By Afro-Middle East Centre
Almost three years have elapsed since the reconvening of Libya’s General National Congress (GNC) in July 2014 and subsequent division of the country into two, now three, centres of power, with no conclusion forthcoming. The April meeting between the Government of National Accord’s (GNA) Fayez al-Sarraj and General Khalifa Haftar initially engendered some optimism. However, their differing understandings of the balance of forces, and views on ways out of the current impasse meant they were unable to agree on a unified statement. Continuing clashes in Sabha, in the south, mainly at the hands of forces aligned to Haftar, suggest that the Libyan National Army still believes in a military solution. This is despite attempts by global and regional powers to foster compromise. The 2014 Algeria plan and subsequent 2015 Skhirat (Morocco) agreement have had only limited success. Key in accounting for these failures has been the interference of foreign powers, and a lack of inclusiveness. Russia’s intensified support for the Libyan National Army (LNA), commanded by Haftar, has also been worrying.
With the Islamic State group (IS) largely ejected from its Libyan strongholds, a renewal of the 2015 Libyan political agreement (LPA) is required. However, for it to succeed it must be more inclusive, and expand its focus on governance. Moreover, clear consequences for outside interference need to be stipulated. A fresh election is a likely eventuality, as a means of finally solving the impasse. However, this will only succeed if it is seen as fair and representative, and if it is coupled with security reform.
Roots of the current divide
Former president Muammar Gaddafi’s personalised and extended authoritarian rule meant that governance institutions were severely deficient. Following the NATO-led ouster of the regime in 2011, the new National Transitional Council was not very successful in dealing with governance challenges. Social service provision was non-existent and armed militia flourished. A May 2013 political isolation law, passed under pressure from various militia, resulted in the removal of a small number of technocrats and politicians who had had minimal ties to the Gadhdhafi regime. This was aggravated by the limited support provided to Libya by international institutions, which incorrectly calculated that the removal of the regime would ensure a consolidation of democratic governance.
Disillusionment amongst the population increased, and by February 2014, remnants of the old regime under Haftar’s command began agitating for a revolt against the governing GNC. Initially prompting widespread opposition from Libya’s political and military elite, by May 2014 Haftar launched ‘Operation Dignity’ in an attempt to provide a Libyan version of the regional backlash against Islamists willing to participate in electoral politics. Successfully appealing to perceived marginalisation amongst eastern federalists, tribes and separatists, Haftar’s forces greatly increased their capacity, garnering support from the country’s naval and special forces.
The May 2014 parliamentary election exacerbated the situation. The emergent Council of Deputies (now called the House of Representatives (HoR)) was comprised of a limited number of Islamists, elected with a 20 per cent voter turnout. Fears of this ‘new’ marginalisation were greatly influenced by the 2013 Egyptian coup, which overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood’s (MB) Mohamed Morsi, and the declaration of the MB as a terrorist organisation by Gulf Arab heavyweights in March 2014; thus, Libyan Islamists sought to reconstitute the GNC. Under the Libya Dawn banner, sympathetic militia began supporting the GNC, and by July clashes intensified around Tripoli airport. As a result, the country experienced a de facto division between eastern and western Libya; the HoR relocated to Tobruk and intensified its support for Haftar’s dignity campaign, which now overtly sought to confront Islamist-leaning politicians and militia. Haftar garnered support from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, which are both fearful of participatory Islamists and had led the regional campaign against them. Financial, intelligence and military support from the two states meant that Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) has been able to consolidate control of much of the country’s east.
The situation has been aggravated by the growth of IS, which consolidated control of the Libyan city Sirte in May 2015. Western countries’ exaggerated perception of IS’s military strength, and their wariness over migration to Europe from Libya had seen countries such as Britain and France coordinate with Operation Dignity, unintentionally increasing suspicion amongst Islamist-leaning politicians and militias. This myopic focus saw these states push through the Libyan political agreement (LPA) in December 2015, in an attempt to create a ‘unified’ government, which would sanction direct intervention. The imposition of the LPA, which resulted in the formation of the Government of National Accord (GNA), stalled what was then a domestic process between local actors. The GNA, under the leadership of Fayez Sarraj, has thus received limited support from the GNC and HoR; and the Sarraj administration exercises limited territorial and administrative control. The HoR has voted against endorsing it, while parts of the GNC have formed the National Salvation government out of Tripoli.
