By Sigvart Nordhov Fredriksen & Zenonas Tziarras
Libya is fractured. Its civil war is a complex conflict fought out between myriad smaller militias loosely integrated into two main factions.
Khalifa Haftar’s siege of Tripoli and its UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) has at the time of writing gone on for almost a year.
After some major gains for Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA), the siege has been stuck in a stalemate with frontlines running along the southern suburbs of the capital.
Each side is backed by various regional and extra-regional powers, and the ensuing military stalemate has taken precedence over the democratic transition that many were hoping for after the fall of Gaddafi in 2011.
The civil war was born out of the power vacuum that followed Gaddafi’s removal. State institutions were generally not able to manage the shift from the old regime to the new, and any notion of social cohesion or even general security remains severely limited in the fragmented country.
At present, the civil war hastaken on the appearance of a low-intensity political and military quagmire, marred by daily drone strikes and smaller skirmishes along the frontlines.
Over 120,000 Libyans have been displaced since the beginning of Haftar’s offensive onTripoli in April 2019, and according to the UNHCR, over one million are in need of humanitarian aid.
A political solution has proved elusive for the GNA, with Haftar unwilling to integrate the LNA into a unified Libyan army. Several European countries have tried to take on the role of peacemaker and unite the various factions but have thus far failed.
In fact, the different approaches of many of Europe’s southern powers have revealed their diverging interests in North Africa.
The lack of a unified approach to the situation has contributed to the fractured and volatile situation. Germany is about to try its hand at bringing Libya’s main playerstogether, but in the absence of an agreed response among foreign actors, their attempt will likely be thwarted.
Even as negotiations continue, various outside influencers are ramping up their support, as they flood the country with advanced weaponry.
This only serves to further increase the destructive capacities of each side, effectively torpedoing on-ground efforts to provide security for the population. The most recent diplomatic effort has been undertaken by Russia and Turkey.
The two countries called for a ceasefire in Libya while the heads of the warring sides have been called to Moscow for talks – at the time of writing these efforts have yet to prove successful while diplomatic developments around the Libya peace process are rapid.
From Transition to Stalemate
The current civil war in Libya can be traced to the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 and the subsequent toppling of the long-standing Gaddafi regime (established in 1969).
What began as peaceful demonstrations for democratic reforms in February 2011 quickly spiralled into all-out civil war following the regime’s violent crack-down on protesters.
As local militias were organized and armed to defend the demonstrations, the security situation deteriorated, and Gaddafi’s responses became increasingly brutal.
The United Nations Security Council soon isolated hisregime, citing protection of civilians, and eventually issued a mandate for military intervention.
Initially, the United States, the United Kingdom and France carried out airstrikes and coordinated attacksto halt regime advances against the opposition, but when the mandate was taken over by NATO under the moniker Operation Unified Protector, the intervention took on a clearer anti-Gaddafi approach.
By summer, the NATO coalition was in effect supporting the rebel advances onTripoli; this eventually resulted in the removal of Gaddafi from power in October that same year.
The ousting of the old regime without a clear plan for a democratic transition created a power vacuum that pitted local militias across the country against each other along political, economic, ethnic and tribal lines.
As the state monopoly crumbled, it became clear that tribalism trumped nationalism, leaving the transitional government unable to govern large swaths of Libyan territory.
Some areas became virtually lawless, with both local militias and radical jihadists vying for control. Elections were held, and there were attempts to foster national unity, yet all efforts have so far failed to achieve anything; in fact they have instead led to even more factions competing for control of the country.
Several explanations for Libya’s failed transition from the post-Gaddafi crisis have been presented. While some point to the lack of a coherent plan for the country at the international level, others blame domestic factors such as the lack of social cohesion, weak state institutions and few socioeconomic opportunities.
Meanwhile, others argue that insufficient effort has been put into reform of the corrupt and opaque economic institutions that survived the revolution, such as the Central Bank of Libya and the National Oil Company, which oversees Libya’s oil fortunes.
What is likely a combination of these various explanations has in truth been accelerated by a lack of steady and unifying leadership, destructive foreign involvement and a passive international community.
The second Libyan civil war
The heavy fragmentation of the Libyan political map is well illustrated by its complex civil war, which broke out in 2014. Grossly ineffective, the post-Gaddafi government more or less undermined any notion of national unity, resulting in chaos and crisis.
Today, there are two different governments, each grounding their legitimacy in the Tobruk based House of Representatives (HoR), and each vying for control of Libya’s vast territory. Both governments receive support from foreign states, some of which in fact contribute, at least nominally, to both sides.
In addition, international jihadi networks such as ISIS and AlQaeda, as well as numerous locally based militias and paramilitary groups, are trying to wrest control and influence for themselves.
At present, the map of Libya is divided between two main factions:
– General Khalifa Haftar’s LNA controls most of the territory from eastern Cyrenaica and Sirte to large parts of western Tripolitania and most of the southern Fezzan region; forces loyal to the UN-backed GNA defend the capital, Tripoli, while also controlling most of Zintan to the west, as well as Misrata along the Mediterranean coast.
