Libya has been in chaos since long-term dictator Moamar Kaddafi was killed and his government overthrown in mid-2011. Kaddafi was typical of many Middle Eastern rulers in that he started out as a career military man and, then when the opportunity presented itself, he staged a military coup to overthrow a weak and unpopular government, a post-colonial monarchy. Kaddafi had oil wealth and used it to stay in power since 1969. Kaddafi had basically bribed most Libyans since 1969 to not oppose him. But in 2011 revolution was in the air throughout the Arab world. Neighboring Tunisia and Egypt saw their dictatorships overthrown. Libya followed but, unlike Tunisia and Egypt, was unable to form a new government. The UN found that the revolution had destroyed the military and national police. Kaddafi was paranoid and quick to imprison or drive into exile anyone who might oppose him politically.
Meanwhile, six million Libyans were angry that their welfare state was breaking down. The only politics that worked was local. That meant over a thousand local political, tribal and religious militias formed. These were armed by looting the large stock of weapons Kaddafi maintained for an unspecified emergency.
The UN offered its services to help form a new government but found widespread chaos in the thinly populated country. There were about six million people in 2011, mostly in coastal cities. Violence since 2011 has left over 40,000 dead, but by 2015 fighting had died down and been replaced by fear of economic collapse. The UN was unwilling to send peacekeepers. In part that was because there much greater need for peacekeepers elsewhere. Then there was the fact that there was a lot less death and violence in Libya compared to other hotspots. Then there was the fact that Libya was rich in oil, so rich that up until 2011 Libya was a welfare state run by a somewhat unstable dictator.
Many Libyans sought to flee if they could and by 2017 about a third of the 6.2 million population of Libyans had left the country, most of them to neighboring Tunisia. Most of the 2-3 million foreign workers have also fled. The people most likely to leave were the educated and talented Libyans the country needed most. This has made it difficult for the Tripoli and Tobruk governments to find qualified people to fill senior posts.
UN efforts to help form a new government backfired. As a result, there have been two rival governments in Libya since 2015. The 2015 deal the UN brokered, backed and pushed through to create the GNA was a mistake and the UN later admitted they ignored the complexity of local politics in Libya and the ability of many local groups to block a nation-wide deal. The UN also played down the power many Islamic militias in Tripoli and Misrata (the major coastal cities in the west) retained while pretending to support or tolerate the GNA. Meanwhile, these militias refused to halt their private feuds and wars.
Libya has created three governments since 2011. First came the General National Congress (or GNC), a temporary group whose main job was to create a new constitution for the voters to decide on. The GNC was to rule until the constitution was approved and elections held. GNC failed to attract the support of all factions or agree on a new constitution. In late 2013 the GNC illegally extended its power for another year. Despite that scheduled national elections were held in 2014. GNC did not like the composition of the new House of Representatives (HoR) government. The UN recognized the HoR but most of the GNC members, who tended to be more tribal and religiously conservative, refused to give up power, seized control of Tripoli and became known as “the Tripoli government”. The HoR and the government it had formed fled east to Tobruk and became known as “the Tobruk government”. The HoR rallied most of eastern Libya behind them. The UN recognized the H0R and condemned the GNC. By early 2016 the UN persuaded some GNC and HoR factions to merge and form the GNA. That did not work either, but the UN thought the new GNA could unite the country. That proved to be a serious misjudgment.
The west and inland Libya remained chaotic but in the east the HoR government joined forces with Khalifa Hiftar, an elderly (currently 76) former Libyan army officer, who had been chased out of Libya by Kaddafi, gone to the United States, become a citizen and raised a family. He stayed in touch with some Libyans and after Kaddafi was gone Hiftar went back to eastern Libya, where he was from. After a few years, he had organized a coalition of former Libyan army units and local militias that agreed on one thing; the Islamic terrorist groups and Islamic (wanted a religious government) militias were the main obstacles to peace and unity. This new organization was called the LNA (Libyan National Army), partly to encourage more Libyan military veterans to join. Many did, including some who returned from exile.
Hiftar has the support of most Libyans along with Russia, most Arab states, especially Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The UN opposes Hiftar, as does ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), the Moslem Brotherhood and pro-Brotherhood nations like Turkey, Qatar and Iran. The main argument against Hiftar is that he could turn into another dictator like Kaddafi, who was overthrown in 2011. Hiftar is unlikely to become another Kaddafi or ruler of Libya. He is 76 and in declining health. His sons are too young and too uninterested to become new rulers of Libya. Hiftar has no other extended family able or willing to establish a new dictatorship. Hiftar is a Libyan patriot who wants to leave a legacy of a unified, peaceful and prosperous Libya. All the Middle Eastern dictators took over when they were much younger than Hiftar and did not spend two decades living in the West and witnessing what peace and prosperity look like. More UN members are realizing that, as are a growing number of senior GNA officials. That popular support has played a major role in the LNA effort pacify the entire country. Hiftar was trusted to do what he said he would do; shut down and outlaw Islamic terrorist groups and restore peace. By 2019 Hiftar had done that in nearly 90 percent of the country.
