Jun 15, 2020 - World

Turning tide in Libya's war leaves foreign powers scrambling

Fighters loyal to the Tripoli government, near Sirte. Photo: Mucahit Aydemir/Anadolu Agency via Getty

With renegade Gen. Khalifa Haftar's fighters retreating from Libya’s capital and militias supporting the UN-backed government on the offensive, the foreign countries powering Libya’s civil war are scrambling to adjust to a new reality.

The big picture: Russia, the UAE, Egypt and to a lesser extent France embraced the idea of a secular strongman taking control in Libya after years of chaos. But Haftar's offensive turned into a yearlong stalemate, and now a string of embarrassing defeats.

  • Turkey, the Tripoli government’s most powerful backer, stands to benefit from the shifting tide — possibly through the military use of Libyan ports and drilling rights in contested areas.
  • Russia, which sent aircraft and mercenaries in support of Haftar but has now reportedly pulled them off the front lines, is set to hold talks soon with Turkey on Libya as well as Syria.
  • Haftar, meanwhile, appeared alongside Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi last week to call for a ceasefire.
  • The Tripoli government is pushing on. Mohammed Abdallah, a U.S.-based adviser to the government, tells Axios that Haftar must be forced “out of Sirte and possibly oil ports before his reps will acknowledge reality.”
  • The war has been brutal. As Haftar’s forces retreated, at least eight mass graves were discovered.

What to watch: While Haftar’s position has been severely weakened, he still holds the sparsely populated but oil-rich East — a claim backed by Russian muscle. That’s led to speculation the country could be formally partitioned.

Go deeper