By Jalel Harchaoui & Mohamed-Essaïd Lazib
The Libyan state lacked transparent, self sustainable institutions long before the 2011 uprisings. Hundreds of local disputes and tribal feuds lingered across the country for decades.
As the 2014 civil war subsided and Libya became effectively divided between the Tripoli and the eastern-based governments, some groups managed to maneuver autonomously.
This was especially the case in western Libya, where the Tripoli government’s control was weak in comparison with the LNA’s, which approached a monopoly of the legitimate use of violence across much of Cyrenaica.
Several reasons exist for this asymmetry.
Cyrenaica is less densely populated than Tripolitania, and the main tribes there have tended to support Haftar’s LNA within the context of an ongoing war against common enemies.
The GNA, in contrast, is less a center of power than a label that certain militias utilize. The sheer military might of Misrata, Zintan, Zawiya, and other influential cities located near Tripoli have contributed to the GNA’s political fragmentation.
The pragmatic actors in western Libya have avoided committing to either Haftar or the Islamist and revolutionary hard-liners.
Some armed groups exploited opportunities to dominate commerce and trade. Others engaged in smuggling activities.
No simple rule exists to differentiate pragmatists from the rest of the country’s actors.
Groups analyzed in this section are not necessarily in contact with each other, and some are even rivals.
Haftar’s April 2019 attack on the capital forced several pragmatists to choose sides, at least temporarily.
Zintani Militia in the Greater Tripoli: Emad Trabelsi’s Battalion
Zintan, a small city in the western mountains, has played an outsized role in Libyan politics since 2011. This prominence can partly be explained by the historical trend of Zintanis residing in Tripoli while remaining loyal to the mountain city.
Emad Trabelsi is a Zintani leader with roots in Tripoli. On the one hand, he is perceived as loyal to Zintan; on the other, he has been determined to control parts of southern Tripoli.
A close partnership between the UAE and the city of Zintan coalesced in May 2011.
Whereas Qatar helped Zintan in the first weeks of the revolution, the Emirati government built a longer-lasting rapport with the city.
In that context, Emad Trabelsi’s al-Sawaiq Battalion, along with other forces from Zintan, participated in the liberation of Tripoli in August 2011 and then asserted exclusive control over the area stretching between Regatta and April 7th Camp.
Other Zintani militias occupied the capital’s international airport, enabling them to receive even more military equipment from abroad, despite the international arms embargo.
Al-Sawaiq, al-Qa’qa, and the other Zintani militias benefited when Usama al-Juwaili, a Zintani, became defense minister in late 2011.
The battalions grew to become brigades as they inducted non-Zintani civilians eager to take advantage of their access to materiel and funding.
The overall number of fighters under Zintani command may have reached ten thousand in 2013 and 2014. In the capital, they competed with forces from Misrata, Nafusa, and Tripoli for territorial control and privileged access to state institutions.
Trabelsi and his men were among the few that took up the opportunity to receive training from the UAE. In 2013 the UAE sent major arms shipments to the Zintani-controlled airport.
Trabelsi’s group possessed Emirati-made weapons and vehicles that no other group in Libya had at that time. During the buildup to the 2014 civil war, the UAE perceived the Zintanis as the only effective bulwark against the revolutionary Islamists and redoubled their support to al-Sawaiq and al-Qa’qa.
During the 2014 civil war, al-Sawaiq and al-Qa’qa militias aligned with Haftar’s Operation Karama and against the Misratan forces defending the Tripoli government.
In August 2014 all Zintani forces were forced to retreat and leave Tripoli permanently.
The Qa’qa’ Brigade dissolved soon afterwards, and many of its members then joined, along with al-Sawaiq members, the Trabelsi-led Special Operations Force (SOF) under the eastern Interior Ministry’s label.
Around that time, the UAE cut back on its military support of al-Sawaiq and other Zintani militias.
For several years after 2014, Trabelsi remained loyal to Operation Karama and Haftar. The field marshal and his entourage refused to recognize the civilian militiaman in the same way they did Zintan’s more conservative group of career officers, led by Idris Madi, Mokhtar Fernana, and other military professionals.
Meanwhile, Usama al-Juwaili, another Zintani general known for his skepticism about Haftar, sought to establish dialogue with the GNA in 2017 and tried to pull Trabelsi into the orbit of Tripoli.
The GNA lacked a reliable national guard or standing army of its own and had little reach into western Libya. These weaknesses drove the GNA to accept Juwaili’s military contribution and appoint Trabelsi as chief of the General Security Agency in July 2018.
The SOF’s pivot away from the eastern government to the GNA illustrates the personal and adhoc nature of militia maneuvering.
In the second half of 2018, Trabelsi’s group made incursions into the capital’s southwestern suburbs using the GNA label as a source of legitimacy. During that same period, the militia was still perceived by many Tripolitania actors as a potential ally of the LNA.
Yet Trabelsi’s armed group never became a traditional, reliable proxy of the UAE, despite having received support from the Gulf federation from 2011 to 2014.
Instead, it concentrated on smuggling and trafficking, often following a parochial calculus. In response to Haftar’s April 2019 offensive, Trabelsi joined with Juwaili to fight the LNA.
Radaa—the Salaf Unit in Mitiga Airport
Abdelraouf Kara, a Salafi, and his brothers joined the anti-Qaddafi rebellion in the summer of 2011.
