The Man at the Center of Libya's Armed Conflict

12 MINS READSep 16, 2016 | 08:00 GMT
The Man at the Center of Libya's Armed Conflict
A protester holds an image of Gen. Khalifa Hifter in Benghazi during a demonstration calling for domestic, rather than foreign, military intervention into the city of Sirte, which is held by the Islamic State.

Put simply, Libya is split between east and west: Between August 2014 and April 2016, Libya was divided between the General National Congress, which operated out of the western city of Tripoli, and the House of Representatives, which operated out of the eastern city of Tobruk. For the past year, the United Nations has been trying to form a unity government, the Government of National Accord (GNA), in an attempt to unite the two centers of power. The GNA was formed earlier this year and arrived in Tripoli in March, but it has not yet been approved by the House of Representatives, leaving the country still divided between rival governments in the east and west.

Meanwhile, armed groups with shifting allegiances are fighting for territorial control. One of the most powerful, the Libyan National Army, led by Gen. Khalifa Hifter, reportedly just defeated a rival in eastern Libya and took control of four key oil export terminals. The move will significantly improve Hifter's bargaining power with the GNA, which he opposes. Hifter, who is loosely aligned with the House of Representatives operating out of Tobruk, will now use his power over the oil export terminals to gain political concessions from the GNA, specifically ensuring his role in the military command structure of the unity government. Meanwhile, he and the House of Representatives will have to work with the national oil company — which is also split — to increase exports from the seized terminals, though damage, technical deficiencies and cash shortages will limit the extent of realistic export growth.

Hifter's Libyan National Army moved Sept. 11 to take control of four key oil export terminals in the Gulf of Sirte — Ras Lanuf, As Sidra, Zueitina and Marsa el Brega — which had been controlled by a rival armed group, the central branch of the Petroleum Facilities Guards, loyal to Ibrahim Jadhran. By Monday, all four of the terminals were reportedly under the Libyan National Army's control, and many of the Petroleum Facilities Guards forces had fled or had surrendered their command to Hifter's forces.

The enmity between Hifter and Jadhran is personal, though until 2014 both supported the government in Tobruk. The rancor worsened with the creation of the GNA, which Jadhran backs and Hifter opposes. At the beginning of the year, the Islamic State attacked oil terminals controlled by the Petroleum Facilities Guards at Ras Lanuf and As Sidra, and the Libyan National Army refused to come to the group's aid, prompting Jadhran to accuse Hifter of complicity with the jihadists. Local forces from Misrata stepped in to help the Petroleum Facilities Guards, providing air support and medical attention.

Since then, Jadhran's forces have reciprocated by aiding the Misratan militias in their bid to retake control of Sirte from the Islamic State. The Petroleum Facilities Guards approached the city from the east, seizing strategic towns including Bin Jawad and Harawa, while Misratan forces closed in from the south and west. In fact, Jadhran has taken the practical approach of brokering deals with multiple groups when it suits his goals. On July 27, Jadhran brokered a deal with the GNA to reopen the Ras Lanuf and As Sidra export terminals, reportedly in exchange for back pay for his forces. GNA Defense Minister Mahdi al-Barghathi — another of Hifter's many rivals — played a significant role in signing that deal, which was emblematic of the growing cooperation between Jadhran and the GNA that directly contradicts Hifter's interests.

The Cost of Collaboration

Jadhran's dealmaking has not come without a price. His collaboration, however practical, with members of the GNA and the Misratan forces aligned with it has decreased his popularity in eastern Libya, where his support had historically been strongest, forged by tribal and familial ties and by his armed opposition to Tripoli's control of oil revenue. Moreover, the deal he made with the GNA to reopen ports in exchange for payment has added to the sentiment in Libya's east that he is just out for personal gain rather than for the broader benefit of eastern Libya and its tribes.

