By Tuesday, five days since Libyan National Army (LNA) Commander Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar launched a military operation to secure control over Tripoli, Government of National Accord (GNA) forces succeeded in establishing a security cordon around the capital.
The LNA campaign was launched shortly before the comprehensive National Conference that was expected to be held on 14 April, in the oasis town of Ghadames in western Libya under the sponsorship of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL).
However, on Tuesday, the UN decided to postpone the conference indefinitely. In fact, Haftar’s operation has dragged the country back to the brink of civil war and ended opportunities to formulate and implement a new political accord that UNSMIL had hoped to produce in Ghadames.
In response to the advance, the Presidency Council of the GNA sounded a call to arms to rally forces in the western province of Tripolitania to the defence of the capital.
The balance of military forces on the ground leans against Haftar’s forces, which means that the outcome of the battle for Tripoli and control of Tripolitania in general is settled in advance in favour of his adversaries.
However, Haftar remains determined to press ahead, indifferent to the fact that the timing of his campaign coincided with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s arrival in Tripoli.
The UN Security Council, the EU and major Western powers have issued numerous statements collectively and individually urging all sides in Libya to exercise restraint and to avert hostilities that could claim large numbers of casualties.
In a theatre of operations that is more densely populated than other parts of the country, the humanitarian risks are much higher.
In the UN, tempers flared between the five permanent members of the Security Council who exchanged accusations concerning support for this side or that in the Libyan crisis.
The differences hampered the passage of a resolution warning against the slide into violence in Libya and holding Haftar responsible. Russia, China and France opposed the resolution.
The US State Department issued a stern message to Haftar, urging him to withdraw his forces to their previous positions before the operation began on 5 April.
This was followed by a sternly worded press statement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sunday, 7 April: “The United States is deeply concerned about fighting near Tripoli. We have made clear that we oppose the military offensive by Khalifa Haftar’s forces and urge the immediate halt to these military operations against the Libyan capital.”
Pompeo reiterated Washington’s stance that there is no military solution to the Libya crisis.
Also Sunday, the US temporarily withdrew some of its forces from Libya due to “security conditions on the ground”, according to a senior US military official.
On Monday, Haftar’s forces staged an air strike against Mitiga international airport on the outskirts of Tripoli. UNSMIL head Ghassan Salame condemned the raid on “the capital’s only functioning airport that is available for civilian use”.
He added: “This attack constitutes a serious violation of international humanitarian law which prohibits attacks against civilian infrastructure. This attack takes place as part of an escalation of violence on the ground in areas around Tripoli and western Libya.”
It appears that, despite the fact that the balance of forces is against him, Haftar is banking on the possibility that his march on the capital will induce his regional and international backers to come to his aid.
Or, at the very least, in the event that he needs to back off under international pressure, they will help him to secure safe withdrawal for his forces and to hold on to forward positions from which he could stage another operation at a subsequent stage.
The launch of the LNA military operation was trumpeted by a massive media campaign. But the costly operation could severely drain the financial resources of the eastern based army command.
Therefore, the longer the operation continues, the greater the risk of attrition on the materiel of LNA forces in the west, a risk heightened by the likelihood of supply lines being severed. The closest command base to LNA troops in the vicinity of the capital is more than 1,000 kilometres away.
Haftar’s dangerous escalation comes some days after he received military support from Russia and France, diplomatic sources told Al-Ahram Weekly.
This helps explain the dispute in the UN Security Council, as it would appear that France and Russia favour a military over a political solution.
After several days of fighting, UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Libya Maria Ribeiro expressed her deep concern over the situation.
“The escalation of violence in and around Tripoli has caused the displacement of more than 2,800 persons fleeing from fighting, has blocked emergency services from reaching casualties and civilians, and damaged electricity lines. The upsurge in violence is further increasing the misery of refugees and migrants arbitrarily detained in detention centres in areas of active conflict,” she said in a statement released Monday.
More than a 100 people have been killed, hundreds wounded and hundreds of families driven from their homes in the areas of fighting, according to appeals from the Tripoli branch of the Libyan Red Crescent.
Haftar’s operation against the Libyan capital has had the effect of strengthening the legitimacy of the GNA. Militia forces in the west have rallied behind the government, vowing to defend the capital and then move onto the offensive against the LNA.
Militia forces in the west are wary of the possibility of international intervention that would shift balances in favour of Haftar’s forces and pave the way to their entry into the capital.
However, they remain determined to fight to the end, especially following the encouragement they received from the Presidency Council and the GNA.
Presidency Council Chairman Fayez Al-Sarraj and GNA Minister of Interior Fathi Bashaga lodged official protests with the French government against Paris’s support for Haftar’s forces and the encouragement it offered in their offensive against the capital.
French President Emmanuel Macron, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and France’s Ambassador to Libya Béatrice du Hellen strenuously denied the allegations.
Haftar’s personal stakes in this operation are high. If he loses or if his regional and international supporters abandon him, his political and military career will be over.
Without outside support, his forces stand little chance against the assembly of militias in the west which outnumber his troops, are better armed and are better skilled in view of their eight years of combat experience.
The field marshal must believe that his backers, after having invested so much in him, will see him through this conflict.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 April, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Haftar’s Tripoli gamble