Libyan Civil War: Qatar Involvement
October 7, 2020
October 7, 2020
This report examines Qatar’s interests in Libya and the reasoning of its financial support for the GNA. As the geopolitical context in the region remains volatile, the timing for prediction has been settled for six months. For collection and processing, the author used OSINT, therefore the report is safe to be further distributed.
KJ-1. Qatar was a major sponsor state for militias fighting Gaddafi’s regime in the first Libyan civil war. It is likely that the country has kept most of its proxies in the region and is using the same means – financial and political – to support the GNA.
KJ-2. It is likely that Qatar’s involvement in the second Libyan civil war represents a strategic move in the MENA region against the Saudi-led bloc. By sponsoring the GNA and its allied militias, Qatar projects influence alongside Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood.
KJ-3. Qatar is unlikely to change its strategy in the next six months. There is a realistic probability that Qatar will increase its funds for the GNA and the affiliated militias to ensure the security of Tripoli against Haftar’s forces.
KJ-4. Qatar’s dependency upon Turkey’s military support against a potential Saudi offensive is highly likely to determine Qatar’s stance in the second Libyan civil war.
KJ.-5. In the case of a GNA victory, it is likely that Qatar’s power projection in Libya will increase and the country will adopt a stronger stance in the Qatar-Saudi conflict. In case of an LNA victory, Qatar is likely to attempt maintaining its proxies in the country to destabilise the regime.
Qatar’s intervention in the Libyan civil war is focused mainly on political and financial support for the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). Qatar is allegedly sponsoring extremist militias who fight for the GNA, such as Zawiya, Misrata and others.
In December 2019, Qatar’s emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani reiterated his country’s support for the GNA in the economic and security fields. Qatar has no national troops in Libya and in 2019 it called for an arms embargo which would limit consistently the capabilities of the LNA. However, Qatar is sponsoring GNA-affiliated militias, known as Islamic extremist elements.
GNA depends upon various militias in the area of Tripoli and the surrounding cities to defend Haftar’s LNA forces (Misrata, Tajura, Zawiya, Sabratha etc.). These militias are allied only to resist Haftar’s offensive and many of them fought together in the first Libyan civil war against Gaddafi. In February 2020, some of the leaders of these militias told the press that Turkey and Qatar are financing 4,000 foreign fighters sent by Turkey from northern Syria. The leaders reported that dozens of them fought with Al-Qaeda, IS and other militant groups against the Kurds.
Libyan sources say that the pro-Sarraj forces are resorting to foreign mercenaries from Eritrea, Turkey and Ecuador who are being given logistical support by Ankara and Doha. During the first Libyan civil war (2011), Qatar joined in to conduct air raids to impose a no-fly zone and sent six Mirage fighter jets. Qatar also provided anti-Gaddafi militias with operational training, funding, logistical support, communication equipment and weapons by bypassing the arms embargo.
During the second civil war, Qatar is likely to preserve its means of support used in the first war, while attempting to conceal its involvement. It is likely that the country is avoiding direct connections with the militias, as these have been accused of war crimes and terrorism.
The largest contingent of fighters in the region comes from Zawiya. Approximately 400 fighters from Zawiya are deployed on various front lines, most of them around the Tripoli airport. Two Zawiyan groups currently have a number of Islamist ideologues among their commanders: the Faruq Battalion and the fighters of the Libyan Revolutionaries Operations Room, who are deployed at the Ain Zara front.
Qatar allegedly supports the Benghazi Defense Brigades (BDB) which fight for the GNA. BDB describe themselves as anti-terrorist, while their opponents accuse them of being a terrorist organisation formed of jihadists. Founded on June 1, 2016, the BDB alliance combines professional soldiers, ex-policemen and Islamist mujahideen expelled from Benghazi by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA).
LNA spokesman Colonel Ahmad Mismari claims that the BDB are supplied with weapons and vehicles by Qatar and Turkey (viewed as sympathetic to Islamist forces) in violation of the international arms embargo on Libya.
Qatar’s funds for the GNA and the affiliated militias ensures the western Libyan regime’s survival, but not its advancement against the LNA troops.
On 4 June 2020, the GNA announced it regained control of Libya’s capital city Tripoli, which has been under Haftar’s siege for almost a year. The militias who fought for the GNA and regained Tripoli are sponsored by Qatar. The financial support granted by Qatar ensures that the GNA does nor run out of provisions and is capable to counter Haftar’s offensives.
