By Frederic Wehrey and Wolfram Lacher
The new U.S. administration needs to send strong signals to forces on all sides of the Libya conflict, as well as their foreign patrons, and make clear that a political settlement presents the only viable path out of the chaos.
Among the many crises now facing the new Trump administration, Libya poses a growing challenge. The shattered Mediterranean state is close to open civil war, which could have profoundly negative consequences for U.S. interests and allies.
Although the Islamic State (ISIS) was driven from its main areas of control in Libya last year and oil production has rebounded to a three-year high, Libya is more polarized and fragmented than ever. The United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli is failing in its basic functions and confronts an existential challenge from an eastern faction led by General Khalifa Hifter and backed by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and, increasingly, Russia. In addition, the economy is veering toward collapse, and jihadist militancy could still find purchase in the country’s chaos.
Now is the time for careful and robust American diplomatic leadership. The Trump administration must first school itself in the complexities of Libyan politics, shunning the easy and incorrect categorizations of “Islamist” and “secular” or “nationalist.” It must avoid viewing the country solely through a counterterrorism lens and sub-contracting its Libya policy to regional states, especially Egypt, whose partisan and securitized approach will produce more division and radicalization.
Punting the Libya issue to Europe is also a non-starter; without American backing, a European role will lack credibility, inviting Russia to be the key power broker. Backing one side in Libya’s conflicts, as some regional leaders are seeking to persuade the United States to do, would trigger a major escalation and a long civil war.
Their operations might have been overshadowed by campaigns in Mosul and eastern Syria, but over the past year, Libyan forces, backed by American airpower and Western special operations, scored a hard-won victory against the ISIS stronghold in the central city of Sirte. Elsewhere across the country, Libyans ejected ISIS cells and fighters from Derna and Benghazi in the east, from Tripoli, and from the town of Sabratha near the Tunisian border. Today, ISIS is no longer a territorial force in Libya in any meaningful sense. That said, its demise presents a number of dangers.
First, remnants of ISIS could still reconstitute themselves and sow trouble. Already, fighters have fled to the desert valleys south of Sirte, where they’ve tried to regroup in small encampments like the one the United States bombed on January 18 of this year. The group is said to have a residual presence around the Western town of Sabratha, a hub for Tunisian jihadists, and its clandestine cells are still capable of attacking in and around the capital.
Beyond these specific threats, Libya remains an attractive host to jihadism, whether from ISIS, al Qaeda, or some new variant. The conditions are ripe: a long legacy of jihad, economic despair, a governance vacuum, and worsening polarization that could leave some communities feeling as if they have no recourse but violence. The networks and infrastructure of existing jihadist groups could easily give way to new mutations, much as ISIS co-opted or peeled away Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi, Sabratha, and Sirte. Most importantly, jihadism thrives on conflict; ISIS expanded during Libya’s last round of factional fighting starting in mid-2014, inserting itself in the fissures wrought by the conflict between the so-called Dawn and Dignity camps.
Western diplomats had hoped that fighting ISIS could serve as a springboard for political unity among these warring camps. In fact, the opposite has happened.
Campaigns against ISIS were pell-mell and carried out by disparate and hostile militias without any unifying authority. For example, militias from the powerful city of Misrata that defeated ISIS in Sirte are only loosely tethered to the GNA in Tripoli—and many in their ranks fiercely oppose it. Now that ISIS is gone, Sirte faces enormous challenges of reconstruction and reconciliation. Some tribes in Sirte, such as the Qadhadhafa and Warfalla, see the Misratan-led victory as less of a liberation and more of a conquest—it was their grievances against Misratan domination that gave ISIS an opening in the first place.
Elsewhere in Libya, there are other signs of looming conflict. In Benghazi, Hifter’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) has largely defeated ISIS and other jihadist groups, but in the process, it severely ruptured the city’s social fabric, displacing thousands and unleashing exclusionary forces such as tribalism and ultraconservative Salafism. Evicted Islamists are likely to continue the fight, whether through conventional attacks from outside the city or terrorism inside it. Farther to the east, Hifter’s forces are laying siege to Derna, accusing the Islamists there that defeated ISIS of belonging to al Qaeda.
