Libyan Puzzles: How to Save The country from Self-Destruction


Tuesday, Dec. 12 talks were held in Moscow between foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and the head of Libya’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mohamed Siala. The subject of the discussion was mainly the consolidation of international efforts to stabilise Libya, UN mediation, but also the next elections in the country.

The Russian diplomat remarked separately, that after the latest efforts of representatives of Tripoli and Tobruk an “intensive dialogue” was begun on the modification of the Skhirat agreement, which forms the basis for long term regulation.

Russia’s Role

Russia has only been gaining interest in Libya with the passage of time. All the more so our participation and presence in the country is important, as American influence in Libya is falling quickly (Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has only strengthened this tendency).

The former commander of the Libyan National Army, Khalifa Khaftar, arrived in Moscow and discussed the question of Russia delivering military aid to the Libyan government with Lavrov. He emphasized that he aims at the development of relations with Russia in all areas of interest. At the current meeting Siala gave special attention to the importance of Moscow’s aid in raising the standard of Libyan soldiers.

The current situation in Libya: Alignment of forces

It is possible to provisionally separate the country into three parts: the East (Cyrenaica, Benghazi, Tobruk), the West (Tripoli and surrounding areas) and the South (Fezzan). Sometime in the past the separate territories were united into a single Italian colony in 1934. 

After the tragic events which culminated in the killing of Muammar Khadaffi in 2011, a serious political divide which has not been closed to this day appeared in the country. What is more, Khadaffi not only succeeded in keeping the peace in Libya, but, as far as possible, managed to control the stability of several African states. Alongside the fall of the security system fell the system of border control, which led to an orgy of criminality and a strong flow of illegal migrants.

At the current moment in time a fragile system of dual power has developed in the country, according to which the parliament is located in Tobruk and a National Transitional Council (created by the UN and EU) in Tripoli. 

Accordingly, there are two leaders who contest each other’s right to rule: in Tripoli – Fayez al-Sarraj, in Tobrul – Khaftar, the latter of which was the military commander of Khadaffi’s army and has lived for a long time in the United States. Until 2016 the government in Tobruk was recognized on the international scene, but on the other hand the politicians in the east pushed out a mandate for the support of a national-unity government. Thus, the main international dialogue is conducted with Tripoli.
A third potentially strong political player is the recently liberated son of Muammar, Saif al-Islam Khadaffi.

Whose government is ‘stronger’ is a matter of debate. On the one hand it seems that Tripoli does not have very strong power instruments and that Sarraj mainly depends on moderate Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood (which is banned in Russia). But Tripoli is also dependent on the support of the western part of the country. On the other hand, the military dominance of Khaftar’s army isn’t clear cut. Experts say that its capabilities are fairly limited.

A mess of groups and influences

However, it is now not important who out of the two is strongest: a critical situation is unfolding, in which next to the two centres tribal militias, radical groups and terrorist organisations (ISIS and Al-Qaeda, both terrorist organisations which are banned in Russia) are gathering strength. There are separate groups of Khadaffi-supporters, who are oriented against Sarajj as well as against Khaftar. There is one more factor: the people of the Zintan-militia, who are under the command of Khaftar and fight with the groups surrounding them.

This chaos, fed by an orgy of criminality, does not give the country a full opportunity to reconsolidate itself.

External pressure (or, at least, involvement) is worsening the situation. For example, Tobruk is inclined to cooperate with Egypt, the UAE and Saudi-Arabia, while Tripoli prefers Turkey and Qatar. According to experts, the US are now focussing their attention on Khaftar.

Official and informal economics

However, not all is terrible: not counting criminality, the slave trade and political uncertainty, Libya has raised its oil production after the removal of several restrictions. For comparison’s sake, in 2011 the total production of oil was between 200 and 300 thousand barrels of oil a day, now it is around a million. 

On the other hand, informal work (the transport of migrants from Africa to Europe) is for many Libyans their main source of income. All is well and good if everything ends with the transfer of a migrant; everything turns out a lot worse when naïve Africans are literally made into slaves and sold for prices ranging from 200 to 300 dollars inside the country.  

Siala delicately avoided the painful theme of the slave trade, but did openly answer the questions of journalists about the migrant problem. According to him, it remains a ‘big problem’ for the country, and at the current moment the number of refugees in the country is no less than 500.000; out of those, only 21.000 are located in refugee centres. Siala noted that the government is doing everything possible to deport Africans to their home countries.  

Allies of Libya, among which is counted Russia, can help the country develop legal businesses. At the meeting Lavrov emphasized that Moscow has taken a detailed look at the perspectives for the foundation of full economic partnership, and that ‘we are in a fairly optimistic mood as regards to this issue’.

“Many Russian companies which worked on the Libyan market are interested in returning and connecting themselves to projects in areas like energy and industrial and transport infrastructure” said the head of the Russian Foreign Ministry.

The future of the country

Taking into account the loss of ISIS in Syria, the Islamists will reorient themselves; it is not impossible that a part of them, having rejected Salafism but having retained an anti-Western bent, could join our side and build peace in the country.
As far as the regulation of politics is concerned, experts present several possible scenario’s. One of them is the creation of an ‘integrated military structure’, which would form a general military council and which would decide questions of the fight against terrorism. The second possibility is the formation of a new government after general elections have been conducted. In May 2017 Sarajj and Khaftar managed to come to an agreement over elections. Third, a preservation of the current dual system of governance, but taking into account the interests of all parts of Libya and the general struggle against radical elements and criminal groups, is possible as well. 

In the case of Libya, the economics factor is strongly tied to the political: in many areas the future of the country depends on the amount of oil produced and the participation of foreign companies in the production and sale of oil.
It is important that Russia engages in a dialogue with both sides and that it can become an important middleman in the appeasement of the different Libyan actors.