As of July 2020, LNA controls most of Libya’s territory. Although the GNA managed to take back its capital, the advancement towards the western cities conquered by Haftar is stalled. Qatar’s financial support keeps most of the GNA territories free from the LNA troops, but it does not provide military superiority.
UAE and Qatar’s humanitarian aid in Libya dates back to 2011. In 2014, after Ghaddafi’s death, UAE became involved militarily, supporting various militia groups. Qatar kept its proxy militias in the region but continued to support them financially, without sending troops or military equipment. Libyan weapon smuggler during the first civil war Osama Kubbar declared that Qatar used Tunisian smugglers to transport arms into Libya. It remains unclear whether Qatar still disposes of these links and whether it still smuggles weapons for the GNA.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KAS), the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain accuse Qatar of support for terrorist groups, including in Libya. The conflict between the two sides began in 2017, three years after the Libyan civil war escalated.
In 2017, The UAE, Saudi Arabia and their allies have issued a terrorist sanctions list containing 12 organisations and 59 individuals, whom they claim to have been supported and financed by Qatar. One organisation and five individuals from this list are from Libya, including militia commanders and the BDB, which is battling against forces commanded by General Khalifa Haftar, who has the backing of Egypt and the UAE. The Saudi-led bloc imposed a blockade on Qatar in 2017.
Qatar’s intervention in Libya is aimed at projecting political power in a destabilised region, where multiple key players are forging alliances and exert their influence. Qatar’s main ally in the conflict and the broader MENA region is Turkey. They both support the Muslim Brotherhood who is trying to consolidate its presence in Libya.
The close relation between Qatar and Turkey dates back to the Ottoman times and grew stronger during the Arab Spring (2010-2012). Turkey sent troops to defend the Qatari border after the Saudi-imposed blockade and the Turkish military training contingent in Qatar at the time quickly expanded into a Turkish military base.
It is highly likely that LNA does not represent an existential threat to Qatar’s security and economy, but a substantial one because: (1) an LNA victory would enable Haftar’s government to endorse Saudi policies in the Arab League which could further damage Qatar’s economy and reputation. (2) LNA stands in the way of greater Qatari influence in north Africa. In the case of a GNA victory, Qatar could secure important economic deals. By fuelling the Libyan smuggling channel to Europe through covert means, Qatar could also obtain leverage on the EU for securing economic benefits.
On 8 June 2020, LNA spokesman Colonel Ahmad al-Mismari presented audio, video and documentary evidence of massive political and military interference by Qatar in Libya since the 2011 revolution, comprising a wave of assassinations (including an attempt on Haftar’s life), recruitment and transport of Libyan jihadists to Syria, funding of extremist groups and training in bombing techniques via Hamas operatives from the Khan Yunis Brigade. Much of this activity was allegedly orchestrated by Muhammad Hamad al-Hajri, chargé d’affaires at the Qatari embassy in Libya, and intelligence official General Salim Ali al-Jarboui, the military attaché.
On 4 June 2020, GNA announced it regained full control of Libya’s capital Tripoli. This is due to Turkey’s increased military support for al-Sarraj’s forces. It is likely that Russia, France, Egypt and other LNA allies will also augment their participation, both militarily and financially. To ensure that GNA’s position in Tripoli remains stable, there is a realistic possibility that Qatar will send military trainers to Libya and will likely increase its financial and political support.
Qatar is dependent upon Turkey’s military support against a potential Saudi-led offensive. The Doha government’s position in the Libyan civil war is dictated by Turkey’s regional interests. After Gaddafi’s death, Qatar and Turkey supported various Muslim Brotherhood leaders such as Ali al-Sallabi, who run for elections in Libya, aiming to install a Sharia government described as a “Turkish-type moderation”.
Turkey’s military intervention was approved by the Grand National Assembly of Turkey on 2nd January 2020, which passed a one-year mandate to deploy troops to Libya. To ensure the security of its borders, Qatar is likely to maintain a close relationship with Turkey by supporting politically and financially the GNA, while avoiding a military intervention which is further likely to worsen the relations between Qatar and the Saudi-led bloc.
Qatar, UAE and Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy in the MENA is influenced by the security umbrella created by the United States (US). Before Barak Obama took office in 2009, the US military bases in the three MENA countries represented a security guarantee that allowed to engage in strategic initiatives without worrying about military retaliation.
Obama’s initiative to negotiate the nuclear deal with Iran, his Asia initiative and the gradual effort to limit the number of troops in Iraq was perceived by the GCC countries as a US disengagement in the region. Balance of power was destabilized after the 2011 Arab Spring, resulting in Iran consolidating its political, diplomatic and military prominence in the region.
Qatar, UAE and Saudi Arabia, therefore, saw the Libyan civil war as an opportunity to expand their diplomatic and strategic footprint in the region. The Trump administration supported the formation of the GNA in 2015 but as for June 2020, its official position remains unclear.
Qatar has a 12,000 strong force of active personnel to a population of almost 2,7 million, whereas Saudi Arabia has 478,000 active troops and 3,000 reserve personnel. Qatar’s defence budget is estimated at $6 billion, while the Saudi one reaches $67 billion. The Saudi army is far superior in terms of military equipment, being massively armed by the United States.
This military disadvantage is likely to encourage Qatar to develop and preserve close ties with other military powers in MENA, such as Turkey. This reduced number of troops is also likely to impede Qatar from sending military personnel to Libya, relying on financial aid.
Libya is a rich-oil country, a factor that attracted foreign countries in getting involved in the civil war. The COVID-19 pandemic contributed to an oil-price war, which is likely to ambition Qatar even more to influence the Libyan oil price. The National Oil Council of Libya who pledged allegiance to GNA controls 70% of the country’s oil reserves.
Although most of the oil pipelines have been closed due to widespread conflict, in June 2020 a major pipeline from southwest Libya was opened. Qatar is also a big oil exporter and a direct competitor with Libya. It is likely that Qatar supports the GNA so that it can sign a deal for a convenient oil price for both parties.
The civil war in Libya remains unlikely to end in the following six months. Regardless of which side wins the war, Qatar’s strategic priority is to preserve its close relationship with Turkey and to ensure that the relationship with the Saudi-led bloc will not worsen.
It is likely that Qatar will increase the funds allocated to the GNA to allow Sarraj’s forces to expand their territory and to stabilize western Libya.
A GNA victory is highly likely to ensure a stronger Qatari political influence in Libya. This would likely enable the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood faction to build up its presence in the country and to become increasingly involved in politics. A strong Muslim Brotherhood in Libya is likely to allow Qatar and Turkey to project their force in the region, to gain influence over oil contracts and the country’s Mediterranean ports.
In June 2020, Turkey announced that it will build in Libya two military bases, one at Misrata port and another at Al-Watiya airbase. The first will be a naval base in the form of a port with permanent assault capabilities, reconnaissance, and auxiliary aircraft storage, while the second will be an airbase equipped primarily with unmanned aerial vehicles. There is a realistic probability that Qatar and Turkey will conduct joint military exercises in these bases to boost their presence in Libya.
If the GNA manages to stabilize Libya, Qatar’s influence in MENA will increase, allowing the country to adopt a stronger stance regarding Saudi politics. However, it remains unlikely that Qatar will make major improvements in its relationship with the Saudi-led bloc, even in the event of a GNA victory. In January 2020, the talks between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt that started in October 2019 were suspended and the blockade remains in place. The Saudi-led block maintains the accusations brought to Qatar regarding the financing of terrorism and close relations with Iran.
The prospects for the GNA to be able to unify the country are unlikely to improve in the next six months. However, Qatar remains likely to support the GNA even in the event of an LNA victory, as LNA is highly likely to remain backed by Saudi Arabia after its potential victory. It is highly likely that the support will consist of covert financial networks and smuggled weapons.
Qatar and Turkey are unlikely to stop their efforts to increase their influence in Libya even after a potential LNA victory. There is a realistic probability that Qatar will attempt to preserve its contacts with proxy militias in the region and to smuggle arms for the rebels. An LNA victory is likely to worsen Qatar’s oil and gas crisis, as Libya will affiliate itself with Saudi Arabia, UAE and Russia who are also big exporters of oil and gas. The alliance is likely to make efforts to isolate Qatar and limit its exports.
Image: Qatar-America Institute of Culture / Youtube (link)
Ana Maria Baloi is analyst at Grey Dynamics and a MA candidate at Brunel University London, where she studies Intelligence and Security. Her research is focused on China’s policy and strategy towards Africa.
In the last years, Ana has participated at numerous NATO Youth summits and Model United Nations conferences, while working as an intern for the Romanian Senate.