How the 2019 Civil War is Transforming Libya’s Military Landscape
By Wolfram Lacher
Overview: The offensive that Khalifa Haftar launched in April 2019 to capture the Libyan capital, Tripoli, triggered the largest mobilization of fighters in western Libya since the revolutionary war of 2011.
This latest round of civil war is transforming the landscape of armed groups fighting in and around Tripoli, provoking new rifts within and between communities, and laying the ground for future political struggles.
This Briefing Paper examines the identities and interests of the forces fighting each other over control of Tripoli.
It shows that the divides of 2011 are central in structuring the two opposing alliances and shaping the motivations of many forces involved in the war.
- The bulk of the forces fighting against Haftar come from the same communities that supported the 2011 war against Qaddafi. Haftar’s forces from western and southern Libya often come from communities that were perceived as loyalist in 2011 and experienced that war as a defeat.
- Contrary to widespread misconceptions, the forces fighting Haftar are mostly not standing militias, but volunteers. Political Islamists form a negligible element among them, whereas hardline Salafists are a key component of Haftar’s forces. Known criminals are active on both sides of the conflict, but they are more essential to Haftar’s forces.
- Haftar’s offensive united a multitude of groups in opposition to him. Until then, some of them had been in conflict with one another. While they are currently1 cooperating in an unprecedented way, their competition over positions and budgets in Tripoli could soon re-emerge as a key issue. Meanwhile, Haftar’s alliance may be more fragile than is generally assumed.
- Continuing war could cause much greater damage to Libya’s social fabric than it has to date. The conflict has provoked sharp rifts within and among communities in western Libya, and deepened the divide between the eastern and western parts of the country. Major military advances by either side risk involving indiscriminate inter-communal reprisals, or acts of revenge within communities.
On 4 April 2019 forces loyal to ‘Field Marshal’2 Khalifa Haftar, leader of the selfstyled Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF),3 launched a large-scale offensive from LAAF bases in central and eastern Libya to capture the capital, Tripoli.
The move caught armed groups in western Libya by surprise, allowing Haftar’s forces to advance into Tripoli’s southern outskirts in the first few days of the operation.
Thereafter, the offensive stalled as armed groups across western Libya mobilized under the umbrella of the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) to counter Haftar’s forces. After initial successes by GNA-aligned forces, a stalemate settled in from late April onwards.
Only in late June did GNAaligned forces score an important victory against the LAAF with the capture of Gharyan (80 km south of Tripoli), the LAAF’s key forward base for its Tripoli operation. Prior to Haftar’s offensive, political actors and armed groups in western Libya were divided.
A handful of armed groups in Tripoli exerted disproportionate influence over state institutions in the capital, provoking resentment across Libya, including in western cities that hosted major military forces.
But efforts by some western Libyan factions to launch an offensive against the Tripoli militias failed to mobilize broad support: most leaders of armed groups in western Libya were distrustful of one another, and were reluctant to join what they saw as a struggle over spoils.
Haftar’s offensive has radically altered this political landscape, uniting political and military factions that had been in rivalry or open conflict with one another for the previous few years.
It has also provoked a large-scale mobilization of volunteers who had long gone back to civilian life, or are fighting for the first time.
These forces are drawn from mainly the same communities and have many of the same leaders as those that supported the revolutionary armed groups against the regime of Qaddafi in 2011.
The motivation that unites these forces is reminiscent of 2011, and stresses their common objective of preventing the reestablishment of a dictatorship.
On the other side of the divide, the western Libyan forces that Haftar has mobilized are recruited primarily from communities that experienced the 2011 revolution as a defeat.
Western Libya’s complex divisions Before Haftar united most western Libyan forces against him, multiple divisions structured the political and military landscape in the region—the product of successive wars and changing political alignments.
The deepest rifts were those of the 2011 war, when cities such as Misrata and Zintan and the Amazigh towns became strongholds of revolutionary forces.
These forces stigmatized some neighbouring communities as regime loyalists because they had failed to rise up against Qaddafi and had provided fighters for units of auxiliaries that the regime organized on a tribal basis.
After the 2011 war, feelings of collective defeat and humiliation remained widespread in such communities. With the Qaddafi regime’s collapse, the revolutionary forces—and newly formed armed groups that pretended to be ‘revolutionaries’—strengthened their military dominance by taking control of state arsenals.
Subsequently they evolved into state-sanctioned units that expanded thanks to lavish government funds. Power struggles within the revolutionary coalition compounded rivalries over control of the security sector.
