Haftar's Tripoli offensive: Stirring debate over Libya's fate

Kamel Abdallah , Thursday 18 Apr 2019

Khalifa Haftar’s march on Tripoli could cost the country its unity, as the death toll rises amid ongoing infighting

Members of Libyan National Army in Tripoli
Members of Libyan National Army (LNA) commanded by Khalifa Haftar, get ready before heading out of Benghazi to reinforce the troops advancing to Tripoli, in Benghazi, Libya April 13, 2019 (Photo: Reuters)

After more than two weeks, violent fighting continues in the southern suburbs of the Libyan capital Tripoli between the Libyan National Army led by General Khalifa Haftar and troops of the internationally-recognised consensus government led by Fayez Al-Sarraj.

Although the latter deployed a security cordon around the capital and international efforts continue to end battles that have killed many and displaced thousands of families on the frontlines, the war continues.

Fighting has pulverised the country’s dilapidated infrastructure and compounded grave humanitarian conditions, according to the UN and international humanitarian groups.

Last week, Haftar visited Paris, Rome, Moscow and Cairo to garner support for his military campaign on Tripoli, but it is not yet clear if warring factions can definitively win the battle since the country has returned to square one of civil war.

On Haftar’s last visit to Cairo, he met with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi who told him that Egypt is keen on Libya’s unity and stability, and reiterated Cairo’s support of efforts to combat terrorism and radical militias in order to achieve security and stability for all citizens across Libya, according to a statement by the Egyptian presidency issued after the meeting.

In an interview with senior BBC correspondent Lyse Doucet, UN envoy to Libya Ghassan Salamé said the government of national accord in Tripoli, which is recognised by the world community, wants certain preconditions for negotiations.

First, a ceasefire, and second, for Haftar to return to his positions before fighting began on 4 April. Salamé said that “Haftar agreed to the first condition, and refused the second.”

He continued: “I believe we are still in the mobilisation phase by both sides, not the negotiations phase. First, both camps must realise they are in military limbo so talks can begin once again, but if one side is convinced that they can win single-handedly, then we will never reach negotiations.”

Salamé expected foreign allies to continue supporting Haftar and was concerned that the war by proxy in Libya will expand and more advanced weaponry will reach the multitude of combat zones in southern Tripoli.

A new player has entered the fray: Saudi Arabia promised to fund Haftar’s war to take control of Tripoli, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Libyan sources told Al-Ahram Weekly that Saudi Arabia pledged $500 million to Haftar to continue fighting, after the presidential council pledged one billion dinars for combat operations.

Although major and regional powers constantly issue statements condemning military operations, the fighting continues to expand to new areas in western Libya. War tactics practiced across Libya have so far failed in Tripoli, which means humanitarian conditions will worsen.

On Monday, the President of the European Parliament Antonio Tajani called on the government of Italy and France to “end the arm twisting between them and reach a solution to achieve stability in Libya”.

Tajani warned that “if conditions continue the way they are, all that will be left are the dead and refugees trying to flee to our European shores”.

He further warned there is a pressing need for immediate intervention in Libya, noting that “the EU’s duty is to bring the French and Italians together to reach an agreement. The French have made mistakes, but Italy’s presence is very weak and ineffective,” he was quoted by Italy’s news agency ANSA as saying.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte told a news conference with Qatar’s foreign minister in Rome Monday that Haftar must withdraw his troops, and military operations by all sides must end so the UN humanitarian truce can be implemented to ease the suffering of civilians and comply by international law.

He hoped for an immediate return to the negotiating table to restart the political dialogue for a comprehensive and permanent solution under UN auspices, according to a statement on the government website.

Until Al-Ahram Weekly went to print, the US had not changed its position and reiterated through statements by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and its embassy in western Tripoli that fighting must stop, urging all sides to return to their previous positions and restart the UN-sponsored political dialogue.

Haftar’s eagerness to take Tripoli blindsided his regional and international backers after he rushed a power grab in a fragmented country. The crisis will worsen as mobilisation for the war continues and young fighters are recruited by provoking regional and tribal prejudices.

This means the conflict will become an extended social one that will be difficult to negotiate, especially since it affects the structure of domestic values.

The attack on Tripoli delayed holding the National Conference that could have resulted in a new political agreement. It could have also guaranteed Haftar a senior position in power, overseeing security and defence issues, and a substantial share of oil revenues, according to Salamé’s report to the UN Security Council.

What is certain, so far, is that Libya has gone past the point of no return, and during this prolonged war each side and its foreign allies will try to deplete the other through fierce combat.

The danger is that a chaotic Libya will become an arena for an arms race that threatens the Mediterranean, North Africa and the entire coast, especially as regional and international forces that support local factions continue to assist their partners to the end.

Already, there is a steady flow of arms and military equipment to battlefields.

While Sarraj’s government relies on Italy to pressure the White House to urge Haftar to end his military campaign on Tripoli, Haftar depends on his allies not to abandon him following all his achievements in past years when he was generously supported.

The UN cannot begin a new dialogue process since its efforts were upended by the war on Tripoli, and one can only wait and see how international and regional positions align towards the parties in the Libyan crisis.

This will be decided by the battle for Tripoli that will lead to a major shift in the balance of power, and domestic and foreign players.

Intelligence Online website expects the first one to leave the fray will by Salamé, whose mandate ends in July, after growing criticism by local and foreign parties to the crisis. Haftar or Sarraj may also exit the scene, depending on who wins the war that is costing Libya its unity.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 April, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: What next for Libya?

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