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Non-international armed conflicts in Libya

Conflict type: Non-international armed conflict

After the demise of the Qaddafi regime in 2011, Libya has been in a state of constant political unrest and related armed violence. The existence of competing governments, and seemingly ever-changing cast of different armed groups- which often switch alliances and seem to operate autonomously- exacerbated the situation and resulted in general uncertainty. Since 2014, there are overlapping ongoing non-international armed conflicts involving the internationally recognized Government of Libya, Libya National Army (LNA), various armed groups and intervening foreign powers.

There are multiple and overlapping non-international armed conflicts in Libya involving the Government and a myriad of armed groups. The non-international armed conflicts emerged in Libya along the following lines:

  • The UN-Backed GNA is engaged in armed conflict with the self-declared LNA and affiliated groups loyal to General Haftar;
  • The GNA is also fighting against groups pledging allegiance to the Islamic State that gaining control over Derna and Sirte in 2015;
  • The self-declared LNA and affiliated groups loyal to General Haftar which supports the House of Representatives (HoR) fights against Islamic State and also engaged in separate conflicts against other armed groups including Derna Protection Force (DPF) and The Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council (BRSC).
  • Upon request of the UN-backed Government of Libya, the United States launched a sustained air campaign against the Islamic State group in August 2016 and continues to support the GNA. Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), Government of Libya. Summary.
  • With regard to other foreign interventions; while Turkey is involved in the conflict in support of the GNA, France and United Arab Emirates are involved in NIAC in support of the LNA.

Two criteria need to be assessed in order to answer the question whether a situation of armed violence amounts to a non-international armed conflict.

  • First, the level of armed violence must reach a certain degree of intensity that goes beyond internal disturbances and tensions.
  • Second, in every non-international armed conflict, at least one side to the conflict must be a non-state armed group which must exhibit a certain level of organization in order to qualify as a party to the non-international armed conflict. Government forces are presumed to satisfy the criteria of organization. For further information, see 'non-international armed conflict' in our classification section.

Libya has been plagued by political unrest and armed violence with competing legislative bodies, divided State security forces and multiple armed rebel groups since the ouster of the Gadhafi regime in 2011. In August 2012, the National Transitional Council handed political control to the elected General National Congress (GNC). When the GNC decided to extend its mandate, which was originally due to expire in February 2014, until the end of 2014 protests erupted in Libya. Libya profile, Timeline BBC, 09 April 2019. Later in May 2014 the attacks by Haftar and the Zintani-led forces led in to ‘the eruption of full-scale civil war’. Wolfram Lacher and Alaa al-Idrissi, ‘Capital of Militias: Tripoli’s Armed Groups Capture the Libyan State’, Security Assessment in Northern Africa, Briefing Paper, June 2018, p.5.

After contested elections, a new legislative body, the House of Representatives (HoR) replaced the General National Congress in August 2014. However, part of the GNC, supported by armed militia, reconstituted itself as a rival government in Tripoli. Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), Government of Libya. Summary. Armed clashes between armed groups supporting the outgoing GNC and the HoR escalated during 2014. UN-backed negotiations led to the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) which created a new Government of National Accord (GNA) with an executive body, the Presidency Council, which arrived in Tripoli in March 2016. International Crisis Group, The Libyan Political Agreement: Time for a Reset, Middle East and North Africa Report No.170, 4 November 2016, p.10 However, the HoR rejected the lists of ministers submitted by the Presidency Council; and the HoR was never integrated into the GNA, the internationally recognized Government of Libya. Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), Government of Libya. Summary. It is worth highlighting that the HoR based in Tobruk lost its status as the internationally recognized government following the creation of the GNA. Adding to the confusion, note also that the Libyan Supreme Court also invalidated the election on the basis of which the HoR was established, see Sari Arraf, Libya: A Short Guide on the Conflict. The War Report 2017, Geneva Academy, p.3. The GNA led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj is recognized by the UN as ‘the sole legitimate government of Libya’ and the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has called upon the Member States ‘to cease support to and official contact with parallel institutions that claim to be the legitimate authority but are outside the Agreement’. See Security Council resolution 2259 (2015), UN Doc S/RES/2259 (2015), 23 December 2015, § 3 and § 5; see also Security Council resolution 2376 (2017), UN Doc S/RES/2376 (2017), 14 September 2017.

As a result, since then power has been split between two rival governments, the GNA based in Tripoli and the HoR in Tobruk, each allied with different armed groups. Moreover, the GNC continues to reside in Tripoli. As pockets of fighting have been bubbling up across Libya from mid-2014 onwards, a non-international conflict between the forces supporting the two rival governments has been taking place in Libya. For an overview of developments since then, see Report of the Secretary-General of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, UN doc S/2016/1011, 1 December 2016; H. al-Khoei, E. Geranmayeh and M. Toaldo, After Isis. How to Win the Peace in Iraq and Libya, Policy Brief, European Council on Foreign Relations. Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the Situation of Human Rights in Libya, Including on the Effectiveness of Technical Assistance and Capacity-Building Measures Received by the Government of Libya, UN Doc A/HRC/34/42, 13 January 2017; and Security Council Press Statement on Libya, SC/13749, 26 March 2019. Though unsuccessful, the United Nations proposed a new action plan in September 2017 with amendments to the 2015 Political Agreement. J. Irish, 'Unveiling New Libya Plan, U.N. Sees Opportunity for Peace', Reuters, 20 September 2017.

