Why Backing One Militia Against Another is Not the Solution
By Fredric Wehrey & Emadeddin Badi
On April 15, President Donald Trump telephoned Libyan militia commander Khalifa Haftar and praised his Libyan National Army’s offensive against the internationally recognized government in Tripoli.
Citing a “shared vision” for Libya, the U.S. president acknowledged Haftar’s value in fighting terrorism, maintaining oil production, and shepherding the country’s democratic transition. But nothing could be farther from the truth.
Haftar’s Miscalculation: The Entrenched, Exploitative Tripolitanian Militias
Above all, Haftar’s rationale in the assault ignored the fact that a dizzying array of Tripolitanian militias has vested political and economic incentives to defend, in contrast to the security vacuum in the south and to the tribal demography of the east, where Haftar was more successful.
To be sure, our interviews suggest that in some cases, Haftar has been able to solicit backing in western Libya from various social constituencies and armed groups, some of which see in Haftar’s advance a chance to gain dominance over local rivals.
In the town of Tarhuna, south of Tripoli, for instance, a faction of a dominant militia that was shut out of militia arrangements in the capital has been a major Libyan National Army bulwark.
Some towns like Zawiya, also on the western coast, and Zintan, in the Nafusa mountains, are split between pro- and anti-Libyan National Army factions. Two of Tripoli’s main militias — the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade and the Special Deterrence Force — have not fully mobilized to counter the offensive.
This half-commitment is a calculated move: By deploying some forces to counter Haftar’s offensive while others abstain from fighting, the two groups hope to safeguard some leverage in any potential future deal with either of the antagonist factions.
But overall, Haftar miscalculated how hard militias in western Libya would double down to defend their economic interests and communities.
Due to Libya’s centralized oil economy, territorial control in Tripoli and its environs means access to prized financial assets, which Haftar was aiming to monopolize with his attack.
Moreover, in contrast to the Libyan National Army’s model, many Tripolitanian militias — including revolutionary fighters, Islamists, warlords, and conservative Salafists — are deeply embedded in their communities.
For years, many of these Tripoli-based armed groups presented themselves as the city’s de facto police, even while they consolidated territorial control and extracted wealth through networks of corruption that enmeshed political and business elites.
Although these groups managed to reduce violence around the capital, their continuous maneuvering perpetuated the status quo and ensured the militias’ continued relevance at the helm of Tripoli’s security apparatus.
The recent merger of the capital’s four main armed groups into “Tripoli’s Protection Force” epitomized the entrenchment of militias in the capital and their intention to violently contest any challenges to their influence — including the arrival of Haftar’s Libyan National Army.
In addition to misreading the social and economic entrenchment of Tripolitanian militias, Haftar miscalculated the reaction of elites and militias from the port city of Misrata, which lies east of Tripoli.
Once a revolutionary and economic powerhouse, Misrata’s military influence gradually waned after Libya’s second bout of civil war in 2014 due to political and ideological divisions.
Over the past four years, prominent figures, most notably the Government of National Accord’s Interior and Defense Minister Fathi Bashagha, have increasingly sought a rapprochement with eastern factions aligned with Haftar and were even receptive to including Haftar in a governing arrangement, provided he reject military rule.
By contrast, hardline Islamist militia commanders in Misrata had strong reservations about any form of deal with the septuagenarian commander.
Haftar’s offensive was not only betting on the element of surprise, it was also a wager that these internal divisions would hinder Misrata from reaching a consensus on how to react. However, his surprise attack was seen as a betrayal by some and an existential threat by others. The result was a city-wide popular mobilization instead.
Finally, Haftar underestimated the skill with which western Libyan militias have manipulated outside countries to bolster their political and military influence.
A multitude of armed groups in and around Tripoli have presented themselves to the United States and European powers as partners on counter-terrorism and migration management and even security guarantors of the weak central Government of National Accord.
American backing of government-aligned Misratan militias during the fight against the Islamic State in Sirte in 2016 is a case in point: Many of these powerful, independent armed groups were ambivalent if not hostile to the Government of National Accord.
Other Tripolitanian armed groups received indirect support from Italy to counter migrant trafficking.
The militias in western Libya will continue to exploit international disharmony and solicit external support. This will include arms and material, as evidenced by Interior and Defense Minister Bashaga’s recent visit to Turkey, and even mercenaries, as demonstrated by the Libyan National Army’s recent capture of a downed central government-aligned fighter pilot of alleged Portuguese nationality.
By prolonging the fighting, outside support is likely to bolster Libyan hardliners and radicals while forcing pragmatists to become more militant.
Already, a mix of undesirable figures — criminal elements, Islamists, and diehard revolutionaries — is emerging on the security landscape.
The continuation of the conflict will allow them to garner political influence , which may be difficult to reverse if no swift action to terminate the war is taken.
Escaping the Imbroglio
As the fighting passes the one-month mark, it is clear that whatever hopes existed for a decisive attack have vanished. Supporters of Haftar, domestic and foreign, appear to have been seduced by the narrative that the general was commanding an army against militias.
This narrative was effective in the past in eastern Libya, where the struggle was more ideological and Haftar was able to capitalize on long-running social and political grievances. However, in the west, the context is different: Haftar’s attack is hardly a bold bid at state-making or the creation of a stable authoritarian order.
Rather, it is a reconfiguration of a long-running militia game. In essence, the assault on Tripoli is simply one militia coalition’s bid for dominance over another.
There are signs that the conflict is entering a dangerous new phase. Facing a looming funding shortfall, Haftar’s forces may seek to militarize Libya’s oil infrastructure, or unilaterally sell oil on the market.
And as Haftar demonstrates his staying power on Tripoli’s outskirts, his foreign backers will be tempted to escalate their military involvement to help tip the scales — but such assistance is more likely to cause humanitarian suffering than to actually aid his territorial advance.
Robust and resolute American engagement, albeit more even-handed and in tune with local realities than Trump’s statement, is crucial to prevent either of these scenarios from coming to pass.
American diplomats can work to keep Haftar from exploiting Libya’s oil resources, as he did in 2018 when he tried to transfer oil to the eastern authorities.
The U.S. government, including Congress, can dissuade regional actors from intervening further by publicly highlighting those countries’ violations of the U.N. arms embargo on Libya .
The goal should be to bring the conflict to a point where both sides are ready to accept a ceasefire and a return to a political process. That process should be broadly inclusive, focusing especially on communities in the east and south as well as senior Libyan National Army officers who have been amenable to dialogue and talks with their government counterparts.
Previous mistakes should be kept in mind, especially given the multiple offers Haftar was given to join in a peaceful settlement, which he has rebuffed and undercut with military force.
There is no question that the decrepit Government of National Accord needs to be replaced with a more inclusive and legitimate body.
There is no question the corrupt and predatory constellation of militias in Tripoli needs to be dismantled. But the way to do this is through a combination of political negotiations and technocratic tools — which were making slow but perceptible progress before Haftar’s April 4 attack.
It is not by backing one set of militias against another.
Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the author of The Burning Shores: Inside the Battle for the New Libya (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2018).
Emadeddin Badi is a non-resident scholar in the Counterterrorism Program at the Middle East Institute.
WAR ON THE ROCKS