By Joseph V. Micallef
With the future of the Assad regime now well in hand, the Kremlin has turned its attention to another former Soviet client in the Middle East – Libya.
The “Libyan Political Agreement” negotiated under UN supervision and announced on December 17, 2015, was supposed to herald the formation of a unity government for Libya and begin the process of stabilizing a country that has been torn apart by four years of civil war. It did neither. Instead, the two rival governments, the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HR) and the Tripoli headquartered General National Congress (GNC), have continued their rivalry.
Both sides continue to function as the government of Libya; conduct separate foreign policies and, in many cases, field rival ambassadorial appointments. In the meantime, the Government of National Accord (GNA), which was to have replaced the two rival governments, has failed to establish its authority. Its territorial control is largely limited to a former naval base outside the city of Tripoli and it is continuing to steadily lose what little authority it had. The GNC originally endorsed the GNA, although in recent months it has turned against it. The HR never accepted the GNA even though its formal approval was a precondition of the original agreement.
Part of the impetus for the UN brokered agreement was the success of Islamic State (IS) in establishing a foothold in Libya. The Libyan branch of IS was officially formed on November 13, 2014. There were three separate branches of IS in Libya, corresponding to the three historic divisions of the country when it was under Ottoman rule: Cyrenaica in the east, Fezzan in the south and Tripolitania in the west.
The group’s genesis was in the Battar Brigade, a militant group of Libyans that were fighting against the Assad regime in Syria during 2012. In early 2014, about 300 veterans of the Battar Brigade returned to Libya and organized the Islamic Youth Shura Council (IYSC). Bolstered by recruits from other jihadist organizations, the IYSC took control of the Libyan city of Derna. Starting in early 2015, IS gradually expanded its territory to also take control of the city of Sirte. This was the largest city controlled by Islamic State outside of its Iraqi-Syrian domain. At one point, it even appeared that if IS was defeated in Syria and Iraq, Sirte might become the organization’s new capital.
The Islamic State in Libya steadily lost ground over the course of 2015. A rival jihadist organization, the Shura Council of Mujahideen in Derna, succeeded in expelling IS fighters from the city. Further east, Libyan National Army (LNA) forces loyal to Khalifa Hiftar, with assistance from French Special Forces, succeeded in expelling IS militants from the city of Benghazi. IS, however, continued to retain control of Sirte.
On August 1, 2016, in response to a request for assistance by Fayez al-Sarraj, the Prime Minister of the Libyan Government of National Accord, the U.S. launched Operation Odyssey Lightening to help government-aligned forces push IS out of Sirte. AFRICOM, which was charged with the mission, conducted “495 precision airstrikes against Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices, heavy guns, tanks, command and control centers and fighting positions.” It’s estimated that there are between 200 and 1,000 IS militants still operating in Libya, either in cells in Libya’s major cities or dispersed in the country’s desert south.
While the immediate threat of an Islamic State takeover of Libya is, for now, contained, Libya is no closer to a resolution of its civil war than it was a year ago. In the east, the Libyan National Army (LNA), under the control of Field Marshal Khalifa Hiftar, has emerged as the region’s principal power broker. The LNA supports the Tobruk-based House of Representatives and operates under its authority. Hiftar is supported by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and, increasingly, by Russia. The U.S. has repeatedly urged Hiftar to accept the authority of the GNA. He has refused to do so.
The Field Marshall is an enigmatic and controversial figure in Libya. A former general in Muammar Gaddafi’s military, he took part in the coup that brought the Libyan strongman to power in 1969, only to break with the Libyan leader in the late 80s. He has longstanding ties with Russia, having received training there in the 1970s, but paradoxically also with the CIA. Hiftar came to the U.S. in 1990, along with 300 of his former soldiers, under a CIA sponsored U.S. refugee program. He lived in Virginia for almost 20 years and in the process also became a U.S. citizen.
Hiftar’s Libyan National Army has succeeded in gaining control of most of eastern Libya and the main operating oil fields there. In September, the LNA took control of four critical oil export terminals in the Gulf of Sirte, Ras Lanuf, As Sidra, Zueitina and Marsa el Brega, as well as the El Sharara and El Feel oil fields, two of Libya’s largest, giving him control of almost all of Libya’s onshore petroleum production. On December 20, the Libyan National Oil Company announced that it had reopened oil pipelines from its western oil fields capable of delivering 270,000 barrels a day of crude oil, a 50 per cent increase over its current production. Proceeds from oil sales have been deposited into the Libyan Central Bank and are theoretically under the control of the GNA.
