By Policy Analysis Unit
On 26 August 2018, Tripoli faced the most violent clashes it had seen since the establishment of the Presidential Council of the Government of National Accord (GNA), more than two years ago.
For days, the southern districts of Tripoli became a battlefield between the 7th Infantry Brigade, most of whom hailed from Tarhuna, with its supporting battalions, and other Brigades affiliated with the GNA.
Despite the decline in combat following a ceasefire, many questions remain regarding the capital city as a battle front, the identity of the combatants, their goals and their affiliations, the fate of the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement and the security and political arrangements that it has produced.
Tripoli: Security and Stability Remains Elusive
The Libyan capital has been the stage for frequent security skirmishes between armed battalions since 2014, when the conflict intensified following House of Representatives elections.
Subsequently the political, security and institutional systems fragmented between different centres of power.
These centres manifested in the Eastern Camp, represented by the interim government of Abdullah al-Thinni, and the “Karama” operation led by retired general Khalifa Haftar and a number of members of the House of Representatives, as well as the Western and Central camp represented by the GNS and the General National Congress and Libya Dawn.
In July 2014, battalions from Tripoli, and cities of the Central and Western regions, launched a major military operation against the Zintan Brigades, which was partially aligned with Haftar’s Karama operation.
Within a month, the battalions affiliated with Libya Dawn managed to expel the Karama Brigades from all their positions, including Tripoli International Airport, their last stronghold in the capital.
The status quo in Tripoli persevered for a while, with shared influence and relative calm, punctuated by small-scale clashes between various battalions from time to time.
This was until the Libyan Political Agreement was signed in Skhirat on 17 December 2015 and the inauguration of the Presidential Council on 29 March 2016.
The political dialogue in Skhirat was accompanied by field security arrangements supervised by the Military Adviser of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, the Italian General Paolo Serra, and included a number of armed battalions in the capital, who later became something of a military and security belt for the Presidential Council of the GNA.
However, these arrangements did not prevent renewed clashes, on more than one occasion, between the brigades which maintained a degree of loyalty to the General National Congress (GNC) and the Government of National Salvation (GNS), and even between the battalions loyal to the Presidential Council itself. In October 2016, battalions under the name of the Presidential Guard launched a major offensive in the heart of the capital and took control of a number of sites and the headquarters of the High Council of the State.
In February 2018, the neighbourhoods around Mitiga airport witnessed fierce battles between the Tajoura Battalion, representing the Presidential Council, and the RADA forces, loyal to the Interior Ministry of the GNA.
The 7th Infantry Brigade: Questions of Identity
On 26 August 2018, The 7th Infantry Brigade and other battalions launched a massive offensive in the southern suburbs of the capital, including Tripoli airport, and the camps of the battalions attributed to the Presidential Council of the GNA.
The formation of the 7th Infantry Brigade, also known as the Kani Brigade, in relation to its association with the Kani family, raises many questions.
The members of the brigade and its commanders are distributed among the rebels of February 17 and members of the Gaddafi Brigades, especially the 32nd brigade and the battalion of Emhemmed Magariaf.
The fighters of Tarhuna, who later became the 7th Infantry Brigade, participated in Operation Libya Dawn, which expelled the loyalist battalions outside the capital in 2014.
The identity of the brigade was further clouded with ambiguity during the recent attack in Tripoli. While Gaddafi’s cousin and former regime official, Ahmad Qadhaf Al-Dam announced that the 7th Infantry Brigade was loyal to the previous regime, Representative Ali Al-Tikbali insisted that relations existed between the brigade and the General Khalifa Haftar, claims denied by a spokesman for the brigade.
Yet, the Presidential Council of the GNA, as the supreme commander of the Libyan army, issued a decision requiring its dissolution during previous clashes in April 2018.
This was denied by the generals of the brigade, who confirmed that its staff and leaders are still receiving their salaries from the GNA. The ambiguity surrounding the question of administrative and institutional dependence is not unique to the 7th Brigade however.
Repeated clashes in Tripoli and other areas have shown that the loyalty of the various battalions of the GNA is mainly related to salaries and legitimacy of the government rather than military and security institutions.
The Tripoli Offensive and Investment in the Crisis
In the context of justifying the military operation in Tripoli, the 7th Brigade invoked the failure witnessed by the capital and the whole country, nearly two-and-a-half years after the presidential council of the GNA took office.
On the security and military levels, the armed battalions, with their political, tribal and regional loyalties, continue to impose their authority and carry out acts of extortion, kidnapping, arrest, torture, and extrajudicial killings with impunity.
Many neighbourhoods in Tripoli have transformed into security islands shared between four major battalions and dozens of armed groups, with no real state authority.
