'Coup' Attempt Could Complicate Libya's Fight Against ISIS
24 Oct 2016
A recent move to challenge the UN-backed unity government in Tripoli may reconfigure political alliances in Libya, affecting the battle against ISIS in Sirte.
While the assault on Mosul – ISIS' de-facto capital in Iraq – seizes all the headlines, a similar assault on Sirte – ISIS' de-facto capital in Libya – has long been underway. If it had been executed more competently, by now the militias' attack on the coastal city, combined with American airstrikes, could have dealt ISIS a knock-out blow. Yet with political authority contested in Libya, it is unclear which constellations are currently invested in finishing the job.
For several months, the Misratan-led Bunyan Marsus (BM) forces, aligned with Libya's UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), have been taking casualties and predicting the imminent defeat of ISIS in Sirte. So far, stalemate has been the order of the day. A recent coup attempt in Tripoli may change that, reconfiguring political alliances in a way that could precipitate or impede victory against ISIS.
On 14 October, Khalifa al-Ghwell, former prime minister of the unrecognised National Salvation government, which was ousted by the UN-backed unity government in March, led a group of anti-GNA militias and former GNC members to seize the headquarters of the UN-brokered High Council of State. This is a consultative political body in central Tripoli, which is a central component of the UN's Libyan Political Agreement (LPA). The LPA is the legal framework, made binding in international law, that lays out a pathway for Libya to unify its competing administrations into one internationally recognised government. Despite his rogue status, Ghwell declared his intention to take 'back' executive power from the GNA, and called on the House of Representatives' (HoR) interim 'government' in eastern Libya to join him in forming a new political dialogue process hopefully culminating in "a legitimate unity government" to rival that based in Tripoli.
This was not a real coup, in the sense that no tangible political power was seized, but Ghwell's move was still a fresh blow to the unity government's authority. It led to the mobilisation of rival militias at key sites across the capital in the days following the attempt. The GNA was quick to condemn the seizure, yet took no direct military action to counter it, despite instructing its Interior Ministry to arrest the perpetrators. Its inability to control its own security forces highlights how little power it commands, even in its own backyard.
On 15 October, the HoR's interim government considered Ghwell's request to join forces against the Tripoli-based government within the framework of the previous 'Libyan-Libyan' dialogue, which was attempted last year in parallel to the UN-facilitated one. This was seen as a spoiler initiative to undermine the legitimacy of the UN-backed process. Paradoxically, though Ghwell is attempting to join forces with the HoR in the east against the GNA, Ghwell's backers are mainly hardline Islamists who are against any rapprochement with the HoR's staunchly anti-Islamist chief, Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar.
Since the offensive to retake Sirte began in May, Libya's complex political landscape has undergone several significant shifts. Haftar seized the oil crescent ports to the east of Sirte in mid-September, and anti-GNA factions possibly attempted the 'coup' to protest the potential inclusion of Haftar in the unity government process. These political developments could, in the best case scenario, lead to the formation of a stronger, more unified anti-ISIS coalition, with Haftar and Misrata joining forces. At worst, however, they could precipitate the complete collapse of any governing authority left in the country, deepening the chaos in which ISIS thrives.
The ISIS fighters remaining in Sirte are entrenched in a one-square kilometre fortified enclave in the northeast. And yet, despite the Misratan BM forces' superior numbers, and air support from their US allies, ISIS has continued inflicting heavy casualties on its opponents with explosive devices, sniper fire, and suicide attacks. On 14 October, 14 BM fighters were killed and 35 wounded when they stormed the Campo neighbourhood. The US carried out 150 strikes against ISIS positions during this latest push throughout the first half of October, bringing the total to 330 since Operation Odyssey Lightning was launched on 1 August. The relatively high numbers of Misratan casualties, combined with the relatively low number of US airstrikes, highlight the difficulties of militarily defeating fighters who use guerrilla tactics in urban environments. The bloody price that Misrata is paying is taking a toll on morale and deepening rifts among Misratans, militias, politicians, and residents alike. The shift of political and military power towards Haftar since his Libyan National Army (LNA) forces seized and reopened Libya's valuable oil crescent ports has only accentuated these tensions. The Misratans and Haftar have been locked in a civil war since 2014. The winner hopes to become Libya's dominant political force.
So, given Haftar's ascendency and the Misratans being bogged down, how might Ghwell's attempted 'coup' affect the battle against ISIS in Sirte? The situation remains in flux, but there are three potential scenarios.
In the first, the political forces backing the unity government and broader LPA process in western Libya could downplay the significance of Ghwell's self-declared coup. They could frame it as a minor dispute exploited by hard-line Islamists who were always opposed to the UN process, potentially leading to Ghwell's momentum faltering and his losing credibility among potential allies. In this scenario of broad continuity, Misrata would continue to fight in Sirte. Victory would either remain just out of reach, or else it would be hollow, as ISIS fighters who managed to slip out of Sirte regroup in Libya's south.
In the second scenario, Ghwell's move could mark a significant turning point for Libya's political trajectory. It could lead to a gradual, peaceful rapprochement between Haftar and some of his anti-unity government opponents (Islamist militias and some anti-GNA Misratans in western Libya) as they join forces against the GNA. While this would likely undermine the LPA, it could kick-start a new, more stable Libyan-led political process. Such a coalition would draw strength from the buy-in of Libya's most powerful militias, the lack of which has, thus far, proved to be the legal framework's biggest weakness. Although this is a remote possibility, if such a rapprochement transpired and Haftar and more non-jihadi Islamists joined the fight against ISIS, the group's defeat would be all but secured. This is because the militias could work together, not only to liberate Sirte and other strongholds, but to establish the stability that would prevent ISIS and other jihadis from regrouping elsewhere. If a significant rout of ISIS were achieved, this would also strike a significant blow to other jihadis in Libya, as well as ISIS in the Levant, by providing a template for their defeat.
In the worst case scenario, Ghwell's 'coup' may unleash a new wave of conflict between pro and anti-unity government militias, driving the unity government into exile and possibly establishing a new de-facto government in Tripoli, presided over by Islamist hardliners loyal to Libya's supreme religious leader, the Grand Mufti Sadeq al-Ghariyani. He would actively halt the fight against ISIS to bring all hardline Islamists into his fold. This would lead to the collapse of the UN process with nothing to replace it, short-circuiting attempts to defeat ISIS in Sirte, which would allow the group and other jihadis to extend influence. Conflict in the capital could also strengthen Haftar's hand, pushing towards separatism, legitimising military rule and the use of force against Islamist militias, while emboldening those same Islamists to work with ISIS remnants against Haftar.
Time will tell on which of these trajectory Libya's ever-fluid and confusing political landscape is currently evolving, but the direction it takes will certainly influence how much or how little success Libyan forces will have in defeating ISIS.