by International Crisis Group
Almost two months have passed since Libyan National Army (LNA) forces commanded by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar marched on Tripoli from their base in eastern Libya in an attempt to seize the capital. They expected a swift victory, banking on the belief that key units in the Tripoli area would remain neutral or switch sides. But they miscalculated: rather than swooping into the capital, they became stranded on its outskirts, settling into a war of attrition with forces from Tripoli and Misrata nominally loyal to the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and its Presidential Council, headed by Faiez Serraj. Nevertheless, Haftar is claiming success and, seeming to believe victory is within reach, refusing calls for a cessation of hostilities. On their side, forces nominally loyal to the GNA have pegged the resumption of talks to the LNA’s complete withdrawal from western Libya. Otherwise, they say, they will push out the LNA by force. Both sides see themselves as pursuing a just cause and, convinced that their military objective is achievable with a little outside help, have shown signs of doubling down.
Meanwhile, the fighting has created a diplomatic vacuum: the UN special envoy has seen the political process he initiated evaporate, and rifts among Libya’s external stakeholders have been laid bare, leaving the UN Security Council paralysed. With no military solution on the horizon, the two sides will have no choice but to return to the negotiating table sooner or later. The UN’s reputation may have taken a hit, but the world body remains the only actor capable of managing peace talks. External actors need to acknowledge these realities, and throw their support behind an internationally monitored ceasefire that would require at least a partial withdrawal of Haftar-led forces from the Tripoli front lines. It will be no easy task, given the zero-sum logic that drives both the LNA’s offensive (and that Haftar’s regional backers share) and the Tripoli government’s demand that Haftar forces leave western Libya entirely.
But simply letting the war take its course, and possibly escalate further, should not be the only option. International stakeholders, including the U.S., need to achieve a new consensus on Libya, genuinely empower the UN special envoy, call for an immediate ceasefire and press the warring sides back to the table.
For their part, the two sides should reassess their assumptions and acknowledge that neither has the capability to prevail militarily. For Haftar and other LNA commanders, as well as the east-based government, reassessment means softening their bellicose rhetoric and publicly accepting the Tripoli government as a legitimate negotiating partner. In turn, Serraj and military forces allied to the GNA should be prepared to commit to negotiations that could well overturn the UN-installed institutional framework of which they have been the prime beneficiaries. Once a ceasefire is in place, an immediate priority should be the resumption of talks to resolve a banking crisis that, if left unaddressed, could impoverish the majority of the population, reignite the battle for the capital and bring Libya to ruin.
Now in its seventh week, the fighting in and around Tripoli has deadlocked. It has left at least 510 people dead, including 29 civilians, and displaced 75,000 residents from the capital. Starting from their bases in eastern and southern Libya on 4 April, and backed by allies in the west, Haftar’s forces took their adversaries by surprise, entering a ring of Tripoli neighbourhoods from Zahra in the west to Ain Zara and Wadi Rabia in the south east, and seizing the (non-functioning) Tripoli international airport. GNA forces mobilised within a week, however, and managed to push the LNA and its allies out of the capital’s western periphery and most of Ain Zara.
Since then, both sides have made occasional advances before retreating along a front line in the capital’s southern suburbs some 10-20km in width, with neither side able to take new ground and score a decisive victory. The LNA has remained stuck in positions around Wadi Rabia and the international airport in the face of fierce resistance, and forces loyal to the Tripoli government have failed to realise their plan to expel Haftar’s forces from greater Tripoli and towns along the LNA’s fragile supply lines, such as Tarhouna and Ghariyan.
