar Gaddafi, especially since the country’s instability saw increasing numbers of migrants use the country as a transit route when travelling to Europe. Further, arms proliferation across Libya’s porous borders greatly influenced instability in the Sahel, infamously playing a role in the 2012 Malian coup. The power vacuum and contested centres of power meant that regional countries, including Egypt, the UAE, and Turkey, as well as extra-regional powers, have tried to exploit the situation for both financial and political gains.
Government of National Accord
The most recent phase of the conflict commenced in April 2019, when Haftar’s LNA besieged Tripoli. Haftar believed the capital would readily capitulate. However, after a siege lasting one year, the GNA has pushed the LNA militia out of most of the country’s western regions, recapturing the strategic Watiya airbase in May 2020 and forcing LNA troops out of their strategic base in Tarhuna thereafter. The LNA retreated from areas surrounding southern Tripoli and was pushed further east; it is now unable to mount a direct offensive on Tripoli. This new situation is due, mainly, to enhanced Turkish support for the GNA. Ankara, viewing Libya as being of strategic importance for Turkey, deployed Special Forces and recruits from among Syrian rebels, numbering around 10 000 according to some reports. Turkey also provided air support to the GNA, enabling it to end Haftar’s aerial dominance.
Turkey’s interests in Libya include a maritime border agreement signed in 2019 between Ankara and the GNA, strengthening Turkish claims over natural gas in the Mediterranean, and undermining the claims of Greece and Cyprus. Ankara also has long-standing commercial and economic interests in Libya, and is opposed to the regimes in Cairo and Abu Dhabi, Haftar’s key supporters. Egypt’s and the UAE’s recent attempts to curtail Ankara’s growing regional influence have included supporting the Asad regime in Syria. It is almost certain, however, that Turkey will increase its support to the GNA, since ensuring a GNA victory is now part of Turkey’s national interest.
The GNA also receives diplomatic support from Italy, its closest European neighbour, and Italy opposes France’s support of Haftar. Rome also assisted in financing and training the Libyan Coast Guard, but has avoided supporting the GNA financially or militarily in its confrontation with Haftar. Rome’s main interest is to prevent migration from Libya to Europe. Another strong GNA supporter is Qatar; its support is mainly financial. Recently, the new Tunisian government, which was elected in February 2020, has also begun expressing support for the GNA. Tunisia has allowed Turkish aircraft that are delivering aid to the GNA to land in the country, a move that has been vehemently criticised by the HoR.
The LNA and the HoR
Haftar’s main weapons suppliers are the UAE and Egypt. Chadian, Sudanese, and Russian mercenaries have also been recruited to bolster his ill-fated advance on Tripoli. Most of these countries view the Islamist components of the GNA as a threat. Egypt’s additional motivation is the possibility of benefiting from Libyan oil. Egypt’s president, Abdul Fattah El Sisi, regards Haftar as having similar interests as him, since both are military strongman, and because both oppose political Islam. Cairo has provided diplomatic and military backing for the LNA, and allowed Emirati aircraft to use Egyptian airspace and bases to carry out attack on Libya Dawn forces in Tripoli in August 2014.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE also increasingly regard their support to Haftar as a means of containing Turkey by engulfing Ankara in a potentially unwinnable conflict. Between April 2019 and April 2020 the UAE carried out over 850 air attacks on GNA targets, mainly through drones. In January and February 2020 alone, Abu Dhabi provided over 4.6 tons of military equipment to the LNA, allowing it to respond to Turkish attacks and also to snub ceasefire calls from the UN, EU and Turkey and Russia. Riyadh too has financially supported the LNA; Haftar visited Saudi Arabia in March 2019, just weeks before his April 2019 march on Tripoli.
