Libya appears to be descending once again into violence and potential civil war. Beginning last Thursday, a force calling itself the Libyan National Army which controls much of the eastern portion of Libya began advancing on the nation’s capital. Tripoli is currently under the control of a United Nation’s sponsored unity government. Dozens have already been killed or wounded. Humanitarian officials report more than 2,500 have fled Tripoli in fear of what could be a protracted round of violence in the city.
The most recent instigator of the violence is a 75-year old former resident of northern Virginia, Khalifa Hifter.
Hifter joined the Libyan military under King Idris I in 1966. A few years later he joined Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in a coup against the Libyan King. For two decades he rose through the ranks of Gaddafi’s military. In 1987 he defected and fled to the United States where he took up dual citizenship.
Living in Langley, Virginia since that time he publicly pledged his loyalty to the US-backed National Front for the Salvation of Libya in their efforts to overthrow Gaddafi. He also offered his military services. In 2011, at the outbreak of the Libyan Civil War, Hifter returned to Libya but, unable to secure power and control over the military, he returned once again to the US.
Angered by the rise of armed Islamist groups in post-civil war Libya, he reemerged with a declaration to overthrow the new leadership of Libya. After declaring his planned coup via web video in 2014 Hifter still found his efforts toward power in Libya thwarted.
The coup failed but Hifter was not finished. He formed the Libyan National Army and launched Operation Dignity. He managed to take control of a large swath of territory three times the size of Syria in the eastern part of Libya.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have accused Hifter and the LNA of human rights abuses.
Backgrounder to the Crisis in Libya
Eight years ago, during the Arab Spring, the United States and the Obama administration determined Libya would be the one place in which the US would interfere in the uprisings that were spreading across the Middle East and North Africa at the time.
(Libya holds the largest oil reserves on the African continent and is among the top ten of largest proven oil reserve holdings in the world.)
Following the overthrow and killing of longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Libya descended into a violent civil war. Rival militia groups along with former military and political leaders in the country helped plunge Libya into turmoil and instability. An estimated 18,000 people were killed in the fighting and Libya, along with its vast oil fortunes, became vulnerable to take over from religious extremists.
It was only in 2015 when an interim government known as the Government of National Accord (GNA) was established in Tripoli. The power-sharing arrangement of the GNA was meant to be temporary. Although endorsed and validated by the United Nations along with much of Europe who receives their oil from Libya, the design was fragile to say the least.
Authority in Libya is currently a power-sharing arrangement of various militias and politicians who are frequently paid off. This unsustainable arrangement is a concern and priority for the United Nations. Even as Hifter launched his forces toward Tripoli last week, the UN Secretary-General was in Libya working to bring stability and a more stable government structure to the nation.
This is definitely a fight with high degrees of international interests and interference. Europe receives much of its oil from North Africa and Libya.
France has offered significant support to Hifter since Operation Dignity. Italy has been largely pro-Hifter in its approach to Libya but is against a military solution to the Libyan crisis. Southern Europe needs stable oil supplies and prices from North Africa but there is concern that a military solution to Libya’s instability will produce greater refugee flows into Italy.
Russia also has a history of support for Hifter.
Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates are among the most stalwart supporters of Hifter. They believe he will put an end to political Islamic forces in the country as he has promised.
President Trump’s official US policy has been to extricate America from Libya. The implementation of this policy has been slow. As a result, much of America’s Libyan policy and security situation has been farmed out to European allies.
Experts in the area are concerned if the US remains hands-off in this situation further erosion of US influence and power in Libya and North Africa will result.
At the same time, most official voices in Washington have not presented a front of support for Khalifa Hifter. Although Hifter presented a very hard line and criticism of political Islamic voices which the Saudis and others in the Middle East appreciate, others in the US do not believe he can back up his rhetoric.
Most of Hifter’s gains in eastern Libya were not achieved by military force alone but also by paying off various militias and leaders in the regions now under his control. If he brings this same system of payoff and control to Tripoli he is not changing anything in the current situation. He is only prolonging the increasingly corrupt and unstable environment of the North African nation and so also continuing its vulnerability to political Islamic forces and influences such as ISIS, AQIM (al Qaeda in the Maghreb) and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Follow the Money
An insightful piece from Jalel Harchaoui and War on the Rocks early last week (before the current fighting began) observed that the fate of how this all plays out may be more related to the Libyan Central Bank and the US preferences on the matter than any territorial gains or military strength.
Libya has a dollar-based economy in which its oil wealth is funneled through the Central Bank in Tripoli. Whoever controls the money can control the various and divided interests of the many militias and political players in Libya. But that person must be recognized by the US.
Past efforts to bring about political change in Libya were voided when the US would not recognize the new leaders and thus barred them from access to the billions of dollars in oil wealth.
Updates to this situation in Libya will be added regularly to this post from JB Shreve & the End of History.