My intern, Alex Decina, wrote this terrific post on the current state of play in Libya. I hope you find it interesting and useful.
Last Thursday could have been an important day for Libya. It could have marked the beginning of the end of the brutal civil war that has rocked the country for several months. It could have been the day divergent factions came together in spite of their political differences to form a unity government, one that could bring Libya forward. Since last week, the country’s two competing governments—the General National Congress (GNC) in the western city of Tripoli and the House of Representatives (HoR) in the eastern city of Tobruk—and their respective allies have been meeting in Morocco for what the United Nations hopes is the final phase of negotiations. If they can put this conflict behind them, Libya might see light at the end of what has been a very dark tunnel. While these negotiations show more promise than previous talks in Ghadames and Madrid, and the UN remains optimistic as it tries to push forward a unity government, they will likely still fail. The rival parties have shown time and again they are not above prolonging Libya’s violence to vie for political leverage and complete supremacy over each other. Without significant pressure, they will avoid resorting to compromise as a political solution.
Take the House of Representatives, which has turned to the West in the midst of these negotiations and presented itself as a vanguard against the so-called Islamic State. Along with regional allies such as Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, it has called on the international community to lift the arms embargo and provide the HoR-aligned General Khalifa Hifter with weapons and support to fight the Islamist militias. They present Hifter—a well-established military figure who fought both for and against the late Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi in the course of his career before spending a number of years living comfortably in Northern Virginia—as the man to whom the West must turn if it does not want to face ISIS on its own doorstep. This is, however, an attempt to mislead the international community. If Hifter and the HoR can achieve international backing, they will gain a significant advantage over their political opponents and avoid having to compromise at the negotiating table altogether.
Since last June, the two competing governments have fought for control of Libya and its oil supply, yet both of these governments lack legitimacy. The Islamist-dominated General National Congress, whose mandate expired last February, extended its rule by its own authority and refused to step down. The secular and federalist HoR was elected in June 2014 with a remarkably low turnout—only eighteen percent of the electorate voted and polling was not even conducted in parts of the country due to security concerns. As the political dispute deteriorated into violent conflict, the two governments engaged with each other militarily by means of proxies and allies. Hifter and his affiliated militias, from Zintan and elsewhere, have fought on behalf of the HoR in Operation Dignity, a military campaign mounted against Libya’s Islamist threat. Hifter intends to purge Libya of what he sees as its “malignant disease,” consisting not only of the Salafists in Libya’s east, but also the GNC and all of its allies. The GNC’s allies include the Misrata militias—which are more anti-Qaddafi and revolutionary than Islamist in nature and are by no means controlled by the GNC—to fight on its behalf in the west as well as Islamist militias in Benghazi to fight in the east.
In pursuit of international recognition, Hifter has sought to conflate his enemies with the new ISIS threat, and, to be fair, the GNC has not made that a difficult task. By depending on enigmatic Islamist groups, the GNC has made itself susceptible to Hifter’s unfair categorization. Although the GNC did not create the complex network of Islamist fighters that exists in Benghazi today—and certainly does not control it—it has lubricated various Benghazi militias financially and used them to buffer its western strongholds in Tripoli and Misrata, keeping the bulk of Libya’s fighting in the east. To this end, GNC Prime Minister Omar al-Hassi’s government has provided direct financial support to a number of Benghazi-based Islamist militias including Libya Shield One, the February 17 Martyrs Brigade, and the Libyan Revolutionaries Operations Room, paying them anywhere from 1,500 to 3,000 Libyan dinar per fighter per month—roughly $1,000 to $2,000. These GNC-affiliated militias and a handful of others united under the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council (BRSC) to build a coalition against Hifter’s Operation Dignity. Despite being mysterious and difficult to follow, these are not the same groups that have been joining ISIS since last November. Under the direction of Ansar al-Sharia Libya (which is not affiliated with the GNC, but is the BRSC’s dominant group), the umbrella organization refused to pledge support or allegiance to ISIS last October. They did not resist ISIS’s invitation out of a sense of morality or scruples, but rather a desire not to share their local Libyan patronage networks with a larger international actor. Regardless of any differences between the various groups, it serves Hifter well to paint Libya’s entire Islamist landscape with the same brush and thus try to stave off political compromise with the GNC at any cost.
