When in February 2011 peaceful pro-democracy protests broke out in Libya, the Gaddafi government responded with violent repressions which resulted in hundreds of deaths. Nevertheless, the rebellion continued and the armed forces seized control of much of eastern Libya: it was the beginning of an internal armed conflict between the forces that remained loyal to Gaddafi and a broad coalition of forces coordinated by an interim government, the NTC (National Transitional Council), formed by opposition leaders in the eastern city of Benghazi. The conflict would culminate with the death of Gaddafi in October 2011.
The opposition forces fighting against Gaddafi were not coordinated and did not fall under the centralized control of the NTC which eventually succeeded Gaddafi’s government: the civil war saw the emerging of hundreds of independent militias organized around informal networks, such as former military units, schools or religious institutions whose primary loyalty was to their place of origin. The uprising degenerated into a struggle between regional militias fighting against each other to capture strategic assets, like airports or major oil reserves, leaving the NTC forces powerless to stop the clashes and the government unable to prepare the country for the transitional process, facing an important problem of security.
Libya’s lack of security
As a matter of fact, Libya’s most serious problem after 2011 has been the lack of security. International actors and Libya’s political leaders agreed to recognise the importance of achieving a secure environment for the transition process to take hold, but so far none has been able to implement it. The government could provide security for its population after the war only with a security sector reform paired to disarmament, demobilization, and the reintegration of rebel forces into civilian society or into Libya’s new army. However, this has proven to be impossible because neither police nor the armed forces could be relied on in the construction of the security architecture: the vacuum has been filled by the militia groups who have been controlling the Libyan territory since the end of Gaddafi’s regime and who, at the same time, have been using their coercive power to influence the political process. On the one hand, the double nature of the militias led to several proposals aimed at integrating them into the newly emerging security structure. This attempt failed, since the vast majority of those who participated in the protests only had elementary or secondary education and did not receive any formal or official training, and the armed forces remaining did not want to integrate with the militiamen. On the other hand, the double nature of the abovementioned militias led to the formation of the Libyan Military National Shield, a parallel armed force made up entirely of revolutionary brigades who had received no formal training. Other militias began to act like independent security agencies, such as the Zintan Brigades that used to control Tripoli’s airport.
Moreover, the international strategy for post conflict stabilization was very different from all other NATO intervention cases because no peacekeeping or stabilization forces were deployed after the war. In part this was due to the fact that the situation in Libya seemed to be quite positive compared with other post conflict countries: the rebels had been largely unified against the dictatorship, Libya’s large reserves of oil could guarantee a rapid economic recovery, and there were high levels of public support for the transition to democratic institutions (Chivis & Martini, 2014).
Yet, a huge mistake has been made. Five years after the uprising, the situation is still tumultuous. The 2012 first democratic elections were considered a “success marker” (Wehrey, 2016), testifying the victory of the GNC (General National Council), but they brought to a relapse of the civil war. The parliament was highly fragmented due to the absence of organized political parties that could represent the people’s will. It failed to accomplish its first and major purpose, i.e. the drafting of a constitution within a year from the liberation. The use of coercive force was highly remarkable, as in the case of the approval of the “political isolation” law in May 2013. In that occasion, a group of armed militias coerced a vast majority of the interim parliament members to pass the law aimed at preventing former members of the Gaddafi regime from holding public office during the country’s transition. Therefore, by mid-2014 the country fell into a violent civil war which led to the split between two rival governments seeking to control the country. Indeed, the deeply disputed general elections of June 2014 resulted in the defeat of the Islamic forces, which then rejected the new elected House of Representatives (HOR). The latter in turn was supposed to take the GNC’s place. The elected parliament was then forced to convene in the eastern city of Tobruk, near the Libyan-Egyptian border. In November 2014, the Libyan Supreme Court declared the elections unconstitutional, thereby making the Tobruk parliament illegal. This dragged Libya into further political chaos: two governments and parliaments for one country. Both sides were also supported by armed groups fighting each other to gain control over the key areas: on the one hand, the General National Congress (GNC), based in Tripoli, aligned with the Libya Dawn, an Islamist militia bloc which was considered the armed force of GNC controlling a big part of the west side of the country; on the other, the House of Representatives (HOR) based in Tobruk and aligned with the forces of General Khalifa Haftar, a former army officer generally known for his strong opposition to the Islamist agenda. The two governments represent today’s Libya’s main political blocs, the revolutionary Islamist alliance (Tripoli) and the secular coalition (Tobruk). Their rivalry is not just a Islamists-versus-Liberals confrontation but was and still is a real struggle over access to power and resources. The problem here is that real power does not lie within the governments but within the armed groups that have been supporting them, i.e. the Dawn for the Islamists and the Operation Dignity for the secularists. Given the presence of so many different actors, the situation is not going to be exemplified by the duality GNC vs HOR, but we must take under consideration that up to the present day almost 1700 armed groups and militias have been active (OCHA, 2015) seeking their own interests, especially in the southwest.
