The Libyan Mess Will Get Worse if Outside Powers Don’t Cooperate

April 13, 2017

Libya is a mess and the internal fighting between the three warring governments and their respective militia forces is once again escalating. One of the drivers of the worsening violence is the disjointed outside support to the three different bodies that claim to be the legitimate government of Libya. That Russia has recently sought a greater role in Libya has destabilized an already fraught situation. Any resolution to the Libyan civil war now cannot ignore Russia’s interests. And given the recent U.S. cruise missile strike on a Syrian airbase, tensions between Moscow and Washington could make compromise over Libya even more difficult than it might have been before.  Or, if Washington and Moscow are both eager enough to put the strike in Syria behind them, Libya could be a test case for the renewed U.S.-Russian cooperation and collaboration that President Donald Trump once championed.

Unified external support is needed to unify the various internal actors in this troubled North African country. Its problems are similar to those that exist in Syria, but they are smaller in scale and more contained: If the United States supports one Libyan government that fights an opposing Libyan government supported by Russia, then it is by proxy fighting Russia while Libya pays the price. Disjointed support is detrimental and not a solution for peace.  Meanwhile, terrorists are regrouping and action is needed now before they reestablish a safe haven in Libya.

There are two main options for U.S. policy: Washington could continue to oppose Russia’s involvement — running the risk of further protracting the civil war and increasingly deadly humanitarian crisis — or it could try to cooperate to find a mutually beneficial solution. Libya can’t save itself, and any successful solution must include cooperation between foreign governments and the consensus of Libya’s powerful tribes and militias.

Three Governments and the Quest For Control

Three different bodies lay claim to being the government of Libya and each are supported by different tribes, militias, and foreign governments. The newest entity is the U.N.-brokered Government of National Accord, created early last year, that has failed to receive broad support inside the country. It is an unelected body proposed by the United Nations and endorsed by the U.N. Security Council.

Libyans last elected the Tobruk-based House of Representatives aligned with Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army in June 2014. While some members initially accepted the U.N.-brokered government, others rejected it, and it  formally broke with it in early March. The international community had initially backed the Tobruk-based government, but the outbreak of civil war changed the dynamic.

Islamists did not fare well in the 2014 election and in response, they launched Operation Dawn the following month that led to the creation of the Tripoli-based National Salvation Government. The Tripoli-based government announced its dissolution last spring after the arrival of the new government, but failed to actually relinquish power.

At this point, the governments are unlikely to voluntarily relinquish power to another and all continue their quest for greater control.

Nearly Three Years of Civil War and the Violence Continues

Libya witnessed a fresh outbreak of heavy fighting in March, ending the short optimistic peak reached after the fight against ISIL in Sirte. Amidst the fighting, the U.N.-brokered government is further faltering and political options are slipping away as armed groups prepare for more.

In Tripoli, locals and factions outside the command of the U.N.-brokered government in mid-March sought to ouster opposing militia forces loyal to the old Tripoli-based government. Tanks once again entered the streets of downtown, a bank and TV station burned to the ground, and a children’s hospital was shelled in the clashes. The fighting continued for days, despite the cease-fire announcement.

In the oil crescent of eastern Libya, control of several ports changed hands several times last month between Khalifa Haftar’s army, aligned with the Tobruk-based government, and the Benghazi Defense Brigades. This force, also known as Saraya Defend Benghazi, is a relative newcomer to the scene. Formed in June 2016, it’s likely a “rebrand” of fighters from other groups, which is common in Libya. In April, the fighting moved to southern Libya where Haftar’s army clashed with militia forces currently loyal to the U.N.-brokered government.

The polarization and extreme ideological beliefs that prompted the onset of civil war in July 2014 have not diminished. If anything, the three warring governments have become further entrenched. The Tripoli-based government categorically rules out any accord that would include Khalifa Haftar. Haftar refused to meet with the U.N.-brokered government’s chairman Fayez al-Serraj in Egypt in February to broker a peace agreement. The U.N.-brokered government’s limited legitimacy is dwindling rapidly in the public eye as it fails to stop the current fighting and provide basic services.

The three governments each enjoy the support of separate tribes, militias, and minority groups. While aligned to a particular government at this juncture, these groups tend to change alliances based on local developments. The sheer number of political and militant players involved illustrates the complexity of the problem. There are likely hundreds of armed groups active in Libya today, although the fluid nature of the conflict and group affiliation makes the exact number difficult to determine.

The two largest tribes remain split. The Zintan, in general, support Haftar’s army and Tobruk-based government. The Misratans, in sum, oppose them and support elements fighting against Haftar. Ultimately, the past six years have demonstrated that true loyalty is to the tribe, not the government. A successful, unified government will require the broad support of Libya’s powerful tribes and militias.

Disjointed Outside Support Exacerbates the Conflict

Continued foreign support to the disparate elements, not a single government, will almost certainly prolong the conflict. Qatar, Turkey, and Sudan support the Tripoli-based government. The United Nations, United States, and European Union recognize the U.N.-brokered government. Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia back the Tobruk-based government and Haftar’s army.

Russia reportedly is prepared to increase assistance to eastern Libya and Haftar’s army. Italy threw its support behind the Benghazi Defense Brigade’s attempt to oust the Khalifa Haftar’s army from the oil crescent. Russia, France, Italy, and the United States reportedly have had special operations forces in or near Libya.

Egypt and the United Arab Emirates reportedly have conducted air strikes in Libya. The United States conducted airstrikes against ISIL in Sirte at the U.N.-brokered government’s request. The major U.N. effort has succeeded only in creating a third government.

As Libya’s outside supporters attempt to mediate an agreement between the three governments, Libya remains awash in weapons and ammunition.

As it stands, the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord is faltering from lack of influence and public support, Tripoli-backed militias are regrouping, and Khalifa Haftar’s army, fighting on behalf of the Tobruk government, is gaining ground. While Haftar has equated Islamists with terrorists in the past, it is also fighting, and steadily succeeding against, terrorist groups in eastern Libya, including Ansar al-Sharia, which conducted the September 2012 attacks against the Temporary Mission Facility and Annex in Benghazi.

Outside Powers Must Unify to Attain Peace

Looking ahead, Libya needs a unified government with unified external support to counter extremist elements and regain any measure of security and stability in the long term. A successful, strong government will require unity from outside and inside the country, whether that stems from a reinforced government or a newly elected entity in the future. Disjointed support to opposing groups only serves to further divide those groups.

There are two opportunities facing the various actors involved in this war and especially the foreign backers of various factions: the upcoming election or a new policy.

After a failed attempt by Fayez el-Serraj and Khalifa Haftar to reach a peace settlement in Egypt in February, they announced an agreement to hold new elections in February 2018. The next election could also create a fourth government instead of replacing the current governments if one or more factions refuse to relinquish power. That refusal to relinquish power happened after the election in 2014 and the creation of the U.N.-backed government in 2016 and could happen again. To succeed, a newly elected Libyan government would need the unified support of the international community behind it and the democratic process, regardless of the winner. It will almost certainly fail if some foreign governments continue to support losing factions.

Second, the United States has an opportunity to cooperate with Russia, the Tobruk-based government, and others on counterterrorism. They have the same stated goals in Libya: to stop terrorists and end the conflict. Working with Haftar’s army, the largest and most successful counterterrorism force in the country, is a logical step towards that end. The challenge here, however, is that his army is at odds with the Government of National Accord. Since the United States and Europe support this faction, this would require a shift in their policy. The U.N.-backed Government of National Accord sometimes relies on the Misratan militia, so another option is to collectively support their efforts. Although the militia helped in the fight against ISIL, this option would require Russia, Egypt, and others to shift their policy, which is unlikely to happen since the Misratans tend to side with Islamists. Any unified effort in Libya will require some countries to shift some aspect of their policy.

The current disjointed effort isn’t working. Rather than continue the status quo, it’s time to try something new. Failing to unite in Libya risks seeing an increasingly violent civil war, ISIL reestablish its safe haven in Libya, and a mounting humanitarian and migrant crisis.


S.M. Carlson served as a terrorism expert with the U.S. government for more than twelve years, including in the CIA. She specializes in the Middle East and North Africa. She served at the U.S. Mission in Tripoli, Libya, and helped conduct the full-scale U.S. evacuation.

Image: Joe Pyreck, CC

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