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Dec 19, 2016 | 09:15 GMT

11 mins read

A Tortuous Path to Peace in Libya

A tank burns as clashes rage between the Libyan National Army, led by Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter, and jihadist militants.
(ABDULLAH DOMA/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Bullets
  • Libya's internationally recognized government, the Government of National Accord, will continue to decline as it nears the end of its first year in power.
  • Despite their proximity in western Libya and their enduring rivalry, Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter's Libyan National Army and militias from the city of Misrata may opt to negotiate rather than resume fighting.
  • Prospective negotiations to form a government in Libya will need to accommodate the ambitions of both the Misratans and Hifter.

Libya is a country divided. A year ago, representatives from its rival governments — the nationally recognized House of Representatives, based in Tobruk, and the General National Congress (GNC) in Tripoli — signed a deal to unite as a single government. Though the deal, known as the Libyan Political Agreement, installed a new administration in Tripoli, today the country is more fragmented than ever. Instead of two rival governments, Libya now has three, and its internationally recognized leadership, the Government of National Accord, is losing ground.

Yet as Libya's political turmoil has deepened, its economic and security circumstances have somewhat improved. Oil production, the country's economic mainstay, is at its highest in two years, thanks to the efforts of the Libyan National Army. In addition, militias from the city of Misrata in western Libya have managed to dislodge the Islamic State from its stronghold in Sirte. Those two military blocs — Libya's strongest and most cohesive — are responsible for much of the country's recent success. They are also bitter rivals: The Libyan National Army and its leader, Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter, support the House of Representatives, while the Misratan fighters back the GNC. Their respective campaigns to stabilize the country's oil industry and oust the Islamic State, moreover, have put them in uncomfortably close quarters for the first time in two years. Hifter recently announced that his forces in western Libya should prepare for a campaign to take Tripoli, a move that could drive the forces in the capital to unite against him once more. The GNA's founders, the Libyan National Army and the Misratans are on a collision course — one that could lead them to the negotiating table if it does not lead them into open conflict.

The Government of National Discord

Despite its name, the Government of National Accord has not inspired much unity in Libya. The GNA has struggled to gain legitimacy ever since it arrived in Tripoli in March. The House of Representatives never formally confirmed the GNA, although the Libyan Political Agreement listed its approval as a condition for the government's rule. The GNA's administration has never managed to gain firm control over Tripoli, much less the rest of the country. As a result, it has had little success establishing itself as a representative government for all of Libya, and now it is losing traction even among its supporters. The government's own defense minister, Mahdi al-Barghathi, has apparently turned against the GNA Presidency Council, allegedly helping to organize attacks earlier in December on oil terminals under the Libyan National Army's control in Jufra.

Because the GNA was designed to serve only as an interim government, the challenges to its authority will become more formidable as its prescribed one-year term draws to a close. Already, the GNC has stepped up its opposition to the GNA. In October, militias aligned with the GNC took over several government buildings, including the Rixos complex, which houses the GNA's parliament. Fighting between the two governments' militias escalated in December, leading to the bloodiest clashes in Tripoli since 2014.

A Means to an End

Of course, the GNA would not exist at all were it not for the intractable differences between the GNC and the House of Representatives. In 2015, the armed coalitions supporting the rival governments were embroiled in a brutal civil war in Tripoli and in the Oil Crescent, home of the country's most important oil export infrastructure. Neither side had the strength to overpower the other. Islamist and Misratan militias supporting the GNC forced fighters for the House of Representatives — including a group from the city of Zintan — from Tripoli. At the same time, Hifter and the Libyan National Army managed to push Misratan forces, along with their allies, from both the Oil Crescent and the city of Sirte.

In the vacuum left after the fighting stopped, the Islamic State established a base around Sirte, and from there, it launched attacks westward into Misrata. Alarmed by the extremist group's advance, the city's warring militias and their leaders began to look for a political solution to their dispute so they could turn their attention toward the Islamic State — and get Western support for the fight. The Islamic State's emergence in Libya created rifts between Misrata's moderate factions and their hard-line Islamist and Salafist allies. Nevertheless, the moderates eventually signed a peace agreement with the city of Zintan and joined negotiations, led by the United Nations, to form a unified government. In doing so, the Misratans galvanized enough support for the unity government among the GNC's backers that its split with the hard-line factions did not matter.

But the negotiations hit a snag over Hifter's role in the prospective government. Even though they were willing to join the peace process, most Misratans staunchly opposed Hifter's inclusion in the government because of his anti-Islamist ideology. The final lineup for the GNA put former GNC Prime Minister Ahmed Maiteeq, a prominent Misratan businessman, in a deputy prime minister post. It did not, however, give Hifter a formal role. To maintain support from the Misratans and other groups in western Libya, the GNA appointed al-Barghathi — a rival of Hifter with ties to Islamist groups — as defense minister.

Hifter's March

Even so, Hifter is still a prominent force in Libya as leader of the Libyan National Army. Though the fight has taken over two years, Hifter's troops have made significant gains in Benghazi against jihadist and Islamist groups such as the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries and Ansar al-Sharia, which are now confined to two small districts. The army's continued support from international backers, including the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, has allowed it, under Hifter's aegis, to continue to advance around Benghazi and push farther west. In the process, Hifter and House of Representatives President Aguila Saleh Issa have begun to consolidate control of the region, installing military leaders loyal to them at the top of area municipal councils. The army has also gained control over most of the country's vital oil and natural gas infrastructure since September with growing support from the National Oil Corp., headquartered in Tripoli. After repelling the Jufra attack, the army advanced even farther west into Sabha and announced Dec. 14 that it would resume production at El Sharara and El Feel, the main oil fields in western Libya.

