One of Libya’s many rival factions took control of the northeastern city of Derna last week. The Libyan National Army (LNA), led by Gen. Khalifa Haftar, announced June 9 that it invaded the last extremist stronghold in the city, bringing an end to the offensive launched a month prior. The military action was intended to liberate the city and its inhabitants from an Islamist coalition, the Derna Protection Forces (DPF), formerly known as the Derna Mujahideen Shura Council. The LNA victory in Derna demonstrates the military is consolidating power in the east against rival Islamist groups. However, with multiple parties vying for power in the country, a stronger LNA could spell greater competition with rival leaders and a higher likelihood of civil war in the near future. An important indicator of Libya’s prospect for peace will be whether the four competing regimes accept the outcome of the upcoming December elections.
LNA forces began the siege of Derna in July 2017 but escalated attacks sharply in May by initiating air strikes. The militia then launched a ground attack on June 4, entering Derna via the coastal roads from both the east and west, and quickly gaining ground. The following day, LNA spokesman Ahmed al-Mesmari announced that the militia had taken control of 75 percent of the city and had managed to force “terrorists” out of most of the city. Another spokesman claimed on Friday, June 8, that LNA forces arrested al-Qaida senior military official, Yahya al-Osta Omar, who has been held by another Islamist faction since the 2011 revolution. Sixteen casualties and eleven injuries have been reported in the recent clashes.
During the 2011 revolution, Derna fell under control of the National Transitional Council that split from the regime. In October 2014, parts of the city were taken over by the Islamic State (IS), however, IS control was brief. By June 2015, the DFP had won control of the city from IS. The DPF alliance openly opposes Gen. Khalifa Haftar as well as IS and its affiliates.
Gen. Haftar’s LNA has consolidated its power in the east of the country since it captured Benghazi from the Islamists last July. Derna, with a population of roughly 150,000, was one of the last bastions of Islamist rule in the East. Haftar has become an increasingly prominent and controversial leader in Libyan politics. The Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR) has allied itself with the general and would like him to take on a more central political role. Meanwhile, the U.N.-backed Islamist Government of National Accord (GNA), based in Tripoli and established in December 2015 under the leadership of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, views Haftar as a Gadhafi-esque war criminal.
Libya is ruled by rival governments in the east and west, as well as several militias and Islamist groups. On May 29, French President Emmanuel Macron hosted four of the most prominent leaders in Paris to hash out an agreement to hold elections in an effort to unify the country. Attendees included Fayez al-Serraj of the GNA; Gen. Khalifa Haftar of the LNA; Aghela Saleh, elected HoR speaker in June 2014; and Khaled Mishri, the recently elected head of the High State Council, a Tripoli-based chamber intended to play an advisory role to the government. All four leaders agreed to hold elections on December 10, 2018.
The international community is divided over which regimes’ militia to back. The U.N. and much of the West supports the GNA, while Qatar and Turkey have allegedly sent financial and military assistance to various Islamist groups since 2011. Meanwhile, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates support Haftar and his allies in an effort to thwart the spread of political Islam in the region.
Unfortunately, as in much of the rest country, the conflict has exacted a heavy toll on the population of Derna. The humanitarian situation has worsened since the start of the siege in July 2017 and become ever-more dire with the escalation of the conflict. Residents are experiencing significant rates of internal displacement. In addition, the provision of basic services such as water and electricity have broken down. Extensive power-cuts have occurred and the city’s water desalination plant was shuttered in late May due to the volatile security situation. Even the most basic foodstuffs, as well as fuel and medical supplies are in short supply. Staff from the city’s lone hospital have reported severe shortages of medicine and generator fuel. Only small deliveries of medication and kidney dialysis materials have been allowed into the city since mid-March, according to the U.N.
The U.N. has blamed both sides of conflict for the humanitarian situation, stating that “[L]ocal sources report that DPF are currently taking positions among civilian infrastructure in residential areas, mostly in the centre of the city and reportedly in civilian clothing.” The report added that civilians have not been allowed to leave the city.
Amidst the political chaos, it remains to be seen whether the vying political factions will participate in and honor the outcome of the elections set for December. If, in spite of the agreement reached in Paris, they do not, international actors will have little power to enforce the election outcome short of resorting to full-scale military intervention. Likewise, domestic actors may turn to the use of force to back their political claims. The stronger each of the rival groups are, the harder it will be for any one of them to emerge victorious.