MS Risk Blog

Libya’s Perpetual Instability: Domestic Drivers and Foreign Involvement

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Violent clashes that took place in Libya during August made apparent the country’s chronic instability. With the internationally backed stabilization and unification process deadlocked, a multitude of armed militias are competing for influence throughout the country, making such violence inevitable. Meanwhile, due to their conflicting interests, the main foreign actors involved in the conflict have been unable to establish a unified approach toward Libya and pressure their local partners into making compromises.

On the night of 14 August, clashes broke out in the southern suburbs of Libya’s capital Tripoli between two influential rival militias, the 444 Brigade and the Al-Radaa, or Special Deterrence Force (SDF). The fighting was reportedly triggered by the detention of 444 Brigade commander Mahmud Hamza by the SDF as he tried to travel from the city’s Mitiga airport, which is controlled by the latter. The clashes raged until late 15 August when the social council of the southeastern suburb of Soug gel-Joumaa, assisted by Prime Minister Abdelhamid Dbeibah, brokered a ceasefire according to which Hamza would be released and handed over to a “neutral party”. Soon after the announcement, the fighting abated. In total, 55 people were killed and 146 were wounded, while 234 families had to be evacuated.

The violence was yet another manifestation of the instability and political dysfunction that has been plaguing Libya since the fall of longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 and its descent into civil war. The country remains divided between two rival administrations, the Dbeibah-led internationally recognized Government of National Unity (GNU) in Tripoli and the House of Representatives (HoR) in the eastern city of Tobruk, supported by Khalifa Haftar, leader of the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) militia. After the United Nations (UN) brokered a ceasefire in October 2020 that put an end to the fighting, elections for forming a unified government that would lead the country back to stability were supposed to be held in December 2021, under a UN-backed process. But they were eventually canceled, as the various players were unable to agree on how they would be conducted or who would be eligible to run for office. Libya has since been locked in a stalemate, with neither side able to defeat the other and impose its rule over the entire country, although the ceasefire has so far held.

In this situation, numerous militias that emerged during the uprising against Gaddafi’s regime exercise powerful influence throughout the country. In the west, those militias are affiliated with various parts of the GNU, while in the east, Haftar has centralized control over local militias and integrated them into the LAAF. Due to the lack of a unified state structure that enjoys a monopoly on violence, these militias operate largely autonomously, particularly those aligned with the GNU. They exert control over different parts of the country, provide security services that fulfill the void left by the lack of proper security agencies, and promote their own allies for positions within state institutions. They also compete for government funding through the country’s immense oil wealth, while also profiting from criminal activities that Libya has emerged as a hub for, such as drug trafficking and migrant smuggling. Those militias and figures associated with them are among the main beneficiaries of the country’s current state, which enables them to amass political power and wealth.

Within this context, the recent clashes in Tripoli were probably more about competition between local militias than the country’s east-west split. The 444 and the SDF constitute two of the most powerful militias in Tripoli, both supporting the GNU. The former is affiliated with the defense ministry and controls the city’s southern suburbs, while the latter is more loosely linked with the interior ministry and controls east and central Tripoli, the Mitiga air base and civilian airport, and a prison. Competition between them has intensified, as the 444 has grown more militarily structured and organized, also including elements of the former Gaddafi regime, and its popularity has grown due to a reputation for discipline and effectively dealing with crime, while the ultra-conservative religious SDF has been losing influence. Control over the Mitiga airport, where Hamza was initially detained, was a central focus of the fighting, as both groups seek to bolster their influence in the capital by seizing control of strategic assets. Instability and lack of state control lead to frequent re-occurring of such violence, as different militias seek to consolidate and expand their influence in areas where they operate.

The involvement of multiple foreign actors, pursuing competing strategic and economic interests, in Libya’s affairs has contributed to this instability. Until the 2020 ceasefire, the Tripoli-based western factions were supported mainly by Turkey, Qatar, and Italy, while the main backers of HoR and Haftar were Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, France, and Russia. When Haftar launched an offensive during 2019-2020 to seize Tripoli, assisted by Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group, Turkey directly intervened by deploying military forces that pushed his forces back and froze the frontlines, leading to the current stalemate. Ankara’s move, supported by Doha, was part of its policy of countering its then regional adversaries UAE, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, as well as strengthening its influence in the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa, while Moscow has also been seeking to gain a foothold in the region in the context of its confrontation with the US and NATO.

Conciliatory shifts in this web of alignments and rivalries, of which Libya became a battleground, have been taking place since 2021. Turkey and Qatar have patched up their relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, while Ankara has also made great progress in repairing its strained ties with Egypt. These developments have raised hopes that the rapprochement between some of the main foreign players will also trigger positive momentum in negotiations between the factions they support in Libya. Still, it seems that despite their involvement in Libya’s conflicts, these countries’ capability to pressure their local partners into compromises is limited. The latter have their own domestic bases of support, bolstered by oil revenues, and can hedge by seeking support from a wide array of foreign actors interested in Libya.

Meanwhile, Wagner mercenaries, aligned with Haftar, remain entrenched in several military bases and oil installations in east, central, and southern Libya. Concerned by Moscow’s foothold in a major oil-producing country with a strategic location in NATO’s southern flank, the US has intensified its efforts to dislodge Russia’s forces from Libya since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. But Washington so far has lacked the leverage and willingness to get more deeply involved in Libya, instead opting to rely on the powerful Turkish military presence in the west to contain Russian influence. The European Union (EU) has also shown increased interest in Libya’s oil and gas reserves since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. However, foreign policy disagreements between member states, as well as the complexities created by Turkish and Russian presence in the country, obstruct a coherent EU approach to the country.

In conclusion, Libya’s continued lack of a unified government and state control has solidified the strength and influence of militias, making competition between them a “natural” part of the country’s politics. As the militias compete for access to strategic assets and resources, violent clashes such as those that took place in Tripoli will almost certainly reoccur. Meanwhile, a breakthrough in the UN-backed process to unify and stabilize Libya is unlikely since the elites, particularly the militias, benefit from the current deadlock. Foreign actors are unlikely to be able to pressure their local partners into making compromises, considering the autonomy and agency of the latter as well as the conflicting regional and international interests in the country.