In parallel to the aforementioned conflict, both the government of Libya and the LNA are also each engaged in a non-international armed conflict with the Islamic State (IS) and other armed groups notably the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council (BRSC). In 2015 the Islamic State group took advantage of the security situation in Libya and gained control over several cities, including Benghazi and Sirte. Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), Libya. Summary. Since its establishment, BRSC is engaged in fierce clashes with the LNA over territorial control in the Oil Crescent region, as well as southern Libya. Report of the OHCHR, ‘Abuse Behind Bars: Arbitrary and unlawful detention in Libya’, April 2018, p.19 fn61.

There are several other minor clashes between armed groups which are anti-GNA and pro-GNA in Misrata and Tripoli. For instance, armed groups supporting Al-Ghweil (i.e. the National Guard, the Al-Marsa al-Kubra Brigade) and groups supported by the former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group; clashed with groups from Tripoli including the Special Deterrence Force, the Abu Salim Brigade and the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade. Final Report of the Panel of Experts on Libya established pursuant to resolution 1973 (2011), UN Doc. S/2017/466, 1 June 2017, para.29. Depending on their degree of organization, at least some of these groups may qualify as parties to separate non-international armed conflicts, if the intensity of violence in which they are engaged meets the corresponding threshold.

Intensity of the violence

Various indicative factors are used to assess whether a given situation has met the required intensity threshold, such as the number, duration, and intensity of individual confrontations; the types of weapons and military equipment used; the number of persons and types of forces participating in the fighting; the number of casualties; the extent of material destruction; the number of civilians fleeing; and the involvement of the United Nations Security Council. For further information, see 'non-international armed conflict - intensity of violence' in our classification section.

On 14 February 2014, General Hafter announced the establishment of the LNA also hoping that this would attract another plethora of militias in Libya, and declared, in a failed coup that the interim government is suspended. Anas El Gomati, ‘Haftar’s Rebranded Coups’, July 30, 2019. In mid-May 2014, the heaviest fighting since the end of the 2011 war broke out in Benghazi. General Khalifa Haftar, a commander during the Libyan uprising, launched an operation against an alliance of Islamist armed groups, including Ansar al-Sharia, using helicopters, fighter jets and ground forces. Militias aligned with the General National Congress deployed in Tripoli. C. Stephen, ‘Heavy Fighting Breaks Out in Libya as Troops Storm Militias in Benghazi’, The Guardian, 16 May 2014; ‘Rogue General’s Forces Attack Libya Parliament’, Associated Press, 18 May 2014; S. A. Kouddous, ‘In Libya, Fear of All-Out War as Islamist Militias Allied With Parliament Deploy in Capital’, The Washington Post, 22 May 2014.

To counter this movement, different armed groups, dominated by the Misrata Brigades, joined hands in supporting the GNC and formed a coalition called Libya Dawn. Civil war in Libya’, Global Conflict Tracker, 15 June 2019; Wolfram Lacher and Alaa al-Idrissi, ‘Capital of Militias: Tripoli’s Armed Groups Capture the Libyan State’, Security Assessment in Northern Africa, Briefing Paper, June 2018, p.5. After August 2014 the Libya Dawn coalition ceased to exist as an independent non-state actor and became the backbone of an armed force loyal to the reconvened GNC. Jose Serralvo, ‘Government Recognition and International Humanitarian Law Applicability in Post Gaddafi Libya’, Yearbook of International Humanitarian Law 2015, p.9; Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), Government of Libya. Summary.

The UN-backed government in Tripoli – the GNA – much like other preceding governments- is unable to assert much real influence outside Tripoli and its immediate environs, and various non-state actors control most of Eastern and Southern Libya. The GNA has had to rely on the support of local and tribal militia including militias from Misrata (such as the Misratan Third Force/13th Brigade), Tripoli-based Special Deterrence Force, Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade, and, Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG). Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), Government of Libya. Summary From 3 June 2017, the Zintan Military Council also appeared to have switched allegiance to the Government of Libya; prior to this date, especially during 2014 and 2015, the Zintanis had been an important constituent part of the Forces of the HoR. Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), Government of Libya. Summary. There was an unprecedented escalation in violence in southern Libya starting in April 2017, including air strikes from rival air forces, another indication of ongoing power struggles. Final report of the Panel of Experts on Libya established pursuant to resolution 1973 (2011), UN Doc. S/2017/466, 1 June 2017, para.68.

