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Libya: multitude of militias stand in way of new UN peace plan

A militia advances 90km north of Tripoli. EPA/STR

Four years after the Arab Spring, Libya has been locked in a state of constant violence, veering close to full-on civil war and state collapse. Now, increasingly concerned about the instability there, the United Nations has put forward a draft proposal for a Libyan unity government, bringing the two governments currently operating in Libya in an attempt to at last establish some semblance of order in the country.

Announcing the plan, Bernadino Leon, head of the UN support mission in Libya, proclaimed: “The people of Libya have their eyes on this gathering, on you, in the hope that you’ll save your country and your people from protracted conflict.” The draft proposal he presented is based on months of high-level discussions, though the details released have so far been vague.

If the factions agree to the peace plan, it will establish an interim seat of government in Tripoli, with a council of ministers headed by a prime minister and two deputies. The House of Representatives that was elected in 2014 in Tobruk will be the only legislative body. An additional 120-member state council consultative body will be set up, consisting of members from the Tripoli parliament.

Delegates from both sides will meet in Germany with other European and African leaders, after consulting with their factions and returning to Morocco for more talks.

Given the current state of Libya and the chasm between its two governments, they will have their work cut out for them.

Split loyalties

One government, working out of the eastern city of Tobruk, is internationally recognised; meanwhile, an armed alliance of militias originally from Misrata known as Libya Dawn has taken over the capital in Tripoli, running its own government there since the summer of 2014. The fighting has taken place primarily between two opposing armies, which have allied themselves with these two governments.

One army is controlled by General Khalifa Haftar, who defected from the Qaddafi regime when the 2011 revolution broke out. He came to prominence when he “suspended” the pro-Islamic government in Tripoli in February of 2014. Though this was quickly rejected by the authorities, Haftar formed and trained more than 6,000 soldiers and launched an offensive against Islamic groups in Benghazi. Today, his army is a cobbled-together mixture of Qaddafi-era soldiers, those seeking greater autonomy for the east, and some tribal fighters from the west and south.

The Libya Dawn coalition, on the other hand, is made up of various militias with a pro-Islamic slant, along with Berber ethnic militias and conservative merchants from Misrata.

The political agreement in the plan underestimates just how ill-equipped Libya’s security sector is to deal with the challenges from these groups. The UN’s proposal does make some provision for a ceasefire and disarmament, and creating a unified armed force – but it will have to do so using a national military that’s incredibly weak.


After Colonel Qaddafi seized power in Libya in 1969, he immediately began weakening the military. The armed forces were never allowed to train with live ammunition or conduct organised military exercises, and they never developed proper leadership or coordination skills.

Frequent rotation of officers prevented the establishment of cohesive ties between leadership and personnel. The military was incapable of coordinating the efforts of artillery and infantry, and under-performed whenever it needed to fight.

Taking up arms. EPA/STR

Plans by the National Transition Council to integrate former fighters into the military and police have progressed very slowly, meaning the military is mainly filled with a collection of units that defected from Qaddafi’s forces in the east, known as the National Liberation Army (NLA). As things stand the army is largely seen as an eastern brigade, not a credible national force.

Some smaller militias have been integrated into the military, but have yet to receive proper training. Militias still hold sway over important assets, such as the airport in Tripoli, which is controlled by the Zintan militia, and the national military has proved unable to intervene between armed groups.

Rebuilding a security sector that was already weak before it fell apart will be a monumental challenge, and it’s all the more difficult given that the current internationally recognised government has so little authority or legitimacy.

All government orders to disband and disarm have been ignored. The militias’ behaviour gives Libya an air of complete lawlessness; the country is awash with violent groups and overstocked with small arms – and attacks linked to Islamic State have raised the prospect of a whole new wave of violence.

As the proposal was launched, the US ambassador to Libya, Deborah Jones, opined that the discussions over it will give everyone a “clear idea on who is for peace and who is not”. That is a drastic oversimplification of Libya’s problems.

The UN plan assumes that there are only two sides fighting against each other, but the multitude of different militias that have taken over will have to agree to the plan if it’s to work – and how that’s expected to happen is still unclear.

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