Libyan General Hifter's Machiavellian Plan to Get American Support

When all else fails, pull an Assad...

Earlier this month, two prominent Islamist militia leaders, Salim Derby and Nasir Atiyah al-Akar, were killed in clashes against ISIS in Derna, Libya. One could chalk up their deaths to infighting among Islamist groups in the midst of a civil war, but the reality is far more unsettling. General Khalifa Hifter and the allies of Libya’s eastern House of Representatives (HoR) government—the one that claims to be pro-Western and internationally recognized—are deliberately allowing ISIS the necessary space and time to strengthen itself in Libya and become a real threat to Western interests. In doing so, Hifter creates a situation so dire that the United States and European countries have no choice but to recognize him and the HoR over their political opponents and thus solidify their power in Libya.

Since May of last year, the secular House of Representatives and the Islamist-dominated General National Congress (GNC) have been competing for control of Libya. As both entities were lacking in legitimacy, they relied on allied militias and brigades to fight on their behalf, and the political feud turned into violent conflict. In support of the GNC, militias from Misrata drove the HoR out of Tripoli into the eastern city of Tobruk and launched Libya Dawn, a coalition of revolutionary and Islamist militias against the HoR and its allies. On behalf of HoR, General Khalifa Hifter, a well-established military figure who fought both for and against the late Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi in the course of his career, launched Operation Dignity, an alliance of militias against the GNC’s allies.

Hoping to circumvent round after round of UN-led negotiations with the GNC, Hifter and the HoR have asked the United States and the United Kingdom to lift the arms embargo and provide them with weapons and support to fight terrorism in Libya. With such a request, they conflate the revolutionary militias, the Islamist militias in Libya’s east, and the Islamic State as a single entity. Should the Western powers offer such support, it will mean recognition of Hifter and the HoR, and delegitimization of the GNC and Misrata. The United States and the United Kingdom have ignored these requests, despite the Tobruk government sending representatives and delegates to plead their case.

Though Hifter presents himself as the only entity to whom the West can turn if it does not want the ISIS on its doorstep, this is hardly the case. Misrata militias have been doing the bulk of the fighting against ISIS in Sirte and central Libya, and Islamist militias have done the majority of it in the east. While Hifter has been fighting ISIS in parts of Benghazi, he has mainly targeted the Islamist militias that have fought against its spread. The general fought against the Benghazi-based Ansar al-Sharia Libya (ASL) and its allies who, under the leadership of Mohammed Zahawi, refused to pledge allegiance to ISIS. To be fair to Hifter, ASL and its allies had taken control of Benghazi last October, and his efforts to remove them were welcomed by the majority of the city’s residents, but he certainly has not mounted a serious effort against ISIS.

Hifter also includes among his enemies the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade and the al-Noor Brigade—led by Salim Derby and Nasir Atiyah al-Akar respectively—prominent Islamist militias that have fought against ISIS since it entered Derna last November. To be clear, these Islamists did not resist ISIS’s invitations and fight them out of a sense of morality or scruples, but rather a desire not to share their patronage networks with a new foreign actor.