Battle for Benghazi Could Break Up Libya

CAIRO—Pro-government Libyan forces, already reeling from the fall of

the capital, are fighting to prevent Islamist militants from seizing

the eastern city of Benghazi and splitting the North African country

into three warring parts.

Three weeks after losing Tripoli to a different militia, the army now

faces an offensive in Libya’s second-largest city from the Islamists

of Ansar al-Sharia, which has overrun special forces bases and is

attacking Benghazi airport.

Losing the port city would not only leave the government looking

impotent and irrelevant. It would also increase the risk of the

country crumbling into de facto autonomous regions: the militants

demand Islamist rule while other armed groups want greater powers for

the eastern region they call by its ancient name of Cyrenaica.

Rebel factions that united in 2011 in an uprising to smash the 42-year

rule of autocrat Moammar Gadhafi have turned their guns on one

another, plunging Libya into chaos as they fight for power, oil, and

cash from the $47 billion state budget.

Instead of the stable democracy Western powers had hoped to help

create by backing the rebel uprising, Libya might be heading towards

civil war, inviting comparisons with strife-torn countries such as

Somalia, Yemen or South Sudan.

The fall of Benghazi would allow the Islamists to attack

pro-government bases to the east, potentially threatening Bayda — the

seat of the constitutional assembly — and Tobruk, where the government

and elected parliament are holed up after losing Tripoli to a militia

from Misrata called Operation Dawn.

Radical Islamists already control the coastal town of Derna, located

halfway between Benghazi and Tobruk.

The central government is now only running a rump state of less than a

third of the country, said Mattia Toaldo, policy fellow at the

European Council on Foreign Relations.

“Between Dawn and Ansar al-Sharia, they control a large portion that

extends from Benghazi to the border with Tunisia,” he said.

Divided country

The conflict risks drawing in regional powers such as Egypt and the

United Arab Emirates, which are worried about Libya turning into a

safe haven for radical Islamists. The two countries bombed Misrata

positions in Tripoli last month, U.S. officials have said, though it

did not stop the fall of the capital.

Libya’s competing parts already treat each other like different

entities — the new rulers in Tripoli have set up a rival parliament

and government, while seizing at least four ministries and state


There are almost no flights any more connecting western airports under

Misrata control and eastern ones held by the government.

For their survival, the uprooted parliament and the army forces in

Benghazi have allied themselves with retired general Khalifa Haftar,

whom the government had previously accused of trying to stage a coup.

With the army and police existing mainly on paper, parliament needs

Haftar, who commands air bases in the east, to confront Ansar

al-Sharia and the Misrata-led armed factions.

But his firepower has not stopped an Islamist advance in Benghazi.

Analysts say even more worrying for the government are signs of

tentative ties between its two main enemies, as Ansar al-Sharia has

offered to cooperate with Operation Dawn. The Misrata-led force has

not responded to the offer, but some of its supporters are backing the

Islamists on social media.

Members of Ansar al-Sharia, blamed by Washington for an assault on the

U.S. consulate in Benghazi during which the U.S. ambassador was killed

in September 2012, have appeared in Tripoli since the Misrata victory,

pictures on Facebook show.

Mediation bid

Both the Misrata forces and some Islamist fighters in Benghazi frame

themselves as revolutionary forces fighting what they call elements of

the Gadhafi regime.

They point out that Haftar was a top Gadhafi general before falling

out with the former strongman. And some fighters from a militia allied

to him from the western region of Zintan used to be part of Gadhafi’s

security forces.

“We need to get rid of the Gadhafi forces still in control,” said a

commentator justifying the Tripoli assault, on a television station

controlled by Misrata.

For their part, Haftar and the Zintanis see their battle as an attempt

to prevent Libya falling into the hands of Islamists. The United

Nations is trying to bring the new Tripoli rulers and elected

lawmakers to the negotiating table.

But Dirk Vandewalle, author of “A Modern History of Libya,” says any

coalition between the Misrata and Islamist forces would probably be

tactical, aimed at getting rid of the government, as they did when

united during the Gadhafi uprising.

“Virtually all cooperation we are now witnessing between certain

groups of militias is essentially tactical and temporary,” he said.

That would increase the likelihood of Libya breaking up into fiefdoms

run by competing factions — a Misrata-led one in the west, an

Islamist-dominated east and a powerless rump government in the


Encouraged by the Tripoli takeover, other armed groups might emerge or

split from the main armed groups, which would make it difficult to

identify national leaders for any foreign-led mediation.

“I am not optimistic about any mediation efforts,” said a Western

ambassador to Libya.


Kofi Oppong Kyekyeku

I am a Ghanaian Broadcast Journalist/Writer who has an interest in General News, Sports, Entertainment, Health, Lifestyle and many more.

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