Russia Isn’t the Only One Getting Its Hands Dirty in Libya
The United Arab Emirates, backed by France, is helping to fuel continued bloodshed in the North African country.
With all eyes on the coronavirus, one of the Middle East’s most protracted conflicts shows no sign of abating, and foreign actors seem committed to fanning the flames. U.S. policymakers are mostly concerned with the increasing role of Russia, but among the flurry of actors involved in Libya’s turmoil today, the United Arab Emirates stands out as the only state whose intervention is ignored by the United States and other powers. This needs to change if the international community is serious about forging a resolution between the country’s warring factions.
One of the primary motivations of the UAE’s support for the Libyan National Army’s (LNA) leader, Khalifa Haftar, is its obsession with Islamism. Abu Dhabi wants to establish an authoritarian dictatorship in Libya that will stamp out any and all forms of political Islam, putting it at odds with Qatar and Turkey, both of which would prefer to see Islamists hold at least some power in the North African country. To this end, the Emirates had already financed and politically supported the coup against Egypt’s democratically elected then President Mohamed Morsi in 2013. In a cynical zero-sum game catalyzed by the ripple effect of current President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s ascent to power in Egypt, as well as other intra-Gulf rivalries, Abu Dhabi, Doha, and Ankara exploited Libyans’ post-revolution grievances and thwarted the country’s transition to democracy, fueling its descent into civil war.
Both Turkey and Qatar’s involvement gradually receded after 2014, in part because of the unpopularity of their Islamist proxies among large sections of the Libyan public, but more so to acknowledge an emerging international consensus in support of a U.N.-backed political process.
But while the international community consolidated its efforts to bring about a political solution, the UAE’s footprint in the country expanded. Since April 4, 2019, alone, Abu Dhabi has conducted more than 850 drone and jet strikes on Haftar’s behalf. Open source data also shows that, since January 2020, more than a 100 airlifters suspected of carrying tons of weaponry flew from the UAE into eastern Libya and Egypt. Abu Dhabi is also suspected of tricking Sudanese workers into working as mercenaries with the LNA, along with transferring jet fuel to sustain Khalifa Haftar’s war effort.
Emirati drone strikes are believed to have killed scores of people and have caused immense material damage, a toll borne overwhelmingly by Libya’s civilian population. This situation is no longer just perpetuating the conflict—it’s exacerbating it, creating a major humanitarian catastrophe in one of the world’s most fragile areas.
Yet neither the United Nations nor Abu Dhabi’s great-power protectors—the United States and France—have done much in the way of curbing this activity, and some policymakers have gone as far as rationalizing the UAE’s behavior because they agree with its broader geoeconomic objectives. While this notion might have carried some weight in past years, the fact that the UAE is willing to enable the total destruction of Tripoli and its infrastructure today is evidence that its ideological investment in Haftar outweighs any future economic considerations.
Even the UAE’s stated ideological objectives don’t resonate with the public anymore. Many Libyans are disillusioned with the aftermath of the revolution and would welcome a strong leader who offers to bring a semblance of security and stability. Aside from the obvious ramifications this poses for the future prospects of liberal democracy in the country, Haftar’s own strength is highly questionable.
His bloody and destructive Pyrrhic victories in Benghazi and Derna would likely not have been possible without extensive backing from both the Emiratis and the Egyptians. Cairo’s close proximity to Libya and Sisi’s ideological alignment with Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed was a crutch for Haftar, who relied on both men to give him air superiority as well as strategic and materiel support. Abu Dhabi even established its own air base in eastern Libya in 2017, ironically refurbishing the military facility in the midst of political dialogue aimed at ending the conflict. This asset enabled Haftar’s territorial expansion into large swaths of the country as Abu Dhabi continued to provide air cover.
In the current fighting around Tripoli, Emirati-piloted Chinese-made drones and fixed-wing aircraft still allegedly use the air base as a launching pad, facilitating the LNA’s advance. Haftar needed this extensive backing to attain the military advantage he enjoys today, and while this has given him leverage in both the civil war and the peace talks, his ability to rule a post-conflict Libya without foreign support is highly dubious.