For Russia, the reinstatement of Gadhafi-era weapons contracts, worth over four billion dollars, would be a big prize, one that a military like Haftar would be able to guarantee. Moscow also sees other economic benefits through eastern Libya, including the exploitation of Libya’s oil resources. In general, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin views strongmen as more reliable allies and more able to provide stability. Like some of the other state supporters of Haftar, Moscow does not always differentiate between militant and democratic Islamists. Moscow has, therefore, diplomatically and militarily supported the LNA, including by watering down and, at times, blocking UN statements and resolutions condemning Haftar. Recently, Moscow deployed fourteen fighter jets, including MiG29s and SU24s, to the Jafra airbase to support the LNA after the GNA’s military gains. Apart from state involvement, the Russian Wagner security group, which is said to have close links to Putin, is also active in Libya, supporting Haftar’s militia.
France regards Haftar as pivotal in its Sahelian counterterrorism strategy, which has resulted in it supporting strongmen in the Sahel, and turning a blind eye to the suppression of freedoms and narrowing political space. France was the first western state to dispatch special forces to support Haftar, and has worked to weaken EU statements criticising his actions, the most recent of which followed his march on Tripoli.
Haftar has skilfully used the Islamic State group (IS) bogey to garner western and Russian support. His 2014 ‘Operation Dignity’ was presented as a counterterrorism operation, and he includes elements of the GNA in his ‘terrorist’ category. France, a major player in the 2011 uprisings and the NATO campaign to unseat Gaddafi, initially supported Haftar ostensibly to counter IS. The group currently has little influence in Libya, with only a few hundred members, but its name has been useful for Haftar to use as a scare tactic.
Jordan, Greece and Cyprus have also recently increased their support for the LNA. Amman dispatched UAE-funded weapons and aircraft to the LNA in an attempt to mask their origination. Jordanian-manufactured armoured vehicles and weapons have also been used by Haftar. Amman is wary of Turkish support for the GNA. Jordan also regards support for the LNA as a politically tolerable method of ensuring that it continues to receive support from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Although the country is opposed to the Qatari blockade and Saudi and Emirati support for Trump’s ‘deal of the century’ on Palestine, it is dependent on Saudi and Gulf Cooperation Council largess for its survival. Greek and Cypriot support for the LNA is mainly an attempt to scupper Turkish efforts to explore natural gas in the Mediterranean.
Haftar has also enlisted the services of private security companies from a number of countries, including, reportedly, South Africa, in the attempted capture of Tripoli. In May, a group of private military contractors, including eleven South Africans, evacuated to Malta from Libya, as reported by the UN panel monitoring the embargo. They were to engage in an assault on Tripoli using three SA341 Gazelle and three AS332 Super Puma helicopters that had been sourced in South Africa by UAE companies and transported to Libya via Botswana. The eleven South Africans included four pilots.
Current political situation
Until the LNA began to be pushed back and forced to retreat from April 2020, Haftar had remained resolutely opposed to a negotiated political settlement, believing that he had the means to achieve a military victory against the GNA. Once it became clear after the April 2020 GNA gains that Tripoli was no longer within the reach of the LNA, he began making calls for a ceasefire. Splits have also emerged between the HoR and Haftar. The HoR’s speaker, Ageela Saleh, announced a new peace initiative in April 2020 that called for a restructuring of the presidency council to three members, one from each of the country’s three main regions. The initiative would have partially curtailed Haftar’s powers, since he would be answerable to this new council. Haftar subsequently anointed himself in charge of the country, declaring the 2015 Skhirat agreement void, in a move that was criticised by most of his supporters, including Moscow.
The failed Tripoli offensive has weakened Haftar’s influence relative to Saleh’s. This is indicated by the shift away from Haftar by Egypt, the UAE and Russia since May. Haftar’s powerful militia, however, will ensure that, at least for the time being, he will continue being influential in the east. The HoR will likely continue supporting him for now, even though many of its members are disillusioned and frustrated that he controls most of the levers of power.