In 2015 the presence of the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Sirte and Derna has further complicated the situation as the group fights both the forces loyal to the GNA and the LNA. The GNA led by Fayez al-Serraj was the recipient of warring support from the United States of America in its fight against the Islamic State in 2016 and 2017. Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), Government of Libya. Summary. In July 2017 the Islamic State group was ejected from Benghazi after three years of fighting Libya profile – Timeline, 09 April 2019. and in July 2018 Khalifa Haftar’s forces recaptured Derna, the last Islamist stronghold in the East and the only city in the region which hitherto remained outside his control. Libya profile – Timeline, 09 April 2019. Nonetheless, Islamic State members continue to operate throughout the country and conduct sporadic attacks in different locations. Civil war in Libya’, Global Conflict Tracker, 15 June 2019. In January 2019, Khalifa Haftar also launched a new counterterrorism mission in Southern Libya which gave Haftar the opportunity to obtain greater territorial control in the area. Umberto Profazio, ‘Push for southern Libya tests ethnic ties and regional alliances’, 15th March 2019.

Meanwhile, in Tripoli, frequent clashes take place between rival groups supporting or opposing the GNA.  See for example 'Rival Factions Clash in Libya's Tripoli', Al Jazeera, 27 May 2017; 'Airport in Libya's Capital Shut for Third Day After Clashes', Reuters, 17 January 2018.  The report of the UN Panel of Experts reveals that Al-Ghweil challenged the Presidency Council’s attempts to constitute a Presidential Guard by creating the National Guard, composed of ‘anti-Government of National Accord’ armed groups from Misrata and Tripoli. Final report of the Panel of Experts on Libya established pursuant to resolution 1973 (2011), UN Doc. S/2017/466, 1 June 2017, para.29. The creation of this unit led to a series of armed clashes in Tripoli. Armed groups supporting Al-Ghweil, such as the National Guard, the Al-Marsa al-Kubra Brigade and groups supported by the former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, clashed with groups from Tripoli, such as the Special Deterrence Force, the Abu Salim Brigade and the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade. Final report of the Panel of Experts on Libya established pursuant to resolution 1973 (2011), UN Doc. S/2017/466, 1 June 2017, para.29.  From 3 June 2017, the Zintan Military Council also appeared to have switched allegiance to the Government of Libya; prior to this date, especially during 2014 and 2015, the Zintanis had been an important constituent part of the Forces of the HoR. Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), Government of Libya. Summary. The GNA declared a state of emergency in September 2018, after dozens of people were killed in clashes between rival militia groups in the city's southern suburbs.Civil war in Libya’, Global Conflict Tracker, 15 June 2019.

Drawing its strength from a web of tribal alliances, Haftar’s LNA has expanded its presence across central and eastern Libya. A. Al-Warfalli, 'Libya's Eastern Commander Declares Victory in Battle for Benghazi', Reuters, 5 July 2017. For an overview of the developments in 2017, see Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, UN Doc S/2017/726, 22 August 2017; A Quick Guide to Libya’s Main Players, European Council on Foreign Affairs, 2016. The LNA has advanced into the capital Tripoli in April 2019, despite facing fierce resistance from armed groups loyal to the GNA. Libya profile – Timeline, 09 April 2019; International Crisis Group, Averting a Full-blown War in Libya, 10 April 2019. International  Crisis  Group, Stopping the War for Tripoli, Crisis Group Middle East and North Africa Briefing No.69 Tripoli/Brussels, 23 May 2019, p.2. Between mid-April and mid-May, the LNA repeatedly carried out air and drone strikes against armed groups inside Tripoli and nearby towns such as Zawiya and Tajoura and against pro-GNA fighters on the front lines. In turn, the GNA has used its own small air force to strike at LNA-held areas, such as Qasr Ben Gashir. International  Crisis  Group, Stopping the War for Tripoli, Crisis Group Middle East and North Africa Briefing No.69 Tripoli/Brussels, 23 May 2019, p.3; U.N. report finds likely use of armed drone in Libya by Haftar or ‘third party’”, Reuters, 8 May 2019.

On account of the frequency of armed attacks and armed confrontations, the number of casualties, the number of people forced to flee ongoing hostilities, and the types of weapons and military equipment utilized, the required degree of intensity has been reached since July 2014. The fighting has continued unabated and hence, several non-international armed conflicts currently exist in Libya.

Organization

A series of indicative factors are used to assess whether armed groups exhibit the required degree of organization, such as the existence of a command structure and disciplinary rules and mechanisms, the ability to procure, transport, and distribute arms, the ability to plan, coordinate and carry out military operations, the ability to negotiate and conclude agreements, e.g. cease-fire or peace agreements. If the criterion of a minimum organization of the armed group is not fulfilled, there is no armed conflict. For further information, see 'non-international armed conflict - organization' in our classification section.

As presented above, myriad of factional armed groups are active in Libya since 2014. Their fluidity and their shifting allegiance to broader coalitions and umbrella groups hamper an assessment of the degree of organization of most individual groups and the broader collective alliance to which they belong. Civil war in Libya’, Global Conflict Tracker, 15 June 2019. Moreover, the disintegration, internal rivalries, factionalism, and changing nature of the multitude of armed groups operating at the local level make it a delicate exercise. For detailed overview of the key armed players in Libya, see A Quick Guide to Libya’s Main Players, European Council on Foreign Affairs, 2016; and Wolfram Lacher and Alaa al-Idrissi, ‘Capital of Militias: Tripoli’s Armed Groups Capture the Libyan State’, Security Assessment in Northern Africa, Briefing Paper, June 2018. For instance, in its 2015 report, the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights reported that ‘fighters have received little training and do not operate with the appropriate discipline, command and control systems. Those factors have contributed to the indiscriminate nature of the many attacks.’ Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the Situation of Human Rights in Libya and on Related Technical Support and Capacity Building Needs, UN Doc A/HRC/28/51 undocs.org/A/HRC/28/51, 12 January 2015.