Most ominously, though, the campaign against ISIS has helped embolden Hifter and his supporters to make a renewed push for national domination, with worrisome threats to bring the war to the capital, Tripoli. The risk of renewed conflict makes the need for American diplomatic leadership all the more urgent; having lent its military muscle to help vanquish ISIS, Washington cannot leave Libya to its own devices.
The political safeguards that could have prevented renewed fighting have eroded over the past year. The GNA’s domestic support base has steadily narrowed; its international backers have forfeited much of their credibility because of their inability to dissuade regional states and Russia from supporting the GNA’s adversaries. Most importantly, since the agreement to form the GNA was reached in December 2015, the balance of forces has changed, with Hifter consolidating his power in the East.
The GNA failed miserably in a gamble to weaken Hifter by backing rival eastern figures. Since early 2016, Hifter has gradually expelled or silenced former opponents among the eastern forces that are loosely aligned with him. To cement his authority, he empowered armed Salafi groups, reinstated many former elements of former leader Muammar al Qaddafi’s intelligence services, and appointed military governors to replace elected municipal councils. In September, after months of working to coopt tribal leaders and military figures, he took over eastern Libya’s biggest oil export terminals without significant military action. This dealt a heavy blow to the GNA and gained Hifter substantial popularity across the country, as his forces refrained from shutting down the ports to strong-arm the GNA.
Having secured his hold over the east, Hifter is now stepping up efforts to expand his dominion. In the south, LNA-affiliated units are relatively weak but have begun to act more aggressively. Near Sirte, Hifter has deployed officers and militiamen drawn from the city’s tribes. In an eventual confrontation with Misratan forces in the city, he could likely count on support from a powerful Salafi brigade that had fought with the Misratans against ISIS.
Most worryingly, Hifter and his close associates frequently announce that they will soon begin what they call the “liberation” of Tripoli. This notion is far-fetched, as the LNA has few local affiliates around the capital, and its eastern troops are unlikely to fight in the west. But Hifter does not need to actually invade the capital to gain power. All he needs to do is drive a wedge between militias in and around the capital and strike alliances with some of them. This seems to be his precise strategy: by naming several of Tripoli’s militias as forces he could work with, Hifter has stoked tensions and contributed to an uptick in violence in the capital. Hifter probably calculates that he stands to benefit from chaos in Tripoli, which would strengthen his claim that only the LNA can impose stability.
In the face of Hifter’s advances, the GNA is crumbling. Since it arrived in Tripoli in March 2016, the GNA has failed to establish its authority even in the capital, let alone elsewhere. A rival government continues to command the loyalty of some militias in Tripoli, and a coalition of Misratan-led militias battle-hardened by combat in Sirte recently arrived in the capital to challenge the GNA’s allies. Meanwhile, those militias nominally supporting the GNA have fueled conflicts by encroaching on the turf of neighborhood rivals. Efforts to establish a UN-backed presidential guard that would protect GNA institutions have been extremely slow in materializing. Even if such a force were formed, it would still face stiff opposition from better-armed militias, causing further violence in the capital.
For ordinary Libyans, the GNA’s ineffectiveness is most clearly seen in the country’s worsening economic crisis and long power cuts. Although several of its own members have boycotted the GNA from the beginning or resigned over the past year, even its staunchest supporters are now willing to renegotiate the agreement on which the GNA is based.
A recent flurry of backchannel talks reflects the widespread recognition that the current political setup is failing. There is now an unprecedented willingness to reach a compromise on almost all sides of the conflict—except that of Hifter. Leading Misratan figures have reached out to the general in recent months to explore his readiness to strike a deal, even offering to integrate him into a unified military structure at his current position, which is superior to that of the Chief of Staff. So far, their efforts have been in vain. In meetings with Western diplomats, Hifter has bluntly stated his intention to rule Libya and rebuffed overtures for negotiations.
Hifter’s uncompromising stance is not only linked to the support he receives from Egypt, the UAE, and Russia but also to expectations that the Trump administration would back Egypt’s position on Libya or support Hifter by lifting the UN arms embargo and directing closer American intelligence and military support to his LNA forces. Egyptian and Russian officials, in turn, are suggesting to Libyan and Western interlocutors that they could induce Hifter to strike a deal. But even more than their willingness, their ability to do so is highly doubtful. In addition to Egypt and Russia, Algeria and Tunisia are also proposing their services as mediators, stepping into the void left by the UN’s faltering efforts.
