Anti-ISIS Forces Make Inroads in Libya, but Any Victory Will Be a Hollow One

The tribal structure, the division into spheres of influence, new political rivalries and old ones between the country’s regions will in the best case scenario produce a federation-type state like Iraq.

Forces loyal to Libya's UN-backed unity government are seen in front of a power plant they have captured from ISIS west of Sirte on June 2, 2016.
Mahmud Turkia, AFP

After numerous debates, the Libyan parliament again failed this week to appoint Fayez al-Sarraj as chairman of Libya’s presidential council, a post which is equivalent to that of prime minister or a president with the authority to run the country. Sarraj and his proposed government will have to wait for the next session of parliament, scheduled for next week, assuming the parliament can convene the number of delegates required for approving the appointment.

At the same time, a few hundred kilometers away from the battered capital of Tripoli, a group of armed militias was fighting Islamic State (ISIS) warriors in Sirte, which lies along the Mediterranean coast. Reports from the battlefield indicated important achievements made by these militias, including the entry of forces loyal to the central government into the city center, with many jihadist casualties.

The taking of Sirte, if successful, could prove to be a turning point in the struggle against jihadist groups in Libya, and could assist forces fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq. But clearly the conquest of Sirte will not remove ISIS from Libya, since the group has bases in the southern part of the country as well. Nevertheless, Sirte has great importance as a port for transferring arms and manpower. The impact on morale of extricating an entire city from the grasp of ISIS could also give a boost to those fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

While Libyan forces have mobilized against ISIS, Western powers have been dragging their feet, just like they did initially in the campaign against jihadist forces in Syria. So far they have not taken any significant steps that could help Libyan ground forces.

The U.S. and British air forces did take part in the campaign in Darna, in eastern Libya, from which jihadist militias were expelled in 2015, and they’re now assisting in Sirte as well. However, the Russians have put a significant hurdle before them, in the form of a demand that any international intervention be conditioned on UN Security Council approval. Russia has no intention, at least for now, of allowing any such resolution and Moscow made it clear that it would veto any such proposal.

Russian opposition

According to Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov, NATO forces that helped rebels fighting Muammar Gadhafi in 2011 received only UN approval for setting up a no-fly zone in Libya before unlawfully exploiting this approval. He claims that these forces attacked ground targets and directly helped the rebels, ultimately leading to Gadhafi’s downfall. Gatilov regards this as a mistake for which Libya is paying to this day.

Firefighters try to put out the fire in an oil tank in the port of Es Sider, in Ras Lanuf, Libya, January 6, 2016.

The comparison Gatilov made between the resolution to help anti-Gadhafi rebels and the idea of sending forces to help anti-ISIS fighters is invalid. Russia itself is attacking ISIS bases and other rebel forces in Syria, having compelled the United States and European Union to subordinate their strategies to the Russian one. Russia simply wants to ensure a similar result in Libya so that any military action will grant it diplomatic advantages over other participants in such a campaign.

For months ISIS has been sending its fighters to Libya in order to set up an alternate base there, in anticipation of attacks on its bases in Raqqa and Mosul by U.S. and Russian–supported forces. The Pentagon estimates that between 5,000 and 6,000 Islamic State fighters are now in Libya but local estimates quote much lower numbers. The great bulk of Islamic State forces, 20,000 to 30,000 fighters, are still dispersed across Iraq and Syria.

In contrast to Syria and Iraq, which are ruled by governments which still have a loyal army, Libya is a country dominated by militias or militia alliances. All three countries, Libya, Syria and Iraq, rely on foreign fighters such as Iranian or Hezbollah troops, or on irregular local forces such as the Shi’ite militias in Iraq and tribal militias in Syria. In contrast to Libya, the other two have some responsible leadership that, even if unrecognized by the international community, like Syrian President Bashar Assad, constitutes a focus for coordinating war efforts against ISIS. The army is considered a significant factor in this campaign.

In Libya, on the other hand, not only have they not ratified a government but there is no unified army either. For example, there are the forces of Col. Khalifa Haftar, who commands the “Libyan National Army.” In contrast to what its name suggests, it is not the national army, especially not in the eastern region around Benghazi. The colonel is not taking part in the war against ISIS since he doesn’t recognize the authority of the state, although he supports it. Haftar is worried that the agreement signed last December, declaring the setting up of a national consensus government, will lead to his removal, since Article 8 of that agreement stipulates that the presidential council is in command of the armed forces. In contrast, government forces operating near Sirte are a collection of armed militias that support the new regime, with opposition to ISIS the common denominator that unites them.

The loyalty of these militias to the central government is not assured since some of their fighters and commanders belong to extremist religious factions while others are loyal to regional governors or rulers of cities that have become quasi-independent city states. Other militias belong to armed groups associated with forces defending oil installations. One of these militias captured some of Libya’s oil installations and took over some of the oil terminals in 2013. Since then it “owns” the right to protect these installations, enjoying the support of the central government. Commanding this militia is Ibrahim Jahdran, one of whose brothers is an ISIS fighter; another the mayor of Ajdabiya, in the country’s north.

Tribal loyalties

These tribal-familial ties may be put to a loyalty test if the central government decides one day to combine all these units under one national command. These ties have important implications for the capability of the central government to operate since one of al-Sarraj’s deputies in the presidential council is a confidant of Col. Haftar. Another deputy is close to the Muslim Brothers and to Islamist militias. A third deputy represents the city-state of Zintan. Interior Minister al-Aref al-Khuja is supported by militias in Tripoli and the defense minister was an ally of Haftar but has now moved away from him. This melange of senior office-holders creates an impossible political front, with slim chances of reaching agreement on a new constitution or at least on joint management of the state.

In parallel to the government in the capital Tripoli there is another government claiming to be the legitimate one, although it enjoys no international recognition. It operates its own militias, which control, among others, Tripoli’s power company, thus determining who gets electricity and when. Lengthy power cuts are part of Tripoli’s reality and even though other cities could provide power they refuse to do so due to political rivalry between them. The proliferation of militias also has one positive aspect: It turns out that ISIS is finding it hard to recruit additional fighters from within these militias, since each one of them operates in the service of local and tribal interests, viewing ISIS as a foreign rival. The fact that the leadership of this extremist group is based on senior officials from outside Libya makes it hard to build a supportive coalition, like ISIS built in Sinai.

The war against the Islamic State in Libya may bring some achievements to forces loyal to the designated government but this won’t solve Libya’s basic problem. The tribal structure, the division into spheres of influence, new political rivalries and old ones between the country’s regions will in the best case scenario produce a federation-type state like Iraq. Considering all this, it is still too early to surmise when Libya will again look like a state.