Libya's Conflict

Analysis 6 July 2019
Libya's Conflict

With the battle for Tripoli, Libya’s civil war has entered a key stage. Powerful outside states are fuelling the conflict, and recent events have raised the prospect of more direct military intervention. No diplomatic solution is foreseeable while the United Nations Security Council’s permanent members support different factions. Moreover, each side in the conflict currently believes it can achieve more through fighting than through the necessary compromises of a peace settlement.

Libya’s five-year civil war has reached a key stage with the battle for Tripoli. Powerful outside states are fuelling the conflict. The Libyan National Army (LNA), which seeks to capture the city, enjoys assistance from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), while Qatar and Turkey support the defending forces of the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). Both sides receive weapons, vehicles and drones despite a UN arms embargo. As of early July 2019, the fighting around Tripoli had evolved into an attritional stalemate, with the GNA capturing the LNA’s main supply base at Gharyan, south of Tripoli, in an unexpected counter-offensive. Divisions among Western powers prevent the UN from speaking unanimously in efforts to end the conflict.

Haftar's plan

The Tripoli offensive, launched on 4 April 2019, is the denouement of a five-year campaign by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar to rid Libya of militias. The campaign – Operation Karama, or ‘Dignity’ – has so far gone according to plan, but not to schedule.

The 75-year-old Haftar has had a tangled history in Libyan politics. As a young army officer, he joined Muammar Gadhafi in his 1969 coup that overthrew the monarchy. Later he fell out with Gadhafi and led a CIA-funded Libyan rebel group based in Zaire. The group was dissolved in 1990 and Haftar settled in the United States. He returned to Libya to command some rebel forces during the 2011 Arab Spring.

In 2014, Haftar created the LNA, a mixture of regular forces and tribal militias, declaring his aims as ridding the country of Islamist groups and militias and capturing Tripoli. Its first major operation was launched against Islamist militias in Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city, in east Libya in May 2014.

In June 2014, elections for a transitional parliament, the House of Representatives (HOR), resulted in a sharp defeat for Islamists and allied groups, which won only 30 out of 188 seats. A militia coalition called Libya Dawn was formed, composed principally of Islamists and units from Misrata, Libya’s third-largest city by population. Libya Dawn seized Tripoli. The newly elected HOR decamped to the eastern town of Tobruk and later appointed Haftar its military commander.

At the end of 2015, the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) had sponsored an embryonic unity government, the GNA, which is led by a nine-strong presidential council appointed by a UN-chaired commission. However, the HOR never accepted the GNA, and the presidency is boycotted by its pro-HOR members, leaving the GNA by default in the hands of Libya Dawn supporters.

The LNA’s first significant victory came in October 2016 when it captured four central oil ports which had been blockaded by a Libya Dawn-allied militia. In 2017, after a three-year battle, the LNA – perhaps assisted by UAE airstrikes – captured Benghazi from Islamist militias. The battle lasted longer than Haftar had predicted, and ended with much of the city centre in ruins. In June 2018, the LNA captured the coastal town of Derna, cementing its control of eastern Libya and the Sirte Basin, home to two-thirds of Libya’s oil production. Haftar then moved west. Between January and March 2019, Haftar captured the southwest region of Fezzan, leaving the LNA (and the HOR) in control of three-quarters of the country, all its on-land oil fields, and poised to attack Tripoli.

Officially, Haftar is beholden to the HOR but, in practice, he runs the LNA. The LNA has not escaped controversy, with one of its senior commanders indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court in 2017 after videos surfaced appearing to show him executing prisoners. The commander remains an officer in the LNA’s elite brigade, Al Saiqa (‘Lightning’), which defected from Gadhafi during the 2011 revolution. The conflict’s antagonisms predate the current civil war. During the 1990s, Al Saiqa battled anti-Gadhafi Islamist guerrillas of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). Several LIFG veterans now hold powerful positions in Tripoli.