Although the GNA, currently enjoying many military victories, claims it is no longer interested in talks and wants to ‘liberate’ the whole country, it will likely be prepared to engage in peace talks after it establishes its dominance in the west and captures the city of Sirte. The recent gains have, however, granted the GNA new confidence and it is insisting that its leader, Fayez Sarraj, heads a reformed presidency council that would include Saleh. The GNA has also become more assertive in opposing Haftar’s remaining in charge of the LNA after a resolution is found.
Foreign powers impede political negotiations
The UN has been attempting to find a resolution to the Libyan crisis since 2015, but continues to be hamstrung by divisions in the UNSC. Haftar’s continued obduracy has been encouraged by support he receives from UNSC non-elected member France and, more recently, Russia. Further, the UN’s focus on elections as the sole means out of the conflict has resulted in it not concentrating more effort on consensus-building and bottom-up negotiations. These were hallmarks of the initial phases of the negotiations that resulted in the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement (LPA/Skhirat agreement). The UN planned for elections to be held in 2018, but these have repeatedly been postponed.
A 13 January 2020 ceasefire agreement, mediated by Turkey and Russia, failed because Haftar refused to endorse it. Further, a fifty-five-point roadmap endorsed by most of the roleplayers in Libya, as well as the UAE, Turkey, and France, and signed in Berlin on 19 January, is proving difficult to implement. UN-sponsored ceasefire talks between five military officials from each of the two sides convened in February in Geneva and agreed on a tentative ceasefire. However, the two rival governments subsequently overruled this. Negotiations have since recommenced following the LNA withdrawal from Western Libya, but no new agreement has been reached.
It is clear, as suggested by the one-year stalemate as Tripoli was besieged, that a political solution is the only way out of the Libyan crisis. However, most of the actors in that country have ulterior motives, and have hampered negotiations and, more importantly, implementation of agreements. They have thus continued to try to shape solutions by announcing their own initiatives outside the UN in attempts to provide political legitimisation for their interference. This was the case with the 2018 Paris and Palermo meetings and the unsuccessful January 2020 Turkey-Russia ceasefire. The 6 June Cairo declaration may be characterised in the same way. Although advocating a ceasefire, an elected governing structure and the expulsion of outside forces from the country, Egypt’s declaration is an attempt to protect the HoR, which had been suffering military losses since April. The Egyptian call for foreign forces to leave is directed at Turkey; it is unlikely that Sisi includes Haftar’s supporters – Egypt, UAE, France and Russia – in that call. They are unlikely to reduce their support to the LNA or withdraw forces from Libya.
It was no surprise, then, that the UAE, France and Russia vociferously supported Sisi’s call; Turkey, Germany and the USA have been more cautious, arguing that it was a good first step but that negotiations needed to be guided by the UN. Turkey is unlikely to accept an agreement that will see its interests negatively impacted. The agreement, similar to the 2018 meetings in France and Italy, will likely be stillborn. Turkey has already expressed its dissatisfaction over Saleh being seen as the main personality guiding the process. A 16 June meeting between the Turkish and Russian defence and foreign ministers was cancelled following Ankara’s opposition to Russian proposals that Saleh lead a new political process in the country.
The UN and AU are the only institutions that remain able to mediate and formulate a solution that would be acceptable to most parties. However, both institutions are hamstrung by the interests of powerful states; Egypt in the case of the AU, and France and Russia in the UNSC. The inability of the UNSC to appoint a replacement for former special envoy Ghassan Salame for three months also means that negotiations are not able to take place since there is no one to drive the process from the UN. Any lasting agreement will have to be in line with the fifty-five point roadmap agreed upon in Berlin in January to have a chance at success. Further, the UN’s three track negotiations process, dealing with economic, political and security/military issues, will need to be replicated to engender a more holistic solution.
