Dr Wolfram Lacher
Dimensions and consequences of a consolidation process
Libya’s armed groups long played only a limited political role. While they acted as veto powers in individual political decisions, they often had diffuse leadership structures and no clear political agendas. They were only indirectly involved in the negotiations to end the civil wars of 2014/15 and 2019/20.
The unity governments that emerged from these negotiations subsequently had to come to terms with the armed groups by granting them posts and affording them budgets. The only coherent politico-military actor was Haftar, who declared his forces to be the Libyan army from the outset and pursued the goal of seizing power. He was always included as a key stakeholder in negotiations by international mediators.
However, since the power struggle between the Dabeiba and Bashagha governments, western Libyan militia leaders have taken on a more explicit political role. They have been able to do so not least because they consolidated military power over the years, and thus also gained more and more political weight.
Since spring 2022, a small group of Western Libyan militia leaders has been meeting regularly with Haftar’s sons and other representatives. These talks are about the distribution of posts and funds, but also more fundamental questions concerning the political process and the conditions for possible elections.
One participant in these negotiations told the author that this group of commanders had come to the realisation that they had to take the political initiative themselves – they could not just let Libya’s politicians “keep playing their games”, and then bear the brunt of fighting if things escalated.
One consequence of these negotiations is the appointment of the warlords’ representatives to high positions. These include the chairman of the NOC, the board of directors of the General Electricity Company of Libya, the interior minister and many others. In addition, western Libyan commanders are exerting increasing pressure on parliamentarians, as Haftar has done for years, in order to influence political negotiations.
The evolution of armed groups calls for a re-evaluation of the way in which Libya’s security sector is being conceived. Until now, these forces have been rightly understood as militias, or in other words, groups that, despite their official status, are not really state entities because they represent particular interests.
However, the institutionalisation of these groups and the massive influence of their leaders at the highest levels show that the militias have become the state. The broad contours of the security sector are likely to remain for years to come: a military landscape characterised by competing centres of power, whose leaders use military clout for political and financial gain.
For Western governments and the UN, the reunification of the Libyan army remains an important political goal. It is supposed to go hand in hand with processes of security sector reform (SSR) and the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) of militias.
This ideal assumes that it is possible to overcome the current politicisation of armed units, build professional security forces and dismantle the more problematic groups. However, establishing state control over the private armies is no longer realistic. Reuniting them on paper under a single command structure would achieve little, as their effective subordination is out of the question.
The competition between their leaders would continue unabated and it would only be the losers that get branded as militias needing to be disarmed and demobilised. All key actors need to retain their firepower to secure and, if possible, expand their political influence.
Since mid-2020, the deployment of the Turkish military and Russia’s Wagner Group has perpetuated the stalemate. The more recent rapprochement between Turkey on the one hand, and Egypt and the UAE on the other, has further diminished the prospect of renewed military escalation.
These conditions have been central to the development of increasingly collegial ties between militia leaders in eastern and western Libya. Still, the current amalgamation of military power with political and financial interests holds the potential for future escalation.
Who gets what depends on their respective military weight. Distributive conflicts that see competitors engage in games of chicken always involve the possibility of miscalculation.
If the leading military actors strike more far-reaching arrangements in the short term, this could still provoke armed conflict in the medium term. By enjoying privileged access to state resources, individual armed groups could become increasingly powerful and thus pose a growing threat to their rivals. The current balance of power should therefore not be taken for granted.
Meanwhile, ongoing consolidation is also likely to provoke further conflicts, particularly west of Tripoli, where the process is still in its early stages. Moreover, some of the most powerful units could disintegrate if they lose their leaders. This could have particularly significant consequences in the event of Haftar’s demise, as it is uncertain whether his sons will be able to keep his forces together.
With the rise of militia leaders, military force is set to dominate Libya’s political landscape for years to come. This has implications for the UN and Western governments’ goal of ending the crisis of legitimacy of state institutions through elections.
Given the combined military and financial power that violent actors now wield, they are in a position to exert enormous influence over any electoral process – and their now overt political ambitions suggest that they would do just that.
This was already clear in the run-up to elections that were scheduled for December 2021 but failed to take place. A key reason for their failure was the fact that Haftar wanted to run for president while also being able to manipulate the results given that he controlled around two-thirds of the country’s territory.
If elections are held at some point, it is therefore likely that militia leaders will either run themselves or field their own candidates – and then use intimidation and manipulation to ensure that they prevail.
Armed factions could also conceivably form political parties, and their competition could then also play out in a newly elected parliament. In fact, this has already begun with the formation of the al-Karama party, which is aligned with Haftar.
In such an environment, civil political forces face difficult conditions. The repression through which Haftar controls the east is now also growing in the west, and will prevent the political mobilisation of many who do not have weapons to protect themselves.
Western diplomats and the UN have long dealt with militia leaders in eastern and western Libya in very different ways. Haftar gained international respect when French President Emmanuel Macron received him in 2017.
By way of the countless meetings that followed thereafter, Western officials conferred international legitimacy upon Haftar without asking for any concessions in return. Militia leaders in western Libya, on the other hand, very rarely enjoyed public meetings with Western diplomats.
This began to change in 2022, when Western representatives encountered the militia leader Emad al-Trabelsi as interior minister. In the spring of 2023, UN Special Representative Abdoulaye Bathily brought key commanders from eastern and western Libya to meetings of the Joint Military Committee, which is supposed to oversee the implementation of the ceasefire agreement.
Bathily’s stated aim is to ensure that these commanders allow elections to take place. Although he has received only vague assurances to this effect, he has publicly praised the militia leaders for their “patriotic spirit” – praise that the political class can only dream of.
While the international legitimisation of western Libyan militia leaders has begun, the treatment they receive still differs qualitatively from that of Haftar. Europeans have courted Haftar even more since his inner circle has begun to exert pressure on Europe by developing the migration route from eastern Libya to Italy.
The criminal activities of his clan seem to be just as little an obstacle to Haftar’s relations with European states as his alleged responsibility for major war crimes and his alliance with the Wagner Group.
The consolidation of militia power structures requires a change in approach towards their leaders. International mediators have rightly, if belatedly, begun to directly engage with them. However, an opportunity is missed when international actors bestow legitimacy upon militia leaders by way of public meetings without extracting concessions, for example, in the field of human rights.
Western governments should seek to impose limits on the almost total impunity enjoyed by the warlords. The UN sanctions regime is ineffective in this regard due to polarisation in the Security Council. The investigations of the International Criminal Court are important but remain limited to a few suspects.
The EU and US, by contrast, could make much more extensive use of sanctions. At the EU level, this would require Germany and like-minded governments to use their political weight to convince skeptical member states, especially Italy and Malta, but with regard to sanctions against the Haftar clan, also France. European authorities could also investigate whether foreign assets of individuals linked to Libyan militias are derived from criminal activities.
Above all, European governments and the US should use the militia leaders’ pursuit of respectability and legitimacy as leverage to influence their behaviour. The naming and shaming of those individuals responsible for excessive violence, repression or large-scale embezzlement of public funds would send a signal to their colleagues.
Dr Wolfram Lacher is a Senior Associate in the Africa and Middle East Research Division at SWP.
Wissenschaft und Politik
German Institute for International and Security Affairs