Two very interesting reports on Libya came out in December.
The first, by the International Crisis Group, examines the unsuccessful attempt in early December to take back oilfields in the Gulf of Sirte from Khalifa Haftar and the Libyan National Army, who had themselves seized the oilfields in question back in September. Haftar is an anti-Islamist warlord, based in eastern Libya, who is aligned with the internationally recognized legislature of Libya, although not with the UN-backed national unity government (the Government of National Accord or GNA). Much of Crisis Group’s piece deals with the economic stakes of the struggle for the oilfields, but the report also addresses the politics of the situation, especially the power struggle between Haftar and the Presidency Council of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord.
The rump government in Tripoli, the Presidency Council headed by Prime Minister Faez Serraj and backed by the UN and several Western powers, has distanced itself from this operation and stated it played no role in mobilising this force. Crisis Group warned in September and November that such an attack would be perilous.
Yet many Libyans, including members of units who launched the assault, claim the operation was carried out under the leadership of al-Mahdi al-Barghathi, the defence minister in Serraj’s government. Tripoli-based officials have been sounding the alarm for months about preparations for such an assault, alleging that Barghathi was providing legal cover and funds for the operation, and also coordinating the recruitment of men and provision of weapons.
These developments take me back to this post from July, where I probably overstated al-Barghathi’s importance but where I tried to say that if anyone could successfully undermine Haftar, it was probably him. If al-Barghathi was behind the early December attacks, then his current anti-Haftar moves are failing. Some of al-Barghathi’s rumored allies in eastern Libya, the Benghazi Defense Brigades, now appear to be on the defensive in the east, as Haftar’s forces attack them in the Jufra region. The Brigades were, as you can read in the Crisis Group piece, one of the key militias involved in the effort to retake the oilfields from Haftar. With the assault rebuffed and the anti-Haftar forces on the defensive, the momentum seems to be decisively with Haftar and his Libyan National Army.
That brings me to the second report that caught my eye in December, which highlights a different but ultimately related aspect of Libyan politics: Haftar’s relationship with Russia. Writing for the Carnegie Endowment, Tarek Megerisi and Mattia Toaldo argue that “Russia’s support for Khalifa Haftar in the name of countering terrorism could instead escalate Libya’s conflict and undermine the UN-sponsored political process.” The report details how Russian support to Haftar grew during the second half of 2016, extending a pattern of Russian support for authoritarian, anti-Islamist figures in the Middle East. For further reading on Haftar and Russia, see two recent Bloomberg articles here and here. Haftar has the strength he does in large part because of his domestic relationships, but foreign backing has also been key, especially from Egypt, the Emirates, and now Russia.