Tripoli is controlled by Libya Dawn militias, an alliance of Tripoli and Misrata militias, the latter better organised and equipped. Each is led by a charismatic warlord. Militias control banks and businesses, some raising money through extortion and kidnapping. One militia, Rada, operates as a self-appointed police force, drawing public support for its crackdown on drug gangs. The militias are paid salaries by the GNA, although an element of coercion is involved, with GNA officials complaining that they are regularly threatened, and occasionally kidnapped, to secure funding. The militias periodically fight each other even as they battle the LNA.

Haftar’s strength is also his weakness: the LNA operates more as a franchise than a true army because Haftar has become a rallying point for many who want order in a chaotic country. Its victories depend on co-opting tribal militias to the LNA ‘brand’. Failure on the Tripoli battlefield might see this tapestry of support unravel.

Proxy conflict

Libya’s war is to an extent a proxy conflict waged between rival Sunni regional blocs. Haftar enjoys the material support of Egypt and the UAE, two powers who, along with Saudi Arabia, announced in June 2017 an embargo of Qatar, demanding among other things that it cut ties with Islamist groups including the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar and Turkey support Libya Dawn and the GNA.

‘Libya's war is to an extent a proxy conflict waged between rival Sunni regional blocs.’

Weapons deliveries to Libya’s warring parties are nothing new. A UN Panel of Experts, established by the UN Security Council to monitor an arms embargo imposed in 2011, has recorded deliveries of fighter ground-attack aircraft, helicopters, vehicles, light weapons and prodigious quantities of ammunition to all sides since 2012. Sponsors of both sides, however, have provided new weapons in the current battle for Tripoli.

On 20 June, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan acknowledged Turkey had delivered a consignment of BMC Kirpi wheeled, armoured personnel carriers (APCs) to pro-GNA forces. ‘Egypt and the UAE’s [Crown Prince] Mohammed bin Zayed are supporting Haftar’s forces. They were very strong in terms of equipment and drones,’ Erdogan argued. ‘Now there is a balance.’

In late June, Turkey threatened unspecified military action against the LNA after it arrested six Turkish sailors in east Libya. The arrests came after the LNA accused Ankara of ‘illegitimate aggression’ through its aid to the GNA, and called for Turkish nationals to leave Libya. The sailors were later released, but the LNA announced that it would ‘target’ Turkish aircraft and ships entering Libyan territory.

There was also a major defeat for the LNA in late June, when Libya Dawn forces advanced 60 kilometres south of Tripoli and captured its main supply base at Gharyan. The HOR accused Libya Dawn of executing LNA soldiers, allegations which the GNA denies. Among equipment captured by Libya Dawn were four US-made Javelin anti-tank missile containers, bearing markings indicating that they were sold by the US to the UAE. The UN panel reported in previous years that the UAE has provided the LNA with aircraft and APCs including the Panthera T6. Uninhabited aerial vehicles (UAVs) matching models made in Turkey and the UAE provide reconnaissance for the two sides.

Of the two sides, the LNA is larger and better equipped. It has a troop strength of between 50,000 and 70,000, although most of these are militiamen, with a trained force of only perhaps 3,000–5,000. Tripoli and Misrata militias deploy between 20,000 and 40,000 untrained fighters.

Both sides lack the training, communication and logistics to allow for coordinated operations, and the Tripoli battle has reached a stalemate. By late June 2019, more than 700 had died in the fighting, mostly combatants, with 4,000 wounded and 55,000 civilians displaced. The LNA holds a crescent-shaped area of the southern suburbs, 11 km from the city centre. Fighting is focused on the former international airport which lies at one end of the Airport Road, a wide thoroughfare that offers the LNA the easiest route into the city centre.

Each side launches periodic attacks around the Airport Road preceded by limited rocket and artillery fire. During these attacks, infantry onboard pick-up trucks surge forward and, generally, the defenders fall back in a fighting retreat. Typically, the losing side mounts an attack of its own a few days later and recaptures lost territory.

