By Frederic Wehrey
A sleepy town of small time farmers and traders, Sabratha sits on the Mediterranean seaboard just west of the capital Tripoli.
It is most famous for its Roman ruins—a colonnaded city and a restored amphitheater that, under Qaddafi, hosted floodlit performances of Puccini’s operas for busloads of Italian tourists.
The tourists are gone now and the town has suffered a series of afflictions since the 2011 overthrow of the dictator. In early 2016, it became the site of a fierce battle against Islamic State jihadists, who had set up a training camp in nearby date palm groves.
Emboldened by a US airstrike on that camp, local militias pushed out the terrorist group.
Then came a new bane: the reign of smugglers and human traffickers, and pitched battles to staunch this lucrative trade. The clashes killed scores and blotted the ancient amphitheater with the charred blossoms of rocket-propelled grenades and bullet holes.
Still, when I visited the ruins one afternoon this February, normalcy had returned. Families picnicked on grassy patches between the pillars, where the winter rains had left a dusting of dandelions.
Another shadow now hangs over the town. Khalifa Haftar, the septuagenarian Libyan army general, was a dissident during the Qaddafi regime and one time CIA asset.
In May of 2014, he led a group of disaffected army units and local tribes in a military assault on Islamists and jihadists in the eastern city of Benghazi. After years of grinding combat, he won the east and turned his sights on the west.
In recent weeks, his coalition of forces, the Libyan National Army, has blitzed across Libya’s vast southern desert, seizing strategic oilfields and airbases. He is now encroaching on Tripoli, where the isolated, internationally backed Government of National Accord has failed in basic governance and is beholden to militia barons who have carved the capital into fiefdoms and plundered the state’s coffers.
The result of Haftar’s offensive has been a major shift in the balance of power in Libya. “A reshuffling of the deck of cards,” a United Nations official in Tripoli told me.
Military and financial support from foreign patrons—the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, France, and Russia—has been essential to his drive.
For its part, the United States has long eyed him warily and has officially backed the Tripoli government, even while maintaining an intelligence and special operations presence among his forces in Benghazi.
Increasingly, however, US diplomats see Haftar as crucial to moving Libya beyond a drawn-out “transition” period.
Washington is now backing a United Nations effort to try and convert his campaign into momentum for a dialogue conference and national elections later this year.
Much of this hinges on the hope that Haftar’s foreign backers, especially the UAE, recognize that his march across the south cannot easily extend to a military takeover of Tripoli: his Libyan National Army is more fissiparous than his televised propaganda has suggested, his lines of supply are stretched, and he might face resistance from some militias in Tripoli and its environs.
Already, there are signs of disorder in the areas he’s claimed to have pacified and some of his forces have redeployed out of the south.
In the twilight of his career, the aging general may now be wagering on a sort of “virtual” entry to the capital, by which he gets invited to be part of a new power-sharing deal or exerts influence by proxy. But even this could be rejected, perhaps violently, by factions in northwest Libya.
Central to this effort are the pacts and alliances that Haftar has negotiated with the Libyan communities that lay in his path. Some towns and tribes allied with Haftar out of desperation at the impotence of Tripoli-based Government of National Accord. Others did so to obtain leverage against local rivals.
This was certainly the case in the desert south, where crime and economic misery created a vacuum that Haftar’s forces filled with cash and supplies—even as they stoked communal tensions by favoring some tribes over others.
In western Libya, towns are divided, with some armed groups having aligned themselves with his forces even while nominally still under the authority of his rival, the government in Tripoli.
This is happening in Sabratha. Over a lunchtime gathering at a farm, seated with members of the town’s strongest militia, I heard assent for the army to restore order. But multiple contradictions arise in this narrative.
Haftar says he is building state institutions and fighting militias, but in practice he has relied heavily on local militias in his advance. He has recently stated his commitment to national elections, but in the past has argued that Libya is not ready for democracy and needs military rule.
Another seeming contradiction is the general’s aversion to Islamists. “We don’t need Sharia [Islamic law] here,” he told me in 2014. “Sharia is already in our hearts.” And yet, adherents of a conservative, literalist interpretation of Islam known as Salafism are his staunchest military supporters.
My hosts in Sabratha were also Salafists, including the owner of the farm and the commander of the militia, a man named Musa al-Najem.
A somber man with an athletic build, al-Najem wore a russet robe, hemmed at the calves. He had slung a leather holster over his shoulder. Accustomed to fighting, he had battled against the Islamic State in Sabratha, where he had lost a brother.
Now, he leads a militia of Salafists called the Wadi, or Valley Brigade, which purports to provide security in the town.
I asked him about whether he and his fellow Salafists followed Haftar, but they demurred, citing the Salafi doctrinal tenet about obeying the local political authority in one’s geographic area—which, these days, looks like Haftar.
It is a belief that forms the bedrock of a Salafi current often described as “quietism,” nurtured with Saudi petrodollars to eschew overt political activism.
In Libya, however, these Salafists are hardly apolitical: they are a rising force, in schools and mosques, but also in the policing sector, where they patrol against illicit drugs and alcohol—as well as activities they deem un-Islamic, such as art exhibitions.
They have also fought the terrorists of the Islamic State and are opposed to rival political Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood.
All of these elements would seem to converge in Tripoli. It is here that a number of armed Salafis could be helpful allies to Haftar during his push toward the capital—virtual or otherwise.
Driving east from Sabratha toward Tripoli along the coastal road is an education in the crumbling artifice of state control.
First, there is the decrepit infrastructure: recent storms that lashed the western region have deposited vast lagoons across the rutted highway. Garbage has built up in places, crushed to a film that blankets the ground.
Here and there lie the burnt-out shells of cars, speckled with rusty lesions. But the starkest evidence appears some seventeen miles from the capital, in the form of a ruined military camp.
Camp 27, as it is called, was the site of an aborted attempt by American special forces in 2013 to train a battalion of elite Libyan soldiers.
It was one of several international efforts to graft a formal state onto Libya, and secure the weak central government at least a partial monopoly on force. But the militias would have none of it.
That summer, they attacked the camp and absconded with expensive American equipment and weapons. American officials canceled the training program
Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His research deals with armed conflict, security sectors, and identity politics, with a focus on Libya, North Africa, and the Gulf.