By Lorenzo Marinone
Since August 26, Tripoli has witnessed violent clashes between rival militias until UN brokered a fragile ceasefire on September 4.
The dynamics and root causes of these clashes effectively sum up the main vulnerabilities of the Libyan reconciliation process. In fact, the struggle for control of the capital is not just a local contest, nor it is related only to dynamics inherent to a single region such as Tripolitania.
On the contrary, it is rooted in different levels of the multi-layered Libyan conflict. Since 2014, when the institutional split between Tripoli and Tobruk emerged, and consequently two broad armed coalitions materialized (Libya Dawn in the west and General Haftar’s Libyan National Army in Cyrenaica), this conflict has played both on the military and the internal political level, and it has incessantly involved other regional and international players.
While acting at cross-purposes, international players have adopted largely unilateral approaches, in an attempt to favor one faction at the expense of the others. This dramatic lack of cohesion in the international community remains to date one of the major obstacles to stabilizing the country.
Without any political platform shared by the parties, every acceleration of diplomacy fatally risks fueling existing divisions, and may contribute to a new period of chaos in Libya.
One example is the distrust many local and international actors displayed when faced with the decision to rush for parliamentary and presidential elections in a very short period of time (by December 10), which is the cornerstone of the French diplomatic initiative launched in May.
Clashes in Tripoli have concretely threatened the survival of the Government of National Accord (GNA). This has highlighted once again the extreme weakness of the executive led by Fayez al-Serraj and the constant uncertainty surrounding the slow process of formation of the new Libyan institutional architecture.
Settled in the capital in March 2016 under the Skhirat Agreement, from the very beginning the GNA has had huge difficulties in gaining legitimacy.
Not only it has never received explicit approval from the Parliament in Tobruk, but several members of its highest body, the Presidential Council, soon defected, including Vice-Presidents Fathi al-Majbri and Ali al-Gatrani, both from Cyrenaica, the Fezzan’s representative Musa al-Koni, and Minister Omar Ahmed al-Aswad from the city of Zintan.
Thus, the GNA became less representative, a highly needed quality in a fragmented Libyan landscape, where the patchwork of actors who actually are in control on the ground prioritises the defense of personal interest, not to mention the suspicion it shows towards any strong central authority after four decades of Gaddafi’s rule.
Serraj’s weakness is emphasized even more clearly by GNA’s relationship with armed groups in Tripoli, where militias benefit from an undisputed position of strength over political institutions. In fact, in order for the minimum security conditions to materialize and allow the establishment of the GNA, Serraj made a deal with some militia leaders in Tripoli, who in turn got an “institutionalized” status and legitimacy.
Thus, several armed groups were integrated into the organizational charts of the security forces under the Ministries of Defense and Interior. But this controversial step did not disrupt the militias’ chains of command, thus granting each group wide margins of autonomy.
This four main militias have their founding pillar in the mutual defense in case of attack by rivals, and may enter into tactical alliances with smaller armed groups. Thanks to its privileged role, this “cartel” has been able to deeply penetrate into both the political and the economic fabric.
In fact, the proper criminal dimension of this consortium is based on its position of strength. It has parcelled the city into zones of influence and it has successfully planted its members within bureaucracy apparatuses and key ministries.
By often resorting to intimidation and the violence, these militias are able to influence political decisions, secure substantial funding (including through the fraudulent use of letters of credit, obtained through compliant banking operators), and exercise widespread territorial control.
The “cupola” of this typically mafia-like consortium consists of the Special Deterrence Force (Rada Force) led by a Salafi named Abdelraouf Kara, who controls the Mitiga International Airport; the Abdellatif Qaddur’s Nawasi Battalion, based in Suq al-Jum’a district together with Kara; the Tripoli Revolutionary Brigade led by Haithem al-Tajouri and Hashim Bishr, whose area of influence ranges from the southern suburbs of the capital to the old city and the naval base of Abu Sitta; and Abdel Ghani al-Kikli’s Abu Salim Unit based in the eponymous district.
These groups entertain more fluid relationships with smaller militias such as the Halbous Brigade (also known as 301 Brigade, which stems from Misrata), Fursan al-Janzour and the Bab Tajura Battalion.
As these militias grew stronger and enjoyed de facto the legitimate monopoly of force, a clear dividing line emerged between groups able to exert considerable influence on the GNA – thus, essential interlocutors in determining the future of the country –, and all those militias that have been excluded from this process.
