‘A Ground Invasion of the Capital Is Imminent’
All-out war is coming to Libya, as rebel militias and a government-in-hiding begin a battle for control of the country.
TRIPOLI, Libya — Zeina, 27, was hanging out her washing when the first Grad rocket smashed into a neighbor’s house at the end of her dusty street. The deafening boom was followed by the telltale buzz of more incoming rockets. Libya’s civil war had landed on her doorstep.
“It started as a normal day — then we heard the sound of shelling and rockets,” said the young mother. “Without warning, they hit our houses. We fled with just the clothes we were wearing.”
Zeina is now crammed together with seven other people in a cinderblock outhouse that is part of Tripoli’s zoo. They are just a handful of the more than 400,000 people who are currently displaced inside Libya, which is witnessing its worst crisis since the 2011 NATO-backed revolt that toppled dictator Muammar Qaddafi.
For three years, Libya has been without a functioning government, police force, or army. The country has been ripped apart by warring fiefdoms of ex-rebels who helped oust Qaddafi but have since directed politics with AK-47s and anti-aircraft guns. This summer, as the battle lines began to harden, two rival factions emerged to vie for control of Libya: On one side is the newly elected parliament that has been banished to the eastern city of Tobruk — supported by the fractured remains of Qaddafi soldiers who defected during the uprising, as well as regional powers like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. On the other side is Libya Dawn, a self-described revolutionary coalition of militiamen and Islamist-leaning politicians that originated in the western city of Misrata, allegedly backed by Turkey and Qatar.
Zeina’s hometown of Kikla, which lies less than 100 miles southwest of Tripoli, is on the front line between the two factions, which are battling for control of the capital. With two governments and two parliaments, both of which have a tenuous grip on power and access to funds, there is no one in authority to ask for help.
“It’s winter now, and we’re in a desperate situation,” Zeina said. “We heard our houses have been flattened and burned. What do we do?”
Hundreds of miles to the east, smartly dressed lawmakers, Salafi militants, fighter jet pilots, and tribal leaders sat in a glittering hotel lobby. The building was under strict military lockdown — its long driveway studded with concrete roadblocks and checkpoints. But inside the hushed halls, uniformed waiters moved between the groups serving cappuccinos and croissants. Lavish three-course meals were served in the dining and conference rooms. Outside, the legislators’ children — forced into exile with their parents — played soccer on the abandoned tennis courts that overlook the Mediterranean.
This is the exiled parliament’s stronghold in Tobruk, over 900 miles to the east of Tripoli. When Libya Dawn staged an armed takeover of the capital this summer, it forced the House of Representatives, which had been elected in June, to flee here. Now, loyalists are plotting their return to Tripoli.
Money and war are the main topics of conversation. The country’s oil authorities and ministries now lie in the hands of Libya Dawn, which claims to be the legitimate government. The Islamist coalition’s case was bolstered after a November Supreme Court decision, which it said nullified the House of Representatives and a constitutional amendment on which the June elections were based.
The Libyan Central Bank, fighting to maintain its neutrality, has refused to channel the country’s lucrative oil revenues to either administration since the court decision. It is only paying “expenses” for both administrations, and basic salaries, which ironically includes those of the militias, who were absorbed into the interior and defense ministries by the former parliament in 2012.
The decision has rendered the Tobruk parliament’s plans and newly drafted $42 billion budget for the next financial year nothing more than pieces of paper.
For the politicians and military leaders in Tobruk, that means war.
“The easiest solution is a military takeover [of Tripoli]; it’s the only way to move forward from this ridiculous stalemate,” said one senior lawmaker, dressed in a crisp suit. “We are trying to build a new central bank and premises for different ministries, but this is temporary until we take back Tripoli.”
The United Nations was supposed to have chaired a fresh round of peace talks between the warring factions this month. But so far they have been unable to set a date, let alone an agenda to resolve the crisis.
