The Libyan conflict is one to watch. Most significantly, the presence, rise, defeat and reemergence of Islamic State has allowed various Islamist groups to gain a foothold. Furthermore, Libya has become the most prominent migration hub, connecting routes from Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East and serving as the main conduit for human smuggling. To top it all, recent Russian involvement has fueled concerns in European capitals about a ‘second Syria scenario’.

In this context, European, national and regional players are pressing for negotiations. Since the beginning of 2017 there has been increased diplomatic activity with a view to modifying the failed Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) signed in 2015.‍[1] The hope is that opponents – the LNA and its allies – and the proponents – the GNA and its allies – of the agreement will find mutual ground. The various initiatives are based on two fundamental premises about the battlefield. First, that the more active LNA does not seem to be in a position to be effective nationwide and to establish military control. Second, that some observers believe the conflict is escalating and that it is time for action.‍[2] The purpose of this first CrisisAlert is to assess these assumptions. We draw three conclusions:

Libya is suffering from four interlinked crises: an overall conflict, a separate conflict in Tripoli, a communal conflict in the south-east and a jihadist conflict spread across the country. While these theaters are interlinked, they have separate drivers and dominant actors.
The Libyan conflict is not escalating. Libya’s multiple interlinked conflicts vary, but the overall picture is one of declining levels of violence (for nearly two years in fact).
The conflict is likely changing shape due to an increasingly favorable military position for the LNA. The LNA is outperforming the GNA; the GNA’s internal support is steadily weakening and the LNA is increasingly able to project military forces outside of the east.

Situation awareness: assumptions unraveled

Good conflict analysis of the situation in Libya starts with situation awareness. An important way to comprehend conflicts is relying on fine-grained personalized knowledge and experience of the conflict. It tells us that the conflict in Libya is complex and is in fact composed of multiple interlinked crises that are often unrelated to one another. In Libya we have observed at least four separate conflict theaters since January 2016: the main one between the LNA and the GNA over a peace agreement (among other things); a city conflict in Tripoli between the GNS and the GNA over control and a conflict in Tripoli between a host of local militias over access to economic resources; an ethnic/communal conflict in the south-west over smuggling routes, decade-long grievances and marginalization; and an ‘internationalized conflict’ between Salafi jihadist organizations and a disparate coalition of national and international actors.

But our analysis also draws on data from the Libyan conflict and using this information we are able to unravel two assumptions. First, it is not true that the conflict in Libya is escalating. Except for the conflict in the south, violence levels in Libya have been stable or declining (especially since the jihadist conflict appears to be largely contained for now). The current ‘fourth’ phase of the conflict is not particularly violent in terms of Libya’s recent history. Second, a prime assumption behind the ongoing negotiating processes is that the LNA – the Libyan National Army in the east ruled by Haftar – is strong but not able to force a military solution. Our analysis challenges this assumption on three counts. To start with, the LNA and its allies are outperforming the GNA and its allies. The LNA is increasingly able to gain territory and project (air) power, whereas the GNA’s ability to do both is decreasing. This is shifting the military balance in favor of the LNA. In addition, the GNA is increasingly being challenged in Tripoli city by opposing forces, leaving the GNA fearing for its physical presence in Libya. Finally, the communal Tebu-Tuareg conflict in the south-west has been undergoing a major nationalization with active fighting between LNA and GNA troops rather than communal militias. It marks the first time that the LNA has been able to project military force in a new conflict zone. If successful it is likely to give the LNA the impression of military prowess and challenge the underlying assumption behind the diplomatic initiatives. The LNA may start to become convinced that a military solution may be possible after all. This will give Haftar a de facto veto.