Even the use of airpower and drones has not significantly changed the balance on the ground. Between mid-April and mid-May, the LNA repeatedly carried out air and drone strikes against the bases of armed groups inside Tripoli and nearby towns such as Zawiya and Tajoura and against pro-GNA fighters on the front lines. In turn, the GNA has used its own smaller air force to strike at LNA-held areas, such as Qasr Ben Gashir. For the time being, the LNA appears to have superior air capacity because it has more jets that are operational, and it alone has access to armed drones. Its drone attacks caused significant damage to GNA forces’ equipment more than they proved effective in killing enemy fighters. The GNA also suffered the loss of its two best fighter jets (both Mirages, operating out of Misrata), with one of its pilots captured by the LNA on 7 May. The footage of the event provided the LNA with a smoking gun for its claim that the GNA is using mercenary pilots: the captive was a white man who identified himself as a Portuguese national. In turn, the GNA accuses the LNA of relying on foreign support to equip its planes and operate its drones.
Despite initial setbacks and diminished flying power, GNA-allied forces appear convinced they can prevail, banking on fresh equipment, reportedly arriving from Turkey. The GNA’s air force appears to have started carrying out night strikes since early May and to have obtained surveillance drones. The fact that the LNA has carried out no precision airstrikes in Tripoli since 14 May would suggest that the GNA’s acquisition of new technology has made a difference. Sources in Tripoli boasted in mid-May about “good surprises”, hinting at new military equipment.On 19 May, a shipment of several dozen armoured vehicles was unloaded in Tripoli port, but it is unclear if that cargo, or others that might have arrived undetected, included any other aviation-related equipment.
Some Western military experts caution against dismissing the LNA’s failed advance as a setback, saying Haftar is pursuing an intentional “strategy of attrition” aimed at drawing out the enemy, a claim numerous LNA sympathisers also make. But in terms of fighting power and military arsenal deployed, the two sides appear approximately equal for the time being.
Slim Chances of a Ceasefire
Confident that they have the means to win the war, both sides have ignored calls for a cessation of hostilities from the African Union, the EU and a number of member states. Tripoli authorities have refused a ceasefire so long as LNA forces remain in proximity to the capital and have posited an unconditional LNA withdrawal from the entirety of western Libya as a prerequisite for even considering one. They view Haftar’s advance on the capital as a violation of international law and an act of aggression whose sole aim is to enable Haftar to take over the country, impose military rule and return Libya to Qadhafi-era authoritarianism. In their eyes, a ceasefire based on current fighting positions without a guarantee that Haftar will respect them would amount to giving his forces time to rest and rearm before resuming their assault on the GNA and the capital.
From its side, the LNA has shown no interest even in outlining conditions for a ceasefire. Despite suffering setbacks in Tripoli’s periphery, Haftar urged his forces to continue their advance on the capital during Ramadan, which began on 5 May. Some LNA supporters seem to believe that Haftar has set the holy month’s 20th day as the date for entering the capital; that day, which falls on 25 May this year and which Haftar referred to in a 4 April speech, is laden with Islamic symbolism because it marks the Prophet’s liberation of Mecca. Even if that day sees an escalation, LNA’s conquest of Tripoli is unlikely, due to the strength of Haftar’s foes, as exhibited so far. Those backing the LNA, including the eastern government (not recognised internationally), frame their operation as necessary to “liberate” Tripoli from armed groups whom they call “terrorists” or “extremists”, and to “free” the Libyan state apparatus from the shackles of militia rule, of which they claim the Tripoli-based prime minister, Faiez Serraj, is a victim. Only after they have taken the capital, they say, would it be possible to restart the political process.
And here is the rub: by setting maximalist demands, and given the relative balance of forces, the GNA and LNA both increase the chances of a protracted and deadly war, one that is virtually bound to see increased foreign meddling. The deceptive rhetoric of imminent triumph – and, in the LNA’s case, of the “war on terror” – is likely to encourage their respective external backers to keep supplying military equipment, ammunition and funds to urge their proxies toward victory. For this, the LNA is counting mainly but not exclusively on Egyptian, Emirati and Saudi support. The allegation that Islamists have infiltrated the ranks of GNA-aligned forces in particular appears to have struck a chord: “There are different militias fighting there [in Tripoli] with different agendas and some of those who are fighting with the GNA scare us”, said United Arab Emirates (UAE) Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash.On the other side, GNA-aligned forces have been tapping Turkish and Qatari supplies to ensure that Libya does not fall to Haftar and, by extension, Ankara’s and Doha’s regional foes.