by Mohammed Cherkaoui
Retired general Khalifa Haftar stated that his ‘Libyan National Army (LNA)’ had a ‘popular mandate’ to rule Libya and vowed to press his assault to seize Tripoli. In a televised address on his Libya al-Hadath TV channel, he announced, ‘The general command is answering the will of the people, despite the heavy burden and the many obligations and the size of the responsibility, and we will be subject to the people’s wish.’ He also declared the ‘end of the Skhirat Agreement’, a 2015 UN-mediated deal that consolidated Libya’s government. Haftar vowed his forces would work ‘to put in place the necessary conditions to build the permanent institutions of a civil state’. However, he did not specify whether the House of Representatives in Tobruk, eastern Libya, would support his plans. Similar to the kind of declaration that Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi made in 2013 to justify his coup against the democratically-elected president, Haftar’s unilateral ‘popular mandate’ and his intention to impose some de facto authority in Libya have serious ramifications, and indicate what could be a third legitimacy crisis in the last six years. His plans point to a further escalation of an open-ended crisis, which the UN Secretary General considers a ‘proxy war’. Another diplomatic puzzle is the future of the Libyan Political Agreement, or the ‘Skhirat Agreement’, signed on 17 December 2015 at a conference in Skhirat, Morocco.
After a 31-month tenure as UN special envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salamé submitted his resignation to the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, for ‘health reasons’, on 2 March 2020. His decision suggested deep frustration in his pursuit, for more than two and a half years, ‘to unite Libyans, prevent foreign intervention, and preserve the unity of the country’. The Trump administration refused to agree to the appointment of former Algerian foreign minister, Ramtane Lamamra, to replace Salamé. The US mission to the UN gave no explanation for opposing Lamamra, Algeria’s foreign minister from 2013 to 2017.
This paper examines what seems to be the dynamo factor, or driving force, of the Libyan conflict – fluctuation and reconstruction of political legitimacy. Since mid-2014, two legitimation crises have spoiled Libyan politics and weakened UN mediation, with two rounds of international recognition of one new political institution or another. Both institutions have required separate budgets, obtained from oil revenues, for the rival entities and their respective governments, which claimed distant interpretations of ‘legitimacy’ in the eyes of Libyans and the rest of the world. Moreover, most of the political process and interaction with the UN or foreign governments has been constrained by an ego-inflated dilemma of personal animosity between four figures with opposing views, scopes of power, and foreign affiliations.
This part 2 of the paper also probes the struggle of UN diplomacy, which had passed its eighth-year mark on 16 September 2019. It examines four main factors.
First, the construction of a double-edged legitimacy of two competing institutions: House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk with its government housed in Bayda, and the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. Second, the foreign interference of certain states such as Egypt, the UAE, Turkey, Qatar, France, Russia and the US have unduly affected the already-fragile balance of power on the ground, pitting various countries against each other. Third, the Libyan conflict has been subject to several diplomatic initiatives by the African Union (AU), the Arab League (AL), the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the European Union (EU). For instance, the AU initiative opted for a policy not to remove the Qaddafi regime, but committed itself to a ‘’reform process and a political transition’. Fourth, the mismatch between the discourse of ‘national unity’ and that of ‘counterterrorism’ since General Haftar pledged to ‘cleanse’ the western part of the country of terrorists’.
Khalifa Haftar and commanders of the Libyan National Army [Getty]
The Libyan conflict is a prime example of how the scope of differences and the extent of external geopolitical interests in the country cannot be contained or overcome. I have often argued that if local stakeholders in Libya, Syria, Yemen or elsewhere could free themselves from foreign manipulation and focus on devising a sustainable solution on their own terms, the prospects of finding a compromise, by either their own initiative or UN mediation efforts, would be rewarding. The interference of certain regional states and of superpowers has solidified the obduracy of these conflicts. The Libyan prime minister, Fayyez Sarraj, stated that foreign interference ‘is making the situation more difficult. It is not helping Libyans sit down and find a solution.’
