Libya’s Second War of Post-Qadhafi Succession
By Jason Pack
In early April 2019, General Khalifa Haftar instructed the Libyan National Army (LNA) to take Tripoli by force, initiating Libya’s Second War of Post-Qadhafi Succession.
Drawing upon the Libya-Analysis proprietary real time militia mapping project, this paper examines the main armed groups involved in the war: ascertaining their strengths, weaknesses, command and control structures, motivations, alliances, military capacities, and financing.
It illustrates how all armed groups in Libya exploit the country’s dysfunctional war economy. Unappreciated by most international policymakers, the current conflict has actually increased their leverage to pry Libya out of this downward spiral.
Major international players have the tools to prevent Libya from becoming permanently enshrined as a kingdom of militias, but only if they transcend their divergent approaches and rally together to cut off the belligerents’ purse strings.
Failure to act is facilitating the growth of global jihadi movements, migrant flows to Europe, and the tragically avoidable humanitarian catastrophe currently engulfing Libya.
PART I – MACRO LESSONS ABOUT LIBYA’S ARMED ACTORS
YET ANOTHER WAR IN LIBYA
The struggle for the post-Qadhafi future has been characterised by the dominance of non-state actors, feckless national leadership, endemic corruption stemming from the country’s war economy and fluidity of allegiances.
But more than any other trend, fragmentation has been the unifying theme (pun intended) for this eight-yearlong struggle.
Groups that fought together in the 2011 anti-Qadhafi uprisings later turned against each other in the first civil war, which started in 2014, while groups that fought against each other in 20142 frequently fragmented into subgroups by 2018’s late summer war over southern Tripoli.
Presently, some of those who fought each other in the western region in 2014, joined together to fight against the LNA offensive in Tripoli in spring 2019.
Alongside this fragmentation and shifting of alliances, groups rebrand themselves – then merge and subdivide – as new coalitions come into being.
Since Libya’s first civil war broke out in 2014, and the country bifurcated into two rival governments, only one entity has progressively grown in logistical coherence: the disparate collection of rank and file soldiers and civilian paramilitaries that call themselves the Libyan National Army (LNA).
The LNA has spread outwards from al-Marj in eastern Libya and grown in complexity and sophistication.
Its financial networks, supply chains, social media capabilities and international relationships all experienced incremental strengthening.
Despite this geographic and capacity growth, the LNA has always been mired in contradictions.
Like the famous quip about the Holy Roman Empire, the Libyan National Army is; (a) neither entirely Libyan (it occasionally relies on foreign mercenaries), (b) nor is it national (initially the majority of its top brass hailed almost exclusively from certain Eastern and Central tribes), and (c) nor is it a regular army (it does not answer to a national sovereign authority nor are its rank and file drawn by national conscription or volunteerism).
The current conflict over Tripoli is the LNA’s attempt to abolish these contradictions and become Libya’s genuine Weberian sovereign by brute force alone.
This second civil war, which is the second discrete phase of the struggle for the post-Qadhafi future, is characterised, then, by (a) the LNA’s quest to conquer the whole country politically, and (b) to actualise some version of its leader’s frequently articulated mantra of “liberating Libya from Islamists.”
Either the LNA will succeed, and in doing so, become what it claims to be – a real national army – or it will fail and be exposed as only one of the myriad armed groups which profit from Libya’s war economy – the country’s fundamental problem that prevents the success of peace-making endeavours.
And yet, the international community has been long divided in its approach to mediate the conflict – largely ignoring root causes, backing one side against another and focussing on high profile political summits, while ignoring concrete implementation or structural economic reforms.
This paper seeks to evaluate the main actors in the current struggle and ascertain their motivations.
It is based on Libya-Analysis’s ongoing proprietary militia mapping project, which traces the actions of Libya’s armed groups and their connections to key parts of Libya’s infrastructure, economy and institutions.