Daesh: Libya’s the biggest base outside Iraq and Syria
This chaotic scenario provided fertile ground to the establishment of the biggest Daesh base outside Iraq and Syria, imposing itself as a relevant governing force since 2014 and threatening to seize control of oil infrastructures. Its tactic has been following those employed in Iraq and Syria, i.e. preventing the reconstitution of a unitary state, securing critical resources such as access to oil infrastructures, controlling and gaining ground among the population. Beginning with the eastern city of Derna, it expanded its influence to control up to “a 120-mile stretch of territory extending east along the coast from the town of Sirte, seized almost entirely during 2015” (El Amrani, 2016), an important base from which it can attract new recruits and plan attacks elsewhere. Daesh was able to conquer the entire territory because the city was substantially abandoned to itself: political leaders and armed forces underestimated the problem letting them to become more aggressive. Thus, Daesh began to move eastwards toward the oil port of Sidra and refinery of Ras Lanuf.
In response to the threats coming from terrorist groups and to contain Daesh advancement, in December 2015, the UN arranged an agreement for the establishment of a unity government, the Government of National Accord (GNA), and a Presidential Council. The head of the Presidential Council is Fayez al-Sarraj, former member of the Tobruk parliament, and other eight members who arrived in Tripoli in March 2016. The Council started operating out of a naval base since they had and still have very little control of the territory. In fact, it faces the opposition from both of the country’s existing regimes, GNC and HOR, and particularly from the latter as it is not willing to accept western authorities and geographically is far enough to be out of GNA’s reach.
From a practical point of view, the GNA seemed to haven’t really considered many of the problems affecting the population, i.e., water shortages, power cuts, lack of security and cash crisis, which became the symbol of the administration incapacity to cope with the country’s many challenges. Politically speaking the situation is even worse because the very structure of the Council reflects more a tribal based council “rather than a modern western-backed government”(Muntasser, 2016). As a matter of fact, in July 2016, four GNA ministers, all from the eastern bloc, decided to resign without an apparent reason supporting their withdrawal. A month later, the HOR government conducted a no confidence vote in the GNA, which cannot assume office and has no legal standing without the HOR vote.
The latest military confrontation in Libya
As a consequence, the Libyan quagmire seems to be evolving into a new military confrontation between the forces loyal to the GNA government and the Libyan National Army (LNA) forces of the General Khalifa Haftar, representing the authority of HOR. Both may count important victories against terrorist groups which can be successfully used to boast military hegemony over all of Libya. The GNA forces, aligned with Misratan Bunyan Marsus (BM) forces, have been engaged in a full-scale ground assault against Daesh in Sirte since late May and, on August 1, the USA started launching airstrikes against Daesh positions following a specific request from Fayez al-Sarraj to assist local forces in their efforts to liberate the city. Despite the huge amount of losses, the broad coalition could be on the edge of liberating the city. On the other side, Haftar and the LNA have been conducting another important battle against jihadi forces in Benghazi, the best opportunity move towards the oil installations of the Gulf of Sidra, which were failing under Ibrahim Jadran’s control, the commander of the Petroleum Facilities Guards (PFG). Although Jadran could have represented an obstacle to Haftar’s westward expansion, the LNA attack has been successful and on September 12, Haftar has been able to gain control over the ports of Ras Lanuf, Es Sidra, and Zueitina.
Haftar, largely sustained by Egypt and UAE, is in a good position because he achieved his main purpose of destabilizing the coalition of armed groups supporting Fayez al-Sarraj’s government.. But what can pose a serious threat to Libya and imply further destabilization of the country is Sarraj and international actors’ reaction against Haftar. Reconquering the oil installations is off the table given that Misrata’s forces are not in the conditions to fight another battle after the operations in Sirte.
What is to be remarked is that all these circumstances could possibly evolve in a new phase of internal conflict, centred on the oil crescent, where the dynamics are largely influenced by several other countries currently on the ground to support both LNA or GNA forces. The fact that US and European countries decided to join forces with specific armed groups, as in the case of airstrikes in Sirte, is surely not helping Libyan political forces to reach a deal. What the international community should be doing is to support a viable political alternative where the HOR representatives are reintroduced in the political dialogue trying to build some sort of political balance to avoid the catastrophe.
Chivvis C: S., Martini J. (2014) Libya After Qaddafi. Lessons and implications for the future. Rand Corporation, National security search division.
El Amrani I. (2016, February 18) How much of Libya does the Islamic State control?, Foreign Policy, retrieved from atfp.co/1ToULWA
Muntasser E. Z. (2016, September 16) The Coming Fall of Libya’s GNA. And what to do about it, Foreign Affairs, retrieved from fam.ag/2dayhrs.
OCHA (2015) Shattered lives: Civilians suffer from the use of explosive weapons in Libya, UN office for the Coordination of Human Affairs, September 2015.
Shuaib A., (2012, April 20) Libya militia hands Tripoli airport control to government, Reuters, retrieved from reut.rs/2d5XHb5.
Wehrey F. (2016, February 2) Why Libya’s transition to democracy failed, Washington Post, retrieved from wapo.st/1OgnDK6.