Geopolitics Military Affairs

Deadly clashes in Tripoli. Will the worst fighting in two years reignite the civil war in Libya? 

Michaela Ružičková

On Saturday, 27 August, the Libyan capital Tripoli was rocked by the heaviest fighting in two years. Clashes between rival militias have killed at least 32 people and injured 159. 

The conflict has arisen from the tense situation between the various groups fighting for power in the country. Their members have been gathering in the country’s capital for the past week, where violence has finally broken out. The situation has raised fears of a wider conflict in the context of the political rift between the administrations in the east and west of the country.

Political chaos has existed in Lybia since 2011 when a crisis culminated in the coup and overthrow of long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Since 2014, however, power in the country has been concentrated in two centres. The eastern wing is represented by parliament speaker Aguil Saleh and Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who heads the Libyan National Army (LNA). In the west, Abdul Hamis Dbeibah is the head of the interim government.

The political instability has been exacerbated by the indefinite postponement of the presidential and parliamentary elections, originally scheduled for December last year. However, in February this year, Fathi Bashagha, supported by the political branch in the east of the country, was appointed as the new prime minister of the country. The interim government leader in Tripoli, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, refused to relinquish power following the appointment of Bashagha and declared that he would remain in office until new elections were held. On Saturday, an armed convoy belonging to militias loyal to Bashagha was attacked as it drove through Tripoli in an attempt to seize control over the capital.

Bashagha’s efforts to oust Dbeibah were unsuccessful, and the main military convoy that set off from Misrata, east of Tripoli, where Bashagha is based, turned back before ever reaching the capital. Nevertheless, pro-Bashagha factions still have a strong presence around Tripoli and are backed by Haftar’s armed forces.

Bashagha’s attempt to seize power was his second attempt since May this year. His chances of gaining power are now quite low. In addition to the symbolic defeat, Bashagha also lost all the territory in Tripoli that was previously held by militias loyal to him. In addition, his efforts to persuade local militias to join his side proved unsuccessful, as many of them supported Dbeibah during the recent clashes. 

According to Libyan researcher Jalel Harchaoui, this is an indication that Turkey, which has long been involved in Libya, has intervened in the conflict. In addition to its military presence, it has developed a strong intelligence network in the country through which the Turkish side could have informed Dbeibeh of the planned attack. Turkey’s involvement in the conflict probably stems from a desire to maintain the status quo or to prevent the political growth of Bashagha, which is in disfavour with the Turkish government.

For now there is no sign of a possible political or diplomatic compromise between the groups as the administration in the east of the country has not yet indicated a willingness to reach an agreement with Dbeibah. Nor is it certain whether Dbeibah is interested in a political settlement after multiple successes in the past months.

Therefore, several scenarios are currently plausible in Libya. One involves a continuation of the current division between East and West, second the recognition of Dbeibah’s government by Bashagha, who could subsequently attempt negotiations or even the organization of another attack on Tripoli. However, it should be pointed out that, after the latest defeat of Bashagha’s forces, the leader of the eastern group has already lost much of his credibility, and any further loss could be decisive for him. Regardless of which scenario ultimately plays out, it is highly likely that it will not involve the organization of general elections in a conflict-ridden country, as neither of the warring parties is interested in holding them.

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