This report examines Qatar’s interests in Libya and the reasoning for 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 of militias fighting Gaddafi’s regime in the first Libyan civil war (2011). 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 GNA and its allied militias, Qatar projects its 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 on 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 that Libya will adopt a stronger stance in the Qatari-Saudi conflict. In case of an LNA victory, Qatar is likely to attempt to maintain its proxies in the country to destabilize the regime.
Qatar’s Current Intervention in Libya
Qatar’s intervention in the Libyan civil war is focused mainly on political and financial support to the U.N.-recognized 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 troops in Libya ad 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 (Misrata, Tajura, Zawiya, Sabratha etc.) to defend against Haftar’s LNA forces. These militias are allied only to resist Haftar’s offensive. Many of them fought together in the first Libyan civil war against Gaddafi. In February 2020, some of the militia leaders 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, ISIS, 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, Qatar joined in to conduct air raids and impose a no-fly zone by sending six Mirage fighter jets. Qatar is 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, the Faruq Battalion, and the fighters of the Libyan Revolutionaries Operations Room, currently have a number of Islamist ideologues among their commanders. These groups are deployed at the Ain Zara front.
Qatar allegedly also 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 organization comprised 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 weapons and vehicles by Qatar and Turkey ( which is viewed as sympathetic to Islamist forces) in violation of the international arms embargo on Libya.
Impact of intervention
Qatar’s funds for the GNA and the affiliated militias ensure the western Libyan regime’s survival, but not its advancement against the LNA troops.
On June 4, 2020, the GNA announced it regained control of Libya’s capital city Tripoli, which had been under siege by Haftar 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 not 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.
U.A.E. and Qatar’s humanitarian aid in Libya dates back to 2011. In 2014, after Ghaddafi’s death, U.A.E. became involved militarily by supporting various militia groups. Qatar kept its proxy militias in the region but continued to support them financially, without sending troops or military equipment. Osama Kubbar, a Libyan weapon smuggler during the first civil war, declared that Qatar used Tunisian smugglers to transport arms into Libya. It remains unclear whether Qatar still possesses these links and whether it still smuggles weapons for the GNA.
Qatar’s Goals in the Second Libyan Civil War
Projecting Power as a Response to Saudi Arabia’s Blockade
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KAS), the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain accuse Qatar of supporting 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 U.A.E., Saudi Arabia, and their allies issued a terrorist sanctions list containing 12 organizations and 59 individuals, whom they claim to have been supported and financed by Qatar. One organization, BDB, and five individuals from this list, some of them militia commanders, are from Libya.
BDB is battling against forces commanded by General Khalifa Haftar, who has the backing of Egypt and the Emirates. The Saudi-led bloc imposed a blockade on Qatar in 2017.
Forging the Alliance with Turkey
Qatar’s intervention in Libya is aimed at projecting political power in a destabilized region, where multiple key players are forging alliances and exert their influence. Qatar’s main ally in Libya and the broader MENA region is Turkey. They both support the Muslim Brotherhood which is trying to consolidate its presence in the country.
The close relation between Qatar and Turkey dates back to Ottoman times. It grew stronger during the Arab Spring (2010-2012). Turkey sent troops to defend the Qatari border after the Saudi-imposed blockade. The Turkish military training contingent in Qatar, at the time, quickly expanded into a Turkish military base.
Ensuring the Defeat of the LNA
It is highly likely that LNA does not represent an existential threat to Qatar’s security and economy, but a substantial one. This is because of the following reasons: Firstly, 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. Secondly, 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 fueling 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. The interference included 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.
GNA managed to secure Tripoli due to Turkey’s increased military support for Sarraj’s GNA 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 real 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 ran for elections in Libya, aiming to install a Sharia government described as “Turkish-type moderation.”
Turkey’s military intervention was approved by the Grand National Assembly of Turkey on January 2, 2020. The Assembly also 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 politically and financially supporting the GNA, while avoiding a military intervention which would likely further worsen the relations between Qatar and the Saudi-led bloc.
Qatari, Emirati, and Saudi foreign policy in the MENA are influenced by the security umbrella created by the United States. Before Barak Obama took office in 2009, the U.S. military bases in the three MENA countries represented a security guarantee that allowed the U.S. to engage in strategic initiatives without worrying about military retaliation.
Obama’s initiative to negotiate the nuclear deal with Iran, his pivot to Asia, and the gradual effort to limit the number of troops in Iraq was perceived by the GCC countries as a U.S. disengagement from the region. The balance of power was destabilized after the 2011 Arab Spring, resulting in Iran consolidating its political, diplomatic, and military prominence in the region.
Qatar, U.A.E., and Saudi Arabia, therefore, saw the Libyan civil war as an opportunity to expand their diplomatic and strategic footprint in the region. The U.S. had supported the formation of the GNA in 2015 but as for June 2020, its official position remains unclear.
Qatar’s Military Capabilities
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 defense budget is estimated at six billion dollars, 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.
Its military disadvantage is likely to encourage Qatar to develop and preserve close ties with other military powers in MENA, such as Turkey. Its small number of troops is also likely to impede Qatar from sending military personnel to Libya and instead relying on financial aid.
Libya is an oil-rich country, a factor that attracted foreign countries in getting involved in the civil war. The COVID-19 pandemic contributed to an oil-price war. This is likely to motivate Qatar’s involvement even more, so it can to influence the Libyan oil price. The National Oil Council of Libya, which pledged allegiance to the GNA, controls 70 percent 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.
Qatar’s future strategy in Libya
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.
GNA Victory Scenario
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 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 two military bases in Libya, one at Misrata port and another at al-Watiya. The first will be a naval base with a port housing permanent assault capabilities, reconnaissance, and auxiliary aircraft storage; 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 it 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, U.A.E., Bahrain, and Egypt, which had started in October 2019, were suspended. Therefore, the blockade against Qatar remains in place. The Saudi-led block maintains the accusations brought to Qatar regarding the financing of terrorism and close relations with Iran.
LNA Victory Scenario
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 will highly likely still be backed by Saudi Arabia after its potential victory. This Qatari support could 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 them. An LNA victory is likely to worsen Qatar’s oil and gas crisis, as Libya will affiliate itself with Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., and Russia which are also big exporters of oil and gas. Their alliance will likely make efforts to isolate Qatar and limit its exports.
Intelligence Cut-of Date (ICOD) 01-07-2020
This report was written by Ana-Maria Baloi and originally published on Grey Dynamics.