Nevertheless, the groups, alliances and their affiliates were able to sustain hostilities over a period of time, had access to heavy weaponry used in fighting, and at different times controlled territory. Since 2014, there were at least three different fronts in the armed conflict: a conflict between the government of Libya and the self-declared LNA and affiliated groups loyal to General Haftar; a conflict between the government of Libya and Islamic State groups; and a conflict between the LNA and other armed groups - including Derna Protection Force (DPF) and The Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council (BRSC). As indicated in the following paragraphs, some armed groups seem to have a hierarchical command structure and zones of operations, are able to recruit and train members, have the ability to speak in one voice and sign agreements (including cease-fire agreements, and other bilateral negotiations) and hence meet the organizational requirement for the purpose of conflict classification.

Libyan National Army (LNA)

The LNA is an armed group active in Libya and represents the most potent military force which incorporates certain officers from the previous regular Libyan army. Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), LAN. Summary. The LNA is also comprised of various tribal and regional-based armed groups. Led by General Khalifa Haftar, a former official of Muammar Gadhafi’s regime, the LNA emerged in 2014 after the launch of Operation Dignity against Islamist factions in Benghazi. Libyan National Army (LNA), Background. On 2 March 2015 Haftar was appointed by the HoR as chief of Staff of the Libyan Army. Libya Names Anti-Islamist General Haftar as Army Chief’ BBC News, 2 March 2015. Armed groups and political actors across much of western Libya (and some parts of eastern Libya) do not recognise the LNA. Libyan National Army (LNA), Background. The LNA includes the Saiqa Special Forces, led by Wanis Bukhamada; the Omar al-Mukhtar Operations Room, which is fighting in Derna; and affiliated military units in the western and southern part of the country. Madkhalist and Salafist armed groups like the Tariq Ibn Ziyad Brigade and the al-Tawhid Brigade are also operating under its control. Libyan National Army (LNA), Background. The LNA was closely allied to the Zintan Military Council, which commanded a collection of militias from the town Zintan. Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), LNA. Summary.  Most recent estimates indicate that the LNA is composed of about 12,000 fighters. Libyan National Army (LNA), Background; Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), LAN. Summary. The LNA and its affiliates remain aligned to the HoR and resist the new unity government (the GNA.) Since 2017 it extended its territorial control in southern and eastern Libya, notably by seizing Benghazi in July 2017.  Final report of the Panel of Experts on Libya established pursuant to resolution 1973 (2011), UN Doc. S/2017/466, 1 June 2017, paras.68-73. Reportedly in March 2019, the Kani Brigade, which previously backed the GNA, joined the LNA, becoming the 9th Infantry Brigade. Kani Brigade, Background. As of July 2019, the LNA is on the outskirts of Tripoli, trying to assert control over the capital and to dislodge the internationally recognized GNA.

Derna Protection Force (DPF)

DPF was created in December 2014, following the merger of Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade (ASMB), Jaysh al-Islami al-Libi (Islamic Army of Libya), and the Derna-branch of Ansar al-Sharia in Libya (ASL). Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), DPF, Summary. The Derna Mujahideen Shura Council (DMSC) includes several Islamist armed groups in the eastern city of Derna; the most prominent being the Abu Salim Brigade, an Islamist group founded by former members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), DPF, Summary. Following the rise of the Islamic State Group in Derna in 2015, the DMSC clashed with and ousted ISIS militants from the eastern city, imposing its rule on Derna. Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), DPF-Summary.  In 2016, the LNA launched ‘Operation Volcano’ to take control of Derna. After the launch of the LNA’s final offensive to take control of the city in May 2018, the leader of the DMSC Atey al-Shaari announced the dissolution of the group and the establishment of the Derna Protection Force (DPF); ‘essentially a rebranding exercise aimed at sanitizing the DMSC and severing ties with Islamist groups’. Derna Protection Force (DPF):Background. The group has different training camps in Derna and the surrounding areas. Some of these camps have been targeted by Egyptian airstrikes in May 2017, as retaliation for the terrorist attack in Minya. Derna Protection Force (DPF):Background. In May 2018, DPF leader Al-Shaari announced that the group was willing to submit itself to the command of “Libyan army officers”, an apparent attempt to attract support from the Government of Libya in Tripoli; there was no indication that the Tripoli government acknowledged or accepted this offer. Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), DPF-Summary. Though in 2019 the LNA announced that Derna is under its full control, there are still some pockets of resistance in the city. Derna Protection Force (DPF):Background.

The Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council (BRSC)

The BRSC is an umbrella group established in 2014 to defend Benghazi against the ‘Operation Dignity’ launched by General Khalifa Haftar against Islamist factions in the city. It includes several groups, ranging from the revolutionary brigades – such as the February 17th Martyrs Brigade, the Rafallah al-Sahati Brigade and Libya Shield No.1, led by the prominent Islamist commander Wissam Ben-Hamid – to more extremist groups like Ansar al-Sharia Libya (ASL) or those with links to the Islamic State group. Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council (BRSC), Background.   Recruitment by the BRSC from Misratah continued until at least January 2017. Final report of the Panel of Experts on Libya established pursuant to resolution 1973 (2011), UN Doc. S/2017/466, 1 June 2017, para.51. In December 2017, Haftar announced that the eastern city was under the total control of his forces. Since then, the group has been inactive, although sporadic terrorist attacks might indicate the continued presence of BRSC sleeper cells in Benghazi. Most of the BRSC militants ousted from the eastern city swelled the ranks of other Islamist-leaning groups, such as the Benghazi Defence Brigades (BDB) and the DPF. Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council (BRSC), Background.

The Islamic State and its affiliates in Libya

Some armed groups have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group in Derna and Sirte. Islamic State militants “seize Sirte airport”’, BBC, 29 May 2015; R. Jawad, ‘How Strong Is Islamic State in Libya’, BBC, 5 February 2015. The first signs of ISIS’ presence emerged in 2014 when the organisation gained a foothold in the eastern city of Derna. Affiliates of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) in Libya, Background. Then, ISIS found more fertile ground in Sirte, which it had taken over by early 2015. Affiliates of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) in Libya, Background; and Final Report of the Panel of Experts on Libya established pursuant to resolution 1973 (2011), UN Doc. S/2017/466, 1 June 2017, paras.42-47. Following clashes on the outskirts of Misrata in May 2016, the GNA launched an offensive to oust ISIS from Sirte. Misrata militias composed the backbone of ‘Operation Solid Structure (Bunyan Marsous)’, enabling to retake control, in December 2016, of the ISIS stronghold with the crucial support of the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM), which launched at least 495 airstrikes in Sirte. Affiliates of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) in Libya, Background. The end of the battle of Sirte meant the end of the territorial dimension of ISIS in Libya. However, many ISIS militants managed to flee the city, heading towards the valleys nearby and regrouping. ISIS maintains a presence in the areas south of Sirte, between Bani Walid, Waddan and Jufra. Affiliates of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) in Libya, Background. Despite conflicting reports about the number of ISIS militants in Libya, it is thought that the jihadist group maintains a considerable presence. According to a 2018 UN report on ISIS, al-Qaeda and associated individuals and entities, there are between 3,000 and 4,000 ISIS members across Libya. Affiliates of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) in Libya, Background.

Foreign interventions

In relation to the intervention of foreign forces into the conflict in Libya, the UN’s envoy to Libya Ghassan Salame has recently stated that Libya has become ‘a textbook example of foreign interference today in local conflicts.’ ‘UN envoy: 'Libya a textbook example of foreign intervention', Middle East, 23 May 2019. In 2019 a military adviser in General Khalifa Haftar’s forces revealed that Egyptian, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and French military forces, as well as security advisers, are currently present in eastern Libya, to support Haftar’s campaign against Tripoli and protect oil fields from attacked by government forces.Libya minister accuses 2 Arab states of bombing Tripoli’, Middle East Monitor, 29 April 2019.

Upon invitation of the UN-backed Government of Libya, the United States launched a sustained air operation against the Islamic State group in Libya on 1 August 2016 to drive the group out of its stronghold Sirte and enable the seizure of Sirte by armed groups allied with the Government of National Accord. Previously, the United States had already conducted isolated airstrikes against Islamic State group targets in Libya. S. Ackerman, C. Stephen, E. MacAskill, ‘Us Launches Airstrikes Against ISIS in Libya’, The Guardian, 1 August 2016. For the question who has the authority to invite a foreign state to use force in case of contested legitimacy, see the Classification section. The intervention takes place with the consent of Libya and thus does not change the classification of the conflict as non-international. For further information on the relevance of consent, see 'contemporary challenges - relevance of consent' in our classification section. The validity of the consent can be questioned as there are three competing governments in Libya. For a discussion on the possible effects of government recognition on conflict classification, see Jose Serralvo, ‘Government Recognition and International Humanitarian Law Applicability in Post Gaddafi Libya’, Yearbook of International Humanitarian Law 2015, pp.3-39; and Marco Sassoli, ‘The Concept and Beginning of Occupation’ in Clapham A, Gaeta P, Sassoli M (eds) The Geneva Conventions: A Commentary. Oxford University Press, Oxford, p.1406.

However, the Government of National Accord is considered the legitimate government of Yemen and thus considered to be capable of providing valid consent. See e.g. UN Security Council resolution 2259 (2015), UN doc S/RES/2259 (2015), 23 December 2015, § 3 and 5; and UN Security Council resolution 2376 (2017), UN doc S/RES/2376 (2017), 14 September 2017. There are reports suggesting that American, British, French and Italian Special Forces had taken part in operations against ISIS in Libya, although their numbers have been much reduced since Sirte was retaken from the Islamists. Kim Sengupta, ‘With Libya on the Brink of another civil war, foreign powers are already jostling for the spoils', The Independent, 8 April 2019.

