How the 2019 Civil War is Transforming Libya’s Military Landscape
By Wolfram Lacher
This Briefing Paper examines the identities and interests of the forces fighting each other over control of Tripoli.
Who is fighting for Haftar?
Judging from the fighters in Haftar’s forces who GNA-affiliated groups have taken prisoner, the bulk of the forces Haftar sent to Tripoli were initially from the east.
Over the first month of the operation, however, this changed, and since then at least half of the forces fighting for Haftar in the Tripoli area are from western and, to a lesser extent, southern Libya.
By far the most important contingent of fighters from western Libya is from Tarhuna, and more specifically from the Kaniyat militia—which operates as 9th Brigade since its integration into Haftar’s LAAF.
As a result, the conflict has not only deepened societal divides between eastern and western Libya, but has also taken on the character of a western Libyan civil war whose divisions largely match those of the 2011 war.
Most of the eastern forces active in the Tripoli area come from units that are particularly closely linked to Haftar’s inner circle and have therefore been favoured with the modern weaponry Haftar has obtained from foreign states.
These include the 106th Brigade headed by Haftar’s son, Khaled; the 73rd Brigade headed by Saleh al-Quta’ani; and the Tareq ben Ziyad Brigade led by Omar Mraje’.
These units’ members mostly come from eastern Libya, particularly the Benghazi area. All three units—but most notably the Tareq ben Ziyad Brigade—also include Madkhalist Salafists, the same applies to the contingent of fighters from Ajdabiya, which is the most sizeable after those from Benghazi.
An officer from the Ajdabiya area, Fawzi al-Mansuri, commands operations on the Wadi al-Rabi’ front.
There are signs that Haftar faces limits in his efforts to mobilize fighters in eastern Libya. Among these signs is the fact that key eastern units, such as the Saeqa Special Forces, have sent very few fighters to the Tripoli battlefield.
Contrary to previous operations in Benghazi, Darna, and southern Libya, Saeqa Special Forces commander Wanis Bukhamada has been conspicuously absent from the battle in Tripoli.
In addition to a reportedly heavy death toll, several hundred men from eastern Libya were taken prisoner in the Tripoli area in the operation’s first weeks, which may explain the reluctance to join the war.
Nevertheless, eastern forces deployed to Tripoli in rotations—fighting for three weeks, then returning home for two—at least until the fall of Gharyan in late June 2019.
Since then the supply lines between eastern Libya and the Tripoli front lines have become much more vulnerable and the rotation of units more difficult. Few among Haftar’s eastern forces fought against Qaddafi in 2011.
Three prominent figures did play a role in the revolutionary forces in 2011: Haftar himself, Bukhamada, and Abdesselam al-Hassi, who until July 2019 was the commander of operations for the Tripoli war.
The bulk of Haftar’s eastern forces, however, have tended to follow the line propagated by pro-Haftar media, according to which revolutionaries are synonymous with extremists and criminals.
Former Qaddafi regime loyalists have gained prominent positions in Haftar’s power structure, increasing fears among many eastern protagonists in 2011 that Haftar is leading a counter-revolution.
Western and southern forces
The groups that Haftar has mobilized in western and southern Libya come predominantly from communities that were collectively stigmatized and marginalized by revolutionaries as supporters of the former regime after 2011.
Unlike what happened in eastern Libya, the 2011 war divided western and southern Libyan cities and communities into ‘revolutionaries’ and ‘loyalists’.
These divisions gradually receded after the 2014–15 civil war, but they have been revived once more.
The most important example is Tarhuna, where Qaddafi had heavily recruited for his regime’s protection units. After 2011 the city found itself with a large number of military professionals who had served in Qaddafi’s forces, but it had no weapons or significant representation in successive transitional governments.
From 2015 onward the Kani brothers drew on this reservoir of unemployed soldiers to staff their militia, which eventually established exclusive control over Tarhuna—a singular feat among western Libyan cities.
During their unsuccessful attempts to enter Tripoli by force in August 2018 and January 2019, they imitated Haftar’s military rhetoric, claiming that they represented the ‘army’ and their adversaries the ‘militias’. But their attitude towards Haftar remained unclear until the day they joined his operation in Tripoli.
Concomitantly with their entry into the war, the Kaniyat absorbed yet more officers of Qaddafi’s security forces—who had previously been with Haftar’s forces in the east—and were renamed the LAAF’s 9th Brigade.
The perception among GNA- affiliated forces that Tarhuna by and large supports the war in Tripoli makes it difficult for Tarhunan fighters to withdraw: as one observer from Tarhuna put it, ‘they are now defending Tarhuna in Tripoli’.
Several other groups that have mobilized to fight with Haftar come from communities that were among the ‘losers’ of the 2011 war.
They include the Si’aan communities of Tiji and Badr; the Warshafana area south-west of Tripoli; the towns of Ajeilat, Sorman, al-Asabea and Bani Walid; and the Magarha tribe in southern Libya.
