In Libya’s ever-shifting sands, where conspiracy and disinformation overlay a reality shaped by fluid political alliances, erratic military maneuvers and a crumbling economy, it can be challenging to paint an accurate and reliable picture of what is happening on the ground, let alone to predict how current events might shape the country’s future.
Despite this uncertainty, all signs point to an imminent watershed moment for Libya. Is the United Nations process on the verge of collapse? Or can a new grand bargain be struck between the main factions? Is a full-scale shooting war in the offing? Or is the country en route to becoming a Russian satrapy?
Over the last month, the anti-Islamist Libyan National Army (LNA), under the command of Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter, has sought to extend its control outside of its traditional stronghold in eastern Libya, launching airstrikes against strategic air bases near Sebha in southwestern Libya and reinforcing the positions of its Zintani allies in the western region.
These actions have brought the LNA into direct conflict with Misrata’s Third Force, a militia from the powerful city of Misrata that guards key military and infrastructural facilities in the southwest region, nominally under the auspices of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA).
The UN envoy to Libya has called "on all parties to act with restraint and to resolve issues through peaceful dialogue," yet the current situation is like the quintessential Libyan barbeque: The kindling is already smoking, and all it needs is a dose of gasoline to turn it into roaring flames that will engulf everything.
LNA moves west
Russia’s increasing public support for Hifter and his anti-Islamist "strongman" credentials may be the fuel for this particular fire. On Jan. 11, Hifter was flown aboard a Russian aircraft carrier that has recently anchored off Libya’s eastern coast. He was given an official tour of the vessel before holding a video conference with Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu and accepting a consignment of medical supplies.