Arrayed against Hiftar and his Libyan National Army is a broad assortment of rival militias ranging in orientation from jihadist to so called moderates, although what that latter term actually means in Libya is anybody’s guess. The most prominent group is the Misratan militia. Based in the Libyan city of Misrata, the group at one point numbered more than 230 different organizations fielding around 40,000 fighters. It’s unclear what its current strength and membership is. It was members of the Misratan militia that led the effort to oust Islamic State from Sirte.
The Misratan militia supports the Tripoli based General National Congress and has been a stalwart opponent of both Hiftar and his Libyan National Army. Moderate groups within the Misratan Militia originally supported the GNA, but of late have become more ambivalent in their support. The LNA and the Misratan Militias have repeatedly clashed over the last four years. The Islamist groups that make up a significant portion of the Misratan Militia’s strength oppose Hiftar’s secularist and anti-jihadist policies, especially his belief that all Islamists are de facto jihadists, and have opposed any role for Hiftar in a national unity government.
The third major militia grouping is the Zintan Brigades based in the city of Zintan southwest of Tripoli. The Zintan Brigades are technically allayed with Hiftar’s LNA and are considered “moderates” within the Libyan political constellation and have been fierce opponents of Islamist groups operating in Libya, particularly those aligned with the Misratan militias. The Zintan brigades have, however, maintained a truce with the Misratan militias and cooperated with them in the campaign to oust the Islamic State from Sirte.
In addition to the LNA, Misratan Militias and Zintan Brigades, there are a range of other armed groups also operating in the country. In the deep desert, there are Tebu militias that control most of the region south of Sabha. In the southwest, there are Tuareg militias that control several oil fields in the area. Both groups have been supportive of the GNA, but neither can do much to aid the unity government. In addition, there are is a range of jihadist organizations that operate independently, although at times they have collaborated with various groups in the Misratan militias. These groups include Ansar al-Sharia and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
At the moment, none of the major armed groups have sufficient strength to overcome the others. While the LNA and the Zintan Brigades collectively control a significant part of Libya, it’s not clear that the Zintan Brigades would support the LNA if renewed fighting broke out between the Libyan National Army and the Misratan Militias. With the Government of National Accord widely seen as being on its last legs and a new round of negotiations to create a new unity government imminent, all three of the main groups have a vested interest in cooperating in the organization, and subsequent division of power, in a new government.
In recent months, the Kremlin has been ratcheting up its support of Khalifa Hiftar; describing him, as quoted in a Bloomberg report, as “a leading political and military figure” and as someone who is “doing a lot to fight Islamic State terrorists and help the government restore control of oil production.” At the same time, Russia has criticized the UN organized unity government as ineffective and urged UN envoy Martin Kobler to find a prominent role for Hiftar in Libya’s government.
Hiftar has been to Moscow twice in the past six months for high level meetings with the Russian Defense and Foreign Ministers. Russia has been providing military advice and training as well as “military experts” to the Libyan National Army, but insists that it has observed the UN mandated arms embargo to supply arms to anyone other than for the UN sponsored Government of National Accord.
During the Gaddafi regime, Libya was a major purchaser of Soviet and Russian arms. It’s estimated that the Libyan Revolution that overthrew Gaddafi cost Russia some four billion dollars in contracted arms deals. In addition, during the 1970s and 1980s, the Soviet Union operated military bases in Libya, including access to the Okba Ben Nafi airfield (now Methega Airport), the former Wheelus air base operated by the United States in the 1950s and 60s. It’s possible that Russia is again looking for access to military bases in Libya, as well as restoring its influence with a former Soviet client.
Libya is not Syria and Hiftar is not another Assad. Nonetheless, there are important and unmistakable parallels between the two countries. Both nations have been torn apart by a ruthless civil war, a war that has created spaces for jihadist organizations in general and Islamic State, in particular, to thrive. Both wars have created waves of refugees that are sweeping into Europe and creating domestic and political disruptions there. Both wars have destabilized their surrounding regions, drawn in jihadists from neighboring countries and facilitated the proliferations of arms to local militant groups.
Both countries were former Soviet clients and, in both cases, Russia has aligned itself with military strongmen, while the U.S. and its allies have sought to identify moderate political forces around which it could build broader coalitions. In Libya’s case, unlike in Syria, the U.S. played a prominent role in overthrowing Gaddafi and in setting off the chain of events that would plunge Libya into civil war and political chaos.
Hiftar is by no means assured to emerge as Libya’s strongman. His control of eastern Libya and its oil fields, the support of the Libyan National Army as well as Russia’s backing makes him a strong contender; especially given the fragmentation and disunity of his potential opposition. Nonetheless, it’s unlikely that his opponents will willingly concede to his control of Libya and such a gambit will likely precipitate continued fighting and bloodshed. In the meantime, Moscow spins its webs and bides its time.
Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker.