Tag Archives: Libya

Libya: From Civil War to Regional Conflict?

A low-intensity civil war has been raging in Libya since after its 2011 revolution. The situation escalated in 2014 after Islamists ignored the results of parliamentary elections and forced the parliament and internationally recognized government to seek refuge in eastern Libya. That same year Khalifa Haftar, Commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) and loyal to the elected parliament, started a heavy-handed offensive to end an Islamist assassination campaign in Benghazi, the largest city in the east, where U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were murdered two years before.

In 2015, the United Nations (UN) attempted to broker a deal, the Libya Political Agreement (LPA), focused on creating a new government. The LPA ultimately failed however because the negotiations were viewed as unrepresentative of actual power relationships on the ground. The internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), formed by the LPA, relocated to Tripoli in March 2016 and has been under the de-facto control of Tripoli and Misrata militias ever since. Libyans outside of the Tripolitanian area reject the GNA and continue to complain about the perceived unfair distribution of resources and wealth as well as the criminal enrichment of the militias in the capital region.

An LNA offensive on the Tripoli in April last year torpedoed a UN initiative for a Libyan National Conference in Ghadames after several failed initiatives to revive the doomed LPA. In the eyes of many across the country, Heftar purposely tanked the initiative his supporters deemed unbearable. For the GNA and its allies, on the other hand, he simply seeks to establish a military dictatorship.

The Main Warring Factions

The conflict is primarily between the GNA and Marshal Haftar’s LNA. As the GNA has very limited capabilities, it is supported by Burkan Al-Ghadab (BaG), which is both the name given to the counteroffensive (and translates loosely to Volcano of Rage) against the LNA  as well as the unofficial collective name for the anti-Haftar militias fighting for the government formed under the LPA. The BaG, strongly supported by Turkey and Qatar, is run by the Misrata militias, the largest single military block, and all of the major Tripoli militias. A larger number of radical Islamists including Al Qaeda (AQ) affiliates from the Tripolitania area fights among the ranks of the BaG, initially providing the backbone for several of its units. Several hundred Turkey-supported jihadists from Syria reinforced BaG early on in the battle for Tripoli. An alliance between the Misrata — Turkey’s closest allies in Libya and followers of Grand Mufti Sadeq Al Ghariani — and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), that has maintained a strong influence on politics, security, and the economy in Tripolitania over the years, maintains a dominating control over the GNA and BaG.

The core of the LNA are army units supported by various loosely connected militias. Its key foreign backers (and weapon suppliers) are Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The LNA has a very wide definition of terrorism, considering moderate Islamists and AQ affiliates, as well as the Islamic State (IS) alike, as terrorists. This approach has merged the usually disunited Islamists into a firm anti-Heftar block.

The civil war in Libya is now a war of attrition with belligerents who have very different capabilities. LNA casualties are mounting as it is no match for the state-of-the-art equipped Turkish troops in Libya. These troops maintain combat drones, electronic warfare capacities, long-range precision artillery, warships, and, most importantly, impressive air defense capabilities. As of 20 May, after retaking the last remaining LNA base in western Tripolitania, Al Wattiya, the BaG offensive has gained momentum while the LNA tries to consolidate its positions in the south of Tripoli.

An International Playground

Libya is a geostrategically important country holding Africa’s largest oil reserves. Naturally, several other countries have important and vital strategic interests there. Security-related interests are mostly concerned with the various Islamist groups, ungoverned areas, and Libya’s porous borders which allow for smuggling and human trafficking. Additionally, there are value-related interests focused on promoting either democracy or political Islam. Finally, several countries are economically interested in Libya’s valuable hydrocarbon industry. Between Libya’s regional neighbors (Egypt, UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar) and concerned parties in Europe (namely Turkey, but also France, Italy, and Russia), all eyes are on the conflict between the LNA and GNA.