The institutionalization of the army and police has yet to be implemented despite being an essential component of state-building. The commanders of the battalions are their de facto leaders, despite being formally subordinate to the Ministries of Defence and Interior in the GNA on paper.
The role of the Presidential Council, regarding the fighting and security incidents in the capital, has been very much limited to issuing statements of condemnation, and appeals for calm.
During the recent clashes the Council called on the Western and Central military zones to move towards the capital to separate the disputants, which was not translated into real action on the ground.
The Chief of the Central Military Zone of the Presidential Council Major-General Mohammed Haddad was kidnapped, an act that seems to be sending a message to Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj that he lost control of the capital, where the presidential council is located.
This is mainly due to the security and political situations, the weakness of the state’s administrative, regulatory and financial bodies, and their division.
It also stems from structural and chronic problems related to economic choices. In this context, the Libyan Dinar continues to decline against hard currencies and even those of neighbouring countries.
Prices continue to rise, and water shortages and frequent cuts in water and electricity are increasingly severe. Although these challenges are not restricted to Tripoli, the crisis is more pronounced and more severe in the capital, because of its population and way of life.
The capital has long represented a space of national integration for Libyan society, whereby the importance of tribalism has been diminished.
The state of frustration and mounting crises breeds an environment for political investment in and the promotion of “solutions”. Upon the Presidential Council’s entrance into the foray in 2016, media discourse laying blame with the GNS, Libya Dawn and the GNC dominated in the capital, and the country in general, promising improved conditions quickly, without an objective assessment of the situation, a discourse that is repeated today.
The rhetoric of the attacking battalions, according to statements and press releases, is full of accusations against the Presidential Council, the GNA and the battalions in its orbit.
It promises the dissolution of the militias, the institutionalization of the police and army systems, and holding corruption to account and those who stole public funds.
On the other hand, the supporting media of the Presidential Council and its political and militant circle accuses the 7th Brigade and its allied militias of breaking the law, while promising the improvement of the living conditions with a package of economic reforms published on 12 September 2018.
A New Arrangement?
Despite a UN-brokered cease-fire signed on 4 September 2018 and backed up by a second agreement, five days later, to “strengthen the ceasefire”, many indications suggest that the capital may expect further rounds of fighting.
The two agreements did not explicitly stipulate the withdrawal of the battalions from the positions they had taken over.
Finally, most of the content has been repeatedly observed in previous statements and agreements, without being translated into field procedures, such as “a plan for the withdrawal of armed formations from sovereign sites and vital installations and gradual replacement with regular forces (army and police).
Additionally, the warning signs are clear from the continuous mobilization of tools, weapons and personnel by all conflicting parties, and statements threatening to “continue the battle until the demands are met”, as announced by the Seventh Brigade on 12 September 2018.
The expansion of the recent clashes in the capital and the rapid progression of the 7th Brigade and its allied battalions, and control of important sites, such as Tripoli airport and Yarmouk camp have not worked in the brigade’s favour even though some of the capital’s own battalions have stood with them.
Conversely, it is unlikely that the political and military scene in Tripoli will return to what it was on the eve of 26 August 2018. The 7th Brigade will not stop at its current gains in the field, and will seek to accumulate more wins in the event of further rounds of fighting.
It will also seek political leverage to pressure the Presidential Council and the GNA into affording greater involvement for the tribal, regional and political belt supporting it.
In any case, these changes mark the failure of the security arrangements that the UN mission has worked for with the Tripoli battalions since the entry of the presidential council in the capital.
It may lead to a change in the composition of the political and institutional scene, hitting the current presidential council the hardest.
Muddling the upcoming security and political status and confusing the military and political agendas and loyalties in Tripoli will not only exacerbate the dispute between the current polarized camps and their political agendas, but will also bring other parties into the conflict.
On the military level, the Al Samoud Brigade led by the leader of Libya Dawn, Colonel Salah Badi, announced its plans to “cleanse” Tripoli.
Badi has already managed to control the important positions south of Tripoli. Meanwhile, other brigades such as the “National Mobile Force” and “Knights of Janzur,” associated with the GNS and Libya Dawn, expressed readiness to support the 7th brigade.
Adding to these overlapping agendas, the city of Tarhuna was exposed to an air attack of unknown origin.
The Presidential Council denied that any of its aircraft had carried out the attack, while some went so far as to hint the possibility of the Emirates Air Force, based in the Eastern region and Jufra, or Haftar’s air force were responsible/involved, further complicating the scene in Tripoli.
Ultimately, Libya is no closer to a political settlement that would put an end to the instability and conflict that characterized the period following the downfall of the old regime.
The country is still plagued by the inability of the Libyan elites to make compromises and the continuation of regional and international interventions that fuel conflicts with little contribution to a lasting resolution.
The Policy Analysis Unit is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. The Policy Analysis Unit draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Assessment Report, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports.