• Katherine Everitt

Who, What, When, Where, Why? What You Need to Know about the War in Libya

Who: The UN-backed Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA)


The Libyan National Army (LNA), led by General Haftar

What: A civil war, caused by the overthrowal of long-time dictator, Gaddafi, continues to leave the country in chaos as two contesting governments fight for control of capital city Tripoli.

When: 2011-Present

Where: Mostly northern Libya. Fighting has concentrated around Tripoli in the northwest since April 2019.

Red = LNA, Green = GNA, Grey = ISIS

Why: Following the 2011 NATO-led UN intervention and the subsequent deposal of dictator Gaddafi, Libya has been in a state of civil war. The country has been divided between the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) in the west propped up by the United Nations and the Benghazi-based Libyan National Army, made up of the leftovers of the Libyan army and headed by strongman General Haftar, in the east. This power vacuum and failure of Libyan institutions has made the country a hub of human trafficking to Europe. As of 2019, the LNA advanced westward and could potentially seize Tripoli, but they are up against the UN-backed GNA government, which has so far failed to establish control in the area.

Muammar Gaddafi (r. 1969-2011); Photo by U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jesse B. Awalt

The Arab Spring as Backdrop: In 2011, the Arab world saw a series of pro-democracy protests spread from Tunisia to Egypt, and subsequently to states like Yemen, Syria, and Libya. These latter states devolved into civil wars, which continue today. The 2011 protests are known as the Arab Spring.

The 2011 NATO-led Intervention: Unlike the pro-democracy protests in Tunisia and Egypt, the protests in Libya turned very violent very quickly. Gaddafi's forces opened fire on his own people in February 2011. The UN and the U.S. Obama administration saw this as a call-to-action to prevent a potential massacre. The UN issued Ch. VII Resolution 1973, authorizing NATO to use "any means necessary" to protect civilians. Through an aerial campaign, NATO targeted Gaddafi's military bases. In October 2011, Gaddafi's armored vehicle was shot by rebels, who then killed him.

Competing Governments: From 2011-2019, the UN had put several governments to a popular vote in Tripoli, which were rejected by the people. They continue to operate the Government of National Accord of Tripoli and maintain official UN backing, but have paltry practical support from partner states. Competing in Benghazi, the Libyan House of Representatives opposes the GNA, but is itself divided over its political future, with a third of the members backing the current assault on Tripoli and the other two thirds against it.

The Terrorism Dynamic: The power vacuum has led to the emergence of ISIS in central Libya and along the coasts. They have mostly targeted oil refineries, through which they gain black market funding.

The Human Rights Dynamic: With the failure of the Libyan coast guard, thousands of people from Libya and migrants from Africa at-large have paid to be transported in overcrowded boats across the Mediterranean. Militias frequently kidnap travelers for ransom. The civil war in Libya has directly fueled the refugee crisis in Europe and thousands of annual deaths in Mediterranean crossings.

What's Next?: The emergence of General Haftar in 2019 has changed the dynamic in Libya. He controls the Libyan National Army (LNA) and has recently advanced on Tripoli. He is a strongman-type who offers the potential of national unity as well as the potential of dictatorship. His success would likely depend on the backing of major players, such as the U.S. or the U.N. (who Haftar is currently fighting). His defeat would likewise would depend on a reemergence of interest from the U.N., the U.S., or another actor.