The Benghazi Defense Brigades were formed in June 2016 by groups of Benghazi-based rebels who were pushed westwards into Tripoli after coming face-to-face with Haftar’s forces during Operation Dignity. The BDB also holds within its ranks rebels from Dirna and Misrata, other cities that have been attacked by Haftar’s forces. The group coalesced in the southern town of Jufra, and according to their first communique, follows the religious directives of the Tripoli-based Dar al-Ifta. While the BDB, like Haftar’s forces, have also declined to sign the Sukhairat Agreement, their move to hand control of the captured areas in the Oil Crescent to the Sarraj-led government is been seen by some as an overture toward a reformation of the older “Libya Dawn” coalition that had once united pro-democracy forces in the country.
Ramifications for the Political Process
With no clear military or diplomatic winner, no single armed group has been able to shift the balance of power, leaving Libya in total disarray and bringing the level of violence to a new intensity. Given this state of affairs, the Oil Crescent is a vital bargaining chip; Haftar’s re-taking of the vital oil-producing region stands him in good stead to alter the Sukhairat Agreement to suit his own interests.
Together with Aguila Saleh, Haftar is adamant on the implementation of Article 13 of the text of the Sukhairat Agreement, which stipulates that the House of Representatives, also known as the “Tobruk Parliament” be the country’s sole legitimate legislature, responsible for ratifying the government and for legislating during the interim period. However, he refuses to acknowledge Article 8 of the same text, which gives the Libyan president the right to nominate all of the major power holders within the state apparatus. This would leave a number of pivotal positions—including Chief of Libyan Intelligence, ambassadors, diplomats, and the Chief of the Armed Forces—at the discretion of Libya’s Presidential Council, severely constricting his own position as a military leader. In essence, Haftar is doing his best to foil political reconciliation in Libya—even at the cost of harming the interests of those regional powers that support him (Egypt in particular).
The Presidential Council in the Wake of Military Developments
Since capturing Tripoli in March of 2016, the Presidential Council has been able to secure significant regional and global support including the backing of a number of important Libyan ministries and institutions (Finance and Oil). It also has the military support of the revolutionary forces in the city of Misrata, which are the best trained and most well equipped fighting force in the west of the country. Despite this substantial support, the council’s power does not even extend to all of the territory nominally under its control in western Libya. Moreover, ongoing frictions and in-fighting between various armed groups within Misrata, and the impact this is having on relations between local communities and the militia, reflect the inability of the Presidential Council to address even the economic and security concerns of civilians living in its areas, much less to govern Libya.
Even the success of Misrata-based battalions, answerable to the Presidential Council, in driving ISIS-affiliated terrorists from Sirte, has not meant huge gains. The effort impacted negatively on the revolutionaries’ strength, and the Presidential Council has failed to consolidate its military forces into a centralized force. In sum, Libya’s Presidential Council has not been able to make use of its military advances, either to strengthen its rule in Libya or to win foreign backers: to the contrary, disarray among the Misrata fighters has served only to undermine the GNA in the capital. Even the windfall of the Oil Crescent landing in their laps for a brief period was not leveraged: the GNA’s Minister of Defense was not able to protect the oil installations along the coast quickly enough, even with the assistance of the Petroleum Facilities Guard. They were easy pickings for Haftar.
On the world stage, Fayez Sarraj has called for NATO assistance in the restructuring of his country’s military and security forces. This has had some positive response, with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg vowing to help the internationally recognized GNA combat terrorism and human trafficking.
Implications of Fighting in the Oil Crescent
Today, it seems Libya is no further ahead in any direction. Haftar has consolidated his strength and secured regional backing from Cairo. Both demand that the international community lift the arms embargo on Haftar’s troops to allow him to better fight his battle against ISIS terrorists. Moscow has already answered this Egyptian call, with a Russian Special Forces base being built along the Egyptian-Libyan frontier to offer support for Haftar. This comes despite claims by the Kremlin that it is neutral with regards to the internal Libyan conflict. The GNA has suffered due to the latest military developments, and has not been helped by the disarray within its own ranks, or the separate battles it is fighting with the National Salvation Government headed by Khalifa Ghwail. Ghwail, who runs an independent administration to the west of the capital, is demanding that his administration be recognized as the official government of Libya.
Given Libya’s complex tribal and regional composition, the political headache this is causing for the GNA as well as for others, as well as the matrix of international interests at work, it seems that no single party to Libya’s multi-player civil war will ever triumph entirely. The only way out for the country would be for the political factions to work together toward a peaceful reconstruction along the terms defined by the Sukhairat Agreement, which already has the backing of a majority of Libya’s political factions. The alternative would be for a continuation of the ongoing conflict and the furtherance of political interests at odds with the national interests of the Libyan people and their right to live in dignity and peace, in a country with a representative form of government.
Before any of this can happen, however, safety and security for the people of Libya must be guaranteed by the legitimate authorities of the GNA, who must be able to impose their authority on the armed factions. This would entail the creation of a true “National Army” for Libya, which would incorporate all armed groups within its ranks; the prestige of the nation state must be protected through the legitimate use of violence if necessary.