Tobruk’s military forces, meanwhile, don’t seem to be in the mood for talking. Gen. Khalifa Haftar, a formerly rogue military leader who embarked on a self-styled “War on Terror” against Islamists earlier this year, is at the helm of the recently rebranded “Libyan National Army” — the remnants of the Qaddafi-era armed forces that defected during the revolution. And he seems to believe the wind is at his back.
“A ground invasion of the capital is imminent,” Haftar told me from his sprawling military base in the countryside outside Merj, a town that lies roughly an hour-long helicopter ride west of Tobruk.
Haftar, 71, has seen his fortunes improve dramatically in recent months. He was declared an outlaw by the authorities after unsuccessfully attempting to overthrow the previous Islamist-dominated parliament in February, and was only recently reinstated by the House of Representatives, which lacked a military force of its own to wrest control back from the militias. Haftar quickly changed that: He absorbed pro-government western militias into his army, and is currently encircling the capital and fighting Libya Dawn militiamen in Kikla.
Haftar’s first major offensive was in the eastern city of Benghazi, where his troops have gained serious ground after six months of battling Libya Dawn-allied eastern militias and jihadis — including the U.N.-designated terror group Ansar al-Sharia. Haftar claims his forces have “secured” around 95 percent of the city.
Seeking to build on his momentum, Haftar then turned west. In November, he sent his battered MiG fighter jets to Tripoli to bomb Libya Dawn positions and weapons depots. This month, the general pushed further west, striking targets on the border with Tunisia, which briefly closed the largest border crossing, Ras Jedir. On Dec. 28, his forces hit Misrata, the hometown of most of the Libya Dawn leadership.
“We cannot continue with two governments, two parliaments, so Libya Dawn should end or we are going to arrest them all,” he said, promising further airstrikes in Misrata.
Haftar’s men told me that a large multimillion-dollar arms deal with an Eastern European country, which would see the acquisition of updated fighter jets, helicopters, and heavy weaponry, will be the nail in the coffin of their enemies. The Tobruk authorities are footing the bill, and are just waiting for delivery.
Tobruk Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni, a former military man himself, echoed Haftar’s hawkishness.
“We are supporting the front line with more jet fighters to break the deadlock,” he told me from his temporary offices in Labraq, a city just west of Tobruk, consisting of stark, Soviet-style concrete buildings. “Citizens of Tripoli are getting ready now and are waiting for the moment when the army enters the city.”
But there is lingering bad blood between Thinni and his military commander, which could presage a future conflict. In June, Thinni, who had been serving as prime minister then too, had been among those in the previous parliament who blacklisted Haftar. That same month, Haftar said that he wanted most of Thinni’s cabinet jailed. The distrust between the two men is still palpable, as both claim ownership of the war in the west.
Thinni said he would only come to the negotiating table if Libya Dawn accepted the legitimacy of his parliament, dropped its alliance with terror groups like Ansar al-Sharia, and gave up Tripoli — an impossible set of preconditions sure to scupper any U.N.-backed mediation initiative. “Libya Dawn members who committed crimes should be tried,” he added.
Establishing his government’s authority over the whole country is going to take a massive influx of money — and Thinni knows it. The prime minister admitted it was near impossible to run a country without access to the country’s government buildings and funds. As an interim solution, he appointed his own heads of the National Oil Corporation, the body solely response for the sale and purchase of oil and gas, and the Libyan Central Bank, which controls the country’s purse strings. He wants to move their offices east, to Benghazi and Ras Lanuf, redirecting oil funds and effectively carving Libya in two.
“It’s about who is controlling the money. We can change the direction of flow of oil income into the banks we choose,” he said. “So Libya Dawn can just sit in Tripoli and invent their own authorities, but in fact they control nothing.”
In Tripoli, Libya Dawn’s ascendance is visible by simply walking down the street. The Che Guevara-looking Zintan fighters, who backed the Tobruk government, were chased out of town, and have been replaced by Misrati militiamen, who cruise the neighborhoods in pickup trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns. Their trucks — scrawled with text reading “Correcting the direction of the February 17 revolution” — guard the main ministries and parliament buildings. Graffiti praising Misrata, where Libya Dawn originates, has been scrawled on Qaddafi-era brigade bases they have commandeered.
