Analysis: Fallout from Israel meeting shows militia power in Libya

The outcome of the meeting between Israel and Libya’s foreign ministers is a weakened Libyan PM, and stronger militias.

close up of man holding gun
Militias with affiliations to the Tripoli-based government, but often their own independent goals, are powerful in Libya's west [File: Hazem Ahmed/Reuters]

Last month’s meeting between the Libyan and Israeli foreign ministers may ultimately achieve little but provide public justification for renewed fighting between Tripoli’s armed groups and the weakening, perhaps critically, of Libya’s interim prime minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, analysts have said.

Since emerging from the ashes of the country’s 2011 revolution, Libya’s many militias have maintained a series of uneasy alliances with the country’s shifting leadership, who rely upon the armed groups to project power across the 1.8 million square kilometres ( nearly 700,000 square miles) of oil-rich territory.

While the eastern parallel government in Benghazi has experienced some success in corralling its armed groups into the fold of the Libyan National Army militia, its western rivals in Tripoli – who are recognised by the United Nations – have enjoyed significantly less success.

Tensions, often deadly, between militias are commonplace for those living within Tripoli, with the fault lines between rival groups uncertain.

Overseeing it all, at least on paper, is Dbeibah’s government, in power in Tripoli since the failed elections of December 2021 and one whose every policy must weigh the self-interests of the militias responsible for carrying them out.

Conflict broke out as recently as August, with many of the same armed groups now seizing upon the Israeli meeting to push agendas only tangentially related to the meeting itself.

At stake is power, influence and control.

“The militias predate Dbeibah, they’re confident they’ll exist long after him,” said Jalel Harchaoui of the Royal United Services Institute. “There’s no need for any great vision. They’ve learned that the long term is really just a series of short terms.”

“Since their inception, they’ve become institutionalised. They’ve become part of the state, its services, its intelligence, everything,” he added.

Tensions with Zawiya

Maintaining the precarious balance of power with the militias, while negotiating with the rival government in Benghazi, dominated by General Khalifa Haftar, was always going to be a tricky proposition for Dbeibah, an interim prime minister under international pressure to help bring around some kind of democratic resolution to Libya.

For Dbeibah, facing pressure from allies in the United States and Italy and keen to normalise a personal mandate now long beyond its sell-by date, authorising the Israeli meeting, as he is suspected of having done, may have seemed an obvious political choice.

However, by leaking news of the meeting, Israel essentially threw petrol onto a long-simmering fire.

As protests broke out – for the most part, a genuine expression of sincere sympathies for the Palestinian cause – Libya’s militias are thought to have spied opportunity amidst the confusion, with groups from the western city of Zawiya being the first to add their numbers to the throng in the capital.

“A lot of people were streaming down from Zawiya after news of the meeting broke,” Tarek Megerisi, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said.

In May, Dbeibah had ordered drone strikes on armed groups in Zawiya following weeks of escalating tension.

The strikes were justified by the government as targeting people smugglers and traffickers. But they equally served as both a reminder of Tripoli’s military prowess, as well as a warning of Dbeibah’s reach to the Abu Zariba brothers, Ali, an MP affiliated with the Tripoli government, and Hassan, the local Zawiya leader of another militia, the Stability Support Apparatus (SSA).

Shifting hierarchies

Since the destruction of Tripoli International Airport in 2014, access to the capital has only been possible via the military base at Mitiga, which had been adopted as the base for the Special Deterrence Forces (SDF) the previous year, giving the hardline militia control over all access into the country’s capital and largest city.

With the opening of a new international airport slated for 2024, the SDF’s pre-eminent role in the city’s militia hierarchy stands to be fundamentally undermined. Other armed groups look ready to capitalise, not least the well-disciplined and heavily armed 444 Brigade.

Fighting between the two groups last broke out in August. During a little over 24 hours of fighting, 55 civilians were reportedly killed.

Ironically, among those who brokered a truce between the two groups was al-Kikli’s SSA.

“If there is a protracted war between these groups within the city, the human tragedy and infrastructure destruction could be immense,” Harchaoui said.

Already, Harchaoui said, the capital’s various militias, some religiously inspired, others with components dating back to former leader Muammar Gaddafi’s intelligence services, are allying with their preferred candidate, typically based upon cynical calculations over how they see the conflict unfolding, or how it might impact their prestige or structural leverage.

Normalisation hypocrisy

Given the circumstances, efforts to establish Dbeibah as an international statesman by encouraging normalisation with Israel may have been ill-advised.

Nevertheless, the August meeting is not the first time a Libyan politician has met an Israeli official to discuss normalisation.

“Everyone’s hands are dirty,” Megerisi said. “Aguila Saleh [the speaker of Libya’s eastern-based parliament] is walking around with his Palestinian flag and, rightly, being ridiculed. Libyans aren’t thick. A few years ago we remember him encouraging his foreign minister – when he had a foreign minister – to seek normalisation with Israel.”

Two years before that, Saddam Haftar, Khalifa’s son, was reportedly in Tel Aviv to discuss normalising diplomatic relations in return for Israeli military technology.

There is little doubt that the present furore has fundamentally undermined Dbeibah, potentially even permanently. However, Megerisi cautioned, it is important to set the current crisis against the background of recent unrest, ranging from drone strikes, internecine fighting, kidnappings and the arbitrary arrests of prominent individuals.

“These aren’t isolated incidents. They’re more about the mafia-style negotiations between the two men [ahead of a future government], with Dbeibah signalling to Haftar that he can’t strongarm him in the way he did with his predecessor, Fayez al-Sarraj,” Megresi concluded.

Knowing the instability on the ground, the involvement of both Italy and the United States in Libya’s external affairs was “the worst diplomatic failure in years,” said German journalist Mirco Keilberth, who has lived and reported from Libya since the 2011 revolution. “They don’t have elections, they don’t have any unified system of law, but Italy and the US think they can push them towards normalising relations with Israel? It’s the wrong moment for such a strategy.”

Source: Al Jazeera