In the five years since the ouster of longtime strongman ruler Moammar Gadhafi, Libya has fractured into pieces. Competing governments and associated rival militias wrestle for power, allowing jihadist militants to establish themselves.
Outside powers have intervened in an attempt to piece Libya back together, but the U.N.-led peace process aimed at forming a unity government instead led to the creation of a third rival government and increased the polarization among the country’s factions.
Today marked one of the heaviest days of fighting in multiple theaters in Libya over the past three years. In eastern Libya’s vital “Oil Crescent” region, the Libyan National Army, under the control of Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter, recaptured the oil terminals of As Sidra and Ras Lanuf, which it had lost to Islamist-linked militias just two weeks ago. In western Libya, meanwhile, rival militias supporting two different governments battled in the streets of Tripoli with support from tanks in an attempt to win the backing of the capital’s populace and seize business and residential centers.
Outside powers, including Arab states, countries in the West and, increasingly, Russia are each backing whichever factions they think will help them achieve their disparate objectives in Libya. Right now, the country’s divisions are so deep that no outside power has the means or the influence to force a solution that will unify the various factions. But that has not stopped those powers from attempting to wield more influence, either directly or indirectly, over the parties involved in the conflict. Russia, for example, has spent the past year building connections with groups across the country in hopes that it can shape the negotiating process.
Libya’s divisions, rooted in tribal rivalries that were unleashed after Gadhafi’s downfall, only recently were not as contentious as they are today. In 2014, Libya had just a single government in Tripoli, the General National Congress (GNC), which was voted into power by popular election after the civil war ended. After the GNC failed to hold elections before its term ended, however, Hifter demanded that it step down. The GNC persisted, and three months later, Hifter — backed by Egypt — launched what he called Operation Dignity to try to force it from power.
The GNC then did hold elections, but turnout was low, and Islamists backed by groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood were defeated. The low turnout led to claims that the elections lacked legitimacy. A coalition backed by Islamist militias and fighters from the powerful western city of Misrata formed Libya Dawn, dislodging the newly elected government — the House of Representatives — which fled to eastern Libya to ally with Hifter. The Misratan-Islamist coalition then restored the GNC’s power in Tripoli, giving the country two governments.
Between late 2014 and early 2015, forces from Operation Dignity and Libya Dawn waged battle, but their fighting created power vacuums that gave al Qaeda-linked groups the opportunity to embed themselves with local tribal militias that were fighting Hifter. Moreover, many of those tribal militias found support as proxies from Libya Dawn’s Islamist militias.
As a result, residual deep connections remain between anti-Hifter Islamist groups in Libya’s west and al Qaeda-affiliated jihadist groups in Libya’s east. Their ties helped reinforce the Benghazi Defense Brigades, the group that was able to defeat Libyan National Army forces March 2 to take control of the two oil terminals that Hifter’s forces reclaimed today. Amid the fighting, the Islamic State gained a foothold in Sirte and used that city as a springboard for operations in western Libya that targeted Tripoli and Misrata.
It was the Islamic State’s rise in the country that prompted the West to increase its efforts to form a unity government bridging the two rivals. As the more business-oriented merchant Misratans found themselves under attack from the Islamic State, they threw their support behind the Western peace process.
That led to the dissolution of their coalition with the Islamists, who opposed the peace plan because of the prominent role it would give Hifter. But the plan progressed, leading to the birth of the Government of National Accord (GNA), which won the backing of the U.N. Security Council. Once the GNA was formed, however, neither of the other rival governments fully supported it. The more hard-line Islamist factions of the GNC remain, and the remnants of the House of Representatives never approved its formation.
The three years of alignments, realignments and proxy wars have left a tangled knot of alliances and rivalries among the country’s political and militant factions that has eluded the power of any outside force to untie. But countries with interests in North Africa, through support of various groups, still hope to achieve whatever they can in Libya.
Arab countries have played a key role in the conflict. Hifter has benefited from the support of countries inclined to oppose populist movements, Islamist political groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and jihadist militants. Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia all view Hifter as the country’s strongest military leader, and his anti-Islamist agenda aligns with their objectives. The three have pressed for the unity government to succeed, but they want to ensure that Hifter plays a key role in that government. If he is given significant power, it would limit the chances that an Islamist-dominated government would emerge, and it would ensure that military pressure on extremist groups will remain high.
Over the past year, Russia has begun increasing its presence in Libya, courting officials from the GNA and Misrata. It, too, appears to have thrown more support behind Hifter and the Libyan National Army. Russia’s interests lie in opposing extremist groups, although it has provided limited levels of support thus far. Russia is also trying to solidify its long-term presence in North Africa. In tandem with its expansion into Libya, Moscow has deepened its relationship with Egypt through military, agricultural and energy ties.
The expansion into Libya is just one component of Russia’s much broader strategy of strengthening ties in the Southern Mediterranean — resurrecting a Soviet-era axis of influence. The Kremlin, which knows that the conflict in Libya is intensifying, wants to ensure that it has a seat at the negotiating table so that it can help shape talks and possibly use its involvement as leverage against the West.
While Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have backed Hifter, Qatar and Turkey have taken the opposite approach, providing closer support to Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated groups and the Misratans. In Turkey, the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) has used Muslim Brotherhood affiliates to enlarge its own influence in the region and counter rivals such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which espouse a different version of Sunni governance.
For Qatar, support for the Muslim Brotherhood and other political Islamist groups is not as much about an alignment of worldview as it is Doha seeking to grow its influence across the Middle East. By allowing leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, the Taliban and similar groups to set up offices in Doha, Qatar is strategically investing in populist groups to build a network of allies across the region. Still, Qatar and Turkey have not provided the Islamist-leaning groups with the same level of support that other Middle Eastern powers have given to Hifter and his forces.
Finally, for most Western powers, the core interest is still to limit the areas in which jihadist groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State can operate. Over the past year, even though the West has largely supported the unity government in Tripoli, underneath the surface, some Western governments have also backed Hifter’s forces.
In the east, for example, France had lent some support to Hifter until the Benghazi Defense Brigades shot down a helicopter carrying three French soldiers in July. In support of the GNA, the United States launched nearly 500 airstrikes against the Islamic State as Misratan militias were trying to seize control of Sirte. Though the fight against militants is a focus, the West hopes to shepherd through a unity government to return long-term stability to Libya so that secondary issues — such as the migrant crisis affecting European powers — can be resolved.
In Libya’s current conflict, the splits remain too strong, with too many divisive figures, for any solutions to emerge in the near future. Nevertheless, the country’s proximity to Europe and its chaotic environment — a breeding ground for jihadist groups — has attracted almost every strong actor in the region. As a result, Libya will grow as a point of tension between those outside powers, and their support for competing groups will only deepen the severity of the country’s divisions.