A group of countries involved in the ongoing civil war in Libya agreed at a meeting in Berlin on January 19 to uphold a UN arms embargo and stop international meddling in the country’s conflict.
Germany wants to find a way to end the ongoing conflict in Libya to prevent the North African country from becoming a “new Syria”. With Libya a key transit country for migration on the shores of Europe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her European partners have a keen interest in stabilising the country. Also present at the Berlin meeting were representatives from Turkey, Russia, the UAE, Egypt, Algeria, Italy, France, the UK, the US and China who all have interests in the country.
My own ongoing research is looking at the ideology of different Islamist and Salafi groups in Libya since the overthrow of Muammar Gadaffi in 2011, a dimension that is often underestimated in the dynamics of the conflict. Since April 2019, Libya has been embroiled in another wave of civil war, initiated by the head of the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA), Khalifa Haftar, who aimed to take over the capital, Tripoli, from the Government of National Accord (GNA), which is backed by the UN.
While the attack by Haftar’s LNA caught the GNA – and the international community – by surprise, so far, he has failed to seize Tripoli from the GNA, led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. Both sides of the conflict rely on groups that carry ideological imprints that shape their behaviour and affect their international alliances.
For example the fall of Sirte to the LNA on January 6 was enabled by the changing of sides of 604 Brigade, that espouses Salafism, a branch of Sunni Islam, and specifically the teaching of Saudi scholar Rabee al-Madkhali. Previously affiliated with the GNA, the group has now allied itself with the LNA, showing the potential repercussions of having Salafi-Madkhali groups present in the security forces on both main sides of the civil war in Libya.
Haftar’s military offensive has been characterised by repeated declarations of a “zero hour” and claims – none of them fulfilled – that Tripoli would soon fall to his forces. His offensive has been supported by foreign powers via arms shipments, and the deployment to Libya of military equipment and foreign fighters.
The new emphasis in Berlin on enforcing the arms embargo is crucial to the prospects of peace in Libya. Ending foreign interference is essential to alleviate the suffering of the local population who have been the target of multiple airstrike campaigns in recent years. Ultimately, the Berlin peace conference was right to emphasise the importance of a political solution over a military “win”.
Read more: Why 'too many cooks in the kitchen' could inhibit a peace deal in Libya
Nearly a decade of sanctions
The UN Security Council placed an arms embargo on Libya in February 2011 relating to the supply of arms and military equipment to and from Libya. Initially, the sanctions targeted the Gadaffi regime because of its brutal and systematic violations of the human rights of anti-government protesters.
The sanctions regime has been amended three times since then, most recently in July 2016 to authorise states to inspect vessels on the high seas off Libya’s coast believed to be in violation of the arms embargo.
From the start, there were challenges connected to the longstanding absence of a global enforcer that is capable, interested and willing to bring violators of the arms embargo to task.
Breaches of the arms embargo have come from different directions. First from states that intervene – usually on behalf of their local proxies. And second, non-state groups such as militias and smugglers, who are emboldened by official embargoes to import and sell weapons illegally. These militias are, however, unlikely to be deterred by international naming and shaming or warnings of punishment.
Reports by multiple UN expert panels, the latest published in December 2019, have outlined breaches of the arms embargo. The experts reported that the UAE and Egypt have breached the arms embargo by supplying weapons to forces affiliated with Haftar’s LNA. More recently, Haftar’s forces have also benefited from the support of the Russian mercenaries from the infamous Wagner group, accused of waging secret wars on the Kremlin’s behalf around the world.
The different armed factions fighting on behalf of the GNA have mostly received military support from Turkey, which has increased its involvement considerably in recent months to try and prevent Haftar’s military victory. The presence of Chadian and Sudanese armed groups in support of forces affiliated with both the GNA and LNA have also been singled out by UN experts.
Chances for change are slim
The countries at the Berlin conference were therefore right to emphasise and agree a commitment to:
Refraining from interference in the armed conflict or in the internal affairs of Libya and urge all international actors to do the same.
While this commitment is desperately needed, it’s not sufficient to end the conflict and the big challenge is how to enforce the embargo. The lack of an impartial, international enforcing power makes this all the more complex.
The theoretical structures are in place, the reporting mechanisms are clear, and the UN experts have provided thorough evidence of breaches of the embargo, but it’s unlikely that the UN Security Council will agree to apply sanctions as a result. The ingrained wariness and diverging interests among international powers over Libya means they have little trust in the impartial implementation of sanctions. The foreign states supporting the GNA and LNA don’t believe the other will stick to the embargo – and nobody wants to weaken their allies’ chances of victory.
Individual sanctions need to be decided by the UN Security Council, which is riddled by diverging interests and dictated by the veto power of its permanent members. For example, one of the most obvious candidates for sanctions would be the UAE. But, given the closeness between the UAE and the US, which has military forces stationed in the UAE, the Americans are unlikely to want to jeopardise the relationship by pushing sanctions.
A stable truce in Libya needs an efficient arms embargo. The ultimate beneficiaries of such an embargo – the Libyan population – are unlikely to see any improvements soon. The years of international meddling have led to many countries having steadfast interests in Libya, and as it currently stands, no one is willing to take losses.