However, this situation between what appears to be two sides competing for control of the country in fact obscures the numerous other actors operating at the local level, some of whom most likely have national aspirations.
At the same time, while the major factions are fighting each other, the above-noted jihadi networks are taking advantage of the situation and are again making advances, disrupting Libya’s political progress at every turn.
The eastern warlord
Haftar, an officer serving under Gaddafi, defected to the United States after the regime’s war with Chad during the 1980s, but returned in 2011 to fight against the old regime.
His LNA is based in eastern Libya, where they have the support of the Tobruk-based HoR. The HoR was elected in late June 2014 to succeed the General National Council (GNC) based out of Tripoli, shortly after Haftar launched his Operation Dignity campaign against the Islamist alliances controlling Benghazi.
However, with the security of votersseverely threatened during the June election, turnout was only 18 percent and the HoR was subsequently declared defunct by the Islamist parties that had dominated the GNC.
Thus, the GNC was restored in Tripoli while the HoR, comprised mainly of liberal and anti-Islamist parties, set up in LNA-controlled Tobruk.
The establishment of the HoR set a precedent for the parallel government of Abdullah alThinni, formed in neighbouring Al-Bayda. This government is regularly referred to as the “Tobruk authorities,” and is still being upheld, although under the domination of the LNA.
The Tobruk authorities have so far maintained their support for Haftar and his Operation Dignity, a campaign that has enabled Haftar to take over most of Libya’s territory under the pretense of fighting Islamic terrorism.
Although it has successfully rooted out ISIS and Al Qaeda forcesin most of north-eastern Libya, Haftar and the LNA have also attacked the Islamist groupingsthat were loyal to the GNC and the so-called National Salvation Government (NSG) inTripoli.
In April 2019, Haftar began to advance on the capital itself,seeking to take control of the whole country. Haftar’s secular stance has secured him the support of several foreign governments.
Among the most prominent are Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, from whom he has received substantial military and economic aid, including drone support, armed vehicles and other weaponry.
Furthermore, Saudi Arabia, France and Russia have also been supportive to varying degrees, and for different reasons.
The Saudis are investing heavily in the ongoing propaganda war between the two sides for the same anti-Islamist reasons as the UAE;
France aims to support Haftar’s counter-terrorist efforts with special forces operations; and Russia, which in fact has supported both sides tacitly in the past, is looking to increase its influence in the region.
The divided capital
The situation in Tripoli is even more fragmented. Following the HoR’s establishment in Tobruk, the GNC was reinstated by the leading Islamist parties and a National Salvation Government (NSG) was declared.
The NSG, led by Khalifa Ghwell, received substantialsupport fromTurkey, Qatar and Sudan due to its Islamist make-up, with the Muslim Brotherhood a very influential member through its Justice and Construction party.
These countries primarily contributed financially and by facilitating arms trade with the Libyan Islamists, and in Qatar’s case, with substantial propaganda power through pro-Islamist media outlets and social media campaigns.
However, parallel to these events, representatives from both the GNC and the HoR agreed to a UN-brokered deal in 2015, dubbed the ‘Libyan Political Agreement’(LPA), or Skhirat-agreement, which created the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli.
The LPA reduced the GNC to a consultative body and recognized the HoR as the constituent body of the government, pending a vote of confidence.
Additionally, it created a Presidential Council (PC) to act as the head of state. Despite this vote of confidence having yet to materialize, with the HoR continuing to support al-Thinni’s government in Al-Bayda, the GNA still functions as Libya’s only internationally recognized government and is led by Fayez al-Sarraj as acting prime minister.
Importantly, the GNA has managed to secure the control of, and support from, the country’s two central financial institutions, the Central Bank and the National Oil Corporation, the latter controlling the majority of Libya’s petroleum industry.
Some of the Islamist parties went on to ally themselves with militias from the by then de facto city-state of Misrata as well as with more Jihadist leaning groups associated with AlQaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM).
This coalition, dubbed Libya Dawn,sought to counter Haftar’s military power and acquire territory for the Tripoli authorities. However, after succeeding to secure control of the Tripoli International Airport from a Zintan based militia, this Islamist coalition started to disintegrate as public support for the NSG eroded by the time of the GNA’s arrival in 2016, causing many to switch their loyalties to Al-Sarraj.
Today, the NSG is effectively disbanded and GNA forces have driven Ghwell out of the capital. Furthermore, following Haftar’s advances, the Islamist militias now generally contribute to the defence of Tripoli together with the GNA’s allied militias.
Along with the Misratan militias, the forces aligned with the GNA also managed to oust the Islamic State (IS) from the town of Sirte, south of Misrata.
Sigvart Nordhov Fredriksen is currently finishing his MA in Modern, International and Transnational History at the University of Oslo, focusing on the 20th century history of Europe and the Middle East.
Zenonas Tziarras is a Researcher at the PRIO Cyprus Centre focusing on Eastern Mediterranean geopolitics.