Libya militias

Civil war is currently ratcheting up in Libya as internal saber-rattling escalates and foreign actors involved take sides and add to heightened threats of military action. Libya has been absent a cohesive government since a United States-led overthrow of Muammar Gadhafi and the Great Jamahiriya government in 2011.

Since the U.S. and NATO (North Atlanta Treaty Organization) invasion, resulting in nine years of tribal bloodshed; civil war; dual governments with multiple claims of legitimacy and failed cease fires—Libya is a wrecked state with an unclear future.  

“I think that the United States-led forces … were hoping that they could set up a stable puppet regime,” said Walter Smolarek, organizer with the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition, an anti-war group.

 “The chaos was completely predictable” said Mr. Smolarek. The objective was to remove an independent government from power. “Political and economic factors were at play here,” he explained, however, “the Gadhafi government was not a client state of the West,” he added.  


Now in 2020 outside actors such as Turkey that supports the internationally recognized, Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli and led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj is vying geopolitically with Egypt. That, along with Russia and the United Arab Emirates—backs General Khalifa Haftar, who leads a coalition of eastern-based groups and the Libyan National Army (LNA) which has been engaging in a military power grab against the GNA.

In June the Haftar forces retreated back to Eastern Libya after a 14-month effort to seize Tripoli failed. The problem of Libya and the various foreign interests is about who will control the rich “oil crescent” in eastern Libya, pointed out Abdul Akbar Muhammad, international representative of the Nation of Islam. 

“To siege Benghazi and Sirte is the prize,” said Mr. Muhammad. “If oil was not there, these foreign powers would not be there,” he added.  “Egypt wants to control the oil fields … but Turkey does not want to see Egypt end up in control,” Mr. Muhammad said. “The Libyans would be like figure heads but behind the Libyans would be the Egyptians.”

In recent years there have been several offensives by rival forces to seize the area. Each attack caused many deaths, widened social rifts, and did extensive damage to the facilities, reducing Libya’s oil export capacity and inflow of hard currency, said an analysis from the International Crisis Group, an anti-conflict organization.

According to Mr. Muhammad outside actors like neighboring Egypt were always a possibility for meddling in Libyan affairs, well before the current turmoil. “It’s like a repeat of history,” said Mr. Muhammad.

Libya’s internal bloodshed is exacerbated by the geopolitical  competition for the “oil crescent,” a strip along the eastern coast of the Gulf of Sirte where four of Libya’s six hydrocarbon export terminals are located and where  over 50 percent of its crude oil leaves the country.

Although the oil and economic bloodline for the country is the eastern coastline, the capital and central seat of power is in Tripoli. It is widely believed Mr. Haftar’s march to take Tripoli would have succeeded if Turkey had not intervened militarily and drove Haftar’s forces out.

Meanwhile in the worsening hostility the Egyptian Parliament unanimously voted on July 20 to authorize military intervention into eastern Libya. Egypt contends the authorization was in the interest of its national security and western border if attacked by the Turkey backed GNA at Libya’s coastal city of Sirte. The eastern coastline is controlled by Gen. Haftar.

In a July 20 telephone call before the vote, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi and U.S. President Donald Trump agreed on the need to maintain a ceasefire in Libya and avoid an escalation between the forces fighting there, Egypt’s president told Reuters.

An Egyptian intervention would put two U.S. allies—Turkey and Egypt—in a possible direct confrontation. Egypt’s president Abdel el-Sisi warned in June that any attack on Sirte or the inland Jufra Air Base—another Haftar stronghold—would provoke Cairo to intervene militarily.

The vote also comes on the heels of Mr. el-Sisi’s “Cairo Declaration” which was an unsuccessful political initiative to bring the warring Libyans together.  A big escalation in Libya could risk igniting a direct conflict among the foreign powers that have poured in weapons and fighters in violation of an arms embargo.

In a July 22 statement the GNA government condemned Egypt’s threat of military intervention in Libya, marking it a “declaration of war.” “This is a hostile act, direct interference and amounts to a declaration of war,” the GNA statement said.

In a television broadcast on July 18, Mr. Sisi, a former Egyptian general himself, warned that Sirte and Al-Jufra to the south represents a “red line,” citing the need to defend Egypt’s porous border. If this line is crossed, Egyptian forces will directly intervene in Libya, he said.

“All of Libya is a red line,” the GNA responded. “Whatever the dispute between Libyans, we will not allow our people to be insulted or threatened.” 

War weary Libyans are anxious about the prospect of foreign forces in Libyan internal matters.

“We refuse for Libya to become a state for regional or international proxy wars,” said Ibrahim Sadar, a resident of Misrata, one of the regions large cities. “The Libyan fight is internal; in the end we are brothers, adding, “Brothers can fight and make up,”  he told an Al Jazeera.

Other Libyans expressed “love for the Egyptian people,” but said, “the Egyptian government is wrong in this decision.”

Regional and international leaders are calling for negotiations and peace talks. In July 24 meetings in Ankara, Turkish and Russian officials—though on opposing Libyan sides—agreed to continue working toward a cessation of hostilities and facilitate dialogue between the factions, and improve the humanitarian situation, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The GNA called on the international community to “assume its responsibilities with regard to this escalation.” It called on impartial mediation and for any political solution to be “nationally owned” and under the auspices of the UN with the involvement of  the  African Union. The GNA rejects any “unilateral or extrajudicial initiatives.”

When asked about the African Union involvement on the North African country, Mr. Smolarek said he believes a solution brokered by the African Union would be better than one involving the U.S., France or the UK. “I don’t think the people who broke the country in the first place can be part of the solution,” added Mr. Smolarek.