More specifically, this paper highlights just one of the main conclusions to emerge from the study of our data set: namely that over the past five years the LNA has sought to expand into Libya’s de facto sovereign.
It has made significant progress in this aim, and yet its actions galvanise very specific counter reactions from Libya’s other armed actors.
Study of the data set reveals that the Libyan militia ecosystem seems to preserve a remarkably durable “balance of power”.
Any actors attempting to usurp greater power tend to galvanise previously feuding actors to work together to restore the balance.
The LNA’s attempt to “unify” Libya by taking Tripoli by force, rather than by unifying divergent political factions or militias and the army via negotiations, has caused – and will continue to cause – a more profound counterreaction, and hence a horrific human and political toll on Libya.
Even in the event of an LNA victory, Libya’s struggle for post-Qadhafi succession will not be resolved without a consensual political process and reforms that change the economic incentives to be in a militia.
As Libya has been plunged into a second civil war by Haftar’s efforts to bolster his image as Libya’s supreme military commander of a united national army, a detailed understanding of the belligerents and actors participating in the clashes on the ground is critical.
In the face of much uncertainty, this paper will first attempt to outline the main dynamics of the conflict: who the LNA and its allies are.
It will then examine the armed groups opposing the LNA’s entrance into Tripoli – whom we will dub “the anti-LNA coalition.”
Finally, the paper will assess the lessons that Libyan history sheds on the current struggle.
Arriving at the overarching conclusion that Libya has never had a national army and has always been governed by a balance of powers, we seek to present a comprehensive overview of Libya’s armed groups, focussing on how their alliance structures and connections to local communities constrain their future evolution, and also likely contain the key points of leverage that international policymakers could use to halt the fighting.
This paper illustrates that the balance of power persists in Libya due to its being sustained by the war economy.
As such financial leverage, is the international community’s sharpest policy instrument. Should it wish to halt the fighting it should block the LNA’s funding streams, as well as those of other belligerents, and then facilitate a face-saving compromise.
PART II – AN OVERVIEW OF THE CONFLICT DYNAMICS
MILITARY DYNAMICS AMID STATELESSNESS
Many people incorrectly believe that the majority of Libya’s militias derive from the specific groups that fought for or against Qadhafi in 2011.
This narrative stems, in part, from the fact that many militias justify their continued existence and control over the state security apparatuses by touting their sacrifice and martyrdom during the 2011 uprisings, as well as their desire to preserve the “principles of the revolution”.
In actual fact, many of the militias and the vast majority of the militiamen operating in Libya today did not participate in the anti-Qadhafi violence.
For those militia leaders who commanded in 2011, it is extremely rare that they did so for an entity with the same name and command structures as ones that exist today.
The militia landscape in 2019 came into being gradually for a number of interlocking reasons: (1) The national power vacuum required local authorities to provide security and services; (2) Government salaries were offered to those who claimed to be militiamen after Qadhafi’s ouster; (3) Opportunities to exploit subsidies and smuggling/trafficking networks; (4) Vast supplies of arms which were readily available in Libya; (5) The strength of local, tribal and regional identities and the weakness of national institutions and narrative; and (6) Youth unemployment, the need for personal and community protection, and the personal status that militia membership confers.
In short, being in a militia in Libya is profitable, because it can be leveraged to gain preferential access to state subsidies and semi-sovereign institutions; all other activities outside the oil sector or the state’s myriad patronage networks are not.
This has led to a new system of incentives, in which militias now have a vested interest in perpetuating the current statelessness and fragmentation, at the expense of the public interest at large.
Roughly put, being in a militia gets one a salary, as well as myriad other perks.
Militias are afraid of any state building processes, which might undo this fundamental fact. Office holders, finance ministers, and central bankers, created and implemented this policy.
Tragically, it has been state policy since 2014 to pay militiamen on all sides of the ongoing struggle for the post-Qadhafi future as a mechanism to legitimate incumbent holders of Libya’s purse strings as ‘connected to the armed struggle.’
