Libya’s Second War of Post-Qadhafi Succession
By Jason Pack
In early April 2019, General Khalifa Haftar instructed the Libyan National Army (LNA) to take Tripoli by force, initiating Libya’s Second War of Post-Qadhafi Succession.
The Anti-LNA Coalition’s Coherence and Capabilities
Haftar’s assault on Tripoli has forged all the above listed Western militias into a loose “Anti-LNA coalition,” exactly as Libya-Analysis’s militia mapping and the principle of balance of power would suggest.
Yet, the coherence and sustainability of this coalition is highly fragile and susceptible to sudden fragmentation or even collapse. Within a few days of the assault, the GNA started referring to their forces as al-Jaysh al-Libi, “the Libyan Army”. ” They even created a spokesman for this “Libyan Army.”
None of these groups had ever undertaken a joint operation, and have had little time to facilitate communications, but they seem to grasp the need to coordinate both their battle field actions and to jointly combat Haftar’s media offensive.
As for efforts to coordinate military actions, the defence of Tripoli is likely being coordinated among leaders in the TPF. Juwaili, Haddad, and Bashaaga communicate via informal commander-level discussions without a formal structure.
Bashaaga is likely to be instrumental in coordinating between major groups. He has reportedly been given the role of Defence Minister days after the siege occurred, but subsequent events, such as Serraj’s instructions to the Military Attorney General on April 23 to arrest LNA top brass including Haftar as traitors suggests that Serraj wishes to remain formally as the actual minister of defence.
This arrangement allows him to not upset the precarious relationship of the GNA to Zintan (Misrata’s traditional opponent) while also not allowing non-Misrata forces to simply blame Misrata in the event of an LNA victory over Tripoli.
Concrete examples of coordination of the anti-LNA forces are that: the TPF have established their own operations centre. The Misrata Air College is clearly in coordination with Juwaili/Zintan, due to the proximity of Misratan airstrikes to Juwaili’s front and former airstrikes.
These illustrate that the anti-LNA coalition has been successfully communicating and coordinating to facilitate airstrikes on the LNA without hitting pro-GNA forces confronting them.
Juwaili has the most experience in the areas around Tripoli fringes, hence it is not surprising that he is undertaking the attacks against the LNA’s major forces in areas of major strategic and symbolic importance such as the Azizziyah (A key southern gateway to central Tripoli).
So, in essence, as expected, the anti-LNA coalition’s coordination is unstructured, and will likely gain in coherence as the threat from the LNA increases. However, it will never achieve the coherence enjoyed by the LNA.
At any moment, random defections from its ranks could lead to its collapse. Should the international community wish to bring these anti-LNA forces to the negotiating table, they should force the GNA to implement the stalled economic reform program, especially dinar devaluation, subsidies reform, and cracking down on letter of credit fraud and smuggling.
If the International Community made such action the price of its continued support for Fayez Serraj as GNA Prime Minister and Sadiq al-Kabir as Central Bank Governor, they would be forced to comply.
In fact, the international community has more leverage than ever over these actors. If international legitimacy for the CBL and GNA was removed Haftar would surely takeover both institutions and displace these incumbents.
Recent Developments and Challenges Ahead
Despite the fact that the anti-LNA coalition is functioning sufficiently well to keep Haftar out of central Tripoli, it remains relatively fragile and its continued viability is dependent on a number of factors, such as its commanders’ willingness to stay and fight rather than flee to enjoy their wealth abroad, the continued international legitimacy for the GNA and its ability to deliver supplies and diplomatic cover to the component parts of the coalition.
While coordination on troop movements, deconfliction, and friendly fire prevention measures are apparently functioning adequately, a number of episodes of disagreement on the positioning of forces, as well as, accusations of “betrayal” (especially after the death of Misratan Mahmud Bayo, also known as Sherikhan, head of the Misratan Amateen brigade in Yarmouk camp on 29 April) highlight major fault lines and mistrust still present inside the anti-LNA coalition.
This has also extended to the distribution of provisions, as was highlighted when a shipment of armed vehicles and military equipment – allegedly transported from Turkey via the Moldavian ship AMAZON to Tripoli port on 18 May is said to have resulted in a confrontation between Misratan militias and the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade (TRB).