Hifter has stepped in to exploit this discontent and to systematically undermine Jadhran's support in the east. The general has short-circuited Jadhran's familial links to the east by replacing his brother, Salem Jadhran, as mayor of Ajdabiya with a military council and by declaring a replacement for Jadhran at the helm of the Petroleum Facilities Guards. (Ironically, the Petroleum Facilities Guards are technically a subset of the Libyan National Army.) Hifter was even able to undermine Jadhran's tribal support by creating a rift between Jadhran and his al-Magharba tribe, which has provided many of the fighters under his control.

Compromise between the Tripoli and Tobruk governments on a plan that includes Hifter or a close ally will certainly be difficult.

In mid-August, elders from al-Magharba called for the Petroleum Facilities Guards to submit to the Libyan National Army's control and to support Hifter; during the assault on the oil ports, the al-Magharba tribal elder in Ajdabiya repeated the instruction. In recent weeks, Hifter also reinforced his own forces by recruiting Sudanese rebels from the Justice and Equality Movement, at the encouragement of Egypt. By some accounts, the recent fighting in Ras Lanuf was mostly waged by Justice and Equality Movement militants.

So far, Hifter's strategy appears to be working. Jadhran's forces reportedly laid down their arms at the recently seized oil ports and fled without much of a fight. In the days since, the Libyan National Army has mobilized a battalion, Bilal bin Rabah, to secure and protect the oil installations. There have been rumors that forces still loyal to Jadhran and perhaps to Islamist extremists such as the Benghazi Defense Brigades — both of which oppose Hifter as much as each other — are preparing a counterassault.

Never-Ending Negotiations

Hifter's moves come during a tenuous negotiation period between Libya's rival governments. Under the U.N.-led unity agreement signed in December, the House of Representatives would function as the GNA's legislative branch, but only after it approved the creation of the GNA itself. The House of Representatives, however, failed to meet the quorum needed to hold a vote. And Hifter is a big factor in that failure. Hifter has urged his allies, including House speaker Aguila Saleh, to prevent the ratification of the GNA — for which Saleh has been sanctioned by the United States.

After it was clear that a sufficient number of House of Representatives members supported the agreement, even though they could not reach quorum to vote because of security concerns, the international community decided to implement the government anyway. In March, the GNA came into force, with Fayez al-Sarraj as its prime minister. In August, the House finally did meet its quorum — barely — but rejected the formation of the GNA. Several lawmakers later complained that Saleh changed the itinerary at the last minute to include the vote on the GNA precisely because he knew he had the votes to reject it.

The vote forces the GNA to submit a new Cabinet for approval but has also reopened negotiations among the various stakeholders in Libya over the exact structure and role of the GNA. Tellingly, under the rejected structure, al-Barghathi was named defense minister, the position that Hifter wants for either himself or for a close ally. Al-Barghathi had been an important colonel in Benghazi, commanding one of the top two battalions in the fight there, and counts among Hifter's rivals. (Much like his campaign against Jadhran, Hifter has sought to sever the links between al-Barghathi and his former subordinates and allies in Benghazi.)

The problem is that even though Hifter is aligned with foreign powers in his opposition to jihadist forces, he believes that Western powers and many of Libya's armed groups, including Misratan forces, are too sympathetic to Islamist groups —not just jihadists and Salafists, but also groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. Even before the GNA was formed, Hifter and many of those militias clashed in Sirte and around oil terminals. Despite his differing views, there is a growing recognition that given Hifter's abilities, he should be given a role in whatever government Libya forms. Over the past month, the U.N. envoy leading the negotiating process has noted that Hifter's role in the GNA must be strengthened, and just last week the group discussed a proposal to form a military council that would govern all armed forces and militias. That proposed council would be led by five men: al-Sarraj, Hifter, Saleh and two members of the Presidential Council, possibly including Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Matiq, who is from Misrata and who would represent that region's interests. On Sept. 14, Saleh promoted Hifter to the position of field marshal of the Libyan National Army. The promotion could be seen as an attempt to position Hifter as the highest-ranking official within any potential military council.

Many of these actors are in Cairo this week, possibly trying to strike a grand bargain. Such a council may gain traction, though finding a solution that will appeal to Libya's eastern and western stakeholders will be difficult.