Although the United States announced an end to its air campaign after the eviction of the Islamic State group from Sirte in December 2016, further airstrikes were carried out in January 2017. United State Africa Command, AFRICOM Concludes Operation Odyssey Lightning, 20 December 2016; E. Schmitt and M. R. Gordon, ‘U.S. Bombs ISIS Camps in Libya’, The New York Times, 19 January 2017. For detailed information on United States’ airstrikes in Libya, see the information collected by Airwars, a non-profit organization that tracks international air strikes against the Islamic State group.

Also in November 2017, the United States carried out a series of precision airstrikes against the Islamic State group. According to the United States, the strikes were carried out in coordination with the GNA. E. Schmitt, '17 ISIS Fighters Reported Killed as U.S. Ends Lull in Libya Airstrikes', The New York Times, 24 September 2017; 'U.S. Carries Out Air Strikes Against Islamic State in Libya', Reuters, 22 November 2017. See also the press releases issued by the US Africa Command on September 24; September 28;  and November 21; and 'A. Plaw and A. Pilch, 'Can Airstrikes Alone Tackle Islamic State in Libya?', Terrorism Monitor, Volume 16-2, 26 January 2018.  The US still continues to carry out air strikes against Islamic State-affiliated groups and other groups such as Al Qaeda in southern Libya in coordination with the GNA. ‘US targets Al Qaeda in Libya air strike’ TRT WORLD, 14 Feb 2019. Hence, the United States is a party to non-international armed conflict by virtue of these airstrikes. For further information on who is a party to an armed conflict, see 'contemporary challenges - who is a party?' in our classification section.

Turkey supports the GNA, supplying drones, weapons and trucks to boost its efforts in the ongoing conflict with Gen Haftar's forces, which control most of the east and south of Libya. Turkey threatens Libyan strongman Haftar as six citizens detained’, 30 June 2019. It is also reported that groups fighting against Haftar recently received a high-profile delivery of Turkish-made BMC Kirpi armoured trucks and other weaponry from Turkey. Tarek Megerisi, ‘Libya’s Global Civil War’, European Council on Foreign Relations, Policy Brief, ECFR/ECFR/291, June 2019, pp.14-15. It was claimed that the Turkish aircraft ‘provided air cover’ and bombed LNA positions in the fight for Gharyan, a strategic town south of the capital, which is now centred by the GNA. See ‘Libya: Haftar bans flights, boats from Turkey’, Aljazeera, 20 June 2019. Following this incident, Major General Ahmed al-Mesmari, spokesperson of the LNA, told reports that ‘orders have been given to the air force to target Turkish ships and boats in Libyan territorial waters,’ and that ‘Turkish strategic sites, companies and projects belonging to the Turkish state (in Libya) are considered legitimate targets’. See ‘Libya: Haftar bans flights, boats from Turkey’, Aljazeera, 20 June 2019. Moreover, it was indicated that drones made in Turkey have been playing a significant role in Tripoli front line; and there are also persistent rumours that Turkish personnel are operating the vehicles and training Libyans. Tarek Megerisi, ‘Libya’s Global Civil War’, European Council on Foreign Relations, Policy Brief, ECFR/ECFR/291, June 2019, pp.14-15. Based on these facts, it could be concluded that Turkey is a party to the non-international armed conflict between GNA and LNA in support of the former.

Egypt launched airstrikes against the Islamic State group and other Islamist groups in Libya in 2015 and 2017 in response to the killings of Coptic Christians. Egypt supports the self-declared Libyan National Army of General Haftar and it does not appear that the Government of National Accord consented to these airstrikes. See A. Aboulenein, 'Egypt Launches Air Raids on Libya After Christians Killed'Reuters, 25 May 2017; J. Malsin and C. Stephen, 'Egyptian Air Strikes in Libya Kill Dozens of Isis Militants', The Guardian, 17 February 2015. On the relevance of consent see 'contemporary challenges for classification - relevance of consent' in our classification section. On the threshold for an international armed conflict, see 'international armed conflict - a low threshold' in our classification section.   If undertaken without consent, which appears this is the case, these airstrikes amount to short-lived international armed conflicts between Libya and Egypt. In parallel, when conducting these strikes, Egypt was arguably involved in a NIAC against the Islamist groups it targeted in support of the LNA. Nevertheless, since 2017, there has been no public reports concerning continued military support from Egypt to the LNA, other than providing weapons and political support, Tarek Megerisi, ‘Libya’s Global Civil War’, European Council on Foreign Relations, Policy Brief, ECFR/ECFR/291, June 2019, pp.5-6. and hence it would be doubtful whether Egypt’s involvement continues to meet the threshold required to qualify it as a party to a NIAC in Libya.

