Meeting Report on Dawn and Dignity: Libya’s Escalating Civil War with Dr. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross

On Thursday 12 March 2015, ICCT hosted two events around the Research Paper “Dignity and Dawn: Libya’s Escalating Civil War” by ICCT Associate Fellow Dr. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross: an Expert Roundtable Meeting and a public Evening Seminar. During the seminar, Dr. Gartenstein-Ross opened the evening with a presentation, whereafter Mr. Ernesto Braam (Strategic Policy Advisor Middle East & North Africa at the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs) responded and ICCT Director Mark Singleton moderated the ensuing question and answer session with the audience.


Dr. Gartenstein-Ross provided a thorough overview of the situation in Libya, from the 2011 uprising and NATO’s intervention to policy options for EU decision makers. He described how, since the fall of Muammar Qaddafi, numerous politico-military actors in Libya, from the 2011 uprising and NATO’s intervention to policy options for EU decision makers. He described how, since the fall of Muammar Qaddafi, numerous politico-military actors in Libya have used force, or threat of force, in “armed politics” to achieve political goals. One of these groups is led by a former officer in Qaddafi’s military, Khalifa Hifter, who launched Operation Dignity in the city of Benghazi in May 2014, designed to eliminate Islamist factions from eastern Libya. Two days after Hifter declared the military campaign, Operation aligned forces stormed the parliament building in Tripoli and called for the dissolution of the General National Congress (GNC), which had been Libya’s democratically-elected legislative body since mid-2012. Subsequent parliamentary elections resulted in electoral gains for a national-federalist coalition opposed to the previously leading political factions in the GNC, the Islamist-Misratan bloc. The combination of the loss of parliament and the growing threat posed by Hifter’s offensive prompted the Islamist-Misrata bloc to launch a military campaign called Operation Dawn.

Photo-Gartenstein-Ross-Singleton-Braam-MarchDawn and Dignity forces have been engaged in a bloody and protracted battle for control of territory in the Nafusa Mountains and along Libya’s western coast. Dr. Gartenstein-Ross pointed out that the fault lines in the Dawn-Dignity conflict are more nuanced than the Islamist vs. secularist divide emphasised in mainstream media. There are many more groups to consider in Libya’s struggle:  the revolutionary forces vs. members of the Qaddafi regime as well as an ethnic conflict of Bedouin Arabs from Libya’s interior (nationalist) vs. Berbers and Arabised tribes (Islamic-Misrata). All of these conflicts combine to form the backdrop of an ongoing and complex struggle for control of resources and political influence in Libya.

The conflict in Libya has seen a growing regional involvement through a proxy war and consequences for regional stability. Egypt sees Hifter as a bulwark against the emergence of Islamist and jihadists in Libya. As such Egypt has provided extensive military support to Dignity, and has conducted air strikes and other direct military action against both jihadists and Dawn forces. The United Arab Emirates, with similar concerns about Islamist influence, has also provided military support to Dignity. Conversely, Gartenstein-Ross explained, Qatar, Sudan and Turkey have all aligned behind GNC to varying degrees. Algeria and Tunisia remain neutral in the conflict, and continue to attempt to facilitate political talks and bring various actors to the negotiating table.

The Dignity-Dawn clash has contributed to the deterioration of the Libyan state, creating ungoverned spaces that are being exploited by violent non-state actors – the so-called “Islamic State” (IS) being prominent among them. IS has established presence in parts of Derna and Sirte as well as carrying out numerous attacks in Tripoli, eastern Libya and against oil field in central Libya. However, Dr. Gartenstein-Ross believes the international media often exaggerates IS’ influence in Libya. Their strategy in Libya is to splinter the Dawn coalition and peel away hard-line elements with Dawn who are not amenable to negotiations with Dignity factions. The weakness of such a strategy is that IS may overplay their hand and prompt a military response from military superior Dawn and/or Dignity forces.

Mr. Ernesto Braam responded to many of the points illustrated by Dr. Gartenstein-Ross, one of which was emphasising the risk of having ungoverned spaces, like much of Southern Libya, exploited by none state actors. Another key point Mr. Braam highlighted was the difficulty countries face when they cannot come up with an identity that all citizens can associate with.

Following the presentations, there was a fruitful and engaging open discussion. Dr. Gartenstein-Ross stressed that “military inaction is better than action”. The EU and countries such as the United States should wait before getting involved as currently it is unlikely that military action would impact the situation in a positive way. Another suggestion for policymakers is to implement an anti-IS messaging campaign. To disrupt the group’s social media and messaging campaign would disrupt their whole business strategy, Dr. Gartenstein-Ross stressed. Foreign fighters once were a luxury but are now a necessity as IS is dependent on the continued influx of personnel to keep their seven-front war in Iraq and Syria operational.