Turkey‘s troubled economy is in dire need of Libya as an important export destination and seeks a major share in reconstruction. The survival of the GNA and a leading role for Misrata are essential for Ankara’s economic interests. Turkey gives permanent residence to several prominent former LIFG leaders (a dormant former AQ affiliate), members of the Libyan MB, prominent former Benghazi and Derna Islamist fighters, and Libya’s Grand Mufti. Turkey uses their influence to pursue its interests in Libya. Qatar is also a major investor in Libya. Both Qatar and Turkey are providing weapons and military equipment for several of the pro-GNA militias, particularly those from Misrata. In fact, the Turkish military itself is the backbone of the war against the LNA.

Egypt, Libya’s neighbor, is closely watching the crisis across the border for any evidence of a terrorist safe haven developing so close to home. Libya is also an important labor market for almost one million Egyptians who cannot find work at home. Italy and France have significant strategic interests regarding Libya, but while, for Italy, the economy and migration are in the foreground, regional security and counter-terrorism are the French priority. For Moscow, the chaos in Libya is an opportunity to regain influence. Russia is most likely interested in getting a substantial share of the reconstruction business and influence over the hydrocarbon industry, particularly the gas market as well as establishing a “beachhead“ in North Africa. While there are no vital American national interests at stake in Libya, its instability is an increasing threat to US interests in the wider region.

Consequences of Developments on the Ground

After explosions significantly damaged the Misrata airbase on May 6, the LNA increased its efforts to achieve a breakthrough in Tripoli but is unable to make any progress. After the recent setback at Al Wattiya, and as Misrata airbase is fully operational again, the LNA will find it very difficult to maintain its remaining positions in Tripolitania without significant outside support from Egypt or the UAE.

Currently, there is no major BaG offensive operation east of Abu Grein – Wadi Zamzam, an area to the west of the oil-rich Sirte Basin. It is possible there is a tacit understanding between Turkey and Egypt that the BaG/Turkish offensive will stop short of Sirte and the central Al Jufra Oasis. However, keeping the significance of the hydrocarbon resources east of Sirte in mind, it is doubtful that such an agreement will hold. Furthermore, if the Cyrenaica separates from Libya as a consequence of the LNA defeat in Tripolitania, the Turkish-Libyan Maritime Agreement from November last year delineating their exclusive economic zones, an agreement of critical importance to Turkey, would become irrelevant.

If there is a military escalation between Ankara and Cairo over Libya, Egypt is in a much better position to provide direct logistic support without risk of interception. Fighter aircraft will be able to attack targets all over Libya directly from bases in western Egypt. Even ground forces could easily intervene if required, whereas Turkish transport aircraft, drones, or even fighters flying to Libya could be intercepted at ease.

If the LNA is defeated in Tripolitania, Turkey will become the dominant political and economic power in Tripolitania and Fezzan. This will have a huge negative impact on European strategic interests in Libya. It can be assumed that Turkey will become the favored economic partner of (western) Libya, strongly undermining the position of the various European stakeholders, in particular Italy and France. Turkey will also gain a more important position on the European gas market and will certainly be able to influence deliveries through the Green Stream pipeline that runs through Western Libya to Italy. Furthermore, Turkey will be able to control the pipeline’s central route towards Italy in addition to the eastern Mediterranean migration route to Europe. This will significantly increase Turkey’s ability to pressure the EU. Turkey will also probably continue to expand its political and economic influence towards Tunisia, Algeria, and the southern Sahara states. This includes support of political Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood and possibly some even more radical groups that will bring Turkey into conflict with vital French strategic interests.

A Civil or Regional War?

Libya’s civil war is home-made and its roots are domestic but it is not a typical proxy war. International support is key for both sides and will not end anytime soon. If one side loses its arms suppliers for whatever reason, the other would certainly prevail. No party trusts the other, efficient enforcement of the arms embargo is unrealistic, and Libya is simply too important. Regular demands for a “unified international position on Libya” or a “resolution between the two major parties” usually means unification of all efforts against the LNA. Keeping the deep rift within Libya and the strong interests from outside in mind, it is doubtful that such a “solution” has a chance to succeed.

Turkey’s President Erdogan is close to establishing facts on the ground by a combination of diplomatic and military action. The BaG is very likely to win the war as long as Turkish military capabilities in Libya are not neutralized and are able to sustain its efforts in light of mounting casualties and an eventual escalation in Syria. Egypt is hesitant to get fully involved in what could be a protracted and very costly conflict. Russia has limited capabilities and avoids even engaging the Turkish military in Syria directly and they are certainly hesitant to do so in Libya. 

