Over the past few years, parties to Libya’s protracted conflict have aligned themselves into two main camps. They are commonly known as the east and west camps based on the geographies under their control. However, a simmering undercurrent has caused increasing divergence in the interests and visions of the constituents of each camp.
A political project that, in theory, can get past this bitter dichotomy has been taking shape since last February. Fathi Bashagha, who has historically been on the western side of Libya, has been more receptive than ever to eastern Libyan camp factions. This rapprochement demonstrated that the political landscape in Libya was and continues to be fluid, with each faction’s actions determined by their self-interest.
Bashagha attempted to lead a new government to position himself as the architect of a genuine national unity project. His bid contrasted the fictitious one achieved with Abdel Hamid Dabaiba’s March 2021 inauguration as prime minister.
With Bashagha’s repeated failure to enable his government to function by seizing control of the capital and Dabaiba’s success in tightening his security grip over Tripoli on August 27, 2022, the “genuine unity” project has collapsed, and its prospects have become more limited than ever before. Aftershocks from this pivotal moment in Libya’s more than a decade-long conflict are the most consequential effect.
The failure to impose a government with the support of the country’s east and west has led to the resurgence of long-standing tensions between the two regions and stoked fear of greater insecurity. It has also revealed that the perceived alliance between Bashagha and the eastern Libyan camp has been shaky and that the constituents of this camp are significantly at odds.
In this report, we look at how Bashagha’s failure to enter and control Tripoli has affected the Libyan conflict’s overall trajectory and the current and potential alliances between the various parties.
Breakdown of Domestic Coalitions
Fathi Bashaga’s failure to seize Tripoli was a catalyst for a chain of events that eventually brought down the alliances on which the two parties now in power in the country’s east and west relied.
1. Abdel Hamid Dabaiba:
Through a proactive operation that prioritized speed, narrow scope, and pin-point accuracy, Dabaiba could seize complete control of the capital. Militias loyal to him successfully expelled Bashagha’s forces from Tripoli and took control of all their command centers in and around the city.
Dabaiba’s resounding victory was ensured by using drones, which was crucial in stopping Bashagha’s militias from advancing on the capital. The use of drones shows how influential foreign actors have been in deciding the outcome of the recent chapter of the Libyan conflict in favor of Dabaiba. This time, it could be attributed to American approval and Turkish execution via Bayraktar drones.
However, after this episode, the western region’s more powerful cities have grown hostile toward Dabaiba. The city of Misrata, where Fathi Bashagha and his loyalist militias still hold sway, is now more fractured than ever. Major General Osama Juwaili, a Bashaga loyalist, commands most of Bashagha’s forces in Zintan. Nevertheless, following drone strikes on August 27, Juwaili was forced to evacuate all of his Tripoli headquarters.
The same holds for the city of Zawiya, where militias are affiliated with the Bashagha government, particularly given that Issam Abu Zreibeh, the government’s Minister of Interior, is a native of this city. This comes on top of the political tensions building up between the Dabaiba government and Khaled Mashri, the head of the Supreme Council of State, who also hails from Zawiya.
Warshafana, a city historically linked to the Gaddafi movement, and the most active militias, led by Muammar Dhawi, had recently allied with Fathi Bashagha, turned into a ground for skirmishes in the two weeks that followed the Tripoli blitz. Moreover, had it not been for mediation that resulted in an agreement to avoid escalation in the city, these clashes would likely escalate.
Therefore, Dabaiba and his supporters are more concerned with consolidating power in Tripoli and its environs than building social and military alliances with parties in the western region. Bashagha’s recent gamble may provide an easy interpretation of the current chapter of the Libyan conflict. However, the larger trajectory of events may require a closer look. Dabaiba’s immediate priority appears to be retaining power rather than contesting elections, which would typically necessitate him to form alliances with large voting blocs in Libya’s most populous western cities.
2. Khalifa Haftar:
As alliances in Dabaiba’s camp disintegrate, there is an unmistakable retreat in his adversaries’ camp. One might sum up the rising tensions and brewing animosity within this camp as follows:
Bashagha has witnessed a decline in public support from the General Command of the Armed Forces in eastern Libya. Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s spokesman, Major General Ahmed Mesmari, said the General Command would not participate in the anticipated battles to take control of Tripoli before August 27. After Bashagha’s army was routed, Mesmari made new statements that essentially said the same thing.
Additionally, except for Parliament Speaker Aguila Saleh’s continued political support for the Bashagha government, there is no evidence of contact between Bashagha and the actors in eastern Libya.
Hostility has recently flared between Field Marshal Haftar’s forces and those still loyal to Gaddafi’s regime. For instance, during a recent anniversary celebration of the Al-Fateh Revolution in Qasr Buhadi, south of Sirte, Haftar’s forces besieged the town.
It attacked residents who had flown the green Gaddafi flag. The standoff has become particularly dangerous, to the point where the UN mission has had to issue a statement condemning the incident.
When Haftar curtailed his support for Bashagha and the latter’s militias in western Libya, and when tensions flared with Gaddafi’s supporters, Haftar made statements suggesting that his forces may intervene to end the ongoing power struggle.
Two days after the clashes in Tripoli, he said, “We did not build the national army to stand by and watch as our dear Libya was dragged into the abyss by abusers.” Days later, Haftar’s forces staged war games with live ammunition in the city of Benghazi.
Haftar’s current alliances do not seem to support his threats to intervene in the conflict in the capital city. He withdrew his support for Bashagha and consequently lost the military power provided by Bashagha’s militias in western Libya (the largest military bloc outside of Dabaiba’s control).
On the other hand, despite the large number of Gaddafi regime loyalists living in the western region, Haftar’s hostility against them only grew. It is also ironic that Haftar made these threats while visiting Kufra, the most remote city in the country’s extreme southeast. The city is farthest from the capital, and its inhabitants are not likely to sway the outcome of any military operation aimed at seizing Tripoli on his side.