Libya’s Stalemate Could Lead to Dreaded Partition

"Libyan National Army" commander Khalifa Haftar

by Imad K. Harb

The apparent hiatus in large-scale fighting between Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Fayez al-Sarraj, and the renegade General Khalifa Haftar, who commands the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA), should not be misconstrued as leading to peace in the battered country. In fact, the ceasefire that was arranged for the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday in August was punctuated by bombings and troop movements, reminding everyone that the festering Libyan crisis continues to threaten the unity and survival of whatever remains of state institutions. The GNA, assisted by powerful militias, still presides tenuously in Tripoli and extends its writ over a swathe of territory in western Libya while the LNA boasts of controlling the rest of the country.

This generally sums up an unfortunate reality in Libya on the 50th anniversary of Muammar Qadhafi’s coup, in September 1, 1969, against King Idris al-Sanusi and his establishment of republican rule that later evolved into a jamahiriya (republic of the masses), one that was practically bereft of state institutions. That the late colonel’s failure at leadership and governance was at least partly responsible for the current situation is a given. Since his killing in 2011, however, the failure of other Libyans and those in the international community to hold the line on keeping Libya a unified country has become a testament to the vagaries of elite carelessness and multilateral neglect. To be sure, the international community’s shirking of responsibility to prevent the final collapse of post-2011 Libya is tantamount to complicity in the creation of conditions for Libya’s partition—as well as complete anarchy and chaos in northern Africa.

The (Un)Peaceful Ceasefire

Despite a large show of force and ambitious assault on Tripoli, which began in April, Haftar’s Libyan National Army has not been able to dislodge the forces of the United Nations-recognized GNA from the capital. In fact, GNA forces seem to be on the offensive against the LNA and have gained significant territory. Sporadic skirmishes are almost daily occurrences—notwithstanding the agreement on a ceasefire last August––that only remind Libyans that control of Tripoli has not yet been settled, and thus that Libya’s fate and future developments remain in flux. These skirmishes are slowly producing a military stalemate that could harden battle lines, ones that would possibly demarcate, in the future, the borders of two equally weak rump states. Both of these certainly would be dependent for their well-being, at least for the foreseeable future, on the munificence of outside actors.

On September 16, Haftar’s forces carried out air raids on the GNA-held city of Sirte on the Mediterranean. On September 7, three GNA fighters were killed in military operations against LNA positions outside the capital. On the same day, at a press conference in Abu Dhabi, General Ahmed al-Mismari, spokesman for the LNA, predicted a quick end to the Tripoli battle, asserting that the only way to end the Libyan crisis is through military means and that the time for dialogue is over. On September 2, Libya’s international airport at Mitiga was temporarily closed down after an attack by Haftar’s forces. These September skirmishes were preceded by a warning in late August by United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres––whose organization is mediating the crisis––that Libya was on the verge of a full-scale civil war. By September 9, Haftar’s assault on Tripoli, which started last April, had killed 1,200, injured 6,000, and displaced about 120,000 persons, according to figures from the United Nations.

The military developments were accompanied by other unsettling actions and declarations. In early September, Libya’s National Oil Corporation (NOC), officially part of the GNA despite its reluctance to proclaim allegiance, limited its kerosene supplies to the Haftar-controlled areas because some was used in military operations against Tripoli. The NOC asserted, however, that all civilian needs in those areas are being met. In response, UN diplomats said the east is planning to start its own oil firm to secure supplies not only to its areas but also to forces fighting in Tripoli 1,000 kilometers away.

It should be remembered that over the last few years, Haftar and his supporters have tried to play games with institutions assumed to be the responsibility of the GNA. The seaport of Benghazi, under Haftar’s control, appears to have regained its position in maritime trade, and its revenues go to the eastern government in Tobruk, not to the GNA. Haftar’s control over vast oil fields gives him leverage if the international community allows him to have his own oil exports. Between 2016 and 2018, Haftar and the Tobruk government printed almost 10 billion Libyan dinars in Russia, claiming that they were covering a cash crunch in areas under their control. That step threatened the authority of the Central Bank of Libya (CBL) as the regulator of financial activity in the country. Today, Haftar is relying on private banks in the east––which are regulated by the CBL––to fund his war effort against the GNA, thus putting the bank and the entire financial situation in the country in jeopardy if he fails to repay his debts. Last March, there were reports that the eastern government sold 32 billion dinars’ worth of bonds (equal to $23 billion) to fund its salaries since 2014, after bypassing the CBL and GNA.

Feeble Peace Negotiations

As time passes without a decisive end in sight to the GNA-LNA battle for Tripoli, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) continues its efforts to find an accommodation between the two parties, although Haftar’s assault on Tripoli last April meant the demise of such efforts. On September 4, UNSMIL’s head, Ghassan Salamé, delivered a solemn message to the UN Security Council about several outstanding and disturbing issues facing Libya and his mission. These included Haftar’s assault on Tripoli, the shelling of airports and public buildings, kidnappings and disappearances, illegal supplies of weapons, entry of mercenary forces, and outside interference, among others. He warned the council of two possible scenarios in Libya’s future if the international community neglected its commitment to peacefully resolve the Libyan crisis: 1) “a persistent and protracted low intensity conflict” that kills more Libyans, and 2) “a doubling down of military support to one or the other by their external patrons,” which may lead to regional chaos. Trying to maintain some hope for his mission, Salamé obviously did not want to broach the prospect of partition.