A major problem between Hiftar and the GNA was that Hiftar wanted to remain head of the armed forces and many factions in the GNA opposes that. The UN and the West wanted to limit Hiftar’s authority. Thus, another former officer (and recent subordinate of and rival to Hiftar) was named GNA Defense Minister. The GNA-Hiftar inability to trust each other was never resolved. Part of this distrust had to do with the fact that Hiftar was opposed to any sort of “Islamic” government. The GNA was supported by many powerful militias that were OK with an Islamic government. The Kaddafi dictatorship was an “Islamic” government and most Libyans do not want another one. But many Libyans in Tripoli (the traditional capital) and Misrata (just east of Tripoli) had good jobs with the Kaddafi “Islamic” administration and believe they could do well in a new “Islamic” government. Another problem is that since 2014 Hiftar has had the support of many Arab nations who see him as the kind of “strong man” who could unify Libya.
Hiftar won over must Libyan factions through negotiation and the realistic prospect of peace and order. He would negotiate with tribal and militia leaders. He even won over one Salafist (Islamic) militia that believed in secular government and trusted Hiftar to respect their religious beliefs. Hiftar found a lot of allies among groups, like Berbers (ethnic kin to the people who originally settled the Nile River Valley and established the ancient Pharaonic empires) and black African tribes in southern Libya. These groups had had a difficult relationship with Kaddafi, who favored Arab Libyans over Berbers and other non-Arab Libyans. Hiftar wants democracy and Libyans agree with that. The UN opposed formation of a nationwide coalition until there was enough support for a peace deal between GNA and HoR to hold national elections. Factionalism in the GNA prevented the national elections deal. One of those GNA factions arranged to bring in an army of Turkish mercenaries to conquer the country. This has made the situation worse.
There are several hundred thousand armed men in Libya. These men belong to the LNA, local militias or Islamic terror groups. Despite all those armed men, Libya remains a fairly low-level conflict because most of the armed men only defend their neighborhood. While there are many organized factions, the largest one is the LNA, which comprises about a third of the organized armed personnel in the country. That only comes to about 25,000 trained men who can be moved around the country. More than half of these armed men are militias that have accepted training and weapons from and leadership by the LNA. The most reliable LNA units are those organized along military lines (brigades, battalions and so on). The LNA is a disciplined force that takes care of its personnel and does not risk their lives needlessly. This makes Hiftar popular with his armed forces, especially since he selects subordinate commanders who believe in his style of military leadership. That means training the armed forces and taking care that they are fed and paid on time. Given his age and declining health, he was unable to move around a lot among his widely dispersed forces. As of early 2020, his forces controlled over 80 percent of Libya, including all the oil.
Most of the non-LNA armed men are operating as local defense units while the large ones (like many in Tripoli and Misrata) support themselves via extortion or voluntary support from a clan or tribal organization. Casualties come from feuds between militias, usually over territory and/or access to resources and fighting against Islamic terrorists or militias that are interfering with national resources (mainly oil). During 2018 the area with the most casualties (30 percent) was the coastal city of Derna where local militias inside the city (and more mercenary or Islamic terrorist groups south of the city) have been fighting each other and the LNA for over a year. About half the casualties are from half a dozen hot spots in the desert south where groups fought and ultimately lost to the LNA, for control of oil or border control (smuggling routes). One reason for the success of the LNA is that it has become widely known that when the LNA moves in there is a lot less violence and general chaos. The LNA is the only armed group in the country that can do this on a large scale. All this violence is largely the result of there being no national government since the 2011 revolution.
The only thing the GNA and LNA ever agreed on was the need to destroy ISIL. That task was largely accomplished in August 2016 when the coastal city of Sirte, the new ISIL “capital”, was finally freed from ISIL control. There were still some 200 ISIL fighters cornered in two neighborhoods but basically the city is controlled by GNA militias. The U.S. provided air support for nearly three weeks. This consisted of about 60 attacks with smart bombs, missiles or precision cannon fire. The targets were ISIL fortifications, armed vehicles and car and truck bombs (hit before they could be used). These air attacks saved hundreds of lives among the attackers and speeded up the advance. Before the air support arrived, the advance had slowed down considerably because of casualties from suicide bombers, roadside bombs and ISIL men fighting from well-fortified buildings. Low casualties became a priority and the American air support took care of that. Sirte was still a dangerous place to be in late 2016 because ISIL left lots of mines and other bombs that can be triggered by vehicles or people on foot.
