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.
The local actors
The two main factions in the conflict are in fact made up of loose coalitions of different militias.
As such, the ‘Libyan National Army’ is not an army per se. Beyond its core militia of about 7,000 soldiers, it also includes 18,000 or so auxiliary troops comprising various armed tribal and local groups, as well as foreign mercenaries.
This makes the LNA Libya’s largest coalition by far, but it also makes it even more dependent on cohesion, discipline and clear lines of communications.
On the other side of the siege line, the coalition defending Tripoli can perhaps be seen as more anti-Haftar than pro-GNA. Their allegiances, foundations and targets vary greatly, yet the ongoing siege of Tripoli has consolidated them to some degree.
Despite this, the participating militias will likely remain suspicious of each other due to earlier rivalries. Additionally, if one or several of the larger factions were to defect to the LNA or flee, the coalition could crumble quickly. Being a paramilitary in Libya is profitable.
Literarily anyone registered as a fighter (or revolutionary) with the central government, whether they be pro-GNA or -LNA, is paid a monthly salary by the government through the Central Bank.
Participation also provides access to revenues from trafficking and illicit trade, such that, arguably, militias exchange their goal of achieving stability to that of sustaining the fragmented status quo.
This dynamic has allowed for both the maintenance and relative independence of Libya’s militias. These groupings differ in make-up and principles, and thus they vary in terms of purpose (local defense, ideology, religion, etc.) and targets (rival militias, Islamists, LNA, etc.).
Local militias, highly variable in size and composition, generally divide their efforts between defending and policing theirlocal community, and pursuing their political and economic goalsin competition with other communities.
Yet, because of militas’experience with coalitions such as those of the LNA or the GNA, the dynamics are changing.
For example, some militias representing the Tebu and Tuareg minorities in the south have regularly clashed over the control of smuggling routes and oil fields; however, after Haftar’s advances towards the south and west, these have united in order to stage a defence, aligning with the GNA in the process.
The city-state militias stemming from Misrata and Zintan also play a central role: with over 200 militias, Misrata’s military, although divided into smaller units, is among the largest in the country.
Today it is aligned with the GNA and takes part in the defence of Tripoli, while also keeping in check the LNA advancement along the coast in Western Libya.
Zintan is another de-facto city state, located in the western Nafousa mountain range. In 2014, Zintani militias clashed with some of their current allies that had previously made up the Libya Dawn coalition.
Today most of its militias are aligned with the GNA in Tripoli, with the remainder supporting the LNA offensive.
These city-states act as smaller, coordinated local coalitions seeking influence in whatever will be the ‘final’ makeup of Libya’s political system, and are opportunistic in terms of who they support.
Some Islamist-leaning militias enjoyed support and legitimization from the NSG while it was still in effect. However, the uprooting of Ghwell at the hands of pro-GNA forces has placed them in an uncertain position.
Furthermore, ties to known terrorist entities like AQIM and Ansar al-Sharia have tarnished their reputation internationally such that some are now targets of sanctions as well as foreign drone strikes and special-forces operations.
On the other hand, there are many Islamist and Salafi militias, and so while some have been restricted by their ties to radical jihadists, others have successfully integrated into the coalitions of the two main factions of the war.
This includes the predominantly Madkhali-Salafi militia Special Deterence Force, or RADA, which is more or less essential to the defence of the capital while also acting as a local police force.
On the other hand, and perhapsironically, Madkhali groups have also been absorbed by Haftar and the LNA, further obscuring his meta-narrative of uncompromising secularism.
Most, however, are aligned with the GNA at the time of writing. Foreign actors The Libyan civil warisincreasingly becoming a proxy war.
Because of the country’s oil reserves, its high migration out-flow, and the civil war’s various Islamist, liberal-leaning and anti Islamist movements, several regional and international players have become involved.
There are also a number of foreign states that have intervened, primarily to curb the influence of their rivals. Thus, Libya is increasingly subject to the dynamics of regional power struggles that have shaped the MENA (e.g., the so-called Arab Cold War).
As noted earlier, not only have countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar and the UAE invested their interests in the future of post-Gaddafi Libya, but European states such as Italy and France have taken an active role, and the United States and Russia are also involved to varying degrees. Finally, the United Nations has been continuously engaged in the country’s transition since 2011, although with limited success.
Since 2011, the UN has maintained an arms-embargo on Libya. However, this has been weakly enforced, with several of the above-mentioned states saturating the country with weapons and military equipment.
Nor have economic sanctions against the main players come in place, and both Russia and the United States have blocked several motions by the UN Security Council that could check Haftar’s advances.
Instead, such diplomatic actions in combination with lobbying from the UAE and Saudi governments have allowed Haftar’s diplomatic star to rise in the international community—in fact, he has been praised by US President Donald Trump for his fight against terrorists.
And while the UN has given its official recognition to the GNA, it has not been able to facilitate a conclusion to hostilities. Additionally, Haftar’s advance on Tripoli has delayed plans for a UN-sponsored National Conference, initially scheduled for fall 2019, which could have seen the two sides meet to discuss a political solution.
It is Haftar’s anti-Islamic stance that is the primary draw for those countries supporting him. Egypt, one of his closest allies, sees him as a natural partner to its own regime, and has provided strong military and economic support.
Haftar’s anti-Islamist, and particularly anti-Muslim Brotherhood, rhetoric is almost interchangeable with Al-Sisi’s, and his military credentials speak for themselves.
Cairo’s motives for intervention mainly revolve around security and economics; with the two countries sharing a long border that makes Egypt prone to potential spill-overs from the conflict.
Moreover, historically it has had close ties to the Libyan petroleum industry, both in terms of cheap oil imports and providing labour. Because of these factors, Egyptian weapons, drones and money are now central to Haftar’s siege of Tripoli, and have been so for most of his campaign.
This approach has also made Haftar popular with both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the latter providing him substantial military, economic and diplomatic aid.
The UAE is actively engaged in the war, using Chinese-built drones to strike targets in and around Tripoli on almost a daily basis. Riyadh, while apparently more focused on containing Iranian influence in Yemen and Syria than on securing influence in Libya, has facilitated aid for Haftar through a Saudi-aligned, armed religious group, the Madkhalis.
Yet because this is one of the country’s largest religious groups, with allegiance from several influential militias on both sides, many are worried of the Saudis’ influence. There is also the fact that these two countries are working diplomatically to elevate Haftar’s position in international politics, potentially normalizing his candidacy for leader of Libya.
To this end, Russia’s voting in the Security Council has also been important. Given the general disengagement of the US from the Libyan civil war, Russia has found significant leeway for its intervention.
Here it is important to note that Russia has supported both factions: despite strong backing for Haftar, it also maintains diplomatic ties with the GNA whose establishment it supported through the LPA.
Recently Russian support for Haftar has been even greater and more concrete, as Moscow has provided the LNA with mercenaries on the ground through the infamous Wagner Group, as well as access to arms markets and an influx of fake currency.
Russia’s involvement can be interpreted along both historical and ideological lines. Historically, the Soviet Union (and subsequently the Russian Federation) has nurtured close ties to the Gaddafi regime, supplying it with weapons and military training, in Libya as well as Russia (in fact, most LNA officers received training in Russia at one point).
Additionally, by the time of the Arab Spring, Libya owed Russia several billion dollars in various military- and energy-related contracts, which Moscow is keen to recoup.
Ideologically, it has been argued that Russian intervention in Libya is part of a greater strategy to counter-balance American influence both regionally and globally.
This would include securing access to Mediterranean ports and maintaining a stronger presence in the MENA region, with some also arguing that Russia has courted Haftar to advance its relationship with Egypt.
From a Russian perspective, greater influence in Northern Africa could possibly provide it with leverage over both the EU and NATO. Currently, its increased involvement on behalf of Haftar is seen by some as a potential breakthrough for the LNA, and could lead to Putin again assuming the role of kingmaker in a MENA conflict.
This view is reinforced in light of the key role that Moscow has undertaken in the wake of 2020 in getting the two sides to the negotiation table.
Officially ambiguous regarding their role in Libya, France nevertheless also maintains close cooperation with Haftar. And while having tried to broker peace between the two sides, French special-forces have also provided training for the LNA, been involved in anti-jihadist operations, and have likely supplied weapons.
French foreign policy has become increasingly engaged in Northern Africa since 2012, and its intervention in the Libyan civil war is related to its operations in Mali, Niger and Chad.
It has been suggested that Macron’s policy is opportunistic in its attempt to achieve a swift foreign policy victory: not only would radical Islamists be on the losing side, but France would have a good chance of securing potentially lucrative reconstruction and petroleum contracts in the aftermath of a peace deal.