Another marginalized communitywhich Haftar’s forces have recruited is that of the Mahamid of southern Libya, most of whom arrived from Chad during the Qaddafi era. Mahamid fighters have joined the 128th Battalion led by Hassan al-Zadma, which also includes combatants from the oil crescent, as well as a small number of Awlad Suleiman from southern Libya and the Sirte area.
An Awlad Suleiman militia from Sabha initially participated in the offensive before withdrawing in June. This was the 116th Battalion led by Massoud Jiddu, a commander who is well known for his role in recruiting Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries.
Unlike Tarhuna’s Kaniyat, these groups generally do not have broad-based community support. Bani Walid, for example, is deeply divided over pro-Haftar forces’ use of the town’s airport.
Even deeper divisions exist in Sabratha, from where most former revolutionaries—among them migrant smuggling kingpin Ahmed al-Dabbashi, who contrary to claims is not participating in the Tripoli war—were forcibly dislodged in October 2017 by a coalition of Haftar supporters and former regime loyalists who are now fighting for Haftar.
The groups that have joined Haftar’s forces from Sabratha, Sorman, Tiji, and Badr are dominated by Madkhalist Salafists. This also applies to many of those who have joined Haftar from two former revolutionary strongholds: Zintan and Rujban.
In all these towns Madkhalist preachers have made significant inroads in recent years and provided staunch support for Haftar. Part of the Madkhalist Subul al-Salam Battalion from al-Kufra in Libya’s far south-east has been sent to Sabratha to bolster local forces there.
In addition to hardline Salafists, another notable category among western Libyan groups in Haftar’s Tripoli operation are known criminals who have faced arrest warrants since long before they started fighting for Haftar.
Four figures from Bani Walid who have joined the war on Haftar’s side are subject to arrest warrants issued by the GNA attorney general in recent years for their alleged involvement in criminal cases related to migrant smuggling, including two incidents in which migrants were killed in Bani Walid.
The leader of an armed group from Zintan who is fighting for Haftar at Tripoli International Airport, Abdelmonem Dardira, is wanted for his role in the kidnapping of the parliamentarian Suleiman Zubi in 2014, who was held captive for more than two years.
The leader of an armed group of former regime loyalists in Sabratha and Ajeilat who has joined Haftar’s forces, Mohamed al-Shtiwi, is accused of numerous murders in Ajeilat.
The Kani brothers also face arrest warrants for their alleged responsibility for numerous extrajudicial executions in public—a practice that was key to their establishment of control over Tarhuna—as well as the killing of 12 members of a single family in the town in 2017.
The involvement of criminal elements and hardline Salafist groups is being felt on the ground. In areas where armed groups from Tarhuna, Bani Walid, or southern Libya are active, looting by elements of Haftar’s forces is rampant, and a market for stolen white goods has emerged in Tarhuna.
But theft of this kind is absent in areas under the control of Madkhalist-dominated groups from Sabratha, Sorman, or Ajdabiya.
A final component of Haftar’s forces are mercenaries from neighbouring Chad and Sudan.
Judging from the prisoners taken by GNA-affiliated forces, Haftar’s commanders have to date mostly shied away from using hired fighters at the front lines, instead using them to secure rear bases in Gharyan and Jufra.
When GNA- affiliated forces seized Gharyan in a surprise operation they captured approximately 120 prisoners, half of whom were Sudanese and Chadian mercenaries.
As Haftar faces limits to the mobilization of additional Libyan recruits, he may rely more heavily on foreign fighters. In early July a large group of fighters from Darfur arrived in Tarhuna.
At about the same time Haftar also began recruiting members of pro-government Darfur militias, in addition to the Darfur rebels who have been part of his forces for years.
A fragile alliance
The alliance Haftar has mobilized to fight in Tripoli may be more fragile than that of his opponents. The anti-Haftar forces are held together by the unifying threat they face, but Haftar needs to win to keep his coalition together.
The Kaniyat are a very recent addition to Haftar’s forces, and if they were to withdraw from the war on the basis of a ceasefire agreement, it would be impossible for him to continue the war.
Former Qaddafi regime loyalists have been an important component of Haftar’s power structure for years, but he mobilized additional support from this constituency by launching his offensive on Tripoli.
Many supporters of the former regime may hope to use Haftar to obtain both weapons and a foothold in Tripoli before turning on their ally. This alliance could founder if Haftar fails to make progress.
Militias from southern Libya and criminal elements from western Libyan towns probably joined the war expecting a quick victory.
Contrary to western Libyan groups that are fighting Haftar, many have the option to withdraw—and some, such as the militia from Sabha led by Massoud Jiddu, have already done so.
Sudanese and Chadian mercenaries have served Haftar well in supporting his largely unopposed expansion in the oil crescent and southern Libya, and in securing remote outposts that are rarely attacked.
They are less likely to accept an engagement that involves heavy losses, even less so if events in Sudan open up the possibility of some of them returning home.