After the 2016 defeat of ISIL at Sirte, the GNA was gaining support but losing popularity because it could not quickly reverse the damage five years of fighting and chaos inflicted on the welfare state dictator Kaddafi created to keep himself in power. As many rulers, particularly in the Middle East, have learned is that if you devote enough oil income to provide some kind of welfare state you can easily stay in power for a long time and still steal billions for yourself, your family and your core supporters. This method usually includes, as it did in Libya, exploiting tribal, religious and ethnic differences when allocating the oil wealth. Kaddafi did all that successfully for decades. But when he was overthrown in 2011 the Libyan people could not agree on how to share wealth and power and have been fighting ever since. In doing that they have prevented the creation of a national government and destroyed their cherished, especially now that it was gone, welfare state. More and more Libyans are accepting the idea that their problems are basically one of bad attitudes. In other words, too much me and not enough we. The GNA will never be considered a success until it can restore the lost paradise. Meanwhile destroying the ISIL presence gained friends at home and abroad and that made it easier to make deals to get oil production going. Corruption continued to be a problem and the oil income was unable to revive the economy because of much lower oil prices after 2013 and too many local militias disrupting oil production and export. In Libya success is definitely not assured but by early 2020 the LNA had come closer than anyone else.
Meanwhile, there were still lots of Islamic terrorists, including ISIL factions, operating outside the coastal cities. For example, in Derna (200 kilometers southwest of Benghazi) dozens of pro-Hiftar troops and militia were killed or wounded while driving the remaining Islamic terror groups from the area. Earlier in 2016 ISIL was driven from Derna, which they had been unsuccessfully trying to take since late 2015. Derna is about the same size (100,000 population) as the ISIL “capital” Sirte. The ISIL reverses at Derna are the result of stubborn local militias and the recent arrival of Libyan Army forces. Hiftar, the army commander, was not popular with some of the Derna militias, especially those composed of Islamic conservatives and these groups eventually fought back. They were slowly pushed out of the area. The LNA was not able to bring peace to Derna until 2019, mainly because of continued resistance by militias that wanted to be free to run parts of the city as their own.
LNA forces closed in on Tripoli in early 2019 and the plan was to slowly (to keep LNA casualties down) push back the militias until the city was taken and the militia hold on Tripoli was finally broken. In December 2019 the LNA predicted that they would take control of Tripoli by the end of the year and then hold national elections in mid-2020. That did not happen, mainly because Turkey had openly pledged to protect Tripoli, Turkey also realized that an LNA victory would be an embarrassing defeat. More than that it would eliminate another recent agreement with the GNA, which granted Turkey the right to explore for natural gas in Libyan offshore waters. Most nations in the region consider this agreement illegal and a blatant attempt to block Greek and Israeli access to key portions of the eastern Mediterranean.
In response to the LNA prediction, Turkey increased its material and personnel support for the GNA, which was in direct violation of the UN embargo on weapons shipments. Egypt and the UAE are also flying in military equipment, and Egypt ships it overland across their border with Libya. The Turkish intervention saved the GNA, which otherwise probably would have been out of business by the end of 2019. The ten-month battle for Tripoli has not produced massive casualties. By the end of 2019 about 2,500 people had died, nearly 20 percent of them civilians caught in the crossfire. Nearly 200,000 civilians have been displaced by the fighting, although many of those return to their homes after the fighting moves on.
In early 2020, the Turkish contribution increased from about 2,000 Syrian Arab mercenaries and a few hundred Turkish troops serving in non-combat jobs to nearly a thousand Turkish troops and 10,000 Syrian Arab mercenaries. Turkey has also provided dozens of missile-armed UAVs that provide air support for the GNA forces. The LNA has access to missile-armed Chinese UAVs supplied by the UAE. The LNA has long been supported by the UAE. Russia and a few other Arab nations. The UAE has put troops on the ground, mainly to operate airbases the UAVs operate from. The UAVs have largely replaced manned warplanes as they are cheaper, have longer endurance and you don’t need pilots. Training UAV controllers is a lot easier than aircraft pilots. The UAVs are not used a lot, averaging 4-5 sorties a day total (for both sides) during eight months of fighting. Some days are only one or two UAV sorties and then there are days where there are over a dozen, carrying out major attacks on base areas or in efforts to turn the tide in a battle.
