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Who fought who in Tripoli last week, and why

Smoke rises after clashes between two rival militias operating between Qaser Ben Ghashir and Al-Sarim regions, in Tripoli, Libya on August 27, 2022. [Stringer - Anadolu Agency]
Smoke rises after clashes between two rival militias operating between Qaser Ben Ghashir and Al-Sarim regions, in Tripoli, Libya on August 27, 2022. [Stringer - Anadolu Agency]

Calm has returned to the Libyan capital, Tripoli, after two days of violent clashes between two militia groups that left 32 dead and 159 injured, according to the Ministry of Health in Tripoli. Most casualties were civilians, as the heaviest fighting took place in densely populated parts of the city. Dozens of cars were burned and apartments destroyed, sending hundreds fleeing for their lives.

Tripoli has not seen this level of violence for nearly two years, despite smaller skirmishes among the militias earlier this year. Prime Minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, vowed to hold the perpetrators to account but nobody is expecting any serious accountability as has been the case for over a decade now. Loyal militias, instead, have been rewarded by money and more influence in the battle over who governs the conflict stricken country.

This latest fighting came six months after Fathi Bashaga, former Minister of Interior, was appointed new Prime Minister last February by the Tobruk-based Parliament. Ever since, he has been trying to enter the capital city and install his government but interim Prime Minister, Dbeibeh, who lost vote of confidence last September, refused to hand over power except to an elected government. Elections planned for last December were abandoned at the last minute over legislative disagreements. No new dates have been announced and it is very unlikely that any elections will take place over the next two years, making life for the millions of Libyans ever more difficult.

Since his appointment, Mr. Bashaga has repeatedly vowed not to use force to enter the capital. However, the latest violence appeared to show that groups loyal to him inside the capital are ready to use violence to help him take over.

READ: 'Libyan leaders love to court external actors, but blame them for mostly Libyan failures,' says UN advisor

In fact, the fighting that started on Saturday, 27 August, was between two groups, nominally allied to the Government of National Unity headed by Mr. Dbeibeh. They have been considered part of Dbeibeh government and both are "integrated" into legitimate government departments. They are: Brigade 777, headed by long time militia leader, Haithem Al-Tajouri, and rival group known as Stabilisation Force, headed by another notorious former militia leader, Abdel Ghani Al-kikly, aka Aghnewa. Both men have never had any military experiences and their only credit is that both formed their own militias in 2011, in central Tripoli and Abu Salim, south of the city, to fight against the former government of Muammer Gaddafi.

Militia loyalties and alliances are, usually, short-lived and hinged on the financial rewards they get—a little short of a gun for hire. They seek money, influence and legal cover against any potential fallout should they commit crimes, as they commonly do.

Libya: Never-ending chaos - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Libya: Never-ending chaos – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Their loyalty has very little to do with any national cause, but is usually linked to their leaders' political orientations who, usually, have little education, not very proud history and low level social backgrounds. Lately, they have learned how to use political influence in having their own people appointed in different government departments.

Last Saturday's fighting showed that the overall number of militias dominating the capital has shrunk by more than 80 per cent from their heyday, when hundreds of smaller groups controlled different parts of Greater Tripoli. Many have left the violence business for lack of resources, while bigger groups forced their way into the different government departments, particularly the police force, years ago to enjoy legitimacy and money. However, they remain loyal to themselves and not necessarily to the government that pays them.

As soon as fighting broke out last Saturday, militias lined up along Bashaga-Dbeibeh frontlines; those fighting for Bashaga included Al-Nawasi Brigade, remnants  of the Tripoli Revolutionary Brigades who lost large number of their fighters during  Haftar's failed  2019 invasion of Tripoli—ironically, they are now fighting for Bashaga, a strong ally of Haftar! The semi-professional armed groups who came out in support for Bashaga include Osama Al-Juwaili's Zintan forces, but they failed to enter the capital. Another well trained and armed fighting brigade from Misrata, east of Tripoli and Bashaga's home town, included: Al-Halbous Brigade, Hittin Brigade, Al-Marsa Brigade, Abo-Zreba's forces from Zawya, west of the capital.

However, none of these relatively strong forces reached Tripoli either, because they were confronted far away while heading to Tripoli, or they were talked out of the confrontation for now. Smaller fighting bands from Wershafa, south-west of Tripoli, also supported Bashaga. Had all those groups arrived in Tripoli, the situation could have been far worse.

READ: Libya is a game of guns and militias with no end in sight

On Dbeiebeh's side and, in addition to the Stabilisation Force, we find Special Deterrent Forces (Al-Radaa), headed by Salafist and media-shy Abdul Rauf Kara. Both groups have consolidated their presence and reach within Tripoli and other parts of the country. In the mix, we find other semi- professional groups that came to the rescue of Mr. Dbeibeh, such as Emad Al-Trabilisi Forces from Zintan, 610 Brigade, Battalion 301 from Misrata and the 52 Infantry Brigade from Zawya, among others.

It is rumoured that Turkiye, which maintains a large military presence in Libya and around Tripoli, helped defend the city through the use of drones, but there is no evidence to confirm this.

By Sunday, when fighting inside Tripoli ended, Dbeibeh and allies emerged victorious and more powerful than he was a month ago. Bashaga, on the other hand, lost badly and he is weaker than when he started out, back in February.

But the outcome, also, draws a rather gloom picture of the military situation in and around Tripoli. The city itself remains under the control of pro-Dbeibeh forces, and his government is still in power but it is surrounded by hostile groups who might try to take it and install Bashaga's government in waiting.

This is a rather dangerous outcome. Victorious Dbeibeh will feel empowered and becomes even more unreceptive to any political settlement with his rival, Bashaga, while the latter will harbour his grudges while waiting for the next opportunity, again, to try to take over the capital.

This is a gloomy picture for almost two million people who live in Tripoli, as they live under a very shaky and uncertain future, such as when will the next fighting in their midst start, not if it will.

The only way out is elections, but that is now a distant hope and very unlikely to be realised any time soon.

The United Nations Security Council failed, yesterday, to appoint a new UN envoy for Libya, adding more uncertainty to an already complicated and uncertain situation.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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