The Karas, alongside the Qaddurs, led a revolutionary battalion called the Suq al-Jumaa Martyrs during the war against the Qaddafi loyalists.
In 2012, after a few minor changes, the armed group became the Nawasi Battalion. Only in 2013 did Kara form a special offshoot of Nawasi called Radaa (Deterrence) and become its fully independent leader.
Originally from the Suq al-Jumaa neighborhood in the east of Tripoli, Abdelraouf Kara established his headquarters in the nearby Mitiga base (formerly Wheelus Air Base).
In August 2014 Mitiga became Tripoli’s sole operational airport. Control over such a strategic facility further reinforced Kara’s political, economic, and security influence.
From 2013 through 2015 Radaa focused on providing local security, confiscating alcohol, breaking drug-trafficking networks, and running an ex-trajudicial prison.
Since the UN-backed GNA was installed in Tripoli (March 2016), Radaa has only acquired more power. The militia is suspected of receiving financial, ideological, and political support from Saudi Arabia.
Officially, Radaa receives funding from the GNA’s Ministry of the Interior.
In addition, starting in 2017, it has expanded its sway over a substantial part of the black market for currency trading. Lastly, Radaa has also had a hand in other illicit activities. The combination of these sources of income makes it a particularly well-funded militia.
Revolutionary actors long suspected Kara would comply with Riyadh’s instructions if and when upheaval came to Tripoli. This means Radaa would likely support Haftar should he make his march on the capital.
In interviews in September 2016, Radaa fighters explicitly acknowledged the possibility of aligning with Haftar.
Yet, at least so far, Radaa leaders have been cautious toward the LNA amid the latter’s offensive on Tripoli. Individuals and subunits of the militia joined the battlefront against Haftar’s army, but the armed group has kept away, preferring to stay put and defend key assets.
The war on Tripoli has also helped make more visible the internal divisions within the Radaa grouping, as some elements may eventually gravitate to the LNA while others remain with the GNA.
Libya’s conflicts are often both hyperlocal and closely linked to foreign states. External interference has helped empower some Libyan actors by granting them financial, military, and political means.
However, international backers are almost never able to dictate their proxies’ actions.
Libyan actors’ tactics and strategies are largely based on their own internal organizational logic and calibrated based upon local, sometimes personal, considerations.
Those indigenous parameters impose stronger constraints on armed groups’ trajectories, as compared to the influence of external patrons.
Even though Libya’s armed groups often deviate from the desires of their foreign sponsor, the material and ideological help from abroad has a substantial effect.
The most striking example is Haftar’s LNA, which may not have been able to survive at all without firm, continuous assistance from several states since 2014.
Meddling from abroad has undermined diplomatic efforts at brokering a viable political solution.
For instance, Haftar’s certainty that he can rely upon backing from the UAE and others, in contravention to the UN’s arms embargo, has disincentivized him from making concessions or working constructively with the GNA.
The same thing can be said about Haftar’s opponents. In that sense, external meddling has exacerbated and prolonged Libya’s indigenous antagonisms.
It induced Libyan factions to pursue reckless strategies under the assumption that foreign support would increase should military or political difficulties be encountered.
Another finding from the case studies above has to do with the indirect nature of some sponsor-proxy relations.
In some cases, armed groups in Libya receive all external assistance through a go-between. Reliance upon such an intermediary renders the foreign state’s relationship with said armed group less personal and more systematic.
The Libyan intermediary thereby acquires the option to politicize the flow of assistance based on interests unrelated to the foreign sponsor’s agenda.
In Haftar’s case, the Cyrenaica-based strongman has used foreign help as a tool to protect his political interests against the potentially greater autonomy of local tribes, including the Awaqir, a community that bore the brunt of the fighting in Benghazi from 2014 through 2017.
Lastly, foreign sponsors are hardly the only source of material autonomy for armed groups in Libya. Some militias use their military might and political leverage to tap into Libya’s vast public treasury.
Others pursue illicit activities. When this happens, foreign states encounter a significantly greater amount of difficulty incentivizing an armed group into following a specific desired behavior, simply because domestic opportunities available in Libya are too fastuous for outsiders to match easily.
In sum, foreign interference is neither at the origin of the conflict nor its primary driver.
The tensions tearing Libyan society apart are primarily domestic.
Moreover—as demonstrated through the examples above—the conflict seldom fits the definition of a classic proxy war.
Nevertheless, international interventions have been instrumental in prolonging the crisis.
Many of the armed groups preventing peace in Libya today would likely have disappeared or sought a political deal had it not been for continual support from foreign states.
Except for Russia, which entered the Libyan arena in 2015, all foreign states meddling in the conflict are partners or allies of Washington. America’s increasing aloofness from the Middle East and North Africa region amplified its inability to promote a political compromise in Libya.
If the US decided to play a more assertive role in Libya, it would be in a position to pressure the various meddlers into reducing their interference.
That reduction in meddling, in turn, could help reach an acceptable truce. No other country can have a comparable effect on the proxy war dynamics affecting Libya.
Given that Washington is unlikely to make a genuine comeback in Libyan affairs as a peace broker, a more probable scenario is perpetuation of the civil war.
Jalel Harchaoui is a research fellow at the Clingendael Institute in The Hague. His work focuses on Libya’s politics and security. Most of this essay was prepared prior to his joining Clingendael.
Mohamed-Essaïd Lazib is a PhD candidate in geopolitics at University of Paris 8. His research concentrates on Libya’s armed groups and their sociology.
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