Haftar’s role has attracted increasing support by several Gulf and European states, and, recently, of Trump’s White House. The Libyan bazaar has displayed the rise of Islamist groups, threats of Jihadi militias in Derna, the fight over the Oil Crescent, waves of sub-Saharan migration, and possible future arms deals, should Haftar succeed in becoming minister of defence, or the leader of a new Libya. Between 14 and 25 June 2018, the UN noted that a collation of armed groups attempted to seize control of oil facilities in the Oil Crescent. The Libyan National Army announced it would transfer management of the oil facilities to a non-recognised national oil corporation. These developments have prevented some 850 000 barrels of oil per day from being exported, and caused a loss of more than $900 million for Libya.
The UN Panel of Experts received independent, corroborated reports from multiple confidential sources that ‘Egypt has conducted air strikes against targets in the oil crescent to support the recapture by LNA of a number of oil terminals. Egypt denied that the Egyptian Armed Forces carried out these strikes.’ Steven Cook of the US Council on Foreign Relations explains how certain states have decided to invest in Haftar’s military power: ‘Thus, the Egyptians, Saudis, Emiratis, Russians, and French have bet on Haftar to repress Islamists and establish stability. For the French, Haftar may also be helpful in stemming the flow of migrants to Europe and protecting their oil interests. Given the internal and external dynamics that are driving support for Haftar, he may be able to carry on his fight for a long time.’
During his visit to Moscow in August 2017, Haftar was welcome ‘like a foreign leader already in office, arranging meetings with high-ranking ministers as well as security officials.’ The Kremlin adopted a two-part strategy: empowering Haftar and providing logistical and technical support for his National Army, while avoiding any apparent violation of the UN arms embargo. Some reports revealed that Moscow ‘could send weapons through Egypt, a pro-Haftar neighbor that borders the Haftar-held parts of eastern Libya and is said to have hosted Russian Special Forces’.
National Libyan Army [Getty]
Turning west, Meanwhile US President Donald Trump’s position on Libya shifted from downsizing the US Libya policy. In April 2017, he said: ‘I do not see a role in Libya’ (except) ‘getting rid of ISIS. We’re being very effective in that regard.’ Two years later, he highlighted the Haftar factor in more than the area of counterterrorism and geopolitics, as evidenced during his famous phone call to Haftar on 15 April 2019. In the call, Trump and Haftar spoke about ‘the need to achieve peace and stability in Libya’, and Trump ‘recognized Field Marshal Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources, and… discussed a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system.’ This interaction between the two men amounted to an endorsement of Haftar’s five-year quest to establish himself as Libya’s leader.
Haftar’s political silhouette also gained greater significance in the eyes of the US military establishment. Then-acting US Defence Secretary, Patrick Shanahan, underscored that ‘a military solution is not what Libya needs’, and supported Haftar’s ‘role in counterterrorism’. He added that Washington needed Haftar’s ‘support in building democratic stability in the region.’ In the same week, both the US and Russia said they could not support a UNSC resolution calling for a ceasefire in Libya. One can argue that Haftar’s claim of combatting ‘terrorists’ in eastern Libya has been an oversold narrative to get the support of the USA and several European and Gulf states for his armed campaign to capture the capital, Tripoli. When the battle of Sirte had escalated against the Islamic State group (IS), Haftar’s rivals, the Misrata Brigades, fought alongside GNA forces to defeat IS, without Haftar’s support.
The French president, Immanuel Macron, hosted more than one meeting between Haftar and Sarraj in Paris, but several calls for an unconditional ceasefire were rejected by Haftar – until recently. After talks in November 2018, Macron’s office said he reiterated France’s priorities in Libya: ‘Fight against terrorist groups, dismantle trafficking networks, especially those for illegal immigration, and permanently stabilize Libya.’ The dominant view in French government circles is that strongman solutions are ‘the only way to keep a lid on Islamist militancy and mass migration.’
The French position seems to support the objectives of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, not only in military and economic terms, but also as part of a regional ideological battle across the region. Steven Cook notes, ‘None of these countries ever believed in the promise of the Arab uprisings to produce more open and democratic societies. Their view is that the uprisings have only empowered Islamists and sown chaos. They also regard the internationally recognized government as one that is aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar, and Turkey – enemies of the governments in Cairo, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.’
