With two primary warring alliances and two rival governments, Libya’s civil war is becoming increasingly polarized. The Islamist/Misratan coalition, or Dawn of Libya, which supports the General National Congress (GNC) in Tripoli, is battling General Haftar and the Nationalist coalition, which supports the Council of Representatives in Tobruk. With this in mind, we shall begin the present state of play with the Nationalist coalition. In this post, we shall specifically evaluate the Petroleum Facilities Guard, the Army of Cyrenaica, the Cyrenaica Protection Force, the Libyan military, al-Saiqa (Special Forces), al-Sawaiq Brigade, and al-Qaqa Brigade.
The remaining groups – the Libyan National Army, Zintan Brigades, various tribes and regional forces – shall be presented in the next post.
The Council of Representatives and the Nationalist Forces (October 2014)
Although the UN recognizes the Council of Representatives’ legitimacy, it lacks domestic legitimacy; only about half of its representative members are present and it was only elected by “less than a quarter of Libya’s electorate,” according to Frederic Wehrey and Wolfram Lacher (October 2014). Despite its questioned legitimacy, Libya’s Council of Representatives has entered into a formal alliance with General Haftar and his nationalist coalition, who, in turn, are supported by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (Al-Warfalli and Bosalum, October 2014; Wehrey, September 2014).
Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni has taken a hardline stance on the Islamist/Misratan coalition’s Operation Dawn, calling all Dawn of Libya participants “terrorists” and refusing to negotiate with any moderate actors, according to Wehrey and Lacher (October 2014). Al-Thinni hopes to bring international actors into the fray in the framework of a “fight against terrorism” (Ibid.) However, until the Council of Representatives receives international military support, if at all, it must rely on the nationalist coalition and regional governments’ support to keep Islamic forces at bay and ensure its own survival – a necessary action resulting from the weakness of the Libyan military.
Evaluating Nationalist Forces (October 2014)
Petroleum Facilities Guard
The Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG) was established in 2012 under the interim government’s Defence Ministry, with the sole purpose to “protect Libya’s vital oil installations” (BBC News, 20 May 2014). This 18,000-21,000-man force (mostly former rebels) is divided into five regional branches, according to Jason Pack, Karim Mezran, and Mohamed Eljarh of the Atlantic Council (Pack, et al. May 2014; Socor, 7 November 2013; Finucci, 2013). However, approximately only 2,000 men are military-trained (Pack, et al. May 2014) while the rest are lower-quality fighters (Finucci, 2013).
Although the PFG plays a pivotal, and relatively successful, role in keeping Libya’s oil facilities safe from destruction, some PFG guards-turned-defectors have blockaded the vital oil terminals to fulfill a political agenda – one that is frustrated with central government – thereby supporting Cyrenaican autonomy (Pack, et al. May 2014). For example, defected PFG commander Ibrahim Jadhran and a sizable force managed to freeze oil exports for nearly a year until the then-governing General National Congress in Tripoli agreed to “engage in power and revenue-sharing agreements with local groups” (Bugnacki, 29 May 2014; Hanly, 3 August 2014). Opposition to government corruption and its inability to equally distribute oil revenue often motivates oil facility shutdowns, and was Jadhran’s reason to establish a regional Cyrenaica authority (Pack, et al. May 2014).
The Eastern PFG branch, encompassing Cyrenaica and allied with the Cyrenaica forces (see below), has aligned itself with Cyrenaica’s self-declared “autonomous regional government” (see section below), thus indirectly allying itself with General Haftar (Sayigh, 29 May 2014; Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium; Al Jazeera, 3 November 2013). Led by Colonel Idris Abu Khamada, the Eastern PFG branch has declared synonymous goals with Haftar and the Council of Representatives – to ensure oil production and exports, and to “defeat Islamist terror” by keeping their oil facilities from Islamic militias (CIPPE, 4 September 2014).
Many of the Eastern PFG members including those guarding Es Sider and Ras Lanuf, “Libya’s largest and third-largest oil export terminals,” are greatly influenced by Cyrenaica’s autonomous authorities (Ibid.). Meanwhile, the Western and Southwestern PFG branches are “dominated by Zintani militias,” implying an indirect alliance with General Haftar through the Zintani alliance (Sayigh, 29 May 2014).
Eastern Federalist Forces
A majority of the details for this section on Cyrenaica forces are summarized from the detailed report by Pack, Mezran, and Eljarh, “Libya’s Faustian Bargains: Breaking the Appeasement Cycle” (Atlantic Council, May 5, 2014).
Composed of the Army of Cyrenaica and the Cyrenaica Protection Force, Libya’s Eastern federalist groups support regional autonomy with a “federal system of government” in place (Pack, et al. May 2014). These forces are loyal to the two regional authorities in Cyrenaica: the Transitional Council of Cyrenaica (led by Ahmed Zubair al-Sanussi) and the Political Bureau of Cyrenaica (led by former PFG commander Ibrahim Jadhran) (Ibid.).
