Behind the Lines: Generals vs Islamists in Libya

Regional rivals clash via proxies in Tripoli fight.

LIBYAN GOVERNMENT forces take position during fighting in Ain Zara, in Tripoli, earlier this week (photo credit: REUTERS/AHMED JADALLAH)
LIBYAN GOVERNMENT forces take position during fighting in Ain Zara, in Tripoli, earlier this week
The offensive by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army on Tripoli is currently stalled. Haftar’s troops have encountered strong resistance from Sunni Islamist militias based in the city, backed by similar formations from Misrata further east.
Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, leader of the Islamist-aligned Government of National Accord in Tripoli, has refused to negotiate, until LNA forces are withdrawn.
Haftar’s forces are associated with the rival governing authority of the House of Representatives based in Tobruk, in eastern Libya. The stage seems set for a drawn-out battle for the Libyan capital.
Haftar launched his offensive on April 4. The Tripoli-based government announced a counteroffensive it called Operation Volcano of Anger on April 7. In subsequent days, Haftar’s forces moved forward, taking the town of Gharyan, 80 km. south of Tripoli, before encountering stronger resistance at the southern entrance to Tripoli.
WHAT IS the significance of the latest turn of events in Libya?
While the fight may appear to be simply a tussle for resources and power between an ambitious military man and a government of shaky legitimacy, the chaotic Libyan battle is in fact a proxy war pitting clients of two key power axes in the Middle East against one another. For this reason, its outcome is of interest to Western powers – and to Israel.
To understand this, it is necessary to observe who is supporting whom in Libya. Haftar and his LNA have benefited since 2014 from the support of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. The UAE, according to regional media reports, has carried out air and drone strikes in support of the LNA. Egyptian and Emirati provision of funding, arms and equipment is crucial to Haftar’s efforts.
In the period immediately preceding the launch of his offensive, Haftar appears also to have secured the support of Saudi Arabia. The Libyan general met with King Salman on March 27 at al-Yamamah palace in Riyadh. He also met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the course of his visit. The access afforded Haftar suggests that he was able to add Riyadh to his list of supporters.
Haftar is thus the ally and client of those broadly Western-aligned, authoritarian Arab states that find a common enemy in the Sunni political Islam of the anti-Western Muslim Brotherhood and its allies.
On the other side, Turkey and Qatar (and the now-deposed Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir) are strongly supportive of the Islamist and Muslim Brotherhood associated elements that share power with the government in Tripoli. Evidence has emerged of illicit arms shipments by Turkey to the forces in Tripoli. On December 18, 2018, the authorities seized a shipment of 3,000 Turkish-made handguns at Khoms, a port east of Tripoli. Four million bullets were discovered on a Turkish freighter docking in Libya a short time later. Another consignment of weaponry from Turkey was discovered at Misrata on January 7.
Qatari support, meanwhile, is offered to Islamist militias and powerful individuals associated with the jihadi trend, most notably the Benghazi Defense Brigades, formed in direct response to Haftar’s activities in 2014, and bringing together a number of jihadi militias. Doha also offers support to Ali Salabi, an influential preacher and Muslim Brotherhood member, and to Abdel Hakim Belhaj, chairman of Libya’s al-Watan Party and a former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group member.
The forces arrayed against Haftar are thus representative of the Sunni Islamist axis. Ankara and Doha seek to expand and deepen their regional influence through support for Sunni Islamist political and military organizations. This pattern may also be observed, of course, in Syria, the Palestinian territories and Iraq.
It is worth noting that Haftar and the LNA are currently in the unusual position of enjoying the tacit support of both Russia and the US. Moscow notes Haftar’s grip on the oil resources of Libya’s east, and his fight against Sunni Islamists. President Donald Trump, meanwhile, on April 15 spoke with Haftar by telephone, and according to the White House “recognized Field Marshal Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources.” This move contradicted an April 7 statement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressing opposition to Haftar’s offensive and calling for an immediate ceasefire.
Both the US and Russia subsequently prevented a formal call for a ceasefire from being presented at the UN Security Council.
THE OUTCOME of the contest in Libya is far from certain. Haftar’s LNA, despite its name and his own professional background, is not solely a regular military force. Rather, it incorporates a number of militias of questionable ability.
Even if the general’s forces eventually succeed in taking Tripoli, widespread opposition to his rule – including of the armed variety – is likely to remain in the west of the country. Much of the vast desert south of Libya, meanwhile, remains lawless, outside of the control of either of the competing governments, and an arena for the continued activities of the Islamic State organization.
So Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the UAE and Saudi Arabia will be hoping that Haftar and the LNA manage to establish centralized control in the months ahead for a broadly Western-aligned, if authoritarian, regime. The US and France appear to back this outcome, too.
Israel’s position in the regional contest between Western-aligned authoritarianism and Sunni political Islam is also not ambiguous. What is good for Sisi and bad for the Muslim Brotherhood and Erdogan is likely to be welcomed in Jerusalem.
It remains far from certain, however, if any such neat outcome will occur. Libya may well continue to share the fate of Syria, Yemen and, to a lesser extent, Iraq, following the destruction or weakening of powerful centralized regimes in those countries: namely, fragmentation, chaos and ongoing proxy war.
Events in Libya indicate that the politics of the Arab world remains set in the contest between generals and Islamists. The fight between them often results in victory for neither and in the destruction of the arena in which they are engaged.