Salamé’s meetings with Haftar do not appear to have led to a breakthrough, given the general’s belief in a military solution to the crisis. On September 9, Salamé announced that Haftar agreed to withdraw from Tripoli, but only after he receives “guarantees” that he is given important portfolios in any new political arrangement. Juxtaposed to what he announced last July about his unwillingness to negotiate with the GNA’s Sarraj, Haftar’s acceptance means nothing. In fact, the different tones reflect the general’s military position. Last July, he was on the verge of conquering Tripoli; today, however, his forces appear to be losing momentum in the face of a determined GNA that is supported by several militias in the west.

Still, Salamé is committed to his transitional deal for the country. Briefly, it consists of a plan for nationwide consultations between the different parties to discuss holding presidential, parliamentary, and local elections and the writing of a draft constitution. The UN envoy has worked since 2017 to involve the eastern government and General Haftar as well as Tripoli’s GNA and its associated Presidential Council, but so far little commitment has emerged on Haftar’s part. Last June, the GNA’s Sarraj––following an ill-advised telephone call from US President Donald Trump to Haftar––proposed a peace initiative that includes national reconciliation and amnesties, excluding for those accused of war crimes. Importantly, however, Sarraj and his government’s initiative view Haftar as having been “destroyed” with no role to play in the future of Libya. In other words, Libya’s future looks to be contingent on two simultaneous realities: a stalemated battlefield near Tripoli, as Haftar insists on conquering it; and a stalled peace process, as Salamé fails to convince Haftar to give compromise a chance. And it does not appear that the general is willing either to halt his assault on the capital or accept an agreement.

The Role of Outsiders

Haftar could not be holding Libya’s fate in his hands were it not for the support he receives from interested outside actors who are seemingly unconcerned about his intransigence; these primarily include the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. While all have expressed support for Salamé’s UN mission, they remain committed to Haftar’s fortunes. His declared credentials as someone who fights the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya have endeared him to this trio, which considers the group a terrorist organization. The UAE has assisted Haftar by equipping his forces with armored vehicles and drones. Recently, it began building a military base in neighboring Niger to assist the general. His spokesperson, Ahmed al-Mismari, held a news conference in Abu Dhabi to declare that only a military solution can resolve the Libyan crisis; this should be enough proof that Emirati officials are fully behind him. From a geopolitical standpoint, the UAE’s support to Haftar resembles Abu Dhabi’s backing of secessionist forces in Yemen and in Somalia’s Somaliland and Puntland.

On the other hand, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have provided financial and military assistance to Haftar; in fact, they interceded on his behalf with the United States after he launched his assault on Tripoli. Their action prompted President Trump to call the renegade general to thank him for his work in fighting extremists, practically giving him license to hold on to his positions vis-à-vis the GNA. Riyadh also pledged to finance Haftar’s campaign against Tripoli. Now, with his campaign stalled and after frictions with the UAE following the latter’s change of heart in Yemen and support for secessionists there, Saudi Arabia may look to extricate itself from supporting Haftar and instead pledge to help the UN’s Salamé. Others like the United States, France, and Russia do not appear to want to be deeply involved in helping to reach a peaceful outcome. Indeed, Paris and Moscow have preferred to look out for their own interests instead of assisting the UN mission. Still, at the last meeting of the G7, world leaders issued a communiqué calling for an international conference on Libya but asserted their support of the current UN mission led by Ghassan Salamé.

By comparison, Turkey has taken a strong position supporting Sarraj and his Tripoli-based Government of National Accord. This support is helping to change the Libyan crisis into a proxy war in which the UAE and Turkey compete to provide their clients with the necessary means for political and military survival. To be sure, the GNA finds itself in a bind: with an arms embargo in place since 2011, and with Haftar receiving military support from the UAE and elsewhere, limited options force it to accept assistance from Turley. Last July, a former Libyan official welcomed Turkish help that could fill a void in the GNA’s defenses, which are currently heavily reliant on ground troops from western Libyan militias. Turkey has supplied the GNA with armored vehicles and unmanned aerial vehicles. In this stance, Turkey’s position does not differ from that of Qatar on Haftar, the GNA, and the political solution to Libya’s conflict. Qatar also called for an international investigation into an attack on a detention center near Tripoli last July, which was blamed on Haftar.

Fear of What’s to Come

While both domestic competition and outside intervention are fueling the dangerous Libyan conflict, General Haftar’s challenge to the GNA and rejection of UN mediation are central elements in the feared partition of the country. If he hampers Salamé’s mission and insists on a military solution to the conflict with the GNA––a task so far unattained––it is hard to prevent him from imposing a fait accompli on the areas he controls. What adds to this possibility is the fact that eastern Libya may look like an economically viable entity that could be supported by both the UAE and Egypt, despite the international problem of legitimacy that option could create for Haftar and his Arab backers.

Dissuading Haftar from pursuing either his ill-advised assault on the capital or de facto partition requires an international commitment to the current UN mission Salamé leads, notwithstanding the setbacks it has suffered. Nevertheless, this international commitment should take into consideration how to stop the UAE and Egypt’s interference in, and support for, Haftar’s two choices. The Trump Administration has an essential role to play in this endeavor because of its relationship with Abu Dhabi and Cairo. Perhaps the Saudi and Yemeni challenge to the UAE’s support to south Yemen’s secessionists will convince Emirati leaders that their ambitions there—and in Somalia and Libya—should be curtailed. As for Egypt, the American ability to use levers of pressure, economic and military, may be enough to demonstrate to Egyptian officials that their country’s security is best defended and preserved with a unified Libya, one with strong, internationally supported institutions the late Qadhafi considered dispensable.

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. Republished, with permission, from the Arab Center.

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  1. As long as Haftar succeeds in having the backing of U.S., France and Egypt, little chances of peace in the region…

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