A political settlement is currently much less likely than a military decision, but with the potential upcoming defeat of the LNA at Turkey’s hand, it will not solve Libya’s problems. In fact, the situation could easily escalate and lead to a regional conflict leaving Europe and the United States to learn to live with the outcome.

Wolfgang Pusztai is a freelance security and policy analyst. He was the Austrian Defense Attaché to Libya from 2007 to 2012.

The Illusion of Suddenness

Watching media coverage of the situation in Libya this week, one gets the sense that suddenly, the revolution that ousted Gaddafi in 2011 is failing to live up to its potential.  Since yesterday, when the Egyptian Air Force opened a new front against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) with a bombing raid in the Libyan town of Derna, European pundits have been competing to send the gravest messages of concern about the deteriorating situation there.  Pronouncements from Sir John Sawers, former head of MI6; the Italian Minister of Defense, Roberta Pinotti; the French President, François Hollande; and a host of others emphasize the need for Europe to consider strong measures to contain the troubles in Libya. While it seems clear the 2011 notion that European air power could serve as a catalyst for future stability in the tribally-stratified north African state has truly gone out of style in 2015; the media hype surrounding the flatly delivered warnings has the feel of a focus group session where carefully nuanced versions of “boots on the ground” are measured for their effectiveness on the audience.  

For those of us paying attention however, the illusion of suddenness is little more than a tired refrain that should have lost its luster after the fall of Saddam demonstrated the need for “post intervention planning”.  Wolfgang Pusztai, a notable expert on the Libyan situation, has been discussing “Plan B” for some time, warning us in September of the “Lebanonization” of the country and suggesting that an intervention force may be the only solution.  Displaying remarkable prescience, he mentioned the possibility that such an intervention may actually come from Egypt…Until now however, Mr. Pusztai has been a rare voice in the wind which is striking given that Europe claimed to know better.  In fact, the mixed performance of massive nation building efforts by the United States in Iraq, criticized so bitterly in Paris, Brussels, and Rome in 2003, led indirectly to the situation in Libya; bringing us to the threads that tie all this together.

Algerian soldiers stand near the Tiguentourine Gas Plant in In Amenas
Algerian soldiers stand near the Tiguentourine Gas Plant in In Amenas

The 2011 fall of the Gaddafi regime unleashed a wave of weaponry and unfettered rebellious enthusiasm across the region.  Armed with Libyan weapons and a sense that something had changed, groups like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) took it as a sign that the time was right to execute war plans from Timbuktu in Mali, to in-Amenas in Algeria, to Homs in Syria where the war was still just another Arab Spring protest.  It took the French and Chadian Armies 30 days to roll back the situation in Mali, and the Algerians only three to flatten in-Amenas, but years later, the fires continue to grow in Syria where the Assad regime is proving much more resilient than Gaddafi or Mubarak.  Continuous combat in Syria has hardened both sides to a pinnacle of ruthless efficiency and the cancer is spreading.  Constrained by geography and sensing an opportunity across the border in Iraq, ISIL destroyed the better part of three Iraqi Army divisions, nearly exterminated the Yezidi, seized the upper parts of both the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and threatened to shatter Iraqi Kurdistan into four exiled communities.  The sum total of the massive American nation-building project there was thus reduced to ashes, setting the stage for ISIL to expand to Libya.  

Oddly, a semantic but resonant point is beginning to move the minds of European (and Egyptian) leaders in the direction of intervention in Libya; specifically that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is now a threat in areas that are neither in Iraq or in the Levant.  Coupled with ISIL-connected terrorism in Paris, Brussels, and Copenhagen, it is increasingly clear that Europe has a problem.  Though we can expect intensifying public debate about Libya’s future, don’t expect that debate to feature the obvious point that the path to the present came from a poorly considered European intervention in Libya’s recent past.

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC. 

