by Wayne White
Armed Islamist militants have gained ground rapidly in ongoing clashes in Libya, making an already serious situation a lot more ominous. A military attempt to crush the militants early this year has clearly backfired. Islamists are in the minority of Libya’s new parliament, but they have ironically revived the former parliament as a rival government. Sadly, with world priorities taken up by ISIS, Ukraine, and Gaza, little attention is left to focus on Libya’s most serious post-Qadhafi mess. Having tracked the Libyan mess closely for more than a year now, even I found it hard to believe that the crisis could morph so ominously and quickly.
One of the two dominant government-paid militias, the “Central Shield” force (renamed “Libyan Dawn” or LD) drawn from Libya’s 3rd largest city, Misrata, has soundly defeated its secular-nationalist rival, the militia from the southern mountain area of Zintan. The Misrata force backed the Islamists in parliament, the General National Council (GNC), while the Zintani forces supported the GNC’s secularists, nationalists, and even some moderate Islamists. For the better part of two years, this resulted in a sort of uneasy balance of power in Tripoli.
After prolonged heavy fighting this summer, however, LD drove the Zintanis from their longstanding strongholds including the Tripoli International Airport and surrounding areas. Worse still, it swept on to secure control over the bulk of Tripoli. In what seemed to be an affront to the US, some LD militiamen occupied a portion of the US Embassy in Tripoli on Aug. 31, and a video clip purporting to show men swimming in the embassy’s pool was broadcast on international news channels the next day. Later, however, LD officially claimed it had merely “secured” the embassy.
Misrata militia dominance might have been inevitable, simply because of demographics. Almost 300,000 people live in Misrata from which the militia could draw recruits while the Zintan area is more thinly populated.
Meanwhile, in and around Benghazi far to the east, renegade General Khalifa Haftar’s (or Hiftar’s) campaign to rid the country of Muslim extremists and terrorists has badly stumbled. The small Libyan Air Force, Special Forces, and some regulars and militia allied with him are clearly unable to cope with their fanatical enemies. Recently, Haftar and his allies have suffered a series of major defeats from which his main eastern enemy, the extremist Ansar al-Sharia in Libya (ASL) and the militant “Benghazi Revolutionary Shura Council” it heads, has seized bases, airfields, and arms caches in and around Benghazi (over the weekend it threatened to take the city’s principal airport).
ASL’s gains in eastern Libya’s urban hub of Benghazi and those of Islamists in Tripoli alarmed Egypt next door as well as President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s backers on the Arabian Peninsula, such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Over two dozen Libyans were detained in the UAE on Aug. 30 as part of a series of arrests of suspected Libyan militants.
On Aug. 24, jets heavily bombed Islamist positions in Tripoli. Haftar claimed credit, but having lost several of his few jets since beginning his anti-extremist campaign last spring, his claim was questionable. Witnesses in Tripoli and sources elsewhere maintain the jets were Egyptian or Emirati, and the bomb fragments were US-made. The Pentagon on Aug. 26 said it believed UAE combat aircraft staging from Egypt carried out the bombing, which was denounced as threatening efforts to calm the situation through peaceful political means.
Libyan Dawn exploited its gains throughout Tripoli to reconvene as much as possible of the Libyan parliament that was replaced in the June elections. Now comprised largely of sympathetic Islamists, this rump GNC declared itself the Libyan Government late last month, and on Aug. 25 named Omar Hassi prime minister.
Noteworthy, however, has been LD’s rejection of a call from the more extreme and terroristic ASL to unite under a “common banner” against the “forces of evil.” LD declared “its rejection of terrorism and extremism,” stressing that it “does not belong to a terrorist organization” (a reference to ASL’s designation as an al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group).
Libya’s legitimately elected new parliament, the House of Representatives (HOR), contains a secular/nationalist majority (the reason so many Islamists are shunning it). The worsening situation in Tripoli and Benghazi forced it to convene in Tobruk early last month, between Benghazi and the Egyptian border.
On Aug. 28, Abdullah al-Thinni, presiding ineffectively as interim prime minister since early this year, resigned to allow the HOR to name a permanent government. Yesterday, the HOR tapped al-Thinni, who tried to resign several months ago after gunmen attacked his Tripoli home, as the HOR’s 1st post-election prime minister.
Libyan authorities have for some time requested foreign assistance in stabilizing Libya’s increasingly violent and chaotic situation. On Aug. 27 Libyan UN Ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi appealed to the UN Security Council (UNSC) for help in avoiding a “full blown civil war,” the last in a series of Libyan entreaties for UN assistance. The UNSC passed a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire and sanctions against Libyan individuals contributing to the violence.
The UN secretary general’s special envoy to Libya, Tarek Mitri, has also asked the UN to assume a more active role. I previously recommended that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, with the help of NATO and the Arab League, invite all key, responsible Libyan players—including Haftar and leading militia chiefs—to a neutral venue outside Libya to hash out as many differences as possible face-to-face.
However, with Islamist militants now far more powerful (including the loathsome ASL), such an approach seems less viable. And with the international community focused on multiple crises regarded by major capitals as a lot more pressing, no one is making a real effort to address the Libyan mess, nor is any ready path to stability evident.
Twisting in the Wind
Despite Washington’s criticism that the UAE air raid endangered efforts to restore the situation via peaceful political efforts, almost nothing like that has taken place recently other than forlorn Libyan appeals and toothless UN resolutions. Preoccupied elsewhere, the international community has left Libya to fester.
Indeed, the bottom line appears to be that robust international engagement would occur only in reaction to a huge spike in the threat posed by Libyan-based extremists such as ASL against not only Libyan neighbors, but also potentially Europe, the US and beyond. Until then, Libya’s course seems likely to be charted almost exclusively by Libyans—and by the force of arms.
Photo: A fighter from the Zintan brigade watches as smoke rises after rockets fired by one of Libya’s militias struck and ignited a fuel tank in Tripoli on Aug. 2, 2014. Credit: Reuters/Hani Amara