Islamist militia forces seem to have taken control of the airport in the capital of Libya, Tripoli, over the weekend, after weeks of assaults on the city and the airport, while airplanes, likely from Egypt or a Gulf state, are bombing the attackers from the sky.
The effort, called Operation Dawn, is led by Islamic militias and armed groups from Misrata, a city located on the coast between Tripoli and Benghazi, Libya’s second city. Misrata has been an essentially independent state since the fall of the Qaddafi government, run by its local militias, which were the groups that captured and killed Moammar Qaddafi in the fall of 2011. Benghazi has ended up in almost the same situation; an array of Islamic and tribal militias were supposed to be keeping the peace in September 2012, when four Americans were killed in an attack on a diplomatic facility there.
The new Libyan state has never been able to control most of its territory — Qaddafi never quite did, either, but he had much more effective control than what we see now — but the assaults on the central government this summer are unprecedented. In part, this is probably the result of the slow degeneration of the post-intervention state, but the militias are also apparently preempting a military takeover and secularization of the government, along the lines of what Egypt has seen. It’s not clear what that would look like, but one of the players has been a tribal general and sometime Qaddafi opponent named Khalifa Hiftar, who has been leading militia groups to oppose the Islamist forces. The Islamists are a little more clearly defined — they appear to be backed by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Brotherhood’s typical backers, including the Gulf kingdom of Qatar.
The aircraft bombing those Islamist forces remain unidentified, but U.S. officials tell the New York Times that they’ve been launched by the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. Some of the bombings have occurred at night, and there’s a limited number of countries in the region capable of carrying out such an operation.
The U.S. and European allies launched a large air operation in 2011 to back Libya’s rebels, which included the longstanding Islamist groups that are now trying to overthrow the government, called Odyssey Dawn.