The Question of Oil

Now that Hifter controls several important oil terminals in central Libya and has relatively unchallenged control over eastern Libya, he and his allies have significant bargaining power in the political process. Neither the Libyan National Army nor the Tobruk government have any interest in actually operating the terminals. They have said they plan to relinquish control of them to the national oil company — in contrast to Jadhran, who repeatedly tried to export oil for his own financial gain. The question, however, is to which branch the terminals should go. Like most Libyan institutions, the oil authority has been split in two.

Prior to its split, the national oil company was based in Tripoli, and this half of the company retained international recognition. It has mostly managed to stay out of political disputes, despite its location in the west. The rival national oil company is based in Baida and was established by the House of Representatives, after which it has acted as an instrument of the government. But it has failed to gain international legitimacy and has yet to make a sale. The U.S. Navy has even intervened to prevent the Baida branch from completing a sale. In July, the two companies reached a deal to reunify, though the process is far from complete.

Hifter and his government backers are hoping to hand over the ports to what will be a fully unified national oil company, but in the meantime, they are working with the Tripoli-based national oil company in exchange for concessions regarding the GNA. In fact, the Tripoli-based chairman of the national oil company said Sept. 13 that it would work to resume exports within four weeks. Saleh, too, has expressed willingness to work with the Tripoli company, saying the terminals would be surrendered to the newly unified national oil company. Heads from both rival oil companies are due to meet next week to finalize the process.

Turning operational control of the terminals over to the national oil company peacefully would actually work in Hifter's favor, enabling him to present himself as a rational negotiator rather than someone trying to exploit Libya's wealth personally. But if negotiations fall apart, Hifter holds the military advantage in the region and can deny the national oil company access to the terminals in the future. For Hifter, oil is not the issue; the challenge is convincing the country that the Libyan National Army is fighting for the benefit of all Libyans and is not just Hifter's personal band of tribal-based militias. Branching out and offering concessions to the national oil company would help project that image, because oil revenue feeds the Central Bank of Libya in Tripoli. That institution, which has remained somewhat functional despite Libya's split into rival governments, supports massive public wage and social spending programs throughout the country.

Is Peace Possible?

Compromise between the Tripoli and Tobruk governments on a plan that includes Hifter or a close ally will certainly be difficult. With the Libyan National Army now in control of As Sidra and Bin Jawad, Hifter's forces are closer to Misratan forces than they have been since 2015, when they were actively battling each other. Hifter now has two choices: He can continue pushing west toward Sirte, though his forces are stretched thin, even with the Justice and Equality Movement's support. Or he can cement his position around the oil terminals and continue negotiating. For now, the latter option seems most likely, since venturing farther west would mean potentially clashing with Misratan forces, who are fighting the Islamic State. Such a move could cause negotiations to fall apart altogether and reignite the armed conflict between east and west that raged for most of 2014. 

Of course, the decision is not just Hifter's to make. Misratan forces are some of the primary supporters of the GNA. Along with fighting the Islamic State, they have been providing security in and around Tripoli for the GNA. Misrata is home to many militias that have historically worked to counter Hifter. For now, they are preoccupied with their battle for Sirte, but once that fight is over, they could turn their attention toward Hifter once again. Just as Hifter has effectively solidified his position as a viable negotiator, Misratan forces have done the same through their fight against the Islamic State.

However the struggle plays out, the next phase of the Libyan conflict has clearly begun, and stakeholders are moving to solidify their positions. Even though the House of Representatives has rejected the U.N.-backed GNA and Hifter has taken control of four of Libya's most important oil export terminals, hope for a successful unity government is still alive. But if we have learned anything in the five years since former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi was ousted, it is that negotiations in Libya are inherently fragile. Though Hifter's position is stronger now than it ever has been, he still a divisive figure. Because of this, he may still be compelled to act through force. Still, it is significant that Hifter now holds considerably more negotiating power than many of his rivals.

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