There have already been signs of tensions among the various forces in Haftar’s alliance—often between the eastern units that closely follow orders from Haftar’s command structure and the more independent western armed groups.
Rumours abound that several western commanders—among them the Warshafana officer Massud al-Dhawi and the notorious leader of the ‘Brigade of Arabism’ from Ajeilat, Mohamed al-Shtiwi—might have been killed by their rivals in Haftar’s coalition.
Outlook: conflicts to come
A negotiated settlement to the war in Tripoli currently appears to be out of reach. Even if both the commanders of the GNA-affiliated forces and Haftar concluded that they could not gain by continuing the war, there is no credible third party that could guarantee the implementation of a deal and thereby help overcome the distrust between the two sides.
Western governments and UNSMIL have refrained from taking any steps against Haftar, despite the fact that he started the war.
In addition to continuing military support from regional backers such as Egypt and the UAE, Haftar has also enjoyed support from key Western governments such as those of France and the United States.
This makes it almost impossible for GNA-affiliated forces to trust international stakeholders to act as honest brokers, let alone enforce an agreement and hold Haftar to account should he violate it.
Short of a ceasefire agreement between Misratan and Tarhunan forces that would end the conflict in Tripoli without a wider political deal, this means that fighting is currently the only way forward for the combatants.
In view of the societal divides this conflict has created or deepened, the continuing war risks causing much greater damage to Libya’s social fabric than it has to date.
Any major victory for GNA-affiliated forces—such as the capture of Tarhuna or Sabratha—could result in indiscriminate reprisals by members of another community or members of the same community taking revenge on one another.
Any major advance by Haftar’s forces would bring them to communities that are overwhelmingly hostile to them.
To establish control they would have to resort to highly destructive warfare or brutal repression. And should GNA-affiliated forces succeed in seizing Haftar’s bases in western Libya, the divide between east and west would become the key fault line of the conflict, and separation could become a much more realistic scenario.
The longer the war continues, the more struggles over power and resources are likely to play out within the two opposing alliances—but particularly so in the GNA-affiliated anti-Haftar alliance, which lacks a central arbiter.
While many fighters in GNA-affiliated forces are still unpaid volunteers and government support in the form of funds, ammunition, and weapons has to date been limited, this is likely to change as the war drags on.
A first indication of such change came with the August 2019 order by Prime Minister Serraj to pay out a one-off sum of LD 3,000 (USD 810) to each fighter involved in the war against Haftar.
Leaders of armed groups with privileged access to state funds or foreign assistance could well use it to expand the firepower of their own groups and turn them into new state-sanctioned units.
In this way powerful new militias could arise from the current war. The sacrifices fighters and their families are making in the war against Haftar also provide a basis for new political struggles.
As after previous conflicts, commanders of strong or victorious factions and their political representatives are set to demand their share of positions in government, the administration, and the security forces.
Politicians associated with the forces fighting Haftar repeatedly call for the formation of a crisis government—or at least for the replacement of certain officials whom they accuse of insufficient fervour in the war effort.
Such struggles have been kept in check to date by the general realization that fundamentally reshuffling the government could jeopardize its status as Libya’s internationally recognized authority.
But amid mounting resentment among fighters and commanders over perceived incompetence and corruption in the government, politicians are likely to seize the opportunity to advance their interests.
The rivalries that would inevitably ensue could threaten the cohesion of the anti-Haftar alliance.
The issue of the post-war balance of power in Tripoli looms large in the ongoing conflict. The war has brought large forces to Tripoli that had left the capital years ago, including groups from Misrata, Zawiya, and the Amazigh towns.
Some may not easily give up their new foothold in Tripoli after the war. Many had resented the excesses of the handful of militias that controlled much of Tripoli in recent years, but this is not to say that they would not engage in similar predation if they gained control of state institutions.
Clearly, however, many commanders in the forces currently defending Tripoli expect a confrontation with the Tripoli militias in a future phase of the conflict.
The challenge of negotiating widely acceptable security arrangements for Tripoli will once again become an issue if the threat to the capital from Haftar’s forces recedes.
Indeed, negotiating such arrangements would likely have to be part of any agreement among western Libyan forces to end the fighting.
No progress has been made since the August–September 2018 conflict in forming regular units that could ensure the security of state institutions and citizens in the capital.
Like this previous conflict, the current war could also offer an opportunity to negotiate more ambitious solutions to Tripoli’s long-lasting security dilemma.
With an array of newly empowered military forces present in the capital, however, the obstacles to any such solution will be formidable.
Wolfram Lacher is a senior associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin. He has worked on and conducted research in Libya since 2007, including in a previous capacity as an analyst at a business risk consultancy from 2007 to 2010. He has authored and co-authored numerous reports, academic articles, and book chapters on the post-2011 conflicts in Libya and security issues in the Sahel–Sahara region. His book Libya’s Fragmentation will be published by I.B. Tauris in April 2020.
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