France officially recognises the GNA, and as recently as September 2018, France publicly supported the GNA ‘as the sole legitimate government of Libya, with Prime Minister Fayez Serraj as the leader of the Presidency Council’. The Conflict in Libya, Testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Middle East, North Africa, and International Terrorism’, United States Institute of Peace, 15 May 2019. At the same time, among European states it is the most openly supportive of Haftar, and has maintained close relations with him since 2015. International  Crisis  Group, Stopping the War for Tripoli, Crisis Group Middle East and North Africa Briefing No.69 Tripoli/Brussels, 23 May 2019. France has reportedly been providing decisive military support to Haftar’s LNA since 2015. Karim Mezran and Arturo Varvelli eds., Foreign Actors inside Libya’s Crisis. Milan: Italian Institute for International Political Studies, 2017, p.67; Paul Taylor, ‘France’s double role in Libya: In backing a warlord, Paris may be dealing itself a losing hand’,  Politico, 17 April 2019. It has deployed advisers and Special Forces to the east of Libya, as publicly acknowledged in July 2016 after three French Special Forces soldiers were killed in a helicopter crash near Benghazi. ‘France admits special forces soldiers killed in Libya’, RFI, 20 July 2016; Guma el-Gamaty, ‘Libya conflict: Is France an honest broker?’ Middle East Eye, 28 May 2018. It is reported that France has provided the LNA with military advisers, clandestine operatives, and special force units – elements not provided to the GNA. Testimony of Thomas Hill on the Conflict in Libya (3)’ Libya Tribune, 08 June 2019. France has not denied its support for Field Marshal Haftar but instead has suggested that its support is not in favour of one Libyan faction over another.  Testimony of Thomas Hill on the Conflict in Libya (3)’ Libya Tribune, 08 June 2019.

In addition, France blocked EU efforts to condemn Field Marshal Haftar’s military assault on the GNA on Tripoli and instead called for a ceasefire but not the withdrawal of LNA forces. Gabriela Baczynska and Francesco Guarascio, “France blocks EU call to stop Haftar’s offensive in Libya.” Reuters 10 April 2019. In turn, the GNA has recently notified that it will no longer engage in bilateral discussions with France. Libya’s UN-backed govt accuses France of supporting Haftar, ends cooperation’, France24, 18 April 2019. On the basis of these reports, and if the personnel deployed by France to support the LNA is undertaking actions related to the conduct of hostilities, France may be involved in one or several non-international armed conflicts in Libya in support of LNA. Provided that France’s military involvement in the territory of Libya takes place without the consent of the government of Libya (the UN-backed GNA), a parallel IAC would exist between Libya and France. The GNA denounced a violation of the sovereignty of Libya as reported in “How the West’s silence emboldened Libya’s Haftar”, France 24, 6 April 2018.

Since 2014, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been strengthening Haftar’s military capabilities, as well as his political support base and international standing. Tarek Megerisi, ‘Libya’s Global Civil War’, European Council on Foreign Relations, Policy Brief, ECFR/ECFR/291, June 2019, p.7; Final report of the Panel of Experts on Libya established pursuant to resolution 1973 (2011), UN Doc. S/2017/466, 1 June 2017, para.132. The UAE is providing Haftar with a variety of military equipment, including armoured personnel carriers and even aircraft. Tarek Megerisi, ‘Libya’s Global Civil War’, European Council on Foreign Relations, Policy Brief, ECFR/ECFR/291, June 2019, p.7; ‘Libya missile strikes point to possible UAE role: UN report’, 6 May 2019. UAE has also built facilities at al-Khadim airbase, near the north-eastern Libyan city of Marj and Haftar’s headquarters at el-Rajma, which is being used to deploy Wing Loong drones that were vital to Haftar’s military successes in Benghazi and Derna, and to his further efforts to maintain control over eastern Libya. See Tarek Megerisi, ‘Libya’s Global Civil War’, European Council on Foreign Relations, Policy Brief, ECFR/ECFR/291, June 2019, p.7; and ‘UAE supports Haftar’s offensive against Tripoli ‘militias’', Middle East Monitor, 3 May 2019. It is also reported that the UAE has tasked a US private military firm with operating a squadron of aircraft in Libya, to help Haftar maintain battlefield superiority and gain control of more territory. Tarek Megerisi, ‘Libya’s Global Civil War’, European Council on Foreign Relations, Policy Brief, ECFR/ECFR/291, June 2019, p.7. Since Haftar began his advance on Tripoli, there have been series of UAE-linked drone strikes on Tripoli. Tarek Megerisi, ‘Libya’s Global Civil War’, European Council on Foreign Relations, Policy Brief, ECFR/ECFR/291, June 2019, p.8. It is reported that the UAE deployed six IOMAX AT-802U Air Tractors and three Wing Loong II drones at Al-Khadim airfield in al-Marj in eastern Libya in 2016. Arnaud Delalande, ‘Forces on the Libyan ground: Who is Who,’ Italian Institute for International Political Studies, 28 May 2018. Moreover, the UAE has been accused of backing the LNA on the front line, providing strategic advice and targeting assistance to facilitate precise airstrikes. Tarek Megerisi, ‘Libya’s Global Civil War’, European Council on Foreign Relations, Policy Brief, ECFR/ECFR/291, June 2019, p.8. Following a report by the UN experts investigating missile strikes (‘a Blue Arrow air-to-surface missile’) near Libya's capital which points to possible involvement by the UAE, the UAE’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a short statement to say that it ‘denied ownership of weapons found in the Republic of Libya’. Declan Walsh, ‘United Arab Emirates Denies Sending American Missiles to Libya’, The New York Times, 2 July 2019.  As a result of these direct support which contributes to LNA’s collective conduct of hostilities and thus directly impacts on the GNA’s  military operations, the UAE has been a party to the pre-existing non-international armed conflict between these forces and al-Shabaab under the ‘support-based approach’ proposed by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Since 2014, there have been widespread reports that Russia has provided military assistance to Haftar in the form of advisers, training, and the maintenance of Russian weaponry through the Wagner Group- a private military contractor. Tarek Megerisi, ‘Libya’s Global Civil War’, European Council on Foreign Relations, Policy Brief, ECFR/ECFR/291, June 2019, p.11; and ‘Russia's growing intervention in Libyan civil war’, TRTWORLD, 7 March 2019. Recently, there have been rumours of a Russian military presence in Haftar controlled areas such as the oil crescent, which Moscow may have deployed to benefit from illicit sales and Haftar’s forward operating bases in western Libya. Tarek Megerisi, ‘Libya’s Global Civil War’, European Council on Foreign Relations, Policy Brief, ECFR/ECFR/291, June 2019, p.11. In addition to providing this material support, Russia blocked on 7 April 2019 a UNSC statement intended to voice opposition to Haftar’s offensive; which suggests that Russia is now coming down harder on his side. Tarek Megerisi, ‘Libya’s Global Civil War’, European Council on Foreign Relations, Policy Brief, ECFR/ECFR/291, June 2019, p.11. However, recently, Russia’s deputy foreign minister in charge of Middle Eastern affairs, Mikhail Bogdanov, argued that Russia is not taking sides on the Libyan conflict. Yacqub Ismail, ‘Russia’s Endgame in Libya’, International Policy Digest, 08 April 2019. From the publicly available information, it is difficult to conclude that Russia’s involvement in Libya in support of LNA would make it a party to the armed conflict.

