On January 8, 2020, Russia and Turkey released a joint statement advocating for a ceasefire in Libya, where conflict continues between the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libyan National Army (LNA). The following day, however, the leader of the LNA, Khalifa Haftar, rejected the ceasefire and confirmed his intention to continue combat operations. Currently, the LNA controls the majority of Libya’s territory, with the GNA controlling only a relatively small area around the capital, Tripoli, a city on the Mediterranean in the country’s northeast. LNA forces have been moving westward along the coast towards the capital, and on January 6 took control of the coastal city of Sirte, roughly 300km from Tripoli. The LNA will now continue to move westward towards Tripoli, and may soon threaten the coastal city of Misurata, which has provided a significant number of troops for the defense of the capital. These indicators of continuing military conflict within Libya are a sign of ongoing and potentially heightened instability throughout the North Africa-Middle East macro-region, which poses a number of economic and strategic risks for the country itself and the region more broadly.
Libya has faced a series of internal conflicts since the NATO-led intervention in 2011, significantly affecting the country’s economy. These conflicts have impacted both trade and investment. Prior to 2011, Libya exported 1.6 million barrels per day (BPD). This number has fallen to roughly 1.1 million BPD. Much of the country’s oil is produced in the east, which is controlled by the LNA, but revenues are collected by the GNA in Tripoli. Due to the ongoing war, Libya is not required to follow OPEC-related stipulations aimed at limiting global supply. Oil revenues reached $24.5 billion in 2018, primarily from the sale of light sweet crude, and production is projected to double by 2023. However, Haftar’s military push towards the west may leave the oil fields he controls in the east vulnerable to takeover by other militia groups. Lastly, conflict has devastated the country’s infrastructure, and many foreign countries may vie for reconstruction contracts if and when Libya stabilizes. Once the war ends, the victor may choose to reward partner countries with these contracts and deny contracts to foreign countries that supported the opposing side.
The conflicts in Libya have evolved over time and pose strategic risks for the region. A UN arms embargo on the country as a whole, which has been in place since 2011, has not been entirely successful. While actual arms imports may be low, the ongoing Libyan conflict has morphed into a proxy war, with both sides being propped up by outside powers. The United States, Turkey, and Qatar support the GNA in Tripoli. The UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and to an extent France and Russia support the LNA under Haftar. While no foreign troops are on the ground officially, stocks of foreign weapons have been found in the country, and an estimated 1400 Russian mercenaries are currently in Libya. Russia maintains contacts and cooperation with both the GNA and LNA and aims to benefit after conflict ceases regardless of the outcome. Turkey announced on January 5 that troops had been deployed for Libya to provide non-combat support of the GNA. Such interventions have the potential to snowball into ever-larger foreign proxy interventions and may lead to more widespread and destructive war within Libya. Lastly, the Libyan conflict further demonstrates Russia’s attempts to influence countries and strategic markets within the Middle East and North Africa. The conflict may in time lead to a clear victor, or to a middle ground in which each side − along with foreign partners − carves an area of influence within the borders of the country.
Significant uncertainty persists over the outcome of the Libyan civil war and escalating foreign interventions further complicate the military and strategic balance. Neighboring countries in the Maghreb region of northwest Africa, such as Algeria and Tunisia, are likely watching the on-going conflicts and foreign interventions in Libya with increasing unease. If the conflict persists, the costs borne by Libya and its partners will continue to increase, creating significant risks for Libya itself and the region as a whole.