Over time two competing camps emerged whose confrontation escalated into civil war in mid-2014. In western Libya Zintani forces were the only major component of the former revolutionary coalition to side with Khalifa Haftar’s selfdeclared army in eastern Libya.
To defend themselves against their former revolutionary brothers-in-arms, Zintanis encouraged the formation of armed groups in communities that had been considered the political ‘losers’ of the 2011 war, including the Warshafana, Si’aan, and Nuwail.
These two camps disintegrated during the negotiations over the December 2015 Libyan Political Agreement that established the GNA. Rifts emerged within cities that had previously been united in their support for either of the two camps.
The divide between supporters and opponents of the GNA supplanted the rifts of the 2011 and 2014 wars. Divisions in western Libya multiplied further after the GNA moved to Tripoli in March 2016.
State institutions fell under the influence of four large armed groups from Tripoli that gradually dislodged their rivals from the capital, establishing what was virtually a cartel.
This even alienated factions that had supported the formation of the GNA (Lacher and al-Idrissi, 2018).
The GNA’s support base in western Libya increasingly narrowed, with one significant exception: in June 2017 Prime Minister Faiez al-Serraj appointed Usama al-Juwaili as commander of the western military region, thereby co-opting the most powerful player in Zintan and undermining Haftar’s influence.
Together with other Zintani commanders who had fought against Qaddafi in 2011, Juwaili had long displayed aversion towards Haftar. He would henceforth compete for influence with Haftar’s supporters in Zintan (Lacher, forthcoming).
With Zintan divided and Juwaili dislodging Haftar’s units from the Warshafana area in November 2017, Haftar’s western Libyan allies were confined to two types of constituencies: members of communities that had experienced the 2011 revolution as a defeat, and followers of the hardline Saudi Salafist preacher Rabi’ al-Madkhali, whose doctrine stresses the imperative of absolute obedience to the ruler.
Madkhalist Salafists formed the core of Haftar’s supporters in Zintan and neighbouring Rujban, two revolutionary strongholds of 2011. Haftar’s influence was strongest in towns that hosted both Madkhalists and supporters of the Qaddafi regime, for example Sabratha, Surman Tiji, and Badr.
Meanwhile, anger grew across western Libya over the stranglehold Tripoli militias exerted over state institutions. Politicians and leaders of armed groups began forming alliances to change the balance of power by force. Such resentment brought together actors who had been on opposite sides of past divides.
Among them were Misratan militia leaders who opposed the GNA, but also Zintani commanders loosely affiliated with the GNA. Another faction involved was the 7th Brigade from Tarhuna, also known as the ‘Kaniyat’ after the three brothers from the al-Kani family who controlled it.
On paper the 7th Brigade was loyal to the GNA, but the Kani brothers’ political affiliation remained unclear.
Finally, attempts to build an alliance against the Tripoli militias also included armed groups from the Tripoli suburb of Tajura that opposed the Special Deterrence Force (SDF), the militia that controlled Mitiga airport in Tripoli (Lacher and al-Idrissi, 2018).
In late 2017 and early 2018 several attempts to launch a joint operation against the Tripoli militia cartel failed at the last minute. One reason was distrust among the disparate forces that were involved in these attempts.
Another was that proponents of military action found it difficult to mobilize within their own communities. The principal military forces in western Libya did not consist of the standing militias that fought for control of Tripoli, but of armed groups that were generally demobilized.
In line with public opinion in their cities, the leaders and fighters of such armed groups had grown weary of war and were reluctant to enter what they saw as a struggle over the predation of state wealth.
When in August 2018 the Kaniyat finally launched an offensive, only a handful of Misratan militia leaders joined it, as did only one small group from Zintan.
Other Misratan and Zintani forces deployed to Tripoli without supporting the attackers and converted their neutrality into political influence—most notably in the person of Fathi Bashagha, a Misratan power broker who became interior minister in the aftermath of the conflict.
While Bashagha formed a counterweight to the cartel, the militias’ influence over Tripoli institutions nevertheless remained largely unbroken (Badi, 2019).
In January 2019 the Kaniyat tried for a second time to push into Tripoli by force. This time its former allies from Misrata did not join the attack and the Tripoli militias rapidly defeated it, with backing from Juwaili. Isolated and without allies, the Kani brothers began looking to Haftar for support.
Other actors in the Tripoli security landscape also secretly negotiated with Haftar in the months preceding the April 2019 offensive. Haftar’s expansion in southern Libya during January and February heightened expectations that he would next attempt to gain a foothold in Tripoli.
Southern Libya had experienced an unprecedented deterioration in security conditions and service delivery. Haftar’s largely peaceful takeover of key southern cities and oil fields therefore met with widespread approval in the region.