The net result would be a proxy war reflecting a primary geopolitical rift in the Gulf region, with no guaranteed winner. As time passes, the war could morph into a more multifaceted conflict, including over financial resources, namely if the LNA, strapped for cash, leverages its control over most of Libya’s oil and gas infrastructure to secure access to state funds, of which it is now deprived. What the UN Secretary-General’s special representative, Ghassan Salamé, said in his sobering speech to the Security Council is true: “There is no military solution to Libya. This is not a cliché. It is a fact, and it is high time for those who have harboured this illusion to open their eyes and adjust themselves to this reality”.
Efforts to stop the war through diplomatic channels have failed to take off. Rather than condemning Haftar for seeking to forcibly remove the UN-backed government, the White House threw its weight behind him in mid-April. This surprise turnaround in Washington, which contradicted U.S. policy as articulated by the secretary of state, contributed to paralysis within the UN Security Council, preventing it from condemning the assault and instructing international action. It also led European capitals, even those that, like Rome, had an initial impulse to denounce the offensive, to adopt a more complacent approach, condemning it verbally but doing little more. The new U.S. position also emboldened Haftar’s regional backers in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Cairo to continue their financial and military support for Haftar’s military assault, which an Egyptian diplomat described as Haftar’s “national duty”.
The UN Security Council has been conspicuous in its inaction. Ten days into the offensive, Council members could not even agree to vote on a UK-drafted resolution that called for a ceasefire. France and Russia, in particular, objected to a draft placing the blame for the escalation solely on the LNA. Both requested additional wording calling on the Tripoli government to step up its counter-terrorism efforts. But diplomats agree that the U.S. played a decisive role in halting any discussion of the text.Washington justified its rejection of the UK draft by saying it did not envisage a mechanism to ensure that the ceasefire would be respected; ultimately, its opposition prevented the draft from moving forward.
Retrospectively, it is hard to see the U.S. argument as more than a cover for the pro-Haftar policy shift it had already executed but did not make public until 19 April. Nothing has changed since then. Following its closed-door consultation on 10 May, the best the Council could muster was a tepid statement expressing concern “about the instability in Tripoli and worsening humanitarian situation which is endangering the lives of innocent civilians and threatens the prospects for a political solution”, and calling on all parties to “return to UN political mediation, and to commit to a ceasefire and de-escalation to help mediation succeed”.
The EU Foreign Affairs Council has used the strongest wording of any international body so far to describe the war in Tripoli. Its 13 May final communiqué called the LNA’s military attack and subsequent escalation in and around Tripoli “a serious threat to international peace and security”. But the council failed to translate these words into action, limiting itself to calling on “all parties to implement a ceasefire” and return to political negotiations.
Had it wanted to, the council could have slapped sanctions on those accused of disrupting international peace and security, and even called on EU member states to use their resources (such as naval assets, already mandated under the EU’s Operation Sophia, or satellites) to help monitor implementation of the UN arms embargo. The fact that it did not, a EU diplomat said, attested to a “cosmic vacuum” reigning in the EU with regard to Libya. Though European capitals officially recognise the GNA, most appear to have lost hope in it, while remaining fearful of what a Haftar takeover could entail. Aside from effecting heavy destruction to the capital, a majority fears that he will apply in Tripoli the same heavy-handed leadership style he has used in eastern Libya (where he has jailed Islamists and other political opponents, and has carried out extrajudicial killings). This dilemma, coupled with Washington’s refusal to condemn the assault on Tripoli and France’s close ties to Haftar and his Gulf backers, has led to a policy paralysis among most EU member states.