The latter include various groups from Misrata, such as Salah Badi’s Sumud Front, Bashir al-Bogra’s militias and the Kani brothers’ armed groups from Tarhouna. All of them have been progressively expelled from the capital over the last two years by Tripoli militias.
It is therefore not surprising that the recent clashes began with an offensive led by Tarhouna militias, with the support of Salah Badi, towards Tripoli southern outskirts, in an attempt to reach the Abu Salim district, a gateway to the heart of the capital.
Although the assault substantially failed to date, the dynamics with which the clashes took place led to important developments in Tripoli militia landscape. In fact, in order to stop the insurgents Serraj requested Misrata and Zintan to intervene.
Both of them had not had a military presence in the capital for some time. Specifically, the Anti-Terrorism Force, led by Mohammed al-Zain, is said to have reached the Mitiga airport area, while the Zintani militia led by Emad Trabelsi reportedly entered the western part of the city.
Thus, the arrival of these new players is likely to trigger a necessary revision of Tripoli security management system, a rather complex development since no militia leader will agree to cede his privileges without adequate quid pro quo. At the same time, it should be emphasized that both Zintan and part of Misrata’s manifold militia landscape have cleverly exploited the recent conjuncture to recover influence over centres of political and economic power.
In fact, the former had been driven out of Tripoli in 2014, while most of Misrata militias were expelled in the following years. Moreover, both these cities were not involved in the Paris summit last May. Therefore, they have a clear interest in taking a leading role again, also through alliances of convenience.
In this sense Zintan’s stance is emblematic, because it shifted from expressing support to Haftar in order to counter Tripoli forces, to forging an alliance with its traditional rivals of Misrata, last March, based on their shared status of forces excluded from the capital.
In this context, the next balance of forces in Tripoli is likely to be structurally more unstable than before precisely because of the extreme fluidity of alliances, which continue to be based not on ideological or religious motivations but rather on the continuous quest for each player’s own benefit.
In this sense, it cannot be ruled out the possibility that, in the near future, the settling-in period in Tripoli will involve actors that have been sidelined so far, or a deep reshaping of alliances among armed groups will take place, even along unprecedented paths.
In this context, Serraj has limited tools to ease tensions and expand its legitimacy. His inability to gather support needed to advance and deepen the UN-sponsored dialogue with the authorities of Cyrenaica has forced the GNA to pursue a minimalist, partial and short-term strategy.
This strategy has been basically limited to the co-optation of important military leaders from different cities of Tripolitania, including Osama al-Juwaili (former head of the Zintan military council) and Mohamed Haddad (commander of Misrata’s Halbous Brigade).
Juwaili and Haddad were given the command of western and central military sectors. However, these appointments did not result in tight alignment to the GNA by neither Zintan nor Misrata, both having anything but a monolithic militia landscape.
The practice of distributing appointments and privileges among militias may have resulted necessary to allow the establishment of the GNA. But ultimately it can only trigger a vicious circle with deleterious effects.
In fact, armed groups are encouraged to consider institutions as a preferential channel for access to financial resources, which, on the other hand, allow them to maintain their autonomy and, above all, their position of strength over the GNA.
After all, both the strictly predatory behaviour and these militias’ reticence to shift the competition to a merely political level, are closely linked to the fear of not being able to carve out a role in the future structure of the country.
In this sense, both the prospects of stabilization of the capital and the ability of the GNA to launch economic reforms are also affected by the quality of the dialogue between Tripoli and Tobruk, as well as by how the institutional fracture that took place in 2014 is being mended.
Therefore, it is difficult to hypothesize a significant improvement of the situation in Tripoli if any effort is not matched with adequate political guarantees within the reconciliation process, and a deep reform of the country’s economic governance.
To be continued in part two
Lorenzo Marinone – Analyst for Middle East & North Africa affairs of Ce.S.I. – Centro Studi Internazionali. – Centre for International Studies. He holds a Masters in Peacekeeping and Security Studies earned at the University of Roma Tre in 2014. He has been frequently interviewed as commentator on national TV and radio broadcasts.
The Cource: REPORT: THE LIBYAN MAZE. THE PATH TO ELECTIONS AND THE FUTURE OF THE RECONCILIATION PROCESS . Edited by Lorenzo Marinone