Libya is a party to the four 1949 Geneva Conventions. All parties to the conflict are bound by Article 3 common to the 1949 Geneva Conventions that provides for the minimum standard to be respected and requires humane treatment without adverse distinction of all persons not or no longer taking active parts in hostilities. It prohibits murder, mutilation, torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, hostage-taking and unfair trials. Libya is also a party to Additional Protocol II applicable to non-international armed conflicts. However, Protocol II does not apply between armed groups. All parties are bound by customary international humanitarian law applicable to non-international armed conflicts. Customary international law consists of unwritten rules that come from a general practice accepted as law. Based on an extensive study, the International Committee of the Red Cross maintains a database on customary international humanitarian law. In addition to international humanitarian law, international human rights law continues to apply during times of armed conflict. Under human rights law, the territorial state has an obligation to prevent and to investigate alleged violations, including by non-state actors. Non-state armed groups are increasingly considered to be bound by international human rights law if they exercise de facto control over some areas.

State parties

Non-state parties

A myriad of armed groups are active in Libya. While some of them are nominally under the authority of the government, they enjoy broad autonomy. A series of armed groups operate and control detention facilities. Many armed groups have local strongholds and are part of shifting and fluid broader collective alliances. The investigation by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Libya, UN doc A/HRC/31/47, 15 February 2016, §§12-13. Below is a list of the major armed actors in Libya. For further information, including on other armed groups, see S. Arraf, Libya: A Short Guide on the Conflict. The War Report 2017, Geneva Academy.

  • Libyan National Army: The self-declared Libyan National Army of General Haftar and affiliated armed groups is aligned with the HoR and remains opposed to the new unity government. While many regular forces defected to the Libyan National Army at the beginning of the conflict in 2014, its authority is not recognised across the country.
  • Derna Protection Force (DPF): created in December 2014, following the merger of Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade (ASMB), Jaysh al-Islami al-Libi (Islamic Army of Libya), and the Derna-branch of Ansar al-Sharia in Libya (ASL). The Derna Mujahideen Shura Council (DMSC) includes several Islamist armed groups in the eastern city of Derna; the most prominent being the Abu Salim Brigade, an Islamist group founded by former members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which advocated the implementation of Sharia law.
  • The Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council (BRSC):  It is an umbrella group established in 2014 in Benghazi to fight against Operation Dignity, launched by General Khalifa Haftar against Islamist factions in the city. Though its influence has diminished, it is still active and conducting serious of attacks.
  • Islamic State group: Groups pledging allegiance to the Islamic State group appeared in Libya from 2015 onwards. While commonly referred to as the Islamic State group, it seems that the Libyan affiliate may be operationally separate from the Islamic State group active in Syria and Iraq.
  • A series of militias with local strongholds, namely in Tripoli, Misrata, and the Zintan armed militia.
Last updated: Monday 9th September 2019