But it isn’t just the UAE’s military intervention that gives Haftar leverage. His strength also stems from the UAE’s ability to influence—and, at times, freeze—diplomacy surrounding Libya by pushing its own interests through its bilateral ties, chiefly the ones it shares with France. Recognizing that the United States’ role in the Middle East and North Africa was declining, the UAE expanded its own role by capitalizing on European countries’ inability to collectively project influence without the United States. The primary European ally that Abu Dhabi galvanized into independently supporting its vision for Libya was France, a country with whom it already shared close bilateral security ties.
France’s clandestine military support of Haftar began in Benghazi as early as 2015, with a view toward countering terrorism and restoring security in Libya. Paris’ support of the authoritarian Haftar looks inimical to its liberal-democratic values, but it is broadly in line with its efforts to develop military alliances with authoritarian leaders in other parts of Africa to secure the Sahel.
For the UAE, the real added value of Paris’ support of its project in Libya was not in the military realm, but the political one. The election of Emmanuel Macron as French president in 2017 gave the UAE’s presence in Libya vital diplomatic cover because of Macron’s appetite for disruptive foreign policy.
France’s intervention helped turn Haftar’s control of eastern Libya and much of Libya’s oil infrastructure into political capital, and Macron hosted ameeting between Haftar and Government of National Accord’s (GNA) Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj in 2017. That meeting became the blueprint for the peace talks that have since developed, and the rest of the international community has gradually moved in support of the power-sharing initiative. Even Italy, which had concerns about the possibility of reinstalling a dictator in Libya, still fell into line. But this peace initiative suffers from an inherent problem: Few of the major players are that serious about reaching a settlement. Neither Haftar nor the UAE were ever genuinely interested in an inclusive Libya in which Haftar would share power with the GNA.
More than that, the UAE has successfully diluted the importance of diplomacy involving Libya altogether. Through its bilateral ties and lobbying efforts, Abu Dhabi enabled Haftar to evade much public condemnation for his bellicosity. The Libya-related conferences that were hosted in foreign capitals were often followed by Haftar launching military operations that ran counter to these meetings’ very purpose. Western policymakers did little to challenge Haftar on this, and they never appeared to question the efficacy of their strategy of appeasement or the power-sharing blueprint.
The counterintuitive nature of international powers supporting Haftar while simultaneously pushing for a peace agreement was epitomized by one particular episode in 2019. Shortly after a French-backed operation saw Haftar expand into Libya’s southwestern Fezzan region and take full control of the country’s oil infrastructure, the UAE hosted him and Sarraj to cement a power-sharing agreement. Coasting on the favorable momentum afforded by an aura of inevitability and Western complacency, Haftar reneged on this deal by attacking Tripoli in April 2019, and the UAE dutifully deployed its drones to support him. In doing so, Haftar pulverized the political process and extended the civil war into the foreseeable future.
Emirati support effectively affords Haftar complete impunity on the international stage. This is compounded by the fact that both Turkey and Russia have once again become more deeply involved in the conflict, capitalizing on the muted international response that followed Haftar’s offensive in April 2019. The involvement of Ankara and Moscow has attracted far more attention and criticism from Western powers than Abu Dhabi’s has. These countries have both sent hundreds of mercenaries and military contractors as well as tons of military hardware to Libya and have been rightly named and shamed for doing so, but the UAE’s prolonged intervention continues to be treated as an invisible feature of the conflict.
This is the primary obstacle to achieving a long-term settlement in Libya. The bias of Western policymakers has shielded the UAE from the reputational damage one would have expected its long-standing intervention in Libya to have garnered. With Haftar’s offensive now faltering as Ankara steps up its own military involvement, the UAE is once again incentivized to escalate since it fears no consequences. European diplomats must now exert pressure on Paris to prioritize a more coherent European position vis-à-vis Libya over its narrow interests with Abu Dhabi. To date, Western diplomats’ backdoor meetings with Emirati counterparts have failed to bring about de-escalation because oftheir reluctance to use the tools of coercion at their disposal.
European and U.S. officials should jointly apply pressure by threatening the declassification of information regarding all U.N. arms embargo violations in Libya—including the UAE’s long-standing contraventions. The threat of presenting frequent violators to a U.N. sanctions committee, coupled with the possible reputational risks involved, would force new norms of behavior on Abu Dhabi in Libya. This would also represent a much-needed admonishment that would temper the UAE’s belligerence in light of its disregard for international law in other contexts. A concerted diplomatic effort from both Washington and Brussels that forces the UAE to halt its armed support for Haftar is the only way to avert an escalation that will plunge Libya into further bloodshed and destruction.