This appeasement cycle continues as officeholders perceive that if they cut off payments the militias would turn on them. Only profound international support for economic reformers could provide an exit to this vicious cycle.
Fragmentation Events during the First Civil War of Post-Qadhafi Succession (2014-18) demonstrated that no single group or national coalition is capable of consolidating control over the whole country.
Each time one actor made territorial gains, other actors emerged to oppose its further dominance.
Despite this, by early 2019, the LNA gained enough momentum across Libya to become the country’s most powerful and coherent armed actor.
Still, it has not entirely bucked Libya’s trend of alliance fragility as, in reality, it is a loose grouping of constituent parts and individuals united for specific missions.
Yet in February and March of 2019, it had expanded its influence into Libya’s southwest oil fields.
Bolstered by these successes, it has undertaken further attempts to consolidate alliances with armed groups in western Libya for a prospective capture of the capital – either by force or by guile.
As a response to these developments, there were concurrent UN backed attempts to facilitate alliance building among Tripoli-based militias and those in Misrata and Zintan to dissuade such an attempt.
These events set the stage for the outbreak of the Second Civil War.
THE CENTRALITY OF TRIPOLI – OPERATION FLOOD OF DIGNITY
According to historical precedents and mainstream interpretations of international law, no Libyan faction can claim the mantle of “national army” without the internationally-recognised government acknowledging it as “its army” or without exerting control over Libya’s political capital, Tripoli.
These two arguments have not, however, prevented the LNA from getting a modicum of international legitimacy and significant engagement on political and counterterror issues.
Such “political successes” appear to have fed the perspective that full legitimacy as Libya’s sovereign was within reach for the LNA.
On 3 April, the LNA announced the launch of its long-anticipated operation to dominate western Libya.
The following day, LNA leader Khalifa Haftar released a highly evocative statement declaring Operation “Flood of Dignity” (Toufan al-Karama) to liberate Tripoli from rival militia factions aligned with the Government of National Accord (GNA).
Shortly after, LNA forces moved north from Ghariyan towards the area surrounding the Tripoli International Airport (TIA) in southern Tripoli.
Simultaneously, LNA forces west of the capital briefly seized the 27 km checkpoint on the coastal road between Zawiyya and Tripoli before being routed.
In response to the LNA statements and mobilisation of forces, various previously antagonistic armed groups in Tripoli and the wider western region undertook a coordinated mobilisation to the outskirts of Tripoli and fortified their positions ahead of the LNA’s advance.
Many of these forces are nominally aligned to the internationally-backed GNA – including the Tripoli Protection Force, Zintani forces aligned with Osama Juwaili and forces from Misrata and certain militias from Zawiyya.
The GNA has called this counter operation “Volcano of Rage” (Burkan al-Ghadab).
Since then, fighting has mainly been concentrated in the districts south and southeast of Tripoli, which can only be accessed via the roads from Ghariyan and Tarhouna.
The rest of central Tripoli continues to be controlled by anti-LNA militias, predominantly under the umbrella of the Tripoli Protection Force.
For residents in central Tripoli during the first two weeks, life continued in “a more normal way” than most media outlets would have their readers believe.
However, many international organisations and embassies, and multinational companies, including ENI, promptly evacuated their staff from Tripoli in the event fighting spread from the outskirts of the city to more central districts and neighbourhoods.
Starting in the middle of April, after most internationals were evacuated, the fighting intensified into a genuine LNA siege and artillery bombardment, complete with Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV or drone) strikes.
However, by late May the LNA has failed to breach the southern districts of the capital and more than 500 people have been killed while as many as 75,000 have been forced to flee their homes.
Jason Pack is the President of Libya-Analysis LLC, a consultancy organisation specializing in evidence-based analysis, forecasting and stakeholder mapping of Libya.
Italian Institute for International political Studies