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Shifts in the Libyan Civil War

The rapid gains of Libya's Government of National Accord have pushed rebel leader General Khalifa Haftar's forces out of large swathes of western Libya, further shifting the balance of this geostrategic competition.

Despite support from Russia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates, General Khalifa Haftar’s self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA) rebel forces have continued to lose ground to the Government of National Accord (GNA), whose forces have received air and ground support from Turkey. A settlement brokered by the United Nations and supported by nonaligned states increasingly appears to be the only viable means for de-escalation that would enable Libya to regain its sovereignty.

Areas of Control in Libya's Civil War, April and June 2020

Note: Areas of control are illustrative and not to be interpreted as precise or constant delineations. (Click here for printable PDF.)

Key Developments

  • GNA forces have successfully pushed the LNA out of large swathes of western Libya since April. This includes taking control of al Watiya Air Base, which had served as an important defensible position in western Libya for the LNA during its year-long attempt to take Tripoli. GNA forces also strengthened their positions around Tripoli by retaking control of Tripoli International Airport and the town of Tarhouna, the former rear base of the LNA.
  • The UN is investigating reports that eight mass graves have been discovered in and around Tarhouna. If verified, this would fit a pattern of war crimes committed by Haftar and his forces during this conflict and dating back to the 1980s when Haftar was linked to atrocities committed during the Chadian war while serving under Muammar el Qaddafi.
  • With the retreat of Haftar’s forces from western Libya, new fronts are developing in Libya’s civil war. Conflict has been intensifying in the areas around Sirte located on the coast between western Libya and eastern Libya, displacing populations west of Sirte. Meanwhile, many Haftar-aligned forces have retreated to al Jufra Air Base in central Libya. Conflict may also intensify in southern Libya around Sabha as the GNA pushes to regain control from the LNA.
  • Alliances are shifting across the country. In southern Libya, ethnic Tuareg and Toubou brigades around Awbari renewed their allegiance to the GNA following the LNA’s defeats. These militias have already targeted LNA forces in southern Libya, helping to restore GNA control over the oil fields in the areas near and west of Awbari.
  • Militias in al Zintan in northwestern Libya have remained loyal to the LNA and continue to control the area around the city. Apart from this area, the GNA has retaken control of nearly all of northwestern Libya, sometimes referred to as Tripolitania.
  • Turkish drones have proven to be superior to Russian missile defense systems. At least nine Russian Pantsir air defense systems have been destroyed or recovered by GNA forces after being disabled by Turkish drones. The Wagner Group, a Russian private security contractor with links to the Russian government, has provided arms and ground forces to support Haftar’s troops since at least September 2019.

In the Africa Security Brief “Geostrategic Dimensions of Libya’s Civil War,” Tarek Megerisi explains how the conflict has escalated into an increasingly dangerous geostrategic competition for influence, pitting the UAE, Egypt, and Russia against Qatar, most of Europe, and Turkey. This competition poses critical implications for North Africa, southern Europe, the Sahel, and the Middle East. Some recommendations from that analysis include:

Recognize the UN as the best honest broker. The escalation of the conflict by external actors means there are more interests and reputations at stake, potentially complicating a possible end to hostilities. Given the relatively low costs that external actors are incurring by supporting proxies, they have the means and incentives to continue escalation. By recognizing the UN as the best body to facilitate a de-escalation and negotiated settlement, all sides will have greater assurances that their interests will be considered.

Stop treating Haftar as a viable alternative. The impossibility of Haftar winning this war and being capable of ruling Libya is now unmistakable. Accordingly, he seems to be the ultimate spoiler to de-escalation and stabilization. While Haftar is often treated as an essential part of a solution, in fact, a resolution to the conflict would be far easier by not treating him as the governing equivalent of the GNA.

Display a unified European policy for the conflict in Libya. The lack of a unified European position on Libya has enabled Russia to expand its influence on Europe’s southern flank. This poses a far more serious threat to Europe than any intra-European differences. Russia’s deepening involvement in Libya should serve as a rallying point for EU and NATO members.

Enforce international norms with sanctions to stop the escalations. Sanctions on the private companies used by the UAE and others to send arms or offer additional ground support, such as Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group, would help create an environment in Libya that is more conducive to peace. A pressure campaign of this sort can also be applied to Libyan belligerents who seek to undermine the UN process.

Make a national ceasefire more resilient through local ceasefires. The decentralized nature of Libyan society and the various militias that comprise both rival coalitions means that a national ceasefire can only be made resilient by engaging the communities actually fighting. Focusing on “local ceasefires” between directly warring communities in places such as al Zintan, Sirte, and al Jufra is a key step toward ending hostilities in the civil war.