The LNA’s key attribute is the superior air power at its disposal. Night strikes guided by drones have hit a succession of Libya Dawn ammunition depots in the city, although it is unclear whether the LNA has conducted these directly. LNA commanders appear to hope that, given sufficient time, airstrikes will erode Libya Dawn’s resolve. Similarly, Libya Dawn’s long-term success depends on breaking the will of the LNA to maintain its offensive. Militia commanders hope their victory at Gharyan has helped to undermine the LNA’s morale and remind it of its limitations.

The UN's failures

Would-be mediators of Libya’s conflict face a serious challenge: the atomised nature of its politics. Power is distributed among a vast array of tribes and factions. The HOR and the GNA cannot deliver a peace plan because neither has control over its military forces.

Having failed to reconcile the HOR and Libya Dawn in 2016, in 2018 UNSMIL introduced a so-called ‘Action Plan’, calling for yet another government, this time to unify the GNA and the HOR. UNSMIL Head Ghassan Salamé called for elections for this – thus far unnamed – government by December. But talks stagnated and in November the plan was aborted.

In late March 2019, with the LNA massing south of the capital, several factions informed UNSMIL that they wished to convene a peace conference, though Haftar did not offer to participate. Salamé seized the chance, setting 14 April as the conference start date and persuading UN Secretary-General António Guterres to fly to Tripoli. Guterres arrived on 3 April, the day before the LNA attacked. The secretary-general then spent several days shuttling between Tripoli and Tobruk, failing to negotiate a ceasefire. The peace conference was cancelled.

Mediators must also grapple with the disparity in popularity between Haftar and the GNA. In 2017, a rare opinion poll by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) showed that the LNA enjoyed 68% support and the GNA 15%. A year later, the LNA’s support fell to 61% and the GNA’s rose to 26%. No poll has been published so far in 2019. An oft-heard opinion in the capital is that Haftar favours military rule, but this is considered preferable to the current militia anarchy.

US and European policy

On 19 April, US President Donald Trump announced a reversal in US policy with a supportive phone call to Haftar. A White House statement said that Trump ‘recognised… Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources, and the two discussed a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system’.

This marked a sharp change from the Obama administration, which had supported the GNA’s establishment. Trump’s encouragement is in tune with his general alignment with Haftar’s allies Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. His support for Haftar joined that of two of the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council – France and Russia.

Moscow perceives support for the LNA as a chance to expand its footprint in the Middle East, and it welcomed Haftar onboard its aircraft carrier in January 2017. The French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian reportedly considers the LNA a bulwark against terrorism. Paris is alarmed by militant activity in its former North African colonies of Algeria, Chad, Morocco, Niger and Tunisia. France has deployed special forces to cooperate with Haftar.

In February, Haftar repaid the compliment. The LNA’s Fezzan offensive targeted a Chad rebel group, Union of Forces of Resistance (UFR), which used the area as a base for cross-border raids against Paris-backed Chadian President Idriss Déby Itno. The UFR fled from the LNA, and the French Air Force bombed the rebel units as they crossed the border into Chad.

Meanwhile, the United Kingdom and Italy support the GNA. Italy has funded several Libya Dawn militias and the coastguard which have cracked down on other militias involved in people smuggling. This has resulted in migration from Libya to Italy being cut by 80%. The UK took a lead role in creating the GNA and remains an enthusiastic supporter, claiming that it offers the best hope for a power-sharing unity government. On 18 April, it drafted a UN Security Council resolution, supported by Germany, calling for a ceasefire and for Haftar to withdraw from Tripoli. France, Russia and the US objected, and no resolution was passed.

‘Dual-key’ oil

Libyan oil production has led a charmed life through the Tripoli fighting, remaining at 1.2 million barrels per day (b/d), according to the state National Oil Corporation (NOC). This is in part because the key production areas are not in the combat zone.