Four years after the signing of the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) in Skhirat, Morocco, on 17 December 2015, Salamé repeatedly cautioned against the interference of regional and international powers in the Libyan conflict. He told the UNSC, ‘More than ever, Libyans are now fighting the wars of other countries who appear content to fight to the last Libyan and to see the country entirely destroyed in order to settle their own scores.’ He also bemoaned the delivery of weapons by foreign supporters as ‘falling into the hands of terrorist groups or being sold to them…This is nothing short of a recipe for disaster.’
Haftar remains the main player in the militarisation of the conflict, and a bulwark against Islamist groups, with growing external support. He managed to secure arms and maintenance for his military equipment despite the UN arms’ ban on Libya. He has also positioned himself as the saviour of post-Qaddafi Libya with the aim of assuming the presidency, and as the key figure in dealing with migration to Europe. ‘For the control of the borders in the south,’ he proposed, ‘I can provide human resources, but the Europeans must send aid, drones, helicopters, night-vision goggles and vehicles.’Responding to Haftar, Sarraj maintained that the Libyan civil war is not between Libya’s east and west, rather, ‘It is between people who back civilian government and those who want military rule.’
President Macron stands between Fayez Sarraj and Khalifa Haftar [Reuters]
From the onset of the Libyan conflict, several complexities caused by NATO’s military intervention in 2011, subsequent humanitarian and peacemaking missions, and other responses to regime change, have become entwined in the UN mediation process. This process has also coincided with competing diplomatic initiatives and distant trajectories pursued by the African Union (AU), the Arab League (AL), the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the European Union (EU). For instance, the AU initiative had opted not remove the Qaddafi regime, but was committed to a ‘reform process and a political transition’. As Edward Azar said, the Libyan conflict has the ‘propensity for involving neighboring communities and states, and even super powers.’ The 10th ministerial meeting of Libya’s neighbouring countries, held in Cairo, agreed on a ‘rejection of any external interference in the internal affairs of Libya’.
Libya remains a strategic supplier of energy for most southern European countries. France and Italy are at the top of the list of oil importers from the southern shore of the Mediterranean. Libya has the largest proven crude oil reserves in Africa at 48.4 billion barrels. It was producing around 1.6 million barrels per day before the collapse of the Qaddafi regime. A Libyan government audit conducted in 2017 estimated the total value of fuel smuggled out of the country at five billion dollars a year. Some observers highlight the fact that Paris has been quietly involved at least since 2015 ‘in building up the flashy uniformed baron of Benghazi as a strongman (that) it hopes can impose order on the vast, thinly populated North African oil producer and crack down on the Islamist groups that have flourished in the ungoverned spaces of the failed state.’
In January 2019, Italy’s deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, was blunt in expressing his criticism of Macron: ‘France has no interest in stabilizing the situation, probably because it has oil interests that are opposed to those of Italy.’ This statement provoked the anger of the Élysées, and caused a diplomatic row between Rome and Paris. The French government summoned the Italian ambassador for an explanation. Meanwhile, Haftar made little secret of modern French weaponry he had acquired, despite a UN arms embargo.
Macron had hosted a well-publicised meeting between Sarraj, Haftar, Aguila Issa, and Khalid al-Mishri in mid-2018, in Paris. It made news headlines with their ‘agreement’ on holding presidential and parliamentary elections in early 2019. France needed Haftar to be included in the dialogue because ‘he is in control of the Libyan areas where France’s interests lie, which means its oil wells in the Sirte Basin’, as Gabriele Lacovino of the Rome-based Center for International Studies explains. Macron described the accord as ‘historic’ and an ‘essential step towards reconciliation’. Representatives from EU countries, the USA and regional neighbours supported the agreement.
