by Imad K. Harb
Khalifa Haftar, Libya’s renegade general and leader of the self-anointed Libyan National Army (LNA), appears adamant that only he can lead the country out of the darkness of the last few years. On April 4, he launched a campaign against the United Nations-supported Government of National Accord (GNA) in the capital Tripoli. As of April 21, the assault had killed at least 227, wounded more than 1,100, and caused the displacement of 30,000 people, according to the World Health Organization. But Haftar’s military operation has stalled short of achieving its objective despite his deployment of what was thought to be crack soldiers and modern weapons. In fact, forces defending the capital are no longer in a defensive posture and have begun to undertake offensive operations south and southwest of Tripoli where the LNA has concentrated its troops.
Politically, Haftar’s assault on Tripoli has forced an indefinite postponement of a UN-sponsored Libyan National Conference that was to be held on April 14 in the city of Ghadames. The meeting had in fact been agreed to in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on February 27 when Haftar and Fayez al-Sarraj—prime minister of the Government of National Accord—were invited to discuss future political arrangements. What transpired then was an agreement on the conference that would arrange elections and a referendum on a constitutional document. Given developments since April 4, it appears that General Haftar did not see the agreement offering him very good prospects. Still, Ghassan Salamé, special representative of the Secretary General and head of the UN Support Mission in Libya, seems to be determined not to waste the opportunity to devise a political solution to the Libyan quagmire.
Haftar’s assault on the internationally recognized GNA is nothing short of a coup attempt and a direct threat to the peace process being shepherded by Salamé. Adding to the seriousness of his assault are two intertwined and dangerous dynamics: unabashed support from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia and collusion on the part of the United States that is thwarting efforts to stand up to Haftar. But it is doubtful that Haftar’s campaign against Tripoli will end Libya’s chaos; indeed, it is likely to exacerbate and extend the country’s civil war and increase regional instability, especially in light of the developments surrounding political change in Algeria and Sudan.
The Fizzled Assault and Its Embarrassments
General Haftar’s attack on Tripoli has long been coming, ostensibly because he wants to rid the city of militias and Islamist forces. But his latest attempt, now completing its third week, appears to have bogged down when the GNA-commanded forces stood their ground south of the capital. While the status of the assault can still change for many reasons, its slowdown is embarrassing to the general and his supporters. It also reflects negatively on the reputation of his LNA and the political forces that gave him some legitimacy in eastern Libya. In fact, after almost three weeks of on-again, off-again fighting, the forces supporting the GNA are steadfast in resisting Haftar, who is resorting to forcefully recruiting fighters in his areas to augment his ranks. Be that as it may, his inability to take over the capital so far gives a boost to the GNA and its leader, Fayez al-Sarraj, who has felt confident enough to call for prosecuting Haftar in front of the International Criminal Court instead of suing for a ceasefire.
Haftar’s failure also reflects badly on his ardent supporters in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, and Russia. Before undertaking this audacious step, Haftar visited Saudi Arabia and met with King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and received their unqualified support. They also supplied him with funds to buy the loyalty of tribal leaders south of Tripoli, according to media reports quoting Saudi officials. Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi also received Haftar in the presence of the chief of Egyptian intelligence, Abbas Kamel, and declared his support for the general’s efforts without counseling an end to hostilities. The UAE, which proclaimed its support for the United Nations’ efforts in Libya, is being investigated by the international body for supplying weapons to Haftar in contravention of current UN prohibitions. Finally, Russia is preventing the adoption of a United Kingdom-proposed resolution at the UN Security Council calling for a cease-fire if the text criticizes Haftar, who initiated the hostilities in the first place, while France has refused to sign on to a similar European Union resolution.
France must suffer from a similar degree of embarrassment because of its embrace of Haftar despite his sabotaging the UN peace process. Recently, Tripoli’s government suspended its relations with France to protest Paris’s support of the renegade general. For its part, Paris has denied collusion with Haftar and again declared its support for the GNA and UN efforts. It also highlighted its training of GNA police forces and Sarraj’s security detail. Nevertheless, not declaring its full rejection of Haftar’s continued sabotaging of the GNA and Libya’s political arrangement of 2015 puts France in the camp of those aiding a military takeover of Libya.
Trump Administration Perfidy
Enamored of strongmen and authoritarians, President Donald Trump made a quick about-face from previous administration positions on Libya, throwing a giant spanner in the UN’s work plan for the country. For years the United States had advocated a political solution for the Libyan civil war, one that represents a middle-of-the-road arrangement that preserves the interests of all parties, and the Obama administration supported the 2015 UN-led Libyan Political Agreement. That position remained official policy even after Haftar ordered his forces to attack Tripoli. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the Trump administration was “deeply concerned” about the assault, opposed “the military offensive by Khalifa Haftar’s forces,” and urged “the immediate halt to these military operations.”