The charred apartment blocks near the bombed-out airport are a stark reminder of the summer’s fierce fighting. Tripoli residents now tentatively go about their daily business, but activists in the city — who have been outspoken against the militias for years — say there has been a spike in kidnappings against their community since the summer, driving many into hiding or out of the country.
Prime Minister Omar al-Hassi, a 55-year-old former academic from Benghazi who was appointed by Libya Dawn, has the same idea as his rivals. He has moved quickly to seize control of the country’s sole remaining institutions: He headquartered his administration at the National Oil Corporation, taken over government buildings and websites, and appointed his own oil minister.
His forces are also on the offensive against oil sites held by Libya Dawn’s rivals. A few months ago, Libya Dawn militiamen seized control of the lucrative oil fields in the south — including El Sharara, Libya’s largest — bringing production to a grinding halt. In early December, they moved on the eastern oil ports and oil fields currently controlled by forces loyal to the Tobruk authorities, prompting new clashes with Haftar’s men. In the last week, five oil tanks that stored almost a million barrels of oil were set ablaze.
Hassi also sounded just as uncompromising about his enemies in Tobruk as they did about him. He described Thinni and Haftar as criminals for ignoring the court verdict invalidating the House of Representatives, and called on the international community to boycott the exiled parliament.
“Their crimes are huge and they are exacting a collective punishment on us all,” he said. “Whoever doesn’t listen to the court becomes an outlaw and should be stopped.”
Hassi called for fresh parliamentary elections “once the war stops.” Until that day, he argues that his “salvation government” should rule and preside over any peace talks. He defended his administration’s alliance with Ansar al-Sharia — saying the jihadi group had been misunderstood and actually represented a “simple, beautiful, friendly idea.”
Hassi promised his government “was all about dialogue,” but his militiamen, embittered by Haftar’s airstrikes in Tripoli and Benghazi, appear more determined than ever to fight to the death.
“They will keep going until the last man is gunned down — you can forget about peace deals or negotiations,” said the head of one of the largest Islamist militias operating in Benghazi. “We are losing between 20 and 25 men a day; there is no way after such huge losses the men will give up.”
While hatred for Haftar unites all the militias under Libya Dawn’s banner, wildly differing views of the country’s future could drive them apart in the future. The coalition includes both liberals and radical Islamists — and already there are signs of discontent simmering beneath the surface among some on the extremes.
Speaking on the phone from the front line in Benghazi, one Ansar al-Sharia fighter said they were not happy with Libya Dawn’s insistence on pursuing the trappings of a democratic state. “We’ll be happy if sharia law is properly implemented — but we won’t settle for less,” he said tersely.
Back in the cramped cinderblock outhouse that Zeina calls home, the young mother and her friends are stockpiling blankets in preparation for winter. They count themselves lucky, because they have access to running water. Next door, a family hastily constructs their own makeshift concrete block home in the dusty street. Others have been forced to make do living in parks and schools.
But there are many others who have fared far worse. Libya Body Count, a local independent monitoring organization, reports that over 2,700 people have been killed this year alone. As battles across the country intensify, that number goes up every day. Hundreds of thousands of civilians who have fled the war are now struggling to stay alive as the temperatures drop, and aid workers are unable to provide urgently needed medical care, food, and shelter. Meanwhile the economy is in tatters — Libya relies on oil revenues, and the fighting at the oil ports has seen production plummet by 60 percent in recent days.
The poorest and most vulnerable, like Zeina, have been hit hardest by the crisis. And with nobody truly in charge of the country, they have been left to fend for themselves.
“We just want to go home and for this war to stop,” Zeina said. “We were promised everything. It’s been three years now, and what good have we seen?”
ABDULLAH DOMA/AFP/Getty Images