Libya’s Role in the Polarized Sunni World

"Libyan National Army" commander Khalifa Haftar

by Giorgio Cafiero and Elaine Miao 

When NATO launched Operation Unified Protector against the Libyan regime in 2011, the alliance received support from its own member Turkey, as well as two Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf: Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The Qatari and Emirati militaries directly intervened on the side of anti-Qaddafi revolutionaries. Yet these three U.S. allies’ agendas quickly diverged, with Turkey, Qatar, the UAE, and other Sunni Muslim states—Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan—seeking to shape Libya’s future in fundamentally different directions.

Today, Libya is home to several proxy wars waged by regional states with high stakes in the Maghrebi country’s future. On one side, Qatar, Turkey, and Sudan officially support Libya’s internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), based in Tripoli and led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. The GNA is fragile and maintains varying degrees of loyalty from—while wielding minimal control over—a loose coalition of militias, including Islamist groups that have been receiving support from Doha since 2011. On the other side, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE back Libya’s secular-leaning parliament in Tobruk, headed by Abdullah al-Thinni and supported by the Libyan National Army (LNA), led by General Khalifa Haftar.

A Dispute Over Political Islam

Supporting Libya’s Islamist factions offered both Ankara and Doha the means to extend their influence across a large, oil-rich Mediterranean country. These two states pinned their hopes on the Muslim Brotherhood’s ascendancy following Libya’s chaotic political opening in 2011. On the opposite end of the ideological spectrum, the UAE saw the rise of Islamist forces in post-Qaddafi Libya as an unacceptable danger to the fundamental interests of Arab governments and societies, as well as to regional security. A host of other Middle Eastern governments shared Abu Dhabi’s perception.

The ongoing Qatari diplomatic crisis shows that longstanding divisiveness in the region over the question of political Islam persists. Libya has become one focal point in this battle for the future of the Arab world. On June 5, the Tobruk parliament, known as the House of Representatives (HoR), joined the “quartet”—Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE—in cutting off relations with Qatar based on the allegation that the Arabian emirate has been “harboring terrorism.” Shortly before that move, Haftar directly accused Doha of supporting terrorist groups that have wreaked havoc across Libya.

Tobruk’s decision to back the quartet against Qatar was unsurprising, given that Qatari support is helping Libyan Islamist forces resist Haftar’s efforts to defeat them. Bunyan al-Marsous, a Qatari-backed coalition of mainly Islamist armed groups from Misrata, has been battling the LNA in recent months for control of Jufra. Earlier this month, a delegation representing the coalition went to Doha and met with Qatar’s Minister of Defense. Bunyan al-Marsous’ spokesperson, Mohammed Al-Ghasri, expressed “the Libyan people’s thanks to Qatar for its efforts in the fight against [Islamic State] terrorists.”

Tobruk officials frequently point their fingers at Qatar amid the LNA’s ongoing battle to prevent Muslim Brotherhood figures and other Islamists, which quartet members designate as terrorists, from gaining power. By supporting the Saudi/UAE-led bloc, Haftar hopes to gain stronger military and economic support from the GCC states and from neighboring Egypt. He needs that aid if he hopes to someday seize power in Tripoli and reunify the country under his rule.

Qatar’s Role

Two months ago, the quartet issued a “terrorist list” made up of 59 individuals and 12 entities. Five of the individuals and one of the entities came from Libya. The following month, the same four Arab governments issued another list that included two alleged terrorist individuals and six groups based in Libya. Given that some of these designated terrorists, such as al-Sadiq Abd al-Rahman Ali al-Ghiryani, are militantly anti-Haftar, it is easy to understand why Tobruk joined the quartet in severing ties with Doha. From Tobruk’s perspective, the move was long overdue.

Opposition among Libyans to Qatar’s foreign policy fits into an ideological context. Officials in Tobruk and their secular supporters in Libya have grievances over Qatar’s role in empowering Islamists across the beleaguered North Africa country since the anti-Qaddafi revolution. Although in actuality Doha’s foreign policy in Libya since 2011 has been more nuanced, the perception of the emirate as a patron of violent extremism in Libya has been widespread. Since shortly after the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya’s fall there have been scenes of the country’s citizens burning Qatari flags and, on at least one occasion, an effigy of Qatar`s former Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, to display their anger toward Doha.

