A quick guide to Libya’s ‘medieval’ war


More than a battlefield, the North African country is a chessboard.


There are two ways to describe the clashes underway in Libya today: one political, the other geographic. According to political criteria, two coalitions are battling it out, each with its own parliament and government. Operation Dignity answers to the Abdullah al-Thinni government in Baida and the House of Representatives in the eastern city of Tobruq. Operation Dawn is aligned with Omar al-Hasi’s government and the General National Congress (GNC) sitting in Tripoli.

The former says it wants to fight Islamic terrorists, while the latter claims to be the last bulwark in the revolution against the return of the men from Gaddafi’s regime.

There is some truth to these interpretations. The Dawn coalition also includes Islamic militias such as the 17 February Martyrs Brigade and the Libya Revolutionaries Operations Room, in an alliance of convenience with far more extremist groups like Ansar al-Sharia, which the United States accuses of killing its ambassador on 11 September 2012. 

But the major force in the Dawn movement are the Misrata brigades, ‘integrated’ into the defence ministry as the Libyan Shield Force, along with various armed groups from the Berber minority and some western cities.

Operation Dignity, on the other hand, includes former members of Gaddafi’s security staff as well as the Zintan militia, whose members were part of the old Libyan army that deserted the dictator in 2011 and which is now led by General Khalifa Haftar. But here again, the major players are others, namely the alliance between Cyrenaica region federalists (actually secessionists), al- Zintan Revolutionaries, part of the Tebu minority and what is left of the anti-Islamic coalition, led by Mahmoud Jibril, that won the votes reserved for parties in the 2012 elections.

These two coalitions fall more or less in line with the two opposing sides in the inter-Sunni regional clashes. Operation Dignity and the government in Tobruq and Baida have ties with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. In The New York Times, anonymous US officials have accused the two countries of carrying out raids in Libya. The al-Thinni government signed a military cooperation pact with Egypt in the name of the Global War on Terrorism, after the Tobruq parliament defined all its opponents as terrorists. General Haftar, the de facto leader of the Dignity movement, does not hide his sympathies for Egyptian President al-Sisi and his anti-Muslim Brotherhood agenda, which is backed by powerful businessmen and Libyan politicians shuttling to and from Cairo and the Emirates.

The Dawn movement’s regional relationships are not so clear and have not won international recognition from any government. Only the Turkish special envoy for Libya dared meet the al-Hasi government in Tripoli, but soon started backpedalling. Yet Turkish support is an open secret, as is Qatar’s support of various Libyan Islamic groups, but nothing is quite so obvious as the relationships Operation Dignity has set up with the Emirates and Egypt.

Yet these political allegiances only partly explain what’s going on. For example, Operation Dignity and the Tobruq government are often defined as nationalistic when a large part of them are actually federalists hoping to achieve secession for Cyrenaica, the eastern region of Libya.

On the other hand, calling Operation Dawn ‘Islamic’ leaves many Western observers astonished when they go to Tripoli. Instead of a caliphate, they behold the same city as before, controlled by militias more interested in government ministries and the financial institutions still present in the capital (the Central Bank of Libya, which handles the oil money) than making people bow to Islamic law.

The geographic perspective is more helpful in understanding the situation on the ground and the possible scenarios. Yes, both coalitions resort to political justifications and have ties to regional powers, but their goal is to control the state and the resources it can distribute. Today, the government pays the salaries of 80% of the Libyan workforce, including militia fighters on both sides. Geographically, Operation Dawn predominantly controls the Tripolitania region and the southwest of the country, apart from the mountain enclave of Zintan (a big ally of the Dignity movement) and the hostile Warshefana and Warfalla tribes. On the coast, its control extends from the Tunisian border to Cyrenaica’s coastal oil fields, where the small federalist ‘reign’ begins.

Besides the Zintan region, Operation Dignity and the al-Thinni government control the cities of Tobruq and Baida, as well as the few areas in the south with a Tebu presence. The city of Benghazi has been fought over ever since Haftar began his insurrection in May. Today, it is where local community battles rage, often between neighbours, armed by either Haftar or his Islamic rivals. The Ansar Al Sharia militia group, now without its leader Mohammed al-Zahawi, believed dead, is split across three areas (Benghazi, Sirte and the ISIS-controlled city of Derna) and is in the midst of a leadership battle.

A future Libya could be divided up according to these areas: a Dawn-controlled area slightly larger than Tripolitania in the west; Dignity’s uncertain presence in large areas of Cyrenaica; and Benghazi as a permanent battleground. And then of course there’s Derna, the new Jihadist disaster. More than a civil war, this has all the trappings of a medieval war.