But on April 19, the Trump White House announced that the president talked by telephone to Haftar on April 15 and recognized his “important” role in fighting terrorists in Libya. Such a conversation cannot be seen except as an endorsement of Haftar’s position, considering the president’s love affair with authoritarians and his closeness to the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE. Indeed, Haftar’s LNA quickly announced that it considered Trump’s position as an endorsement of its mission. That Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE have declared their support for Haftar and pledged financial and military aid to his forces explains much of the American president’s reversal. Specifically, Egypt’s Sisi had met with Trump on April 9 and the two found agreement on virtually everything. With Sisi’s position of support for Libya’s Haftar, it is hard to see how Trump would have an alternative view.
Perhaps more telling is the coordination between the UAE and the Trump administration about Libya, Yemen, Iran, and other issues in the Middle East. To be sure, the UAE had great interest in seeing Trump become president; Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed was the only world leader to figure in the Robert Mueller report on Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential elections because of his effort to put Trump’s new administration in touch with Russian officials. Since 2011, the UAE has made fighting Islamist forces in Arab countries its main objective. In 2014, UAE and Egyptian fighters conducted air strikes against Islamists in Libya as a precursor to the support of the UAE and Egypt for General Haftar that began later that year. Thus, Trump’s pivotal endorsement of General Haftar serves the mission of the UAE as well as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which is to make sure that authoritarian rule is imposed on Libya.
Uncertainty in the Neighborhood
Haftar’s assault on Tripoli must have benefited from the unstable conditions in both Algeria and Sudan. In fact, his forces must have exploited the Algerian situation to occupy areas close to the Libyan-Algerian border as a final stage of the general’s conquest of Libya’s south and southwest. To be sure, Algeria’s military institution has been busy pushing through the resignation of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, arranging for a new political formula for the country, and planning for new presidential elections on July 4 to pay attention to Haftar’s plans. For its part, the GNA government in Tripoli called on Algeria to assist in opposing a Haftar takeover of the capital. In any case, Haftar appears not to have many friends in Algeria. In September 2018, anointing himself spokesperson for Libya, he threatened to invade the neighboring country after Algerian soldiers were seen illegally crossing Libyan territory. He also called other Arab countries “enemies.”
Similarly, and feeling the spread of instability, Tunisia’s Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui called on Haftar to end hostilities and pursue a political deal for the country. Tunisia’s President Beji Qaid Essebsi also told a US congressional delegation that what is happening in Libya is of great concern for his government. Still, Tunisia prevented the foreign minister of the eastern Libyan government supporting Haftar from holding a press conference in Tunis, indicating either that Tunisia only recognizes the UN-supported GNA or that it prefers to remain neutral in the dispute. To be sure, a Haftar victory in Tripoli is likely to put Tunisia’s fragile political arrangement in jeopardy because it contains elements of Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda Party.
Sudan, on the other hand, presents a difficult case of a country undergoing unstable political conditions and outright interference in its affairs, two dynamics that reflect on and are affected by what takes place in Libya. While the Sudanese military council that ousted Omar al-Bashir insists on leading the post-Bashir period, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are promising an infusion of $3 billion in assistance. One assumes that this aid will be contingent upon how the new authorities in Sudan deal with the Islamist forces in the country. For their part, Sudan’s protesters and political forces immediately announced their rejection of the aid because they see it as giving the two countries undue influence in Khartoum. One thing is arguably sure, however: a Saudi-Emirati success in swaying the Sudanese military to abort the process of political change in Khartoum may very well bode positively for Haftar’s chances in Tripoli.
Developments have made clear that Libya’s 2011 transition from Muammar Qadhafi’s authoritarianism has not gone well given the many years of discord, outright civil war, and extremist violence. What is now needed is a recommitment by regional and international actors to bring about at least a modicum of stability to Libya so that the Libyan state can reestablish its institutions and relaunch a badly needed development drive. General Haftar is still trying to thwart the UN’s efforts to gather Libyans together in a national reconciliation effort that can pave the way toward this goal. His regional and international backers––Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Russia, the United States, and possibly others––must also recognize that coddling him is doing Libya great harm, delaying its social peace, and threatening to revive Qadhafi’s oppressive rule.
Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Imad and read his previous publications click here. Reprinted, with permission, from Arab Center Washington DC.