More widespread and intense fighting between Misratan militias and the lna in western Libya reignites a conflict for control of the country and opens windows of opportunity for is to regroup
Tensions erupted between the LNA and a Misratan militia group controlling the southwestern region of Libya, the Third Force, between the end of December and the beginning of January. On 3 December, an LNA airstrike hit a military plane carrying senior Misratan political and military officials who were flying out of Jufra airbase, close to the town of Hun, southwestern Libya. Jufra is currently under Misratan control. One person was killed and several wounded, prompting Misrata to send reinforcements to secure the area. Simultaneously, fighting erupted close to Tamenhint airbase, 20 km north of Sebha. The Misratans and the LNA are traditional rivals. Both represent the dominant power in the territories nominally controlled by the governments based in Tripoli and Tobruk, respectively. Both have the ultimate aim of controlling the country.
On 5 January, IS fighters broke out of Benghazi, currently besieged by the LNA. They moved southwards towards Bani Walid. They have recently been attacking the Great Man-Made River (GMMR), the irrigation system central to Libya’s water supply, around 200 km south of Bani Walid. They stole some equipment and briefly took over a pumping station. Misratan forces have claimed that the LNA granted IS fighters safe passage out of Benghazi.
The LNA, led by General Khalifa Haftar, is associated with the eastern Libyan government based in Tobruk, and has received support from Egypt, the UAE and, increasingly, Russia. Haftar, a former Gaddafi associate turned opposition figure in exile, returned to Libya during the 2011 uprising. He became a central player in 2014, when he launched “Operation Dignity” ostensibly to free Libya from Islamist influences. His power basis is eastern Libya, where he is very popular. He has always opposed the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) as the integration of the LNA into the official armed forces would have meant a loss of influence.
Misratan militias are nominally allied with the GNA based in Tripoli and has been backed by Western powers in their operation against IS in Sirte, most notably by the US who conducted almost 500 airstrikes on the city. Italy has also been supporting them openly by operating a military hospital in Misrata.
A split emerged within Misratan ranks after the successful campaign against IS in Sirte in December 2016. Some armed groups prioritised securing GNA-control of Tripoli after intense fighting erupted at the end of November, while others were aiming for a direct confrontation with the LNA and Haftar. The recent escalation in southern Libya has strengthened this second, more hardline faction. Misratan forces, however, are currently experiencing a power imbalance vis-à-vis the LNA, as their forces have been exhausted by the Sirte campaign. On 7 December, a group of militia with ties to the GNA unsuccessfully attempted to take the LNA-controlled oil facilities in eastern Libya. While direct involvement from the Misratans or the GNA has not been proven, one of the attacking militias, the Defend Benghazi Brigades (DBB), has increasingly strong ties to Misratan militias, with the main purpose of countering LNA advances. The DBB has also a presence in Jufra. It was created in 2016 in support of the forces trying to retain power in Benghazi against an LNA takeover and has a strong anti-Haftar and, at least partially, Islamist connotation.
The LNA has been experiencing strong momentum since September, when it took control of the eastern oil facilities. It has held Benghazi under siege since 2014 in an effort to take it from an (unofficial) Islamist coalition composed of IS fighters and the Benghazi Revolutionary Shura Council (BRSC), an alliance of the Libyan al Qaeda chapter with local militias. The LNA is now almost in full control of the city. In December, Haftar called for his troops to be ready to “liberate” Tripoli. Haftar’s military strategy is one of quietly building alliances with local tribes and armed groups before moving in militarily when he is sure that his forces will not face major resistance. This has allowed him to prevent his capacities from being excessively strained. He is currently employing this strategy in southern Libya. Recent protests against Misratan presence in Sebha could be a sign that it has once again been successful. The LNA has enjoyed increasing support from Russia, although mainly symbolically for now. Members of the LNA have welcomed Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election as an opportunity for a friendlier US policy. Trump has advocated a closer relationship to Russia and his incoming National Security Advisor favours a realignment of the American Middle East policy more in line with Russia.