Army of Cyrenaica
According to Pack, Mezran, and Eljarh, the Army of Cyrenaica provides military support to the Transitional Council of Cyrenaica and is composed of marginalized former army officers led by Colonel Hamid Hassi (Ibid.). In June 2012, it attempted a symbolic roadblock on the highway with the goal of drawing “attention to the Federalist cause” (Ibid.). The cause calls for equalizing the political influence in Libya’s government, specifically ensuring that Libya’s three regions are represented “with a hundred seats each” (Ibid.).
Cyrenaica Protection Force
The Cyrenaica Protection Force, headed by Colonel Najeeb al-Hassi, supports the Political Bureau of Cyrenaica but also has a positive partnership with the Army of Cyrenaica (Ibid.). The Political Bureau of Cyrenaica was responsible for creating an autonomous government for the Eastern region (as mentioned in the PFG section), and includes a “council of ministers, an oil company, and a defense force” (Ibid.). By refraining from terrorist-like tactics and avoiding symbolic protest (such as the Army of Cyrenaica’s roadblock), the Cyrenaica Protection Force and the Political Bureau of Cyrenaica have acquired more public support (Ibid.).
Mezran, Pack, and Eljarh (2014) note Jadhran’s claim of 20,000 fighters in the Cyrenaica Protection Force, but estimate that it may be as small as “a thousand active fighters” (Ibid.). Jadhran’s former experience as a PFG commander gives him the knowledge and ability to directly control major oil facilities and influence Eastern PFG guards (Chmaytelli and Sarrar, 27 May 2014).
Because the Cyrenaica Protection Force opposes Islamic control (GNC), it gave its support to General Haftar in May 2014 (Engel, 20 May 2014). While the GNC is the Council of Representatives’ main rival, Jadhran’s regional government potentially poses “repeated challenges to creating political stability” and could even attempt to “gain international recognition for a Cyrenaican autonomous region” (Pack, et al. May 2014).
Fearing a military coup, Qaddafi weakened Libya’s military units and hindered their fighting capabilities – an action that would have a negative effect on the post-Qaddafi era. Instead, he relied on a hybrid of an official (although weak) military, and a “protective guard drawn from his familial and tribal support base” (Pack, et al. May 2014). As a result, Libya’s military was wholly unprepared to secure the country in the post-Qaddafi state.
The Libyan military has approximately 20,000 soldiers with little experience (Ibid.). Most of the military is located in Eastern Libya and has defected to or allied with Haftar (Al Jazeera, 2 June 2014). Although allied with Haftar, the military is still mainly controlled by the Council of Representatives and has standard leadership. Colonel Abdel Razzak Nadhuri was recently promoted to general and took over the Libyan Army in August 2014 – replacing General Abdessalam Jadallah al-Abidi (Al Arabiya News, 25 August 2014). Meanwhile, General Saqr al-Jaroushi is head of Libya’s air force (Hanly, 16 October 2014). Similar to Libya’s army branch, the air force lacks strength and superior equipment. Its role has incurred some success and some failure, due in part to its use of “old Russian fighter jets” and lack of radar and air defense systems (Pack, et al. May 2014). Nevertheless, the air force provides some tactical air power to General Haftar’s Operation Dignity (as will be detailed in forthcoming Nationalist Forces Part II) (Al Jazeera, 2 June 2014; Tawil, 30 May 2014).
More recently, the Libyan army – and allegedly, Egyptian fighter jets – took part in Haftar’s offensive on Benghazi (controlled by Islamist group Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries) in mid-October 2014 (Al Jazeera, 16 October 2014). The army’s 204th tank brigade, which has refrained from fighting since May 2014 because it was surrounded by Islamist forces, left their base inside Benghazi and joined Haftar’s offensive – “firing their guns at nearly point-blank range on the walls of the nearby 17 February Martyr’s brigade” (Fox, 30 October 2014). Small arms fire, tank shelling, mortar fire, and airstrikes have erupted in Benghazi, including armed citizens who fired on Ansar al-Sharia fighters (Ibid.). According to the spokesman of the Libyan army, Colonel Ahmed al-Mesmari, “The Libyan army claims Operation Dignity as one of its own campaigns” (Al Jazeera, 16 October 2014). While lacking in experience, the Libyan military is a complimentary force to Haftar’s nationalist alliance.
Al-Saiqa (Special Forces)
Libya’s al-Saiqa group is a Special Forces unit that numbers around 5,000 commandos (Finucci, 2013). Al-Saiqa was part of the interim government’s objective to provide security in Benghazi; but because this elite unit was not designed for law enforcement, it was incapable of providing sufficient security and handling crimes (Wehrey, 2014). Furthermore, an al-Saiqa base in southeast Benghazi was overrun in the summer of 2014 (Al Jazeera, 30 July 2014), after facing Ansar al-Sharia and heavy enemy shelling (Ibid.).
