Debunking Three Myths about Libya's Civil War
by Jalel Harchaoui
In November 2011, mere days after the end of NATO’s intervention in Libya, at a time when the North-African country was still portrayed as a success story in Western capitals, rebels were already fighting each other. Among them, a former Qaddafi-era colonel by the name of Khalifa Haftar—who had returned to Libya eight months prior to help topple his former boss—was already criticizing Qatar for the support it gave to Libya’s Islamists since February 2011. Two and a half years later, on May 18th, 2014, Haftar’s forces would attack the parliament in Tripoli, claiming to purge the North-African country of Islamists.
That month of May 2014 proved the start of the still-ongoing civil war in Libya. Belying the population’s size of just six million, the conflict's complexity and mercurial nature have been immense. Yet, one fixture throughout has been the stark simplicity of Haftar’s rhetoric. The latter, conflating jihadism and moderate political Islam, dubs all political opponents as “terrorists.” This worldview has, since 2013, earned the warlord diplomatic and military support from a wide array of foreign states, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Russia, France, and Chad. Recent months have also seen increased diplomatic recognition for Haftar from Tunisia, Congo-Brazzaville, and Italy. This international embrace is a tribute to the efficacy of the field marshal’s stubborn discourse.
No Shia-Sunni divide exists in Libya, and socio-economic agendas are seldom discussed. The country is awash with well-armed brigades often quick to switch allegiance. This topology makes it impossible for one coalition to prevail over another through a brief, decisive confrontation. Instead, Libya is witnessing a low-intensity conflict in which narratives—of Haftar and his enemies alike—play a central role, perhaps more than physical force. In this propaganda-packed environment, some realities have become distorted even in the eyes of external watchers. The below is an attempt to dismantle three such myths.
Myth #1: Haftar’s coalition is secular
While Haftar himself does not promise secularism, his foreign sponsors do. The UAE’s ambassador to Washington Yousef al-Otaiba said in July that the his country favored strong, secular states, including in Libya. Ilya Kharlamov, a pro-Kremlin pundit, wrote that a victory by “general” Haftar would be synonymous with “the return of a secular regime in Libya.” British weekly The Economist, too, portrayed Haftar as “a secular strongman.” Such depictions are fictional. Since 2014, the commander has de facto relied on rigorist Salafis in eastern Libya. These ultra-conservative fighters, while they do combat jihadism and political Islam alike, pursue a non-secular agenda in ways the field marshal does not fully control or command. Actions instigated by eastern Libya’s Salafis include fatwas against religious minorities; an attempt to ban women from traveling alone; seizure and burning of “anti-Islamic” books; and many other incidents. The resulting reality is that, in Haftar’s Libya, there is no “return” to secular governance to speak of.
Myth #2: Misrata is a monolithic anti-Haftar bastion
By virtue of its military power, business networks, and aura as a commercial hub, the western city of Misrata exerts substantial influence on national politics. Many Libyans who oppose the counter-revolutionary campaign led by Haftar indeed see in the city and its eclectic tribal makeup their main power base. Several Islamist figures, such as the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood’s leader, are Misratis. Moreover, weapons have flowed from the port-city to the Islamist militants fighting Haftar in the east of the country. However, there are other components to Misrata. In August, a prominent member of Ajdabiya Revolutionaries’ Shura Council with a history of collaboration with ISIS was arrested in Misrata by the city’s Anti-Crime Unit. The latter includes rigorist Salafis whose assertiveness in Misrata has increased over the last two years. This autumn, in Sabratha, another city in western Libya, members of Haftar coalition fought alongside local Salafis. The Sabratha precedent is proof that other Salafi groups in the west, including Misrata’s Anti-Crime Unit, may emerge as tactical allies for Haftar. At the same time, Misrata’s so-called “moderates” managed to stave off an attempted takeover by their city’s hard-liners in the spring. They also support a potential entente with Haftar. These incidences are reminders that the merchant city of 300,000 is not the anti-Haftar bastion it is often made out to be.
Myth #3: Libya’s conflict is a neck-and-neck race for territorial control between the two rival governments
In October, Haftar claimed that his army controls 1,730,000 of Libya’s 1,760,000 square kilometers. Haftar’s boast conveys the notion that every square kilometer in Libya matters equally and will be fought over until full control is achieved. Yet it would be wrong to view the conflict as an intense race for full territorial control. After Misrata’s Third Force withdrew from the south in late May, ISIS grew stronger in the area, a tangible indication that the Haftar coalition could not or would not expend the efforts necessary to achieve order there. Similarly, the key southern city of Sebha remains in a tense equilibrium, divided between different tribes and contending loyalties. Some armed groups there are aligned with Haftar; yet, they do not control the city. In northwestern Libya, a tentative convergence may be taking shape between the internationally-recognized government Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj and Haftar. As the latter’s army continues to tell the media that it is preparing to march on Tripoli, the notion of fierce rivalry must be qualified. After Sabratha’s battle concluded, both Serraj and Haftar were satisfied with the victory of a local group called the Anti-IS Operations Room. And when, in early November, another Serraj-aligned militia, the Zintan Military Council, launched an assault on a pro-Qaddafi stronghold southwest of Tripoli, the Haftar coalition neither criticized nor tried to impede it. It tacitly approved of the move. These instances point to a modus operandi vastly distinct from the most common depiction of the war.
Haftar may continue to neglect territories other than vital logistical nodes or crucial urban areas. When it comes to the latter, he is likely to avoid efforts at frontal conquest. Instead, the anti-Islamist leader may settle for shallow arrangements and tactical alliances with existing local groups that can help marginalize his most threatening political opponents. During a recent meeting in Cairo, the Haftar army’s spokesman made it clear that the coalition intends on taking Tripoli and Misrata peacefully by coordinating with local groups of “nationalists.” Speaking of western Libya, Haftar himself has drawn a distinction between “armed youth who lost their way but are still patriots” and “extremists.” Such local alliances will be frail, take time to work out and ultimately will fail to give the strongman complete territorial control in major cities. Still, they may be enough for the 74-year-old commander to claim “victory” in Libya.
About the author
Jalel Harchaoui is a PhD candidate in the department of geopolitics of Université de Paris 8. His doctoral research focuses on the international dimension of the Libyan conflict.