Though there have been a handful of failed UN-backed negotiations to bring the factions together, the threat of ISIS provides a new impetus for the competing sides to come to an agreement. ISIS has been in Libya for several months now, but with recent developments from an attack against the HoR in al-Qubbah that left forty-two dead to attacks against the GNC in Misrata, Sirte, and Tripoli—including a hotel bombing in January that attempted to assassinate Prime Minister Hassi—the group’s presence is felt by both governments now more than ever. Beyond this, by attacking oil fields in al-Ghani, al-Zoueitina, Bahi, and Mabruk, ISIS is doing lasting damage to Libya’s oil infrastructure and thus presenting the Libyan governments with a difficult choice: come to a compromise, knowing that neither entity will have the control over Libya’s oil they each envisage for themselves, or continue the conflict, which would award ISIS with breathing space to destroy the country so no one can have it. While the GNC and the HoR compete for control of Libya’s future, they are vested in just that—Libya’s future—albeit for less than altruistic reasons, no doubt. ISIS has demonstrated that it seeks to tear down that future, and as such the disparate sides have a common enemy to unite them.
If ISIS’s recent attacks were not enough, new developments have also driven the GNC and its allies to the table. The GNC can no longer rely on the chaos in the east that until now has protected it. The situation in Benghazi has changed and the Islamist militias that controlled the entire city last October only hold two neighborhoods and a small portion of the city’s outskirts as of February—at least according to prominent activists and reporters covering the conflict on Twitter. Moreover, Hifter’s recent gains have precipitated a shake-up in the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council. While Ansar al-Sharia Libya may have indeed joined ISIS since the death of its previous leader, it is unclear what remains of the other militias in the coalition. Energized by military successes in the east, Hifter is preparing to move his fight westward toward Misrata and has already launched an offensive to “liberate” Tripoli. While the Misrata brigades are certainly a force to be reckoned with in Libya, they do not want this fight and as such have come to the negotiating table. The absence of prominent Misrata leaders from previous talks had given the GNC (and the HoR for that matter) an excuse to hold out for a better bargaining position. With threats coming from Hifter and ISIS alike, the GNC can no longer afford to be obstinate.
The HoR, in turn, is driven to the negotiating table by the fact that the United States and the United Kingdom have ignored its calls for support. Without much in the way of international backing, the “internationally recognized government” went to Morocco kicking and screaming. Just after the last phase of negotiations, the HoR elevated Hifter as its army chief. The HoR knows very well that this is unpalatable for its Misrata and GNC opponents, but it remains unclear if this move was trying to derail the talks or simply gain additional leverage. Perhaps seeing himself as a political piece and trying to avoid being cast into irrelevance, Hifter has denounced the efforts to form a unity government with “leaders of extremist movements,” saying, “The UN and Europe cannot oblige [the HoR] to sit at the table with terrorists.” His resistance to compromise will surely continue; his career depends on it.
It might be tempting to back Hifter and his army to respond to a growing regional threat, especially as ISIS’s atrocities in Libya, from the beheading of twenty-one Egyptian Christians to last week’s kidnapping of twenty medical workers in Sirte, continue to dominate headlines. Some countries have already begun to take the bait. The Italian government announced it is prepared to deploy five thousand troops to North Africa, and Canada is considering expanding its military operation against ISIS to Libya. Thus far, the United States has declined to support any Libyan operations, and while some will surely see this as a failure of leadership, the Obama administration remains adamant. And it should. If Hifter continues to violently dismantle revolutionary Islamist militias he will only strengthen ISIS’s draw in Libya. And if he is enabled by U.S. support to continue moving his ground forces into Libya’s west, the fighting that will ensue may very well dwarf the current conflict. By choosing sides, the United States may again find itself taking up the heavy mantle of legitimizing a government, delegitimizing its political opponents, and defeating (or supporting the defeat of) its military opponents, many of whom have no ambitions outside of Libya and pose no direct threat to the United States. Rather than Western intervention and total victory, compromise needs to define Libya’s future. The ongoing talks will likely fail, and even if they are to succeed in forming a unity government, it would still be naïve to call the formation of such an alliance a lasting victory in the fragile political ecosystem that is Libya. But it cannot be said that the HoR, the GNC, and their allies did not have a real chance to turn from several months of brutal fighting toward compromise, dialogue, and peace.