However, al-Saiqa troops loyal to Haftar’s alliance and led by Colonel Wanis Boukhamda have been an overall strategic asset to Haftar as his coalition engages Salafi-jihadist group Ansar al-Sharia in Eastern Libya (BBC News, 20 May 2014; Pack, et al. 2014). Al-Saiqa is part of the Libyan military, and thus ultimately answers to the Council of Representatives, but primarily contributes to Operation Dignity as a major ally of General Haftar (Wehrey, 2014).
The al-Sawaiq Brigade – affiliated with the Zintan-based brigades (Misrata’s rival and Haftar’s anchor in Western Libya) – was created in 2011 with the purpose of providing security for transitional government officials and institutions in Tripoli (Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium – al-Sawaiq Brigade; Pack, et al. May 2014). Led by Isam al-Trabulsi (aka Emad al-Trabelsi), the group is mostly comprised of “Zintanis who reside in Tripoli” (Ibid.). According to the Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium (TRAC), al-Sawaiq brigade’s ideology is a blend of “tribal nationalism” and “moderate conservative Islam” (TRAC – al-Sawaiq Brigade).
It is estimated that the group has 2,000 men with similar uniforms and weapons as the Libyan Army (Finucci, 2013; TRAC – al-Sawaiq Brigade). They are considered a heavily armed group – including mobile anti-aircraft guns (TRAC – al-Sawaiq Brigade; Pack, et al. May 2014). Because the al-Sawaiq Brigade is a Zintani affiliate, it is also part of Haftar’s nationalist coalition – taking on the Islamist/Misratan coalition in and around Tripoli (Wehrey, September 2014).
The predominately Zintani-composed al-Qaqa Brigade was created in 2011, during the revolution to oust Qaddafi (Wehrey, September 2014). Boasting an estimated 18,000 well-armed fighters, the al-Qaqa Brigade has established itself as “the most organized and best equipped government-sanctioned militia in Tripoli,” (Pack, et al. May 2014; TRAC – al-Qaqa Brigade). This can be credited to the members who make up the al-Qaqa Brigade – former Qaddafi military personnel, specifically from the 32nd Brigade – and their access to superior weapons when Osama Juwaili occupied the position of Minister of Defense during the interim period (Pack, et al. May 2014). The al-Qaqa Brigade, and the Zintan brigades in general, held a better advantage to acquire weapons during Juwaili’s time as Minister of Defense, primarily because Juwaili himself is Zintani and because the Zintanis had “maintained control of the upper echelons of the defense ministry” (Pack, et al. May 2014; Wehrey, September 2014).
Ideologically, al-Qaqa Brigade is a “new regime nationalist movement” – as classified by the Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium – due to its opposition of the Islamist-dominated GNC when it was in legitimate power (Lacroix, 3 July 2014). Particularly, the brigade is hostile towards Shi’a Muslims (TRAC – al-Qaqa Brigade).
Led by Uthman Mulayqithah, al-Qaqa Brigade was originally tasked by the Ministry of Defense to enforce “law and order,” protect government officials, conduct border security and protect oil facilities, but turned to “kidnapping…GNC representatives, arms smuggling, narcotics dealing,” and attacking rival groups once it began to oppose the General National Congress (Pack, et al. May 2014; Wehrey, September 2014; TRAC – al-Qaqa Brigade). Wehrey (2014) notes that al-Qaqa Brigade has a broad reputation for being “predatory and mafia-like”.
As part of the Zintan Brigades (Daleh, 25 August 2014), al-Qaqa is allied with General Haftar’s Operation Dignity. The al-Qaqa Brigade was one of the Zintani militias that controlled Tripoli International Airport and other strategic sites, before losing them to the Dawn of Libya in August 2014 (Ibid.).
Analysis & Conclusion
The above mentioned groups are part of the overall Nationalist coalition, but each with their own strategic importance and interests. The Petroleum Facilities Guard (Western, Eastern, Southwestern branches) is primarily concerned with preventing the destruction or Islamic takeover of oil facilities, while the Cyrenaica forces have a similar interest with the oil facilities in their region, but also want to protect their regional autonomous authority, while advocating for a federalist cause on a national scale. The Libyan military and al-Saiqa are primarily tasked at the moment with eliminating terrorist groups and pushing back Islamist forces – as part of Operation Dignity.
Lastly, the Zintan Brigades, including al-Sawaiq and al-Qaqa, are allied with Haftar and make up his primary foothold in Western Libya. However, with the loss of Tripoli and other strategic sites in that region, the Zintan Brigades will need to start making progress to push back Dawn of Libya if Operation Dignity is to succeed on both fronts. While all of these groups have both similar but slightly different objectives, their overall goal is the removal of terrorist groups and Islamic/Misratan forces, while pursuing, accordingly, a more federalist or nationalist government in lieu of the rival General National Congress. However, division between the federalist and nationalist political camps may widen if the illegitimate GNC is removed and Islamic forces no longer represent a significant threat to political authority.
Bibliography and Resources
Featured image: profile picture from Al-Sawaiq Brigade Facebook page – 7 July 2012.
Al-Sawaiq Brigade, Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium, accessed October 16, 2014
Al-Qaqa Brigade, Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium, accessed October 16, 2014
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