A fighter from Zintan brigade watches as smoke rises after rockets fired by one of Libya's militias struck and ignited a fuel tank in Tripoli
Courtesy Reuters

While much of the world’s attention has been fixated on the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), Libya has been tearing itself asunder. Its airports lie in smoking ruins, foreign diplomats have fled, and its once outspoken civil society has been cowed through a spate of assassinations.

Libya’s chaos has been variously portrayed as a contest between Islamists versus more secular factions; between younger “revolutionaries” versus older technocrats and military officers of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime; or between two rival towns in the west, Misrata and Zintan. Libya’s conflict is all these things. At its core, however, the fighting is about two centers of power -- consisting of town-, tribe-, and militia-based networks -- vying for the mantle of legitimacy in a country devoid of any workable institutions. And therein lies the conundrum. Over the past six months, these multiple factions have coalesced into two rival camps that have each staked equal claims to authority.

There are now two governments in Libya. One is in the eastern city of Tobruk, backed by the rump of the elected parliament, the House of Representatives (HOR). The other, based in the capital, Tripoli, has taken de facto control over ministries, relying on a handful of former members of the HOR’s predecessor, the General National Congress (GNC), to provide a veneer of legitimacy. Each is associated with a coalition of militia forces: those supporting the rump parliament have dubbed themselves Operation Dignity; those opposing it go by Operation Dawn. And each is flush with cash, heavy weaponry, and support from outside powers -- Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have backed Dignity, while Qatar, Sudan, and Turkey are purported to be backing Dawn. Contrary to some commentary, both sides have used force against civilians and elected institutions, and both show little sign of compromise.

Operation Dignity was born this summer as a military campaign led by Khalifa Hifter, a former general in the Libyan army, against Islamist militias in the eastern city of Benghazi -- including the notorious Ansar al Sharia, but also less radical groups such as Libya Shield One. Hifter won support from eastern tribes, federalist militias, and disaffected military units that were opposed to the dominance of a rival camp in the country’s dysfunctional legislature, the GNC. That camp, led by Misrata and other towns, as well as Islamist movements, was united by an agenda of purging the elites of the old regime and promoting the former revolutionary forces as the core of a new army. The campaign soon spread to Tripoli and the western parts of the country when Hifter forged an alliance with militia factions from the town of Zintan, which guarded Tripoli’s airport and had long tussled with militias from the nearby city of Misrata for control of the capital. 

Then, the June elections for the HOR brought losses for allies of the Misrata-led camp and a victory for established elites allied with Hifter and Zintan. Fearing that the balance of power in the capital would shift against them, Misratan and Islamist-leaning militias launched Operation Dawn -- a military campaign to evict the Zintanis from the airport and all of Tripoli. A constellation of militias from smaller towns soon joined the fray alongside the forces from Misrata. The Dawn forces pushed the Zintanis out of the capital and consolidated their control. In Benghazi, the city’s disparate Islamist militias combined their firepower to force Hifter’s forces to retreat from the city (with the exception of the city’s airport).

In the context of this stalemate, members of parliament affiliated with the Hifter-federalist-Zintani alliance moved the newly elected HOR to the eastern city of Tobruk, amid a boycott by 30 of its members affiliated with the Misrata-led camp.  Libya’s Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni stood squarely in the Dignity camp, despite earlier reservations about Hifter’s campaign. Factions of the Dawn alliance responded by reviving the moribund GNC in Tripoli and appointed their own prime minister, Omar al-Hassi, who claimed control over the existing organs of the government. With each side refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the other, political authority has become entirely partisan. 

As the United Nations and other outside observers try to help resolve this crisis, they should be guided by three important imperatives. The first and most important is to avoid conferring legitimacy on one side over the other through expressions of support for “state institutions” or “elected bodies”: although the HOR was originally an elected legislature, it is now a rump parliament that represents one side in an ongoing conflict. This is especially important to keep in mind when it comes to requests for military and counterterrorism assistance: any such assistance prior to political reconciliation would simply end up bolstering one militia alliance over the other. Second, the international community should demand and enforce a ban on outside interference in Libya’s conflict -- in particular, Egypt and the UAE should be pressured to cease their involvement, after organizing a series of airstrikes in Libya in August. Third, the United Nations should freeze the assets of Libya’s Central Bank and National Oil Corporation (NOC) to bring greater financial pressure on both sides to come to the table and form a truly inclusive, unified government.

Most countries, including the United States, have recognized the Tobruk-based rump parliament as Libya’s legitimate authority. This is problematic, because it discourages conciliation with the Operation Dawn camp. It is important to recognize how narrow the rump parliament’s support base is today. The HOR was elected by less than a quarter of Libya’s electorate. Twelve of its 200 seats were never filled because of insecurity on election day and an electoral boycott by the Amazigh minority. Out of 188 elected members, 30 have boycotted the parliament since it moved to Tobruk. As the rump parliament has adopted an increasingly partisan approach, the number of members attending it has declined to between 100 and 110 -- or just over half of elected members.

