New Armed Faction Muscling Into Tripoli Reflects Chaos in Libya

Libyan National Guard members in Tripoli
Libyan National Guard members in Tripoli
Francesco Semprini

TRIPOLI — As the sun sets on the Libyan capital, the sky takes on an ochre shade over the old city walls surrounding Martyr's Square. Children play on carousels and the muezzin's call to prayer fills the air, booming from loudspeakers in the streets. It's an arresting scene that — for a moment — makes you forget the political chaos that bedevils this country on the Mediterranean Sea.

The calm is shattered by the wailing of sirens that emanates from pickup trucks loaded with light artillery and machine guns and manned by Kalashnikov-wielding men in army fatigues. A trickle at first, the trucks grow in number until 50 or so stream across the square accompanied by other pickups that are painted white. They all display the same symbol: the name "Libyan National Guard" (LNG) superimposed on a map of the Gulf of Sirte.

This new addition to the kaleidoscope of armed factions in Libya attempted to recently seize power in the capital, when it staged the city's umpteenth show of force in the six years since former dictator Muammar Gaddafi was ousted in a civil war. The security forces of the national unity government, led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, have undertaken a complex operation in recent days to restore "law and order" to the streets of Tripoli.

The LNG is primarily composed of veterans from battles in Sirte, Gaddafi's hometown and, until recently, a stronghold of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS). Largely hailing from the coastal city of Misrata, these fighters seek a greater share of power in government in return for their central role in dislodging ISIS from Sirte. They plan to meet and organize in Tripoli on the symbolic date of Feb. 17, which will mark the sixth anniversary of the revolt against Gaddafi's rule.

Mahmoud Al-Zigal announcing the establishment of the Libyan National Guard — Source: The Libya Observer

"We don't have any political patrons or links," said Mahmoud al-Ziga, commander of LNG, in a news conference. "The Libyan National Guard will fight against all criminal and terrorist acts, provide support to all state institutions, and protect them from any coup or terror attack."

Al-Ziga's plea to Libyans to cooperate with his force highlighted his determination to work for all citizens regardless of political, tribal, and regional differences.

In reality, Al-Ziga's statement precludes any collaboration with the UN-recognized unity government headed by Al-Sarraj. The LNG commander seemed to threaten the government with possible confrontation when he asserted his group would seize control of strategic border posts as well as maritime and land bases. Al-Ziga plans to build a new army that will conform to "technical standards' rather than political whims.

LNG doesn't want to be limited by Libya's borders. Al-Ziga pledged to "fight illegal immigration and protect foreign embassies' in a nod to the country's international partners, namely Italy, which recently signed an accord with Al-Sarraj. The LNG's true intentions are still unclear although some analysts see the hand of Khalifa Ghwell — a former prime minister and leader of a rival government in Tripoli — behind the group's formation.

The National Guard was established by the General National Congress, Libya's post-revolution parliament, in 2015. The group's members describe themselves as "guardians of the revolution" intent on protecting it from the perceived menaces of General Khalifa Haftar in the eastern region of Cyrenaica and petty politicking in the capital that lies on the western side.

Sources close to Al-Sarraj's Presidential Council say these claims are overblown, pointing out that Rada Special Deterrence Forces — a military police unit tasked with maintaining security in Tripoli — allowed LNG to traipse harmlessly down the waterfront but kept the city on high alert. Regardless, LNG's arrival on the scene adds to the litany of problems facing Al-Sarraj.

After signing a migration agreement with Italy and the European Union, and surviving electricity blackouts early this year, Al-Sarraj is working to restore order to the capital. The city continues to be riven by internal conflicts, exemplified by the recent fighting between militias from the working-class district of Abu Salim and criminal gangs.

Sounds of mortar fire ring out on the highway leading to the airport. The sunset is a reminder that Libya is one day closer to the anniversary of the revolution on Feb. 17. It's a revolution that is still very much in progress.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

"The Truest Hypocrisy" - The Russia-NATO Clash Seen From Moscow

Russia has decided to cut off relations with the Western military alliance. But Moscow says it was NATO who really wanted the break based on its own internal rationale.

NATO chief Stoltenberg and Russian Foregin Minister Lavrov

Russian Foreign Ministry/TASS via ZUMA
Pavel Tarasenko and Sergei Strokan

MOSCOW — The Russian Foreign Ministry's announcement that the country's permanent representation to NATO would be shut down for an indefinite period is a major development. But from Moscow's viewpoint, there was little alternative.

These measures were taken in response to the decision of NATO on Oct. 6 to cut the number of personnel allowed in the Russian mission to the Western alliance by half. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the removal of accreditations was from eight employees of the Russian mission to NATO who were identified as undeclared employees of Russian intelligence." We have seen an increase in Russian malicious activity for some time now," Stoltenberg said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry called NATO's expulsion of Russian personnel a "ridiculous stunt," and Stoltenberg's words "the truest hypocrisy."

In announcing the complete shutdown in diplomacy between Moscow and NATO, the Russian Foreign Ministry added: "The 'Russian threat' is being hyped in strengthen the alliance's internal unity and create the appearance of its 'relevance' in modern geopolitical conditions."

The number of Russian diplomatic missions in Brussels has been reduced twice unilaterally by NATO in 2015 and 2018 - after the alliance's decision of April 1, 2014 to suspend all practical civilian and military cooperation between Russia and NATO in the wake of Russia's annexation of Crimea. Diplomats' access to the alliance headquarters and communications with its international secretariat was restricted, military contacts have frozen.

Yet the new closure of all diplomatic contacts is a perilous new low. Kommersant sources said that the changes will affect the military liaison mission of the North Atlantic alliance in Moscow, aimed at promoting the expansion of the dialogue between Russia and NATO. However, in recent years there has been no de facto cooperation. And now, as Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has announced, the activities of the military liaison mission will be suspended. The accreditation of its personnel will be canceled on November 1.

NATO told RIA Novosti news service on Monday that it regretted Moscow's move. Meanwhile, among Western countries, Germany was the first to respond. "It would complicate the already difficult situation in which we are now and prolong the "ice age," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters.

"Lavrov said on Monday, commenting on the present and future of relations between Moscow and the North Atlantic Alliance, "If this is the case, then we see no great need to continue pretending that any changes will be possible in the foreseeable future because NATO has already announced that such changes are impossible.

The suspension of activities of the Russian Permanent Mission to NATO, as well as the military liaison and information mission in Russia, means that Moscow and Brussels have decided to "draw a final line under the partnership relations of previous decades," explained Andrei Kortunov, director-general of the Russian Council on Foreign Affairs, "These relations began to form in the 1990s, opening channels for cooperation between the sides … but they have continued to steadily deteriorate over recent years."

Kortunov believes the current rupture was promoted by Brussels. "A new strategy for NATO is being prepared, which will be adopted at the next summit of the alliance, and the previous partnership with Russia does not fit into its concept anymore."

The existence and expansion of NATO after the end of the Cold War was the main reason for the destruction of the whole complex of relations between Russia and the West. Today, Russia is paying particular attention to marking red lines related to the further steps of Ukraine's integration into NATO. Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov previously stated this, warning that in response to the alliance's activity in the Ukrainian direction, Moscow would take "active steps" to ensure its security.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!