Washington – The long-running Libyan civil war appears to be staggering toward a finale. In recent days, the forces of Gen. Khalifa Haftar, who controls the marginalized east and south of the country, have been forced to withdraw from their stalled offensive against the capital, Tripoli. It is a triumph for the internationally recognized Government of National Unity, led by the elected prime minister, Fayez al-Sarraj.
But the fighting is not simply a domestic issue — Libya’s civil war has become a proxy for regional and global power geopolitics. It is also a legacy of the way in which the West abandoned the country a decade ago.
The Tripoli government is supported strongly by Turkey, while Haftar’s coalition is backed by Russia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, France and a smattering of other nations operating clandestinely. Haftar’s defeat may be an opening for a negotiated settlement, but it will require those outside nations to push the warring sides to the table. The United States and European Union also have a role to play.
Libya has Africa’s largest oil reserves, but production has cratered to almost nothing from over 1.6 million barrels daily before the fall of the dictator Moammar Gadhafi a decade ago. All of this could have been avoided. Libya also has gorgeous beaches and an educated, middle-class population; it could have become a kind of "Dubai on the Mediterranean.” But it all fell apart in 2011.
As supreme allied commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, I oversaw a significant Western intervention following Gadhafi’s threats to destroy the eastern city of Benghazi and create "a river of blood,” as his son Saif put it. The United Nations Security Council passed resolutions calling on NATO to set up an arms embargo from the sea, a no-fly zone in the air, and to take all necessary combat measures to stop the dictator under the international legal doctrine of "responsibility to protect.”
The NATO coalition I led was joined by many Arab nations in close support, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the U.A.E. Our mission was not to overthrow Gadhafi per se. But his regime was weakened by NATO efforts, including a precise bombing campaign. The rebellious population eventually overthrew him, and he was brutally killed by a mob.
At that moment, unfortunately, the resolve of the West was weak. NATO, its military mission complete, withdrew. I looked with disappointment at the EU and the rest of the global community refusing to remain and stabilize the situation. Libya descended into the chaos it still suffers today. The ancient animosities inside the country are largely tribal at heart, and rooted in resentments between the relatively wealthier west and the oil-poor east and south.
In the aftermath of the NATO intervention, I met with Haftar, a dual Libyan-U.S. citizen who lived near Washington for years. I was impressed with his energy and drive, and hoped he could be part of resolving the tensions in the country after the NATO mission departed.
But as the civil war has dragged on since 2014, Haftar has led a campaign to dominate the country militarily, leading nations from across the region to intervene either for or against him. Turkey has been particularly engaged, throwing its support behind the Tripoli government. Russia joined the Arab states supporting Haftar, sending in a comically inept mercenary force, the Wagner Group, to try and swing events in the general’s favor. The mercenaries were ignominiously airlifted out last week, but Russian air power is reportedly being deployed in support of Haftar’s troops.
Nonetheless, the Tripoli government sounds increasingly confident in its ground game, and Turkish air power (including sophisticated drones) is having strong effect. The whole thing is an echo of the so-called Great Game the British and Russians waged in Central Asia in the 19th century, but now playing out in North Africa.
All of this occurs as COVID-19 spreads across the region and many global powers, including the U.S., are highly distracted. Yet there have been thousands of deaths and more than 200,000 people displaced from their homes in the last year alone. More fighting will also mean more illegal migration north to Europe over dangerous sea routes.
The U.S. hasn’t been totally AWOL. In late January, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attended an international conference in Berlin that sought to push the warring sides toward negotiations. But Turkey and Russia, motivated by oil wealth and regional leverage, never reached a deal. Now, perhaps, the setbacks to Haftar’s forces will reopen a chance for peace.
For the U.S., the best course is to partner with the EU to restart talks somewhere in Western Europe. They should press Turkey, a NATO ally, to negotiate with Russia on each reducing military support; aim to get agreement from the Gulf Arabs (who no longer have teeming oil wealth allowing them to intervene abroad) and Egypt to let the Libyans sort it out internally; help build a cease-fire that could restart the oil production; and provide humanitarian assistance in containing the novel coronavirus.
Losing a brutal dictator only to fall into a decade of war has been a sad outcome for the 6 million Libyans. For the U.S. and Europe, helping them find a path to peace is not just a humanitarian imperative — it is a direct responsibility, given the dire way in which the 2011 NATO intervention turned out.
James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is also an operating executive consultant at the Carlyle Group and chairs the board of counselors at McLarty Associates.