Sticking to the mantra of supporting the GNA, as Western governments have done over the past year, is no longer a viable option. But neither is the seemingly easy solution of backing a military strongman such as Hifter. Renewed efforts at brokering a political deal within a new negotiating framework offer the most promising path forward.
Hifter has no realistic prospect of stabilizing Libya through military rule. His Libyan National Army is neither national nor an army. Even in the east, the bulk of the LNA’s forces are drawn from civilian fighters—militias of varying backgrounds that are increasingly disguised as formal army units. In the west and south, the LNA units have a distinctly tribal composition, provoking suspicion among neighboring communities that view them as little more than tribal militias.
The idea that Hifter’s forces could take over Tripoli and rebuild the Libyan state is thus highly implausible. Indeed, encouraging Hifter to expand his reach toward Tripoli risks triggering a war over the capital that could drag on for years. With a third of the country’s population living in the greater Tripoli area, such a conflict could cause displacement and humanitarian suffering on a scale not seen to date in Libya. It would also offer opportunities for jihadist mobilization. Non-Islamist armed groups in Tripoli would join forces with Islamist-leaning fighters to confront Hifter. As in the case of Benghazi, the most extreme and irreconcilable elements would invariably rise to the fore.
Even if Hifter were able to establish control over Tripoli, his rule would cause more, not less, radicalization. Like Egypt’s al-Sisi, Hifter makes no distinction between ISIS, al Qaeda, and the Muslim Brotherhood (whose Libyan branch has supported the GNA’s formation). His stated goal of killing, jailing, or exiling Islamists of all types risks provoking moderate, pro-state Islamists into going underground and allying themselves with radical jihadists. Meanwhile, doctrinaire Salafis of the tendency promoted by Hifter—who preach absolute loyalty to a sitting ruler—would further extend their influence, and enforce their harsh interpretation of Sharia law more widely.
In sum, unification through military action is not realistic in Libya. Instead, the United States, in conjunction with regional states, should support a renewed push for a political settlement. This requires, first, deterring any moves toward military escalation by exerting credible pressure on the warring parties, to include the threat of sanctions and exclusion from any future security assistance. Second, it requires rebuilding the negotiating architecture, with regional states taking the lead. The challenge will be brokering a common platform for dialogue among states with vested interests in Libya. How to deal with an increasingly assertive Russia will pose a particular difficulty. Recent initiatives by regional states should be encouraged, but they need to be transferred into a more coherent framework. A small group of states, closely coordinating with each other, could act as mediators and, eventually, witnesses and guarantors to an agreement.
The U.S. role in such a process could be to provide strong and explicit support for the mediating consortium. Most importantly, it would require putting pressure on the regional states still backing Hifter. Every effort should be made to broker a deal that includes the general within the framework of a civilian-controlled military. But if Hifter proves recalcitrant, the United States must be willing to push his regional backers to end their support.
Libya’s highly fragmented political landscape means that negotiations are a complex undertaking. Although the existing December 2015 agreement can serve as a starting point, the negotiating parties should be reconsidered. The current, failing agreement relied on the country’s two rival parliaments in Tripoli and Tobruk, which are both equally incapable of making decisions and inadequate proxies for the actual parties to the conflict. At the same time, Libya has few real power brokers, and their authority is often limited geographically. A new negotiating framework will have to deal with the thorny issue of representation for key political constituencies and military forces across the country. Shortcuts are unlikely to lead to a sustainable outcome.
The worsening tensions in Libya could present the Trump administration with a significant test of its capacity for containing escalating crises, reconciling conflicting interests among its allies, and checking Russia’s ambitions. Expectations that the new administration will back one side in the conflict have raised the risk of an escalation that could lead to an open-ended war. To prevent such an outcome, the United States must send strong signals to forces on all sides of the conflict, as well as their foreign patrons, and make clear that a political settlement presents the only viable path out of the chaos.
Frederic Wehrey – Senior fellow, Middle East Program. Wehrey’s research focuses on security affairs, civil-military relations, and identity politics in North Africa and the Gulf.
Wolfram Lacher is a researcher on Libya at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.