Arturo Varvelli

In recent months a number of events in Libya seem to be taking the country to a new evolution of the crisis.


The defeat of the Islamic State (IS) in Sirte (which in truth in some areas is still besieged); the American air strikes in aid of the Libyan forces guiding the military operation against IS; and the occupation by Gen.

Khalifa Belqasim Haftar’s troops of infrastructures in ports in central Libya where oil terminals are located, suggest the unfolding of possible new political scenarios in the country.

Libya continues to be divided between a parliament (and executive) in Tobruk and a Presidential Council (headed by Fayez Serraj) in Tripoli that is backed by the United Nations.

In actual fact, neither have real governing capacity but are rather “hostages” of the militias that support them and control the territory: respectively those of General Haftar in Cyrenaica and the associated militias of Misurata and Tripoli to the west.

Libya post-IS?

In the Sirte area the Islamic State had in the spring of 2015 taken over a very vast portion of territory; in addition to the city of Sirte, about 150 kilometers of coast, from Bu’ayrat al-Hasun to Bin Jawad. Until the summer of 2016, when the militias of Tripolitania and in particular of Misurata intervened, IS had been able to control these territories thanks to the fragmentation of Libyan forces.

In Sirte the rise of IS followed a dynamic trajectory in some ways similar to those that favored the Islamic State in Iraq. The Iraqi government under Nuri al-Maliki had isolated broad portions of its Sunni population, to the point of spurring many tribes and leading exponents of the former regime to consider al-Baghdadi’s movement a lesser evil than an Iraqi government viewed as corrupt and hostile.

Even though Libya does not have the same level of ethno-sectarian conflict as Iraq, it is not by chance that IS broadened its activity precisely in Sirte, the hometown of Muammar Gaddafi and a traditional reference point for the Qaddafa tribe.

After the fall of the ra’is the tribe was isolated and ostracized by the Tripoli government and accused by other militias of connivance with the earlier regime, which dealt it a heavy blow. So it appears that some of the younger members of the tribe espoused the IS cause more for political than for ideological reasons.

Some of the Colonel’s supporters were recycled amongst Islamic State forces. Although they were not outstanding figures in the Gaddafi regime or carry weight comparable to that possessed by former Baath Party officials in the Syrian-Iraqi branch of IS, the contribution made by some of these Gaddafi followers seems to have made it possible for IS to consolidate its power in Sirte.

It is also important to stress how an initial, pro-IS nucleus was created from a branch split off from the local Salafite organization, Ansar al-Sharia. Still more important is the fact that in the weeks preceding the military action of the Misurata forces (May 2016), the relations between Qaddafa tribe members and IS forces had greatly deteriorated. In fact, several tribe members were summarily executed.

The number of IS troops is often exaggerated by the media and by the Libyans fighting the movement. Reliable sources believe that at the time of their maximum strength there were some 4,000 to 5,000, many of which (about 80%) were foreign, in particular from Tunisia.

In combat with IS, the troops formally under Fayez Serraj’s Presidential Council lost 500 men. The defeat of the Islamic State in Sirte, by now almost taken for granted, will be a fundamental step in the fight against Al-Baghdadi’s organization in Libya, but probably will not lead to its definitive neutralization in the country or in North Africa It is likely that some of these fighters are moving southward into the Fezzan region and towards Tunisia (from which many of the militants have come).

According to Lacher and Wehrey remnants of IS could still reconstitute themselves and sow trouble. Beyond these specific threats, Libya “remains an attractive host to jihadism, whether from ISIS, al Qaeda, or some new variant. The conditions are ripe: a long legacy of jihad, economic despair, a governance vacuum, and worsening polarization that could leave some communities feeling as if they have no recourse but violence”.

The international community’s support for Serraj’s Presidential Council

Last August, for the first time since taking office, the Presidential Council headed by Fayez Serraj (and recognized as a legitimate political body by the United Nations) formally requested the intervention of a third country in the Libyan conflict, asking for United States air-force support in military action against IS in Sirte.

Libyan sources state that the operation was carried out only after the signing of an agreement that, among other things, ensured that any attack would be conducted only with the prior notification and consent of Libyan authorities.

In fact, an operation conducted by the United Sates in February 2016 – an air attack on Sabratha that killed two Serbian hostages – was strongly condemned by the government and parliament headquartered in Tobruk, precisely because it had not been agreed upon previously.

From the political standpoint, the threat of IS in Libya contributed to a convergence of interests between the international community and local forces, but now that the IS danger seems to have been contained, international attention (despite American intervention, extended to the end of October) seems to be fading and efforts to keep the international community united in favor of Serraj’s government are waning.

The Presidential Council is, indeed, characterized by a lack of efficiency and real capability to govern the country, in particular in the Tripolitania area. Although it gained the formal support of, or tacit tolerance from, a large part of the Tripolitania militias, Serraj’s leadership seems to be progressively weakening in the face of the difficulties encountered in resolving the country’s great economic and social problems. The country has been prevented from exploiting its main source of income, oil, which accounts for more than 95 percent of export revenues.

Today, Libyan oil production is reaching only a fifth of its potential, according to the World Bank. The drop in production has cost the government more than $68bn since 2013.

The country is now running a major deficit, forcing the central bank to tap into its fast-depleting reserves. The government is unable to pay salaries on time or fund public investment, and limits on cash withdrawals from banks are being imposed.

The second appeal for aid, albeit limited, from Serraj’s council, was to Italy last August: the Libyan government requested a hospital to treat the wounded hurt in combat with IS. Serraj formalized the request in a letter to Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi dated 8 August.

The operation (titled “Hippocrates”) involves some 300 military personnel: 60 doctors and paramedics, 135 persons providing logistic support and vehicle maintenance, and 100 providing protection.

This mission is certainly no great help from the military standpoint – although various analysts have pointed out the risks 5 – but is highly symbolic from the political. The decision is part of a sort of “medical diplomacy” strategy on the part of the Italian government.

Deploying this contingent will have no great influence on the outcome of fighting but responds to two of Italy’s diplomatic needs: on the one hand it is intended to be a demonstration to international partners that Italy is present in this area and wants to actively defend its vital interests.

On the other, it is aimed at providing concrete support and sending an important political signal to Libyan soldiers fighting IS, helping to politically back Serraj. With a similar political intent, a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on migrants was signed by Serraj and the Italian government in February .



The war on the Islamic State – especially for Serraj’s Presidential Council and the Misurata militias – has been exploited as an important promotional vehicle for the role of the future Government of National Accord.

Serraj essentially succeeded in obtaining international support and coming out of isolation; with the battle for Sirte he achieved recognition of Libya’s role in the fight against the Islamic State.

Nonetheless Serraj, caught between two different needs – to internally bring together Libyan forces of very different political extractions and local provenances and to avoid fragmenting them through recourse to external (Western) aid that would be seen as excessive meddling – does not seem to have fully capitalized on this support, in either political or military terms.

Progress in the fight against IS in Sirte was certainly quicker than the political efforts to unify the country under the GNA.

In particular, in Tripolitania the balances between the militias and political forces look rather precarious: a couple of “coup d’état” attempts by the former prime minister of the non-recognized government in Tripoli, Khalifa al-Ghwell, in October 2016 and February 2017, showed how contrasting internal rifts may be the order of the day –for economic or political reasons – for the GNA.


Source: The Libyan reconstruction process – Socio-political, security and economic scenarios.

INSPIRATIONAL PAPERS, organized by Center of Research on the Southern System and the Wider Mediterranean (CRiSSMA), Catholic University of the S. Heart, Milan Promoted and supported by Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation (MAECI), Directorate General for Political Affairs and Security (DGAP) and Graduate School of Economics and International Relations (ASERI) Catholic University of the S. Heart, Milan.


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