Misrata’s Next Steps: Narrowing the Window to Save Libya

Originally published in September 2014 by the Navisio Global Publishing Unit

After several weeks of bloody fighting during what they termed “Operation Libya Dawn”, on 23 August militias from the town of Misrata finally conquered Tripoli International Airport from their adversaries, the Zintani. The capture of the airport and expulsion of the Zintani marks the achievement of the Misrata’s military objectives after losing recent elections for Libya’s interim parliament, the House of Representatives (HoR). Fearing political marginalization in Tripoli in the face of the more established Zintani, the militarily superior Misrata saw this as their only remaining alternative. With Tripoli finally under their control, the struggle for Libya’s capital appears to be decided, at least for the time being, but as the Misrata prepare their next steps, the international community faces a narrowing window of opportunity to achieve a stable solution in Libya.

The Misrata = “Islamists”?

Though quite frequently branded “Islamists”, many of Misrata’s citizens argue (rightly) this is not true. But while a radical Islamic state of Libya with a strict application of the Sharia is probably not in the business interest of the harbor town of Misrata, behind the scenes there is already a struggle for influence between the radical and the moderate Islamists, and the others in the town. As it looks now, the Islamist influence will increase over time for two reasons:

  • the city is a stronghold of the Libyan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood
  • several militias of the Misrata coalition are led by (radical) Islamists; some of whom are former members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, an organization that produced several prominent Al Qaeda leaders like Abu Yahya al-Libi who was Al Qaeda’s number two when he was killed by an American drone strike in 2012.

Current Situation and Background

After their military success the Misrata are widely unchallenged in the capital where they are busy consolidating their positions and solidifying their control of the city. This includes acts of revenge against members and property of the Zintani coalition that remained in Tripoli, and against the Tawergha, who were dispersed from their own city by the Misrata in 2011 because of their support for Gaddafi during the revolution. The Zintani brigades have withdrawn to their strongholds in the Jabal Nafusah mountains, scene of their May 2011 victory over Gaddafi’s mighty army. There they are reorganizing their troops while trying to resupply. Though it is very unlikely that Libya Dawn forces will be able to mount a successful attack on the Zintani stronghold, a successful Zintani counterattack from there can also be ruled out for the near future. Thus, the former military stalemate in Tripoli is replaced with a stalemate in northern Tripolitania.

The Misrata wasted no time shifting their efforts to the political side. On 25 August, they unexpectedly resurrected the former General National Congress (GNC) – an embarrassment to many people that voted for the HoR. Replaced by the HoR in the recent elections, the original 200 member GNC was elected in 2012 as the first interim parliament of Libya. Though the strongest single party in the GNC was the liberal-leaning National Forces Alliance of the first interim Prime Minister, Mahmoud Jibril, a block of various Islamists widely dominated the original GNC. Though the estimated number of parliamentarians that showed up to vote varied from a few dozen to as many as 94 (the former minimum requirement for quorum), the GNC nevertheless designated the Islamist Omar al-Hassi the country’s new, but hardly legitimate, prime minister.  [Of the 200 seats in the GNC only 80 were allocated to political parties. Of these Jibril´s NFA got 39, the JCP (close to the Muslim Brotherhood) got 17. The remaining 120 seats were for independent candidates. The Islamists managed to drag many of these “independents” on to their side and formed an “Islamist block” in the GNC. -WP]. Meanwhile, the interim government of the legitimate Prime Minister, Abdullah al-Thani, resigned on 28 August to make way for formation of a new government. Within days however, al-Thani was asked to again form a government with the HoR leaving Libya with two competing legislatures and divided both militarily and politically.

Misrata’s Intent

The next objectives of the triumphant Misrata will be to safeguard their achievements by military, political, and economic means. Militarily they must protect the western flank of their positions in Tripoli and keep open the vital coastal road to Tunisia. This will take them and their local allies, the “Knights of Janzour” and “Libya Shield West”, deeper into the tribal areas of the Wrishfana (confederates of the Zintani) where the first clashes have already begun.

