To understand the dynamics of the Libyan conflict, it is important to consider the local belligerents as well as the logic of external interventions.
The forces of Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) are celebrating. Their troops are advancing towards the east faster than they can issue victory communiqués. The recent GNA successes have put an end to their rival Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan Arab National Army (LNA) campaign to take Tripoli. In the last few months, Libya has replaced Syria as the new field for geopolitical game being played out in the south Mediterranean: on the one side GNA supported by Turkey and Qatar, on the other LNA supported by the Emirates, Egypt and Russia.
To understand the dynamics of the Libyan conflict, it is important to consider the local belligerents as well as the logic of external interventions. First, we have a government in Tripoli that the UN considers legitimate, while the city is under control of a coalition of Islamist militias that emerged from the 2011 revolt. The UN mediation failed to bridge the institutional gap with one parliament based in Tobruk and supported by the LNA, and the one based in Tripoli. Behind the institutional disintegration and the classical Middle Eastern ideological divisions – Islamists against the army - one should consider deeper structural issues between local identities, tribal loyalties, and changing alliances in a context of general insecurity. Mots important, there is no single institution or social group behind it, capable to unite the nation.
GNA supporters accuse their rivals of being nostalgic to military dictatorship; supporters of LNA accuse their rivals of being no more than al-Qaeda and Daesh, and agents of Turkey. It is important not to over-estimate this ideological divide within Libya. In fact, the two sides represent circumstantial coalitions of armed groups that emerged from the internal war of 2011. Regional identities, clan and tribal networks are more relevant to the conflict dynamics than ideology. The increasing polarization in Libya represents older divisions between two rival centers one based in Tripoli and the other in Benghazi in the east, that represent the historic divide between Tripolitania in the west and Cyrenaica in the east, two regions that even under Roman rule were separate provinces. To bring those two regions has been a constant challenge throughout history. Those divisions have been fashioned by geography: between Benghazi and Tripoli there is over one thousand kilometres of desert.
Benghazi was a hotbed of Islamist groups in the 1980’s and 90’s, opposing the central rule in Tripoli. The region was also a hotbed of Islamist groups: Darna – a town east of Benghazi – has exported more jihadists to go and fight in Iraq against the American occupation there in the last decade, than any town in Saudi Arabia. The 2011 revolt also started in Benghazi. The Madkhali salafi sect is a strong supporter of Haftar’s cause, those who have destroyed old cemeteries and shrines, angering traditional Sufi Muslims. Behind a very thin surface of ideological discourse what is happening in Libya is a power struggle between ill-defined coalitions, with shifting alliances, in a generalized context of lack of legitimate authority.
Nor should one take the internationally recognized government in Tripoli more than what it is: the authority of the formal leader Fayez al-Sarraj is limited and based on a coalition of militias representing the north-west, Tripolitania: Tripoli, al-Zawiya and especially Misrata. Those various rival groups showed unity only after their enemies had reached Tripoli, and were advancing to its centre.
In early April 2019 Haftar launched a major offensive against Tripoli, with promises of bringing stability to Libya. They advanced thanks to important material support originating mostly from the Emirates, and several hundred Russian mercenaries from the Wagner group. In a matter of few days LNA occupied the town of Gharyan in the mountains south of Tripoli, and towards the southern suburbs of the capital, overrunning the Tripoli International Airport. They also occupied the strategic al-Watiya military base south-west of the capital. But after initial quick advances in the early weeks of the operation, LNA forces were bogged-down in the southern suburbs of the capital. The only exception to the largely static war from the side of LNA was the capture of Sirte on the Mediterranean, a strategic town halfway between Benghazi and Tripoli, and the birthplace of the Libyan ruler Qaddafi. Sirte was without a battle as a result of shift of allegiance of a majority of the local militias.
With the hindsight one could say that the Sirte victory was of January 6 was a tragedy for Haftar, as few days later after it he refused several mediations for cease-fire, including the joint Russian-Turkish one in Moscow on January 12, and the outcome of the Berlin conference of January 19. Few months later Haftar will ask for less.