France has had some special operations troops with the LNA forces, mainly to monitor the situation. The U.S. also actively intervenes with air power against Islamic terrorist targets. Turkey does not consider that direct support for the LNA.
The foreign military support for the UN backed GNA and the eastern (HoR) forces does not get much publicity from the participants. That’s because UN sanctions prohibit such outside support but the UN backed GNA is being kept alive by the Turkish forces and the weapons the Turks bring in.
There are hundreds of Russian combat advisors and trainers in Libya and most of them have been there since 2018. These troops are civilian contractors working for the Wagner Group, which also has several hundred Russian technical advisors in Libya to keep LNA heavy weapons operational. Earlier in 2019 Russia revealed that it had increased its logistic and maintenance support for LNA forces. This support had been going on since late 2018 and has returned hundreds of Cold War era Russian armored vehicles and artillery to working order. This work was done with the battle for the Libyan capital Tripoli in mind.
While Russia has been backing the LNA since 2016, the Turks only recently (mid-2019) came to the rescue of the GNA, which is trying to defend the city of Tripoli, its last stronghold. The Turks favor he GNA because the GNA is largely a collection of militias, several of them described as “Islamic” although not Islamic terrorists. Turkey is apparently also receiving financial backing from Qatar for this Libyan effort.
The Turkish intervention is part of a larger conflict. Turkey is allied with Iran and Qatar against the rest of the Moslem world, especially Egypt and the Gulf Arab oil states. That is a major incentive for the Turks to get involved in Libya. One reason for Russia not publicizing their Libyan efforts is because Russia and Turkey are allies in Syria. Turks don’t have any military or contractor personnel at the front lines but some have been killed or wounded by LNA airstrikes.
The Russians are seen as reliable allies of Libya, even though it was Russia which supplied Libya with most of its weapons throughout the Kaddafi era (1960s to 2011) and is now delivering fewer, but more modern ones, like ATGMs (anti-tank guided missiles) and portable anti-aircraft missiles to bring down UAVs. The Turks are seen as a former imperial overlord trying to make a comeback. The Turks also ignore the fact that most Libyans oppose the Islamic conservative militias that the Turks support and see the Turks as more of a threat than the Russians or Arabs who are backing the LNA.
Turkey is threatening war with its neighbor Greece because of overlapping claims to offshore waters that might contain lucrative natural gas deposits. Turkey is also at odds with the United States in Syria. All these foreign adventures are an effort to distract Turkish voters from the current economic recession they are suffering from as well as their government's continuing suppression of internal criticism of the government.
By May 2020 Turkish forces had pushed LNA away from Tripoli. Russia flew in MiG-29 fighters and Su-24 fighter-bombers to an LNA airbase and carried out some damaging attacks on Turkish forces. At the same time, Russia called on the LNA and GNA forces to accept a ceasefire. Russia held private talks with the Turks, pointing out that the Turks were very unpopular in Libya (a former part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire) and that the Turks needed Russian backing in Syria.
The Ottoman Empire had been destroyed during World War I and in the 1920s renounced by the new (and still functioning) Turkish republic. The current Islamic government in Turkey had been elected in 2000 and remained in power with promises of reducing corruption. The Islamic government was now in trouble because it had become corrupt and sending Turkish troops into Syria and been unpopular with Turkish voters and the Libyan operation was even less popular. The Turkish government tried to get around that by hiring lots of Syrian Arab mercenaries to do most of the fighting in Syria and Libya. But Turkish troops were still getting killed in both places. Worse, mismanagement of the economy had caused a recession in Turkey and that led to Turkey sending a lot of the Syrian mercenaries home once the LNA had been pushed away from Tripoli. As long as the Turks remained in Libya a national government was impossible. The LNA still controlled most of the country and Libyans were seeing that the Turkish presence was not going to change that. The Turks could not afford the cost of hiring enough mercenaries to take control of the entire country in the name of the GNA. The longer the Turks remained in Libya the more the GNA would be seen as Turkish puppets. By now the UN had lost any credibility as a force of peace and unity in Libya. The UN has basically stood idly by as the Turks invaded and brazenly shipped in more weapons by sea. Egypt has sent troops to the Libyan border and threatens to send them into Libya to oppose the Turkish invasion.
After nearly a decade of peacemaking efforts in Libya, the UN has little to show for it. Currently, most Libyans are opposed to the Turkish “invasion” that many Libyans interpret as a pretext to revive the old Ottoman Turkish Empire. No one is really sure what the current Turkish government is trying to achieve in Libya but most Libyans have concluded that it is not good for Libya.