Currently there are three centres of power in the country: the GNA, GNC (Salvation government) and the HoR. The HoR remains based in Tobruk and has consolidated control over eastern Libya. Haftar’s forces have pushed GNC-supported militia, under the banner of the Benghazi Defence Brigades, out of most of Benghazi, and encircled Derna. Moreover, in September 2016 Haftar’s forces successfully captured Libya’s oil crescent, allowing it to control most of Libya’s oil, and enabling Haftar to increase his influence in the HoR. Through staffing local councils with military allies, Haftar is now more influential than the prime minister recognised by the HoR, Abdullah al Thinni, and HoR speaker Ageela Saleh.
Conversely, the GNA controls parts of western and southern Libya, including the influential city of Misrata. Misratan forces support the Sarraj regime, which is regarded by the international community as the legitimate government. Parts of Libya Dawn are allied to the GNA; however, more hard-line groups have resolved to back the GNC and its head Khalifa al-Ghwell. Prior to March 2016 Sarraj operated out of Tunis; he has since managed to consolidate control in parts of Tripoli. Ghwell had attempted a coup in Tripoli in September 2016, but GNA-supported militia rapidly quelled this effort. Notably, many GNC-aligned militia have frequently interchanged support between the GNC and GNA, although most would support the GNA in a confrontation with Haftar. In March 2017, for example, the GNC-allied Benghazi Defence Brigades briefly gained control over the oil refineries of Ras Lanuf and Sidra, most likely with support from Misratan militia. Moreover, in April, GNC-aligned forces supported the thus far successful effort by Misrata’s Third Force to repel LNA troops from capturing the Tamnihint airbase in Sabha.
Conflict among the three parties is currently centred in the south and centre between the HoR and GNA, and in Tripoli between the GNA and GNC. At present, although Haftar’s forces have the best training and equipment, a military victory is unlikely. This is especially since the federalist and separatist elements that support Haftar in the east are not present in the west, because the Misratan militia are reasonably well trained and possess aerial capabilities, and because many western tribes still support the GNA. Recent clashes, between Misrata’s Third Force and Haftar, over aerial bases in the southern city of Sabha and over the strategic central city of Jufra will shape the military side of the conflict in the immediate term.
IS in Libya has been largely defeated, and only a few hundred fighters remain in the country’s south. This is mainly the result of actions of the Misratan militia under the al-Bunyan al-Marsoos operation, and because of support from US airstrikes. Sirte was regained in September, and IS is unlikely to regroup. Significantly, Sirte’s recapture weakened the Misratan militia, allowing Haftar’s forces to move west into Jufra. IS’s relatively rapid routing from Sirte does point to the group’s comparative weakness in the country and the often-exaggerated perception of its influence.
Politically, all three governments possess only nominal control over areas they claim to govern. Social services such as electricity and health care are often irregular and intermittent. Inflation has increased and the Libyan dinar has weakened. Oil production, the country’s main source of revenue, has increased to around 700 000 barrels daily. However, in recent months, the GNA and HoR have disputed the sharing of such revenue.
Efforts to form a unified government incorporating the HoR into the LPA have faltered. In December 2016 it was agreed that the LPA would be amended to include Haftar’s command of the Libyan army and to provide a greater role to the HoR in shaping policy, the two main factors impeding HoR endorsement. The subsequent meeting between Haftar and Sarraj reinforced this, especially as the two reportedly concurred on the need to reform the GNA’s presidential council to allow for HoR representation, and that Haftar would head a unified national army. However, it is unlikely that Sarraj would allow Haftar a voice on a reformed presidential council, and it is implausible that militia aligned to both the GNC and GNA would sanction the LNA being incorporated into the GNC’s presidential guard if it meant that their influence would be subsumed.
The March 2018 date for presidential and parliamentary elections, agreed upon by Haftar and Sarraj, provides a means out of the current impasse. However, for this to be successful, the election would need to be seen as fair and representative. Turnout would need to be greater than the 20 per cent seen in the 2014 poll, and stipulations for regional seat allocation would need to be enacted, especially since federalism and secession have previously had much appeal. Moreover, a formula for military unification would need to be concluded and implemented in the interceding period, failing which militia groupings would continue to hold sway.