Public opinion in western Libya was also mostly supportive, adding to the arguments in favour of coming to some kind of agreement with Haftar.
The context appeared even more favourable to such an agreement after Haftar’s tentative understanding with Serraj on the formation of an interim government, at a meeting in Abu Dhabi in late February.
Key Misratan figures negotiated with Haftar’s representatives over the allocation of ministerial and military command posts, while various militia leaders from Tripoli and Zawiya discussed their possible cooperation with Haftar or his emissaries.
At the same time, however, Haftar’s opponents in western Libya prepared their defences. Zintan’s Juwaili held talks with armed groups in Zawiya that had been amenable to siding with Haftar, persuading them to stick with the GNA.
Juwaili also coordinated with commanders from Misrata and Tripoli to counter a potential advance by Haftar’s forces. Few expected an all-out offensive to take Tripoli, even in the days before the operation started, as Haftar’s forces built up in the Jufra area.
As Haftar’s forces entered Gharyan and descended towards Tripoli on 4 April, neither those who had prepared to side with Haftar nor those who were mobilizing to confront him knew how key leaders of armed groups in and around the capital would react to the offensive.
The events of the operation’s first 24 hours, seen in conjunction with the negotiations that took place in the weeks preceding the offensive, suggest that Haftar’s initial plan to capture Tripoli relied on a number of erroneous assumptions.
In the night of 4 April, a battalion of the 106th Brigade10—headed by Haftar’s son, Khaled, and considered the best armed and most loyal to Haftar among his forces—took over Checkpoint 27 between Tripoli and Zawiya (Abdallah and Nasr, 2019).
Just east of this checkpoint lies Janzur, a Tripoli suburb that hosts the headquarters of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL).
The battalion’s mission apparently was to reach the immediate vicinity of the UNSMIL base, where adversaries would find it difficult to attack because of the UNSMIL presence.
To enable this plan, Haftar had met with representatives of a key Zawiya faction in the weeks leading up to the offensive and had reached an understanding with Naji Gneidi, the leader of Fursan Janzur, the armed group controlling Janzur.
Once an LAAF advance party had gained a foothold in Tripoli, other Tripoli militia leaders who had been in talks with Haftar could be expected to switch sides.
In addition, some Misratan politicians had met Haftar in his headquarters outside Benghazi during March and assured him that Misratan armed groups would not intervene against his forces’ entry into Tripoli.
Confounding these expectations, forces of the Zawiya faction that had been in talks with Haftar surprised his soldiers at Checkpoint 27, capturing 128 of them and causing the rest to flee (Abdallah and Nasr, 2019).
After discovering Naji Gneidi’s collusion with Haftar, his lieutenants in Fursan Janzur tried to capture him, and set his house on fire when they did not find him.
Gneidi escaped to Gharyan with about 15 close loyalists.16 The Misratan-dominated Anti-Terrorism Force (ATF) mobilized on 4 April to counter the LAAF advance.
So did a small group of fighters from two Tripoli groups— the Tripoli Revolutionaries Battalion (TRB) and the Nawasi Battalion—which set out to confront Haftar’s forces at the foot of the mountains north of Gharyan.
Tripoli militias also began to arrest officials suspected of colluding with Haftar, such as the deputy defence minister and the deputy director of the intelligence service.
With these setbacks, Haftar’s attempt to quickly gain a foothold in Tripoli and trigger defections had failed. But during the first few days of the war the resistance to Haftar’s forces remained weak and uncoordinated.
On the second day of the offensive the mainly eastern forces that had come from Gharyan reached al-Swani, just south-west of Tripoli. The next day the Kaniyat from Tarhuna joined Haftar’s offensive—contrary to promises the Kani brothers had given to Misratan leaders only the day before—and pushed into the Wadi al-Rabi’ area to the south-east of the capital.
By then, however, armed groups across western Libya had begun mobilizing to counter Haftar’s offensive. The failure of his initial plan locked Haftar into the role of an outside aggressor that he had sought to avoid.
With responsibility for the war so squarely on Haftar’s shoulders, much of western Libya united behind the GNA to defend the capital against the attack.
to be continued
Wolfram Lacher is a senior associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin. He has worked on and conducted research in Libya since 2007, including in a previous capacity as an analyst at a business risk consultancy from 2007 to 2010. He has authored and co-authored numerous reports, academic articles, and book chapters on the post-2011 conflicts in Libya and security issues in the Sahel–Sahara region. His book Libya’s Fragmentation will be published by I.B. Tauris in April 2020.
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