Transfer of arms into Libya despite the UN ban [Getty]
In early 2019, the AU called for an international conference on reconciliation in Libya. Three African nations – South Africa, Ivory Coast and Equatorial Guinea – introduced a draft resolution draft in October 2019 to appoint a joint AU-UN envoy for Libya, in an apparent attempt to replace Salamé. A leaked copy of the resolution draft expressed ‘deep concern over the security situation in Libya and the risk of a dangerous military escalation.’ It also called for compliance with the arms embargo and condemned ‘continued external interferences that are exacerbating the already volatile situation on the ground.’
The stalemate in the Libyan conflict resulted in a diplomatic showdown between Egypt and Qatar at the 74th UN General Assembly, in September 2019. Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a close ally of the UAE and a Haftar supporter, sought to play the counterterrorism card in justifying Haftar’s armed campaigns as a ‘fight against armed militias’ inside Libya. He told delegates of the 193 UN member states, ‘We need to work on unifying all national institutions in order to save our dear neighbor from the ensuing chaos by militias and prevent the intervention of external actors in Libya’s internal affairs.’ Five months earlier, during a visit to the White House, Sisi reportedly spoke to Trump at length about the need to support Haftar and not ‘leave him out in the cold’. However, Qatar’s emir, Shaykh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, accused Haftar’s forces of war crimes with the support of countries that were undermining the GNA and UN peace efforts. He told the UNGA, ‘The latest military operations on the capital Tripoli have thwarted the holding of the comprehensive Libyan national conference.’
Earlier, I addressed what seems to be UN diplomatic fatigue in securing a sustainable truce between Haftar’s forces and the GNA military. Other interpretations have called it ‘diplomatic paralysis’. The International Crisis Group indicated that, in 2019, the UNSC was, more than in previous years, ‘divided and unable to call for a cessation of hostilities, mostly owing to US opposition to a draft resolution that would have done just that. The US claims it resisted the draft resolution because it lacked a mechanism to ensure compliance, but its stance more likely reflected White House sympathy for Haftar and for his Saudi, Emirati and Egyptian supporters.’
In his testimony before the US House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Middle East, North Africa, and International Terrorism, Thomas Hill, senior programme officer at USIP, explained the causality of the struggling UN mediation in Libya. ‘If “Plan A” was to allow the United Nations to resolve the Libyan conflict, that experiment has failed. The United Nations was not able to constrain external actors who frequently sought to advance narrow self-interest at the expense of peace and stability in Libya. The United Nations was not given the resources or mandate necessary to fulfill its charge; in retrospect, a political mission did not have the coercive power to constrain internal spoilers and external actors.’
Thomas Hill senior program officer at USIP delivering his briefing at Congress [Reuters]
This medley of international and cross-Mediterranean initiatives of diplomacy adds to the complexity of the Libyan conflict. The UN mediation seems to be sandwiched between thick layers of the hidden agendas and strategic interests of outside stakeholders. This overlap of interventions and the variety of political agendas of several states – France, the USA, Egypt, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and others – have greatly undermined the possibility of reaching a permanent political solution for Libya. Accordingly, the UN may need to return to the drawing board and affirm the singularity of its mediation process i.e., one track of UN mediation to be reflected in UNSC resolutions.
Since early 2015, Haftar has positioned himself as Libya’s driving force in counterterrorism, while leading his self-proclaimed Libyan National Army on his ‘Operation Dignity’. He has often sugar-coated his fierce military attacks in eastern Libya and, later, western Libya, with the alleged ‘pursuit of eradicating jihadi groups’. Besides external support, he has also galvanised the allegiance of several armed groups, including the 106th Infantry Brigade, the Tarhouna-based 9th Infantry Brigade, Chadian and Sudanese rebels, and some elements associated with Qaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam. Haftar experimented with his anti-terror venture by targeting Ansar al-Sharia, a jihadist group in Benghazi, in 2015, before zooming in on the town of Derna and extending his armed campaign towards Tripoli with a rebranded ‘End of Treachery’ Operation in 2019. In April 2019, he asserted, ‘We hear your call Tripoli. It is now the time for the great victory. March forward.’ A senior French official said support for Haftar was partly driven by the imperative of preventing the supply of arms and funds to jihadist groups threatening fragile governments in Niger, Chad and Mali, which are backed by France’s Operation Barkhane.