The HOR’s partisanship has become increasingly evident in its domestic policies and international outreach. The Tobruk parliament has branded Operation Dawn a terrorist group on a par with Ansar al Sharia, despite the fact that the two are united only in their common enemy and drastically different in ideology and their use of violence. It has appointed a former Hifter lieutenant as the military’s chief of staff and demanded the dissolution of all “irregular armed entities” (that is to say, all militias not allied with Hifter’s forces). It has openly called for foreign intervention in the conflict and has sought support from Egypt and the UAE, the region’s most prominent opponents of Islamist movements. Thinni has ruled out negotiations with the Dawn forces, calling them “terrorists.” And although he has included token Misratan representation in his new government, he has shown no inclination to bring pragmatic and moderate Dawn supporters into his government -- a step that would be needed to solve the parliamentary crisis.

Taken in sum, these gestures and signals have had the effect of entrenching the position of Operation Dawn -- and weakening moderates in that camp who might be willing to reconcile. In that sense, blanket expressions of international support for the Tobruk institutions are counterproductive to resolving Libya’s conflict. The rump parliament’s majority have interpreted international recognition as a signal that they can monopolize national political authority and do not need to compromise. The Tobruk government, together with Egypt, its principal backer, has been strongly lobbying for foreign support to the rump parliament as Libya’s sole legitimate authority. It has also sought to mobilize international backing for its fight against terrorism -- although its definition of terrorists includes its political adversaries.

For its part, the Dawn camp has engaged in similar intransigence. The Dawn offensive was clearly designed to establish territorial control over the capital as a political bargaining chip, with blatant disregard for the results of the elections. As the formation of Dawn’s government under Hassi shows, hard-liners within the Dawn alliance apparently believe they can turn de facto control of Tripoli into political authority throughout the country. Although the Hassi government stands no chance of winning broad support in Libya, let alone international recognition, it still threatens to deepen the rifts running through Libyan institutions. The two governments are now vying openly for the ultimate prize in the conflict: control over the Central Bank and the NOC. Should these two institutions succumb to partisanship, whether by splitting in two or backing one side in the conflict, an unprecedented looting of state assets would likely follow, further cementing the existence of two rival power centers.

The Hassi government’s formation -- which featured disagreements over the alliance’s demands and representatives in negotiations and over whether to negotiate at all -- has been one of several indications of fissures within the Dawn alliance. These fissures have appeared between hard-liners and moderates within the Dawn camp, as well as between political tacticians and military leaders in the military offensive. They have also been reflected by conflicting messages from the Dawn camp to UN-mediated talks, with some Dawn representatives rejecting dialogue. Such rifts make it more difficult to bring all relevant players to the negotiating table, but they also hold out the possibility of realignments that would enable the moderates in both camps to hammer out a deal.

To bring the two sides together, the United States and the international community need to enforce a ban on malign interference by outside powers in Libya’s shattered politics. The regional rivalries that have exacerbated the country’s divides have a long pedigree dating back to Libya’s 2011 revolution -- particularly between Qatar and the UAE, which have backed the Islamist and Zintani factions, respectively. August’s air raids on Dawn positions by UAE aircraft flying out of Egypt did nothing to alter the balance of power on the ground and likely spurred Qatar, possibly acting in tandem with Turkey and Sudan, to increase its support for the Dawn alliance.           

On September 22, a joint communiqué issued by 13 countries -- including Egypt, Qatar, Turkey, and the UAE -- pledged a policy of noninterference in Libya’s affairs. Although encouraging, such pledges have been made before, only to be broken through the clandestine and difficult-to-enforce channeling of funds and weapons to militias. For Libya to make progress, this latest pledge needs to stick -- and the United States, the EU, and the international community need to ensure that it does. They will also need to do more to enforce the United Nations arms embargo on Libya, including for weapons delivered to the formally recognized government in Tobruk. Effective diplomacy will be crucial to promote this policy, especially when it comes to curtailing the smuggling of arms through Egypt. 

If they are deprived of regional support, Libya’s factions will have to depend solely on the country’s domestic financial resources. Here, the United States and other countries could use the Libyan state’s substantial assets as leverage to bring both sides to the negotiating table. Currently, both sides in the conflict are hoping to either capture or divide the Central Bank and NOC in order to fund their continued military campaigns. If the UN expanded its existing sanctions to freeze these institutions’ assets, both sides would eventually recognize that they have no choice but to compromise. Of course, a blanket asset freeze is not compatible with the existing international recognition of the rump HOR as the legitimate authority: the international community should declare that it will withhold such recognition until the parliament’s boycotters and absentees agree to return. This would provide further encouragement for both sides to quickly agree on a deal.

Overcoming the present conflict will first require the formation of a government based on power sharing. This can be achieved only if external players avoid falling into the legitimacy trap that Libya’s conflicting parties have set up. Making recognition of the Tobruk institutions conditional on political compromise by no means implies a concession to the Hassi government: the international community has rightly stressed that it will refuse to recognize parallel governments. The important thing to recognize, however, is that the Tobruk institutions at the present moment represent little more than one side in a vicious, ongoing conflict. 

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  • FREDERIC WEHREY is a senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the author of “Ending Libya’s Civil War: Reconciling Politics, Rebuilding Security.” WOLFRAM LACHER is an associate in the Middle East and Africa Research Division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs and the author of “Fault Lines of the Revolution.”
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