Briefing Paper: Who is Fighting Whom in Tripoli: How the 2019 Civil War is Transforming Libya’s Military Landscape
The offensive that Khalifa Haftar launched in April 2019 to capture the Libyan capital, Tripoli, triggered the largest mobilization of fighters in western Libya since the revolutionary war of 2011. This latest round of civil war is transforming the landscape of armed groups fighting in and around Tripoli, provoking new rifts within and between communities, and laying the ground for future political struggles. This Briefing Paper examines the identities and interests of the forces fighting each other over control of Tripoli. It shows that the divides of 2011 are central in structuring the two opposing alliances and shaping the motivations of many forces involved in the war.
The bulk of the forces fighting against Haftar come from the same communities that supported the 2011 war against Muammar Qaddafi. Haftar’s forces from western and southern Libya often come from communities that were perceived as loyalist in 2011 and experienced that war as a defeat.
Contrary to widespread misconceptions, the forces fighting Haftar are mostly not standing militias, but volunteers.
Political Islamists form a negligible element among them, whereas hardline Salafists are a key component of Haftar’s forces. Known criminals are active on both sides of the conflict, but they are more essential to Haftar’s forces.
Haftar’s offensive united a multitude of groups in opposition to him. Until then, some of them had been in conflict with one another. While they are currently1 cooperating in an unprecedented way, their competition over positions and budgets in Tripoli could soon re-emerge as a key issue. Meanwhile, Haftar’s alliance may be more fragile than is generally assumed.
Continuing war could cause much greater damage to Libya’s social fabric than it has to date. The conflict has provoked sharp rifts within and among communities in western Libya, and deepened the divide between the eastern and western parts of the country. Major military advances by either side risk involving indiscriminate inter-communal reprisals, or acts of revenge within communities.
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