Haftar and the HoR officials also identify Turkey and Sudan as bearing responsibility for radical terrorist groups’ ascendancy in Libya. Notably, last month the HoR, which has accused the Sudanese regime of arming militants in Libya, closed Khartoum’s Consulate in Kofra near the Libyan-Sudanese border, citing Khartoum’s alleged human trafficking activities in Eastern Libya. Officials in Khartoum have accused the HoR of sponsoring rebels and mercenaries from Darfur, and Sudan has formally recognized Libya’s Tripoli-based Government of National Accord as the North African country’s legitimate ruling entity. These dynamics in are adding to instability in the region amid the Qatar crisis.

Backing Haftar

Emirati and Egyptian leaders view Haftar as the Libyan figure most capable of defeating the Qatar-backed Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups seen by the quartet as terrorists. The former Qaddafi regime official, frequently labeled the “renegade general,” is undoubtedly the most influential political figure in Libya today. His LNA maintains control of much of eastern Libya, large parts of southern Libya, and strategic ports and oil fields along the Mediterranean coast and in the Sirte Basin. Cairo and Abu Dhabi have offered substantial support to the LNA as financial backers, diplomatic/political sponsors, and military allies. Since August 2014, both the UAE and Egypt have intervened militarily in support of Haftar’s forces, with the former having established a forward operating base in Al-Khadim Airport in Marj province, from where the LNA and its allies have launched attacks against their Islamist enemies.

The high-stakes competition in Libya unfolds amid a grander struggle between Turkey and the UAE for influence in Africa and the Persian Gulf. Ankara has established a military training base in Mogadishu, Somalia, and is deepening its relations with the Sudanese regime. Turkey’s plans in Africa challenge the Emiratis, who have established military bases in Berbera, Somaliland, and Eritrea’s port city of Assab not only as part of the Saudi/UAE-led military coalition’s intervention in Yemen, but also as part of Abu Dhabi’s quest to assert a more dominant foreign policy in the continent. The joint Turkish-Qatari base in Qatar has been a major source of unease for officials in Abu Dhabi as they do not welcome the military presence in the GCC of any state, like Turkey, that backs the Muslim Brotherhood.

Libya’s strategic location and oil wealth mean that the international community has a lot to lose should it fall into the hands of extremist groups. Islamic State’s previous takeovers of Derna and Sirte highlighted the failed North African state’s vulnerability. None of the regional states have any interest in seeing menacing terrorist organizations usurp more control and ideological influence in the bifurcated country. Yet rather than uniting to counter internationally recognized terrorist groups, the Sunni Muslim states that have intervened in Libya’s civil war are battling each other instead with one of these governments patronizing a group deemed a terrorist organization by another. Tragically, the intensification of these proxy wars will only further dim the prospects for peace between Libya’s two power centers in Tripoli and Tobruk as well as a host of countless armed groups across the country.

Elaine Miao is a contributor to Gulf State Analytics (@GulfStateAnalyt), a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy.

Giorgio Cafiero

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. In addition to LobeLog, he also writes for The National Interest, Middle East Institute, and Al Monitor. From 2014-2015, Cafiero was an analyst at Kroll, an investigative due diligence consultancy. He received an M.A. in International Relations from the University of San Diego.


One Comment

  1. Many consider Qatar and UAE and Turkey as being aiders of terrorists- maybe Libya should have been left alone- the country because of the one powerful leader. Now there are several gangs of fighters trying to find resources for themselves and their families. President Clinton tried to topple the one big man in a peaceful Somalia so that his choice would rule- that failed. In 2009 Hillary/Obama provided some Shiites in Baghdad arms- they used the arms to slaughter 40,000 to 50,000 gunless Sunni men and women and children in central Iraq- they are still fighting there 8 years later. President Clinton sent 28,000 US soldiers to help those in western Afghanistan conquer the rest of what the map of Afghanistan shows- they are still there fighting, about 100,000(Obama talked about those leaving but never about those going in).

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