Politically the Misrata are attempting to overcome their recent electoral defeat by simultaneously offering incentives and applying increased pressure. While Libya Dawn forces invited the HoR to move to Tripoli and guaranteed the security of its members, it may be that by initiating the designation of a new prime minister, the Misrata want to force the HoR to select a compromise candidate as a head of the future government. This would be even easier for them if the legitimate interim parliament were located in Tripoli as their militias (like several others) are already well experienced in blackmailing parliamentary assemblies. The fact that the HoR again asked Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani to form a cabinet despite his repeated insistence that he does not intend to continue serving, could be an indication that the HoR wants to keep open the door for negotiations with the Misrata. It remains to be seen how long they intend to stick to the old assembly and its weak, compliant president Nuri Abu Sahmain. Whatever the case, the very dangerous idea of reviving the GNC could eventually contribute significantly to the split of the country.

Political maneuvers and military campaigns will have little sustained impact however if the economics aren’t there to sustain the effort. For this, the Misrata know they must gain control of at least part of Libya’s hydrocarbon wealth.  Though the coastal strip from Sabratha to Tripoli and further on to Misrata and Sirte is now, with some exceptions, under control of the Misrata and their allies, this does not include a significant part of the hydrocarbon infrastructure (other than the refinery in Zawia) or water sources of the Great Man-Made river.

Misrata's Next Steps
The Situation in Libya, September 2014

These resources are decisive for any Libyan government and therefore it can be expected that the Misrata will try to gain influence by political or military means over the oil fields in the Sirte basin and the oil terminals on the coast of Gulf of Sirte (Ras Lanuf, Brega etc.). Those facilities are currently more or less under the control of the federalist Ibrahim Jadhran, who had blocked oil exports for months.

Misrata will also try to get the oilfields in the south under control, but this is much more difficult. Several of those fields are under firm control of tribes allied with the Zintani and the pipelines to the coast run through or close to Zintan controlled territory where it would be easy for Misrata’s opponents to interrupt the vulnerable tubes and attack the pumping stations.

What Can be Done?

The situation in Libya looks dire. There are four likely scenarios in the midterm (in order of decreasing likelihood): sustained multilateral civil war or “Lebanonization” of the country; an international intervention in the form of a peace-support operation; a political solution; or a decisive Islamist victory. It is also quite realistic that there will be a combination of the first two scenarios. For example, a peace-support operation limited to the critical area in and around the capital may not prevent civil war from raging in several other parts of the country. While mention of peace-support conjures images of European armies patrolling tense neighborhoods, we must also consider the possibility of an Egyptian intervention in the form of establishment of a “Ground Safety Zone” on the Libyan side of the border. After all, Europe is not the only place for which instability in Libya presents a security problem.

There may however be a narrow window of opportunity to prevent the country from descending into total chaos. The UN Security Council recently called for an immediate ceasefire but implementing such a measure will not be easy (see United Nations Security Council Resolution 2174). Politically, the current situation of divided government is inimical to a settlement there. Therefore it is absolutely vital that the international community force all parties to the negotiating table to accept the HoR as the only legitimate representative of the Libyans. To this end there must be focused support on moderates in Misrata and in Zintan to prevent the “hawks” from dominating. Countries like Turkey, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates must be convinced to influence their Libyan partners to keep a ceasefire and commit themselves to the democratic process.

Sanctions against individuals are a good tool although they will not have a quick impact. They must include political, military, and militia leaders as well as religious leaders from all groups unwilling to accept and support the democratic political process. Though these sanctions will make the daily business of the few remaining embassies in Tripoli even more difficult, their current situation is already forcing them to operate in a state of crisis.

Lastly, armed groups not entirely subordinated to the will of the legitimate government must be withdrawn from the capital, regardless which faction they come from. This must be achieved by international political pressure, a political compromise in Libya and, if necessary, by an accompanying international military Peace Support Operation. Such an International Stabilization Force would be a last resort to prevent a Libyan collapse (see Wolfgang Pusztai, “An International Stabilization Force for Libya?”), but as the preparations for such an operation takes months it is necessary to start the discussions and preparations now.

Wolfgang Pusztai is a freelance security and policy analyst. He was the Austrian Defense Attaché to Libya from 2007 to 2012.