Issues & Insights
Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who helped Muammar Qaddafi come into power in 1969 and now seeks to overrun Libya's internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA).

What’s Really at Stake in Libya

It would be nice to think Russia merely wants to sow confusion across North Africa and the Mediterranean, and that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) merely seeks to root out any trace of the Muslim Brotherhood in favor of its own brand of extremist Islam. But their support for renegade warlord Khalifa Haftar, who’s been trying to overrun Libya’s internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) and rule Libya with an iron fist also advances their particular economic and strategic interests.

Earlier this month, the day after news that Dubai Ports World (DP World) is returning to full state ownership by the UAE, Haftar attacked the Tripoli port. With funding and advanced drone systems (and operators) from the UAE, Haftar has already blockaded other Libyan ports and oil facilities for weeks, costing Libya billions of dollars in lost production. This reduced production also helps UAE’s Saudi partners keep oil prices from dropping too much during the Coronavirus downturn.

Russian mercenaries make up the elite core of Haftar’s ground forces, and Moscow has opened its own diplomatic track rivaling the one mandated by the United Nations Security Council. Haftar’s latest attack occurred just as Libyan government officials were in Geneva to resume ceasefire negotiations with Haftar’s representatives.

While UAE seeks to dominate ports and boost its investment across Africa, Russia wants control over Libya’s oil reserves — the largest in Africa — and naval access along the southern Mediterranean. The fact that Moscow has potential replacements for Haftar waiting in the wings, including Qaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam, reflects Vladimir Putin’s lack of concern for Libya’s future, as long as Russia gets what it needs.

In 2006, DP World’s bid to take over American ports was rejected by Republicans and Democrats in Congress and in governors’ mansions across the country, out of concern this would constitute a national security risk.

The GNA has made clear that, while it is open to doing business with Russia and the Emirates, it remains engaged with other Gulf states as well as European and American companies. The Libyan people did not overthrow Muammar Qaddafi only to become a beachhead for the Kremlin or the property of a new overlord who rules through blood and force. 

Given Russia’s scorched-earth response to Muslims seeking freedom in places such as Chechnya and Syria, and UAE’s destructive war in Yemen, neither country sees a democratic, Western-leaning Libya serving its interests. Americans should see this fight for what it is — it’s fundamentally an attack against American values and interests.

Gerstman is a founding partner of Gotham Government Relations & Communications, which has previously represented the Trump Organization and currently represents the UN-recognized GNA in the United States.

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1 comment

  • It’s hard for me to fill out a score card on this, never mind who’s winning, Or is this one of those wars in which no matter who wins, America loses.
    This is a situation critical to the Europeans, and I suppose you could make a case for it being a critical NATO flank.
    This is one of the conflicts described by Sean McFate in his book, The New Rules of War, the war being fought via mercenaries, shadow and proxy actors, the war being fought over resources,oil reserves worth billions, if not trillions and even market access.
    Russian merci Aries have a way of showing up where there’s valuable petroleum reserves and probably other mineral resources. They may be cheaper than some other security groups, such as inMozambique, where they’re cheaper than South Africans, who are more knowledgeable of the territory. Putin apparently doesn’t need to worry that much about questions being asked back home in Russia.
    Probably the big issue is who the winner will eventually be.
    Another point, America isn’t the world’s policeman. This is the kind of conflict that in former times required a policeman, although George HW Bush did pretty good when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.
    Probably, if anything, that should be the approach with Libya now, build a coalition,
    This is the Southern European’s backyard, along with Algeria, Egypt, and Turkey is already deeply involved. If they don’t take care of it, the unrest will spread. China is also likely eyeing the business opportunities in the region.
    A central issue is when do security, bilitary and business issues converge and when should they be kept separate.
    This wars means in the new business climate, if you want to do business, you will need a security force large enough to protect your investment, otherwise, military strength will prevail, whether it’s militias, mercenary contractors, or national security and defense forces.

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