One of the major fears of militia commanders is that their former rivals who are now their allies will use this war to settle old scores and assassinate other militia leaders. For this reason, Misratans do not fight with the Tripoli militias on the same front, but instead fight with the Bugra forces from Tajura.
The same goes for Tripoli’s main militias – the Nawasi brigade will only advance if the Abu Salim brigade protects its rear, but refuses to trust Misratan brigades to preform the same function despite their having advantageous geographic positioning.
These outcomes are in line with the findings of the Libya Analysis militia mapping project which found that militia allegiances in the densely populated areas of Tripoli and the western region are more opportunistic and that the rate of change of alliance patterns is higher than in more sparsely populated areas like the South and East.
As such, coordination could also collapse quickly the moment the LNA manages to make a genuine breakthrough into the densely populated Tripoli areas. This would likely coincide with key militia commanders flipping their allegiance or fleeing Libya.
At that point, past iterations of changes in military dominance over Tripoli (namely 2011 and 2014) would indicate that at that point, all but the most ardently anti-Haftar militias will care more about being on the winning side than about their former allegiances.
At that point, the calculus of militia leaders, and even senior political figures for that matter will likely become much more individualistic and self-interested.
In the event of an LNA victory, a profound realisation may dawn on the previously anti-LNA forces: the population will not support fighting inside the city and could choose to give up perceived “spoilers” to the new sheriff in town.
Also Tripolitans have shown a strong predilection to be on the winning side: the moment the anti-LNA forces fail to deter the LNA from entering central Tripoli, the entire allegiance system of both the population and the militias is likely to shift instantaneously – just as from 18-21 August 2011, as the rebels were poised to take Tripoli, much of the population switched sides instantaneously.
Part V: The Outlook for Libya
In light of the current crisis, divining a final outcome appears to be an insurmountable task, especially amid under the table negotiations, hidden agendas, fake news, and overt deception—tactics all Libyan armed groups have no qualms about using in pursuit of their own interests.
What is crystal clear, however, is that Tripoli is unlikely to enjoy real stability anytime soon, undermining Haftar’s claims in early April that he would quickly “restore order across the country” by installing a new regime in the capital and creating a genuinely national army, as discussed in Part III.
Yes, Haftar my eventually acquire the upper hand, but this will not mean that he ever acquires unfettered access to Tripoli’s resources.
Even the short sketch in Part IV of the six main armed actors involved in Tripoli and another six in Western Libya demonstrates the immense challenge of the LNA subsuming all of these groups under its aegis, or of permanently eliminating their leaders, or coaxing them into exile.
Any hopes in that quarter are likely unfounded, unless Haftar receives massive support from external backers like Russia, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt or France that he can simply punch through resistance – abandoning the typical Libyan (low casualty/low intensity) way of war in the process – or buy off or intimidate his leading opponents into exile causing the resistance to find itself commander-less and be forced to scatter.
And yet if those countries are seen to be delivering external support, why then would Italy, Turkey, and Qatar not intervene to support their ally, the GNA? Moreover, recent reports suggest that this has already begun.
Many supporters of the LNA have seen President Donald Trump’s surprise announcement of a phone call with General Haftar on April as indicating a shift in the American position towards the LNA.
Yet American policy is inchoate and multipolar. Trump Administration mixed signals are nothing new.
In this instance they are indicative of the broader division within the international community, and the UN Security Council (UNSC) in particular about resolving the Libya crisis.
On 21 April, the UK attempted to pass a UNSC statement to initiate a cease-fire, which would have identified Haftar as the aggressor. Both Russia and the US vetoed the proposal.
Likewise, on 18 April, the US and Russia vetoed a UNSC proposal calling for an immediate ceasefire to the clashes, with the US requesting more time, while Russia requested the UNSC refrains from directly referring to Haftar in any of its resolutions.
Seen a month into the new civil war, international unity to support, or to oppose Haftar, seems impossible to craft.
Yet even in that scenario of extensive external support for Haftar suddenly materializing and leading to a breakthrough, the prospect of establishing a unified and truly national army under the auspices of the LNA will still likely be exposed as a mere pipedream.