Key disagreements are maintaining control over military matters and the need for an anti-Islamist agenda. See Libyan Herald (2017a). Details emerge of reported Serraj-Hafter agreement. link
Carlson (2017). The Libyan mess will get worse if outside powers don’t cooperate. War on the Rocks, link; Al Jazeera (2017). Can Russia resolve the conflict in Libya? link; The Guardian (2017). Why Libya is still a global terror threat. link
International Crisis Group (2016). The Libyan Political Agreement: Time for a Reset.
El Kamouni-Janssen (2015). Addressing Libya’s multiple crises. When violent politics, extremism and crime meet. Clingendael Institute.
International Crisis Group (2016). The Libyan Political Agreement: Time for a Reset.; Collombier (2017). Once and for All a New Compromise in Libya? ISPI, link.
Toaldo (2017). A quick guide to Libya’s main players. ECFR, link.
Libyan Herald (2017b). Misrata militants and Khalifa Ghwell scorn Hafter-Serraj summit. link
Toaldo (2017). A new recipe for Libyan civil war. Middle East Eye, link.
Wehrey & Lacher (2017). Libya after IS. Carnegie Endowment, link.
International Crisis Group (2016). The Libyan Political Agreement: Time for a Reset, 17.
Libyan Herald (2017c). Sidra elders’ leader abducted: report, link.
Lefèvre (2017). “The Pitfalls of Russia’s Growing Influence in Libya.” The Journal of North African Studies 22, no. 3, 332.
In fact the GNA attempts to split Haftar’s support in the east by dislodging some of his commanding friends has failed. Ibrahim Jadran and Mahdi al-Barghati defection to the GNA did not result in changes on the battlefield.
The usage of airpower has increased regardless of military activity in the south. Varvelli, 2017. Time for action: EU and a new political initiative in Libya. ISPI, link
The numbers derive from ACLED and almost certainly understate the activity of these militias given ACLEDs non-recording of abductions, patrols and territorial control. Moody (2017). Political Developments in Libya. ACLED, link .
The GNS comprises former GNC members with Islamist leanings headed by Khalifa al-Ghawil (a Misratan) who opposes the LPA agreement.
ANSAmed (2017). Libya: tension in Tripoli against Sarraj-Haftar agreement. link
These activities have various aims: legitimizing militias, raising money to further political aims or livelihood protection, see Molenaar, 2017. Only God can stop the smugglers. Clingendael, link .
Libyan Express (2017). Amnesty International: Militia abductions in Libya include university professor as latest victim. link Human Rights Watch (2017). Libya: Enforced Disappearance of Tripoli Activist. link
Moody (2017). Political Developments in Libya. ACLED, link .
Micallef (2017). The Human Conveyor Belt: trends in human trafficking and smuggling in post-revolution Libya. The global initiatives against transnational organized crime, 17.
The south-west is defined as sub-districts of Sabha, Wadi al Hayat, Ghat, Murzuq and Wadi Ash Shati.
Neither Tebu nor the Tuareg are truly united; Arab tribes vie for their own interests and security outfits of the old regime, informal security actors and (often untrained) revolutionary groups engage in violence.
Wehrey (2017). Insecurity and governance challenges in Southern Libya. Carnegie Endowment, link. Murray (2017). Southern Libya Destabilized. Small Arms Survey, link
Wehrey (2017). Insecurity and governance challenges in Southern Libya, 13.
The LNA carried out airstrikes on Misratan Third Force controlled Temehint and Brak al-Shati airbase and Benghazi Defence Brigade (BDB) controlled Kharrouba airbase and Daoki camp. The ensuing fighting has drawn in LNA ground forces and other groups (e.g. GNC affiliated Southern Libya Shield Force). Clear evidence of continued violence are mass executions on May 18 by GNA supportive Misratan Third Force and BDB militias on LNA controlled Brak-El-Shati airbase. Human Rights Watch (2017). Libya: Mass Executions Alleged at Military Base. link
The LNA has hit the oil crescent, the oil terminals around Sirte (December 2014-February 2015) and the south before, but this time is acting in a more sustained effort and is not using proxy-force to do the bidding.
The balance appeared to be settling in after an Italian sponsored local peace deal by the end of 2016 with the Hassawna tribe serving as ‘peacekeepers’. Libyan Herald (2017d). Tebu, Tuareg and Awlad Suleiman make peace in
Libyan Herald (2017e). Tebu anger at deadly airstrike on Sebha security room and jail. link ; Eyes on Libya (2017). May 2, 2017: the anti-Isis coalition. link.

About the authors

Kars de Bruijne is a Research Fellow at Clingendael and a Senior Researcher in the Armed Conflict Location Event Dataset Project (ACLED). His research focuses on intrastate conflict, fragile states, trend analyses and expert forecasting.

Floor El Kamouni-Janssen is Research Fellow at the Clingendael Conflict Research Unit. Floor’s research concentrates on security and stability in the Arab region and the policy implications of regional trends and developments including migration and violent extremism.

Fransje Molenaar is Research Fellow at the Clingendael Conflict Research Unit. Her research focuses on organised crime, political finance and corruption, and migration and human smuggling.

The authors wish to thanks James Moody from the Armed Conflict Location Event Dataset (ACLED) for advice, review and coding of alliances.

Photo credits

© Flickr – Courtney Radsch