One of the worst single atrocities of the Libyan Civil War occurred in July 2019, resulting in the deaths of at least fifty-three refugees at a detention centre near Tripoli. The incident is one of many attacks launched by Haftar’s forces with foreign logistical support. UN arms’ experts suspected the involvement of ‘foreign fighter jets’. Former British ambassador to Libya, Peter Millett, pointed out that ‘the only two countries with capacity and motive to mount the strike were the UAE and Egypt.’ He called on the UNSC to discuss, at ambassadorial level, how outside powers were prolonging the conflict in Libya and extending the suffering of the Libyan people. For instance, the UAE has plans to dominate shipping lanes, including in the Mediterranean Sea, and considers Libya’s geographical position important for this project. The Emiratis aspire to exploit Libya’s huge energy resources and need for reconstruction.
In 2019, Haftar’s role and political status gained momentum on account of three moves by three powerful states.
In the eyes of those governments, Haftar’s anti-terror narrative has overshadowed the ferocity and vengeance of his troops against Islamist groups and GNA supporters. One Libya observer explained Haftar’s history of ‘repackaging failed military coups as “wars on terror” to justify excessive use of force whilst gaining international legitimacy and political support in the process.’ In a mocking comment on Haftar’s power in Libya, Osama al-Juwaili, the leading commander of the GNA forces, told the New York Times, ‘Why all this pain? Just stop this now and assign the guy [Haftar] to rule us!’
The political turmoil has entered its ninth year in Libya, while perpetuating a complex intrastate conflict with no apparent light at the end of the tunnel. The Libyan Political Agreement is stuck in a protracted limbo with no hope of reconciliation. Between the high point of peacemaking in 2015 when the parties signed the LPA in Morocco, and the low point of military offensives and counter offensives around Tripoli in 2019, UN diplomacy has shifted to backpedalling on several issues, notably the elections and the new constitution project. There is also a sense of loss and despair among elites and ordinary individuals, both inside Libya and in the Libyan diaspora. The balance of power between Haftar’s forces, the HoR, GNA and other stakeholders is fluid, and the GNA, the UN-recognised government, does not have much control in the country.
There was little optimism in the new round of talks in March in Berlin. German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, warned that the Libyan civil war could spiral into a larger conflict, much like the one in Syria. The nightmarish scenario of a huge influx of migrants across the Mediterranean is imminent should the country slide into a larger civil war. One cannot belittle the skills and reputation of those world diplomats at the UNSMIL headquarters in Libya, or at various capitals, who remain sincere is their search for a political solution for Libya. There is always the same high degree of optimism prior to every meeting about Libya, whether in Tunis, Skhirat, Paris, Palermo, or Berlin. There has been no viable prospect of securing the commitment of the five top men of new Libya - Haftar, Saleh, Sarraj, Mishri, and Swehli - to any sustainable political formula.
The UN process of mediation should not compete with any parallel initiatives proposed by other international bodies or countries, or any latent manipulation of the status quo in favour of one group over another. There is consensus among most Libyan observers that a permanent political solution is not possible ‘if external actors and nation-states continue to intervene in Libya in ways that prioritize their own interests over those of the Libyan people.’ This paradox of UN mediation and foreign manipulation by several external actors defies the wisdom of envisioning a political settlement of the Libyan conflict. All international diplomatic gestures need to be aligned and coordinated via the UN platform, with a well-defined trajectory, rather than any zero-sum equation or realist calculation. UNSMIL’s mandate can be inclusive of such coordination.
Former UN envoy to Libya Ghassan Salamé [Reuters]
* Dr. Mohammed Cherkaoui is a Professor of Conflict Resolution at George Mason University in Washington D.C. and former member of the United Nations Panel of Experts.
** This article was first published b y Al Jazeera Centre for Studies
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