With the United Nations just a day away from a peace deadline, Libya’s most powerful militia has split and created an additional faction fighting for power in an already chaotic civil war. U.N. envoy Bernardino León has until Wednesday to draft a peace agreement that would include all of Libya’s warring factions, including those who refuse to negotiate with the opposing side.
Misratan fighters split from the coalition of militias aligned with the Tripoli-based General National Congress, one of two governing bodies vying for power in Libya, and formed their own predominantly Islamist brigade on Monday. Though it claims to be under GNC command, which has so far been cooperating with the U.N., the newly formed “Sumood Front” has refused to negotiate with the opposition government.
The joint force is led by Salah Badi, a Misratan member of Libya’s revolutionary parliament instituted after Libya’s former dictator Moammar Gadhafi was ousted in 2011. The Sumood force “will be deployed in the western region to secure both the capital and its surrounding,” according to the Libya Observer.
“Mr. Badi is a threat to Libya because what Libya actually needs is consensus, not all those militias,” Abdel-Hadi Towfik, a human rights activist in Libya, told the Financial Times last year.
A rift between Misratan fighters could tip the scales in Libya, which has been in political and social chaos since 2011, where Misrata militias played a key part in the revolution and remain the biggest armed group in the country. There are about 280 Misratan militias, from the northwest of Libya close to Tripoli, and they are thought to be roughly 40,000 strong.
However, Misratan militias are historically very divided and their allegiances depend on where they’re located, which family fighters belong to them, and where they fall on the spectrum of secular to more hard-line Islamist groups. Their alliances with outside groups or foreign bodies are of impermanent social convenience and mutual interest.
Their decision to work as a unified body in recent years was only as a result of sharing a common enemy. During the revolution, the enemy was Gadhafi. Later, it became the Tobruk-based House of Representatives and its military commander Khalifa Haftar, a former general in Gadhafi’s army. Thus it became impossible for some militias to accept negotiations with Haftar (sometimes spelled Hifter) through the U.N., despite the GNC’s recent decision to do just that.
The GNC released a statement on Tuesday calling the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) draft for a peace agreement “positive” and recommended that certain amendments be made before the deadline, according to the Libya Observer.
The statement is a far cry from the GNC’s original position on negotiations. If passed, the agreement would repeal the GNC’s 2013 Political Isolation Law, which banned any member of Gadhafi’s former regime from holding political office.
“You cannot communicate with a person who considers you as an enemy. He [Haftar] would be glad if he can kill you. A common fight against terrorism will take place only if there is a unified political leadership in the country. Such a leadership will enable to unify armed forces,” Abdel Salam Jadallah al-Obeidi, the head of a military brigade in Libya Dawn, a coalition of militias aligned with the GNC, said in an interview with an Algerian news outlet on Tuesday.
The GNC’s position to engage in negotiations with Haftar and the HOR was partially influenced by the swift rise of the Islamic State group in the country. Along with cooperation with Gadhafi loyalists, an agreement with HOR could mean an increase in foreign intervention, to which Libya Dawn is vehemently opposed. The Tobruk-based government reportedly coordinated with U.S. special forces to target a longtime al Qaeda leader on Saturday.
“If a foreign military operation against terrorists takes place with warplanes, we will not be able to riposte,” al-Obeidi said, adding that his group will “refuse ground operations without our permission and we will repel such interventions.”