As it stands, the ingrained tribalism and self-interest underlying Libya’s militias show no signs of dissipating.
If Haftar had held back on his Tripoli offensive, negotiations could have peeled some groups (possibly the Madkhali Salafists) away from the GNA and towards Haftar, but the full-frontal assault has been causing almost all of the Western Libyan militias to rally in defence of their home turf – their chances of being integrated into the LNA is far less than it would have been via negotiations.
Seen in this context, the LNA looks the most overstretched it has been in years, and may find itself refighting old battles in various regions and cities it considered previously conquered and secured.
Even if it were to win in Tripoli, a new balance of power with new spoilers would undoubtably emerge.
Hence, political upheaval, factional reshuffling and a lack of security are set to stay, as long as the country’s main players seek to maintain or redesign the status quo to their own advantage and continue to calculate their actions based on balance of power calculations.
If Libya’s immediate history teaches us anything, it is that the emergence of new fault lines will only serve to further entrench existing factional positions; in all likelihood, the divisions between those who support the LNA and a militarized state-building project, and those who oppose it and wish to preserve the status quo, will only become more embedded.
Such divisiveness does not bode well for Libya’s future and will undoubtedly hinder any future establishment of a capable centralized government and the creation of a true Libyan Army under its direct authority.
In fact, for many the mere concept of a “Libyan Army” is now anathema, dooming Libya to remain a decentralized power vacuum until a new generation emerges for which these ideas have different resonances.
Libya Has Never Had a Truly National Army
None of Libya’s Imperial rulers – the Ottomans, the Italians, or the British – ever unified Libya administratively or militarily. Its domestic potentates have fared only slightly better.
During his monarchy, Idriss al-Sanussi was a polarizing figure who drew support from very specific segments of the population and was terrified of creating a truly national army, correctly surmising that some disgruntled subaltern or colonel might eventually overthrow him.
He preferred a Pretorian guard, the Cyrenaican Defence Force, which drew its manpower primarily from the sada tribes of Cyrenaica.
During the Qadhafi period, the country was further unified economically and institutionally, but never militarily. Qadhafi eviscerated the army, creating his own Pretorian guard from the previously disadvantaged Magraha, Warfalla, and Qadhadhifa tribes.
He too was terrified that equipping and training a national army might lead to some part of it eventually overthrowing him – exactly as eventually came to pass.
Unlike other Arab States, even those with artificial colonial borders like Algeria, Iraq or Syria, Libya has, therefore, never had a coherent national army.
In most Arab states cobbled together by the Imperial powers out of diverse Ottoman wilayat, mid-20th century state building was conducted by an army which acted as a sovereign.
Not in Libya. The ability of a financial central authority to distribute vast oil revenues to a small and dispersed population granted it power, not the Army.
Even if he were to conquer Tripoli, why would Haftar be able to break this pattern of forging a truly national army when he lacks access to both oil revenues and international legitimacy?
A Role for the International Community?
Politically, the National Conference has now been postponed and UN Envoy Ghassan Salamé may step down in the near future.
Hence, a political solution to the current crisis caused by the conflict in Tripoli – let alone the broader, longer-term issues Libya needs to address – looks increasingly hard to achieve.
Seen in retrospect, it is quite possible that late March 2019 will represent the high-water mark for a political solution to the institutional fragmentation that has bedevilled Libya since the summer of 2014.
The blocking power of HoR Speaker of the House Agilah Saleh to prevent elections or a constitutional referendum was nearly bypassed, as the National Conference would have opened up a new pathway to elections.
And yet it was not to be. Viewed from late-May 2019, it appears that too many actors benefited from the status quo of militia domination to allow any political progress to proceed unchecked.
Only concerted leadership by a neutral power, such as the UK, Germany, or the EU could correct these issues and create an alternative political process.
In the absence of decisive action, the international community and UNSMIL is likely to lose the ability to effectively mould developments on the ground.
So far in the first weeks of the crisis, there has been no indication that major players are willing to exert determined or far-sighted leadership on the Libya file.
Jason Pack is the President of Libya-Analysis LLC, a consultancy organisation specializing in evidence-based analysis, forecasting and stakeholder mapping of Libya.
Italian Institute for International political Studies