On the same day, Hifter issued his statement advising the army's commanders to prepare for operations to take Tripoli. He may be getting ahead of himself with this latest campaign, though; Tripoli is the site of fierce fighting among several groups. If Hifter dispatches troops to join the fray, he will risk overextending his forces and could wind up losing some of the ground the Libyan National Army has claimed elsewhere in the country. An assault on Tripoli could also encourage the militias supporting the GNA and those backing the GNC to unite to oppose Hifter's army. Furthermore, the fighters from Zintan, currently one of the most powerful militias aligned with the Libyan National Army in western Libya, would be reluctant to jeopardize their peace agreement with Misrata by advancing on the capital.

A Precarious Position

The enduring cease-fire between the Misratan and Zintan militias, which led to a full-blown reconciliation deal signed Dec. 8, is one of their most significant recent accomplishments, but it would be difficult to overstate the groups' importance to Libya in general. Misrata is a wealthy port city with a long history of revolutionary movements dating to Libya's colonial period under the Italian Empire. After Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi's ouster in 2011, Misrata's militias proliferated. The city was at one point home to more than 230 groups comprising 40,000 fighters. A collection of these militias, al-Bunyan al-Marsous, gained international renown for leading the charge against the Islamic State in Sirte with support from Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Fighting in Tripoli between militias supporting the two rival governments based in the capital has increased in December, highlighting the weakness of Libya's U.N.-recognized unity government, the Government of National Accord.

But that fight has brought the Misratans dangerously close to their former foe. Now that Sirte has been reclaimed, the front lines of Libya's civil war are the same as when the Islamic State's invasion drove the opposing sides to their tenuous reconciliation. The difference is that today, Islamic State forces are no longer a buffer between the Misratan militias and Hifter's army.

A Common Goal

So far, however, neither side has given any indication that it intends to attack the other. Misrata's forces in Sirte refrained from joining the assault on the Jufra oil terminals. What's more, the formal reconciliation with the Libyan National Army's allies in Zintan suggests that the Misratans are open to negotiating with Hifter's forces. On the same day the deal with Zintan was signed, Misrata's Third Force militia peacefully handed control of the Brak al-Shati air base near Sabha to the Libyan army. Less than a week later, it turned the oil fields in southwest Libya over to the Petroleum Facilities Guard, another Hifter-aligned group. Misrata's municipal council reportedly has even ordered the city's militias to stop supporting the Islamist groups fighting Hifter's forces in Benghazi. After the brutal eight-month battle against the Islamic State, Misrata's wealthy business leaders would like daily operations in the city to return to normal. But the city's militias want to consolidate their control around Sirte and Misrata lest they leave the Islamic State room to stage a comeback. They also hope to use their gains against the jihadist group to secure a prominent role in prospective negotiations over a new government, now that the GNA appears to be on its way out.

Hifter, meanwhile, has his sights set on Tripoli. 

He, too, envisions himself at the helm in Libya's future; in fact, even Martin Kobler, the U.N. envoy who led negotiations over the Libyan Political Agreement, has acknowledged that a government would likely have to include Hifter to be successful.

The field marshal will continue to lobby for a formal position in Libya's next government at the top of the country's military apparatus, using his role in boosting oil production as evidence of his competent leadership. His efforts have so far kept him from disrupting oil production to pressure the GNA, but he could resort to such tactics if negotiations fall apart or if the National Oil Corp. shifts its allegiances. Though he will maintain his firm stance against extreme Islamist groups, Hifter may concede to working with moderate Misratan factions if they accept his role in the military. In the meantime, he will keep trying to piece together a professional Libyan National Army that functions as a coherent military rather than a band of competing tribal militias — a legacy of Gadhafi's rule meant to discourage military coups.

Negotiating a Future

For now, it is unclear just how a future government would accommodate the ambitions of both Hifter and the Misratans. One popular solution would establish a military governing structure similar to Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, dividing power among Hifter, representatives from Misrata and members of other prominent forces, such as the Zintan militia. Already, Libya's competing factions seem to be laying the groundwork for such an arrangement. Misrata appears to be consolidating its own military presence in Sirte to counter Hifter's by setting up a local military council, following the field marshal's pattern in eastern Libya. Meanwhile, Maiteeq of the GNA's Presidency Council has proposed splitting the National Oil Corp. into two entities, one based in Tripoli and one in Benghazi, in an effort to appeal to the country's federalists.

Hifter's role — and his tendency to equate all Islamists with jihadists — will be a stumbling block in the next round of negotiations over who will lead Libya. Though some factions in Misrata are willing to work with him, many groups in the city have significant reservations. The extremist Misratan militias fighting the GNA in Tripoli will certainly never yield to Hifter's authority if he is included in the next government. And should Hifter follow through with an attack on Tripoli, Misrata's militias will have to decide whether to respond in kind.

Still, there may be room for a collaboration, albeit a fragile one, between Hifter and the Misratans, and Misrata has demonstrated an openness to one. Their relationship will play a fundamental role in setting the course for the Libyan political conflict in 2017, for better or for worse. The path to Libya's political reunification runs through both Misrata and the Libyan National Army. The question is whether the journey will be violent.

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