‘Libya's oil production has led a charmed life through the Tripoli fighting.’

NOC Chairman Mustafa Sanallah has warned, however, that the NOC faces an institutional threat from both the rival governments in Tripoli and Tobruk. While the NOC is officially under the control of the GNA, the internationally recognised government, Sanallah has tried to keep his organisation independent. He told the Bloomberg news agency that current oil-production levels are stable because power is divided by a ‘dual-key’ control: the GNA, as the recognised government, receives oil revenues, but this is balanced by the HOR’s control of all on-land oil fields and its capacity to deny production if it is dissatisfied with the proportion of revenues the GNA grants it.

Despite Sanallah’s attempts at balance, both Tripoli and Tobruk are trying to make inroads into NOC operations. The HOR is attempting to sell oil independently of the NOC. A series of UN resolutions declaring the NOC the only legitimate seller of Libyan oil has so far deterred outside states from signing contracts with Tobruk.

On 9 May, the GNA announced the suspension of trading licences for 40 European companies, including France’s oil giant Total and telecommunications company Alcatel, and Germany’s Siemens. The announcement was in apparent retaliation for the refusal of Berlin, Brussels, London, Paris and Rome to offer more support to the GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj during his European visits earlier in the month. Confusion followed when the GNA backtracked hours later with a second announcement, saying that the suspensions would be delayed until August. The issue remains unresolved.

The fighting also imperils the NOC’s plan to increase production to 2.1m b/d by 2021. In October 2018, BP and Eni agreed alongside the NOC to begin a series of exploration operations, and in May the NOC opened an office in Houston, Texas, promising US companies attractive exploration contracts. However, foreign firms will be wary of deploying staff and equipment while the country remains at war.


Outside powers have helped sustain Libya’s civil war since its beginning, but recent events have raised the prospect of more direct military intervention. Such intervention will become more likely if Ankara believes it the only option to prevent the defeat of Libya Dawn and the GNA, and similarly if Abu Dhabi and Cairo consider it necessary to prevent Haftar’s defeat.

Even without outside military intervention, there seem few meaningful prospects for long-lasting peace in a country riven by endless tribal rivalries. Haftar currently claims that, if he captures Tripoli, the militias will be dissolved and a new unified Libyan government will be created. Should Haftar be defeated, the coalition of tribal militias supporting him in western Libya will probably unravel. However, eastern Libya would then renew efforts to sell Sirte Basin oil independently to sympathetic powers. The struggle to control the oil fields could in turn trigger a new war.

‘There seem few meaningful prospects for long-lasting peace in a country riven by endless tribal rivalries.’

No diplomatic solution is foreseeable while three of the permanent members of the UN Security Council – France, Russia and the US – support Haftar and the UK supports the GNA. This division has stripped UNSMIL of the diplomatic heft required to persuade Libya’s factions to accept a mediated settlement. In any case, UNSMIL’s current preferred solution for peace – new elections to unify the country – would carry the risk of the losing side ignoring the result and returning to war, as happened after the 2014 elections.

A protracted stalemate in the Tripoli fighting risks exacerbating Libya’s already severe humanitarian crisis. In February, the UN reported that 823,000 civilians out of a population of around 6.5m are dependent on humanitarian aid. On 2 July, an apparent LNA airstrike hit a migrant detention centre near Tripoli, killing at least 44 civilians. The UK drafted a UN Security Council statement condemning the attack, but this was apparently blocked by Russia and the US, for reasons that have not been made public.

Any peace settlement that aims not to unify the country but provide a balance between the two sides would need to resolve competing demands over oil income. Libya Dawn and the GNA would be content with holding Tripoli and its environs, providing that they retain control of the central bank and the title to Libya’s oil revenues. The HOR and LNA desire, at a minimum, a greater share of these revenues. Each side currently believes it can achieve more through fighting than through the necessary compromises of a peace settlement. Until this changes, a mediated end to the war is unlikely.

Published in collaboration with IISS.