However, exposure of French support for Haftar has put Paris in an awkward position, with the end of the conflict nowhere in sight and their strategies at odds with the ongoing UN process as well as the general stance of the European Union.
Whether this will force Macron to realign with his European allies remains to be seen, but for the moment he is in deep with Haftar and the Tobruk authorities.
There are also examples of solicited support for Haftar and the LNA. Several paid interest groups are operating on his behalf, working to secure diplomatic and economic support—a strategy that has been partially successful.
Lobbyists have facilitated deals with private military contractors and foreign militias, allowing Haftar to buy weapons and deploy large numbers of foreign mercenaries among his rank and file.
One example is the recently documented presence of the Sudani Rapid Support Force (RSF), commonly known as the Janjaweed, in the eastern LNA-controlled territories of Libya.
Haftar’s access to foreign mercenaries allows him to control already conquered areas while focusing most efforts on the campaign against Tripoli, and generally reflects his ability to put funds from foreign backers to military use.
Supporting the GNA
With Turkey and Qatar’s support of the GNA against the Egypt and UAE-backed Haftar, the Libyan civil war is well entrenched in the Middle East regional power struggle.
And although Turkey’s involvement with the GNA also has a historical component, due to its multi-billion dollar contracts made under the Gaddafi-regime, perhaps more pressing is its support for the Muslim Brotherhood activities in the country following the uprising, and its opposition to Egyptian and UAE involvement.
These factors have prompted Erdogan to play an increasingly more overt role in the conflict, such that Turkey has allowed exiled Libyan Islamists a great deal of freedom in terms of brokering arms imports, and has more recently provided GNA forces with military equipment and precision drone strikes.
Diplomatic ties with Al-Serraj have advanced following the erosion of popular support for west-Libyan Islamist groupings, such as the Libya Dawn coalition, and now form the basis for Turkey’s whole hearted contribution to the defence of Tripoli.
Moreover, at the beginning of 2020, the Turkish parliament approved the deployment of troops to Libya. However, these are limited to military consultants and trainers in addition to a few hundred Syrian fighters and mercenaries that were sent from Syria.
Qatar’s bet on the success of the Muslim Brotherhood in Northern Africa has put it on edge with the other Gulf monarchies. This has however not deterred it from continuing its support for the Islamists, although Doha’s contributions have gradually shifted into the financial sector as the NSG and several of its aligned militias were defeated by either Haftar or the GNA.
Qatari funding of several anti-Haftar media campaigns is illustrative of this.
Additionally, Qatar has intensified its support for the UN political process in a bid to strengthen the GNA. As Doha has fewer traditional allies in Libya, Qatar’s present involvement likely hinges more on a wish to block an important propaganda victory for Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
Missing in action?
As with France the US has remained ambiguous on Libya, with the Trump administration preferring to take a backseat approach so as to not get bogged down in another ‘EndlessWar,’ as the President has often dubbed them.
As noted, this has cleared the way for Russia to take a more active approach, but the US is most likely still monitoring the situation closely.
In terms of actual activity though, Washington has refrained from any significant action beyond tacitly backing each side diplomatically on different occasions and contributing to various anti jihadist operations, especially during the liberation of Sirte from IS.
However, some have argued for a potential win-win scenario for Trump in Libya, where stronger US diplomatic and economic pressure could force the two sides into negotiations within the UN framework.
If Trump could break the current military deadlock and perhaps even negotiate a political solution to the conflict, he would inevitably gain some respect.
However, the US president’s recent increased efforts to reduce American presence in Syria might hint at his reluctance to become deeply involved in another civil war in the area.
Although accused of supplying Gaddafi with weapons during the 2011 revolution, China has taken a more neutral stance since the outbreak of the 2014 civil war. Generally operating within the UN framework, Beijing has pledged support to a political solution of the conflict while otherwise remaining in the background.
It might be worth noting that Chinese weapons have been used extensively by the UAE in its support of Haftar; however, reports have suggested that these weapons were probably not supplied specifically for use in Libya.
Moreover, considering Beijing’s multi-billion dollar contracts with the Gaddafi regime and its general strategy of asserting its influence in the Middle East and Africa, it would seem likely that the country has an interest in Libya.
However, having learned from the backlash of its support for Gaddafi, it now seems China’s main tactic is to hold out for a resolution before it engages directly with one of the factions.
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.