July 28, 2017
Fighting Forces in Libya: July 2017
The U.S. and some European countries may throw their weight behind Libya’s most powerful militia coalition seeking a strongman solution to the Libyan crisis. The Trump administration and the French president are considering cooperating more closely with Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA). Egypt and the UAE already support Haftar, conducting air strikes on behalf of the LNA. Backing a strongman to stabilize Libya risks driving support to Salafi-jihadi groups and exacerbating civil war.
Haftar has been consolidating his position in Libya. His forces have both strengthened their hold on their stronghold in eastern Libya and advanced westward into critical terrain since May 2017. The LNA recently declared victory in Benghazi, ending a three-year campaign to control Libya’s second-largest city, and ousted rival Islamist militias from key military bases in central and southwestern Libya. Haftar’s ability to navigate Libyan tribal dynamics enabled him to take control of most of Libya’s oil infrastructure. He aims to seize Derna city to complete his control over eastern Libya.
Haftar’s rise will not stabilize Libya. A low-level insurgency continues in LNA-held Benghazi and will likely continue as LNA abuses fuel opposition. The LNA and other groups are competing for control of Sirte, on the central Libyan coast and Tripoli, Libya’s capital on the western coast. Militias aligned with the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) recently ousted rivals from Tripoli, but conflict continues on the city’s outskirts and will likely return to the capital. Jockeying for control of Sirte may also escalate as the population returns. Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) militants are mobilizing outside the city, possibly preparing for a bid to re-enter their former stronghold. Haftar will not prioritize defeating the ISIS and al Qaeda affiliates, which are regrouping in remote parts of the country, over consolidating control of the populated coastline.
Haftar’s campaign to eradicate political Islam, which has the full backing of the Egyptians and Emiratis, adds to his appeal as a Libyan strongman but is part of the problem. His intolerance of Islamists creates ground conditions that eliminate their political options, driving them toward supporting violent Islamist groups, including Salafi-jihadi groups within al Qaeda’s network. The addition of Libyan individuals and groups to the new terrorist list issued by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain provides Haftar with cover to pursue these actors even under a French-brokered conditional ceasefire. The ceasefire terms permit continued counterterrorism operations. Haftar previously defined rivals as “terrorists,” and will do so again to advance his own interests.
Western support for Haftar may bring the appearance of stability in the short term, but it will not resolve the Libyan civil war or arrest the growth of Salafi-jihadism.