Increasing role of foreign actors
Since its inception, the Libyan conflict has been greatly influenced by outside powers. Gadhdhafi’s overthrow can largely be attributed to international support for rebel groups and the NATO-enforced no-fly zone. Haftar’s forces had subsequently received vast amounts of military backing from Egypt and the UAE, which deployed ground and aerial forces into eastern Libya. Haftar’s recapture of Sidra and Ras Lanuf in March 2017 was planned in Egypt and executed with the assistance of UAE aircraft, based out of a UAE-controlled airbase in eastern Libya. The Misratan militia and those allied to the GNC receive support from Turkey and Qatar; however, this is limited when compared to foreign support for Haftar. The IS threat has meant that France, Britain and Algeria have also deployed special forces to the country. These have usually been in support of different militia groupings, including Haftar’s LNA, aggravating the conflict and often impeding efforts to engender political compromise.
Worryingly, Russia has intensified its focus on the country. Over the past year, both Sarraj and Haftar visited Moscow, and in January 2017 Haftar was hosted on the Russian Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier. Comparable to its renewed focus on Egypt and support for the Asad regime in Syria, Moscow does not distinguish between militant extremist and participatory Islamists. It has thus militarily supported Haftar’s Operation Dignity and is likely to provide over two billion dollars of arms to the LNA. Haftar reportedly participated in a video conference with Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, while on the Admiral Kuznetsov, and methods of circumventing the arms embargo were discussed. Haftar has thus been emboldened and has intensified his intentions to militarily confront Tripoli. Notably, prior to Gadhdhafi’s ouster, Moscow concluded over ten billion dollars in arms and trade deals with Libya, and is seeking to reactivate those agreements. In addition, agreements over Russian use of Libyan aerial and naval bases have also been concluded with the HoR in the east.
Thus, regional and international diplomatic and political manoeuvres have had only limited success. The Algeria initiative of September 2014 was impeded by Egyptian support for Haftar and a subsequent parallel Egyptian initiative. Conversely, the LPA has been hampered by the willingness of international actors to work with Haftar to combat militancy. Recently, Algeria, Egypt and Tunisia collaborated in an attempt to formulate a more localised solution to the Libyan crisis, which would involve all actors. This culminated in the Tunis Declaration of February 2017, which calls for the protection of Libya’s territorial integrity, involvement of all actors in finding a political solution, and desisting from the use of force by regional and international actors. It is difficult to see this being implemented, especially since neighbouring countries are already involved in the conflict, and because they believe their interests can better be guaranteed by Haftar prevailing. Egypt continues to support the LNA, while there are reliable reports that Russia seeks to work through Algeria to circumvent the Libyan arms embargo. Further, the UAE, through its organising and hosting of the meeting between Haftar and Sarraj, seeks to initiate its own negotiations. These will likely undermine those held by the Algeria-Tunisia-Egypt troika, which have African Union support.
While most international and regional actors concur that a political solution is the only means of solving Libya’s conflict, they maintain support for different parties. This support, military and financial, has emboldened these groups, which continue to seek a military victory. The consolidation of governance structures has thus not occurred as different groups divert resources to military efforts, and negotiations aimed at amending the LPA have stalled, owing to disagreements over who will be in command of the military. Though it was a possibility in 2014, secession is no longer on the cards, mainly because international actors are not in favour; however, polarisation between eastern and western Libya is calcifying, and secessionist sentiments occasionally arise in the south. In the immediate term, the confrontations in Jufra and Sabha will greatly influence which faction possesses the upper hand, but the outright military victory of a single faction is unlikely. International and regional powers need to ensure that good-faith negotiations are expedited. Key in this regard is facilitating the maintenance of a ceasefire and ensuring that military support from outside powers results in clear consequences. Building governance institutions, which was an aim of the Skhirat agreement, must be emphasised and pursued, and an agreement over the sharing of oil resources formulated. The LPA needs to be revised; however, caution must be exercised to ensure that the agreement represents the balance of forces and is not seen as favouring certain factions.