Officially, France recognises the GNA but among European states it is the most openly supportive of Haftar, having maintained close relations with him since 2015. This goes in tandem with Paris’s strong military cooperation with Abu Dhabi and is consistent with its own counter-terrorism priorities in the Sahel, where it has deployed 3,000 troops as part of Operation Barkhane. Neighbouring Chad is a key partner in Barkhane and, in many respects, France’s support for Haftar is a corollary to its longstanding backing of Chadian President Idriss Déby. Haftar and Déby are close allies, and from Paris’s point of view Haftar, with his strongman inclinations, is the better partner in Libya to prevent jihadist and Chadian rebel infiltration from southern Libya. This to the frustration of the Serraj government, which threatened to shut down operations of Total, the French oil company, in mid-May to persuade Paris to change its policy toward Haftar. Instead, French officials have accused the Serraj government of insufficient action against “terrorists” in western Libya, a position similar to that expressed by UAE officials.
Despite an earlier, more even-handed approach, Rome and Berlin appear to be coming somewhat closer to Paris’s position, hesitating to explicitly denounce the Haftar offensive or call for an LNA withdrawal from western Libya – Serraj’s primary request when he toured European capitals in early May. This is due in part to the U.S. change of policy: major European capitals would hesitate to take an opposite position to that of the U.S. on Libya, even more so now that the Tripoli government’s main allies are Ankara and Doha. In addition, Paris’s support for the LNA and more technical evaluations of Haftar’s chances of succeeding militarily also appear to have factored into Europe’s tepidness toward the Tripoli camp. At least that was the case until mid-May: now, seven weeks into a war that increasingly looks like the military stalemate Crisis Group foresaw, some European officials, including potentially French ones, appear once more to be re-evaluating their assumptions.
To France’s credit, and somewhat paradoxically, Macron is the only European leader to have at least called for an international mechanism to monitor a ceasefire. French officials say they are looking into how monitoring could work; options include the use of radar and/or observers on the ground. Yet the chances that these ideas will take concrete form remain slim because of the difficulty of monitoring military positions in cities. The prospects are likewise dim that either Tripoli or Benghazi would accept monitoring: Haftar has rejected a ceasefire and Tripoli refuses any project that does not include the full withdrawal of Haftar’s forces from western Libya.
A Way Forward
Allowing the battle for Tripoli to unfold without a credible effort to push the sides to a ceasefire is very dangerous. Fuelled by foreign support, the conflict could escalate, causing immense material destruction and human suffering in the capital and surrounding areas. It could also eventually destabilise eastern Libya, Haftar’s base, where tribal leaders are beginning to voice discontent over a deadly fight in the capital they consider unnecessary. In the south, the security vacuum caused by the sudden redeployment of LNA troops to the capital in April has allowed Islamic State militants to rebound – a development that directly undercuts the logic of France’s support for Haftar. And a protracted battle for Tripoli could ignite a fight for control of the country’s finances and hydrocarbon resources in other parts of the country.
With the GNA and the LNA refusing to halt hostilities amid diplomatic paralysis, the war in and around Tripoli is likely to drag on. At the moment, neither side seems ready for a ceasefire or a political settlement, as both are itching to score a decisive victory that would allow them to either freeze the UN-backed political framework (in the case of the GNA, which benefits from nominal international recognition and what this entails financially and militarily) or reset it in their favour (in the LNA’s case).
The dynamics on the ground point in this negative direction. In particular, it is unclear whether Haftar and his supporters inside and outside of Libya will be satisfied with anything short of full capture of the state that would allow them to dictate the terms of a new political framework, with Haftar in charge. Many in Tripoli today believe that they will not and, for this reason, vow to fight on. Conversely, many in Haftar’s camp do not consider Serraj a credible negotiating partner, portraying him instead as a hostage of the militias that surround him; for this reason, they dismiss the very notion of negotiations and fight on themselves.
The situation might well escalate, with weapons and equipment pouring in from abroad, but will likely end up producing another version of a stalemate, only with greater levels of destructiveness. This is why both sides, and their external backers, ought to more realistically assess the balance of power and the prospects it offers, and on that basis move away from their boastful rhetoric of imminent triumph. These regional actors, especially those on Haftar’s side, also should have an interest in de-escalating tensions, lest they find themselves having to bankroll the LNA and the eastern government that supports it; both are set to run out of funds when a banking crisis that has been building since October 2018 reaches its climax in the very near future