Libyan Militias: The West’s Partners Against ISIS?

Militia fighters and forces loyal to the Tripoli administration, shown after battling ISIS forces. Sabratha, Libya, February 27, 2016. (Hamza Turkia/Xinhua/Corbis)

Libyan militias remain locked in a winner-takes-all battle for control of the country’s oil revenue as the Islamic State (ISIS) expands its presence in the country. Meanwhile, United Nations efforts to create a unity government to restore stability are being stymied by Libyan fears that the new government’s most powerful elements will direct the institutions managing the vital national oil revenue, and thus monopolize sovereign wealth.

Western governments are concerned ISIS will dominate Libya if not stopped soon, and there is considerable speculation that an international intervention is already being planned. Some Libyan powerbrokers, including former general Khalifa Haftar and militias based around the city of Misrata, believe this will provide them access to outside arms and training, allowing them to defeat their rivals and gain control of oil supplies. The international community faces a potential choice of either finding a way to assuage suspicions about a unity government, or risk partnering with some of these forces, for whom fighting ISIS is not currently the top priority.

At present, rival notional governments in the east and west of Libya maintain parallel governance institutions. A third, UN-backed “Presidency Council” based between Tunis and Skhirat, Morocco, waits in the wings, lacking a popular mandate or militia support. A UN-sponsored unity agreement would be a positive step, but it is unlikely on its own to improve security or relieve the Libyan economic crisis. Based on past evidence, the unity government would be strongly tempted to produce a centrally planned and implemented economic development plan, that, given the indecisiveness, incompetence, and corruption endemic to most recent attempts to govern the country, is doomed to fail. More significantly, the government would have little means of controlling the militias, which would almost certainly continue to operate as they do now. Libya has, after all, had several national governments since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, none of which tamed the militias or improved life for ordinary citizens.

Alternatively, the UN could encourage the delegation of most budget and policy authority to municipalities, in the hope of altering the winner-takes-all nature of the conflict. Distrust in national authorities, particularly over managing oil revenue, fuels much of the current strife. Meanwhile, several local governments, including Misrata’s, have demonstrated reasonable economic management. Notwithstanding the fact many other local authorities are as corrupt as their national counterparts, any failures of delegating responsibility would be localized. Ultimately, even a very poorly and disparately governed Libya is preferable to a failed state.

For the foreseeable future, with or without a unity government, the factors that have propelled civil war will continue to drive conflict. Despite the emerging ISIS threat and ongoing economic collapse, most of Libya’s rival factions remain focused on maximizing short-term profits and subjugating one another. Indeed, the militias have shown little inclination toward unity or recognition of the threat of extremists. On the contrary, they have often cynically used the threat of ISIS to advance their own agendas. For example, opposing militias to the east and west of ISIS territory routinely blame rivals for the extremist group’s violence.

ISIS first targeted Libya by attacking the eastern city of Derna in 2014, but was pushed to the outskirts of the city by local rivals. It next appeared in Sirte, a center of the Qaddafa tribe, which had been largely ignored and suppressed since the revolution. Some Libyans view ISIS’ presence in Sirte as a mere rebranding of Gaddafi loyalists and reject the notion that it has widespread appeal elsewhere. This reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of ISIS strategy. The group initially participates in local politics by aligning with existing tribes. In this way, it is not perceived as an outside influence, against which Libyan culture has very strong protective instincts. Instead, ISIS is essentially treated as just another tribe to be negotiated with in traditional ways. This in large part explains the complacency of Libyans in the face of the group.

ISIS now controls a large section of Libya’s central coast centered on Sirte, de facto partitioning the country into east and west. Power in eastern Libya has loosely coalesced around Haftar, while the militias from Misrata dominate much of the west. Various smaller groups, sometimes including ISIS, hold out against Haftar in the eastern cities of Derna and Benghazi—despite the significant support he has received from Egyptian military—and forces allied with the city of Zintan prevent the Misratan militias from establishing full control in the west and south.

Both Haftar and the Misratan militias’ primary goal remains consolidating power in their respective regions, with defeating ISIS a secondary priority. Both see Western military support as a potential solution to their problems. In light of this, they can be expected to make increasingly forceful pronouncements about the ISIS threat and their commitment to fighting it. However, much as Pakistan had little incentive to find Osama Bin Laden as long as the United States and its Western allies were paying the country to look for him, Libyan partners to international parties have little incentive to defeat ISIS until their primary objectives are achieved. Decisive operations against ISIS will likely be delayed as the warlords demand more training, more equipment, and more international recognition in order to guarantee success.

Efforts must therefore be made to convince the militias they are not in a winner-takes-all battle for control of Libya’s oil revenue. If actions such as decentralization of power to municipalities cannot be effected, or prove ineffective, foreign nations may need to judge whether it is worth empowering certain client forces against ISIS. If so, they will need to recognize that the principal motivations of their partners are neither a desire for democratic change nor defeating ISIS. It is a high stakes gamble for all involved: the militias may underestimate ISIS, while foreign powers may install warlords not long after deposing a dictator.

Nate Mason is a North Africa analyst and Senior Adviser at C&O Resources. He is a  former commercial attache for the US Embassy in Libya.