In the meanwhile, massive Turkish intervention was changing the balance of forces. By end of 2019 Turkey sent large numbers of Bayraktar TB2 ground attack drones. It also transferred an estimated 11’000 Syrian opposition fighters from Faylaq al-Sham, Sultan Murad, Suqur al-Sham and others, to Libya. The large number of fighters could make a difference on the long and thin contact lines of urban fighting areas in Tripoli. But it was the continuous drone attacks on over-stretched logistic lines of LNA that broke the back of Haftar’s forces. Turkish army also took direct action in the on-going military operations, the first reported case dating from April 1, when a frigate fired SM-1MR missile and downed an LNA drone near Sabratha.
Turkish intervention soon produced changes. On April 13, GNA forces rapidly occupied several towns on the western coast, including Sorman, Sabratha and Zaltan, reaching the Tunisian border. Here too it was shifting of alliances rather than pitch battles that changed the map. Al-Watiya base was different, as GNA entered it on May 18 after several attempts and harsh battles, where they captured large amounts of armament including a Russian Patntsir S1 anti-air missile system, later paraded on the streets of Tripoli. With the fall of al-Watiya, LNA lost a key base, and its frontlines in western Libya crumbled. It followed successive losses: suburbs of Tripoli, the towns of Tarhouna, and Bani Walid. LNA’s troops had conquered areas in western Libya in a blitzkrieg. They lost it the same way.
Russian-Turkish rivalry seems to have moved from Syria to Libya. But this is a strange rivalry, mixed with large dose of partnership. Remember, Turkey is buying sophisticated Russian weapons, the S-400’s, while its Bayraktar drones are in a sort of competition with Russian Pantsirs. Both are fighting on different sides of conflict lines in Syria and Libya but also regulating the terms in which those wars are to be fought. At times, it is impossible to separate Russian-Turkish rivalry from partnership. What matters is not the number of Bayraktars downed in Libya, or Pantsirs lost or destroyed; Qatar and the Emirates paid their price even before they were sent to Libya. When Wagner fighters were withdrawing from Tripoli battles, it seems there was coordination so that Turkish drones would not attack them until they were airlifted to safety.
While Russia and Turkey are well positioned to exploit the failure in Libya, EU member-states have once again revealed their incompetence in Mediterranean geopolitics. We had already seen that in 2011, when the “Arab Spring” erupted, but now nearly a decade later the lack of EU coordinated policy is simply amateurish: Italy and Malta support the GNA while France and Greece LNA. Emmanuel Macron is the only European leader who personally received Haftar, while Italian military airplanes have been spotted in Misrata, and an Italian drone was shot-down over Tarhuna. This is complete irresponsibility from EU members, including former colonial powers, where the only opportunity they see in the Libyan tragedy is few lucrative contracts, and they fail to see Libya as their neighbour at the southern gates of Europe.
GNA goes East
Unlike Syria, where the regime was maintained at the price of countless victims, in Libya the old regime fell, but the tragedy continues. This means that the crisis in “Arab Spring” countries is deeper than the question of regime change: it is lack of institutions that could preserve the nation after the fall of the dictator, avoiding the collapse into a “state of anarchy”. Now, after one year of Haftar’s eastern campaign, Libya is poorer economically, more divided internally, and more dependent externally. The campaign only helped Turkey to increase its influence over the GNA and Russia over LNA. Just like in Syria, the Libyan military actors, while fighting each other, are losing their margin of autonomy.
GNA forces are now on the offensive. They are at the gates of Sirte, after which they would reach oil terminals of Ras Lanuf and Brega. They risk committing the same mistake as Haftar – or a certain German general during World War II – by overstretching their logistic lines too much. It will also depend whether Haftar will be able to preserve the alliance of local militia forces in the east. Eventually, approaching the oil installations will only increase the geopolitical tension: Russia has already refurbished Haftar’s air force, and – as of writing this article – Egyptian forces are accumulating near the border.