Widespread conflict for control of the country
Given his position of relative strength, Haftar will be prompted to move westwards towards Tripoli, aiming to take control of the country and definitively sidelining the GNA. A shift in the American Libya policy towards a weaker support for the GNA or even a friendlier stance towards the LNA will accelerate this development, as could a more substantial Russian support. Intense fighting will erupt between the militias from Misrata and the LNA. Fighting is likely to erupt first in southwestern Libya, where the conflict is already escalating, and then expand further north towards the coast. The result is likely to be widespread conflict, with levels of violence comparable to 2011. This will increase the probability of external intervention. Should Haftar manage to forge alliances with Tripoli-based militias, the city will be engulfed by internal conflict between pro- and anti-Haftar forces. The number of additional people in need is likely to be relatively low at the beginning, as southwestern Libya is a sparsely populated area. Once fighting moves to the coast and the capital, this number will rise, and could reach up to 500,000. If the LNA is successful in taking the capital, Misrata will likely represent the last stronghold of anti-Haftar forces. It is unclear, however, if the LNA has the capacity to stabilise the whole country by itself at all. Its advances will, however, motivate die-hard anti-Haftar forces to coalesce against him, prolonging the conflict.
Reports of IS regrouping around Bani Walid are increasing. The current tensions between the LNA and Misratan forces will create a window of opportunity for IS to reorganise in southern Libya. It could take advantage of a destabilised situation, especially in case of a further escalation. They could focus their activity on the GMMR, which they have already been attacking. IS has employed the strategy of seizing critical water infrastructure in the past in Iraq and Syria, using it as a weapon of war. Should IS strengthen in this area, it could also play a role in the migrant-smuggling business. The route between Sebha and Tripoli, where many migrants are directed, goes through the same area currently targeted by IS. As a result, it will gain both resources and influence, as it will be able to establish a certain degree of control on flows.
Conflict escalation exposes the population to direct physical harm. Around half of Libya’s population, over three million people, lives in the western region. Vulnerable groups, including migrants, many of whom are living around Tripoli and in Sebha, as well as IDPs, will be particularly affected. Libya is already extensively contaminated by ERWs and IEDs and increased fighting will likely increase contamination. Should IS gain control of migration routes, migrants bound for Tripoli will be very exposed. Female migrants have often been kept as sex slaves by IS fighters in the past.
Four of five areas currently most in need of WASH assistance are located in western and southwestern Libya, the fourth being Benghazi. Reductions in the volumes of safe drinking water is a particular concern. Increased fighting in the area will likely further disrupt water supply and the sewerage system. Solid waste management and garbage collection will also be affected. While the whole population would suffer
Should IS increasingly target the Great Man-Made River facilities in the area south of Bani Walid or get control of its pumping facilities, Libya’s water supply will be affected as will be its electricity provision. This will affect at least 1.2 million people in western Libya such as in Tripoli and Jabal al Gharbi districts, which depend on the supply from this area.
Renewed civil war will likely cause displacement, especially on the coast. IDPs who have been displaced during previous escalation of violence will be forced to flee again. The largest movement would be observed in the Tripoli area, where over one million people live.
Due to fighting, the health care capacity in Tripoli could reach its limits, as recently happened in Sirte. Illnesses are likely to spread more easily due to deteriorated living conditions.
Conflict will likely damage housing infrastructure.
An escalation of the conflict would likely disrupt supply routes, damage critical market infrastructure and further limit the availability of cash. As a result, prices for basic food commodities would rise.
Access in Libya is already severely limited. A more intense and widespread fighting and/or increased IS activity will heighten insecurity and make humanitarian work more difficult for local NGOs and for INGOs who currently have a presence.
279,000 children are out of school in Libya and education materials are lacking in several areas of the country. Increased fighting will likely increase the number of children with no access to education and disrupt the supply of materials further.