Libya was one of the first battlefields where the rivalry between the Turkish-Qatari and Saudi-Emirati axes began to play out.36 Qatar and Turkey support western Libya’s mostly Islamist-aligned militias, while the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt back eastern Libya’s Khalifa Haftar, a septuagenarian warlord who leads the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), which contests the authority of the country’s internationally recognized government in Tripoli. Both axes’ involvement has exacerbated the conflict and undermined UN-led multilateral efforts to stitch the country back together.
When the rebellion against Muammar Gaddafi began in 2011, Qatar became the first Arab country to formally recognize Libya’s rebels and sent fighter jets to aid in the NATO-led intervention.37 Doha even sent hundreds of Qatari troops to support the rebels. Qatar’s chief of staff, Major General Hamad bin Ali al-Attiyah, admitted that Qatari troops were “in every region” of Libya and “supervised the rebels’ plans.”38 Qatari advisors, moreover, were reported to have trained Libyan fighters in both western and eastern Libya. In August 2011, as Libyans surged towards Gaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziya compound in Tripoli, Qatari special forces were present on the front line.
Qatar’s generosity to the 2011 revolution was so great that Libyans flew the Qatari flag alongside the Libyan flag on October 23, 2011, when they proclaimed the liberation of Benghazi.39 Libyans even changed the name of Algeria Square in Tripoli to Qatar Square.40
When civil war broke out in 2014, Qatar and Turkey both supported the Islamist-led, Tripoli-based General National Congress. They also maintained close links with the now-defunct Libya Dawn coalition, a grouping of pro-Islamist militias led by the Muslim Brotherhood41 that attacked Tripoli International Airport and seized large parts of the capital in 2014.42 According to a UN panel of experts, Turkish companies delivered weapons to the Libya Dawn coalition.43 The UN panel also accused Qatar of sending arms and cash to Islamist militants since the beginning of the crisis in 2011. A March 2013 UN report concluded that Qatar sent arms to anti-Gaddafi forces in 2011 and 2012, in violation of a UN arms embargo.44
According to the LNA, Turkey has provided “direct military support” to Islamist militias operating in western Libya. The secretary general of the LNA claimed to have witnesses and satellite pictures proving that Turkey provides weapons, ammunition, vehicles, and even Turkish combatants in the area of Misrata.45 In 2017, a spokesperson for the LNA said, “[A] number of Qatari aircraft are regularly landing in Libya … to support terrorist groups.”46 In May 2019, one month after Haftar began his assault on Tripoli, a shipment of Turkish armored vehicles and armed drones arrived in the Libyan capital.47 According to The Wall Street Journal, Turkey sold $350 million worth of equipment to its allied militias in Tripoli in the wake of Haftar’s assault.48 Turkish officials claim that the arms sales do not violate the UN arms embargo on Libya and were conducted under a 2012 bilateral defense agreement. In July, LNA troops claimed to have taken down a Turkish-made drone near Tripoli.49
Neither Turkey nor Qatar has been able to exert the same level of influence on any major Libyan actor that Egypt and the UAE have on the LNA.50 Haftar’s forces have enjoyed increasing support from France and Italy and, most recently, received an offer from the Saudis to fund the general’s siege of western Libya.51 Increasingly, Russia, too, is directly backing Haftar’s campaign after years of providing background support for the warlord, even sending mercenaries, including snipers, to aid Haftar’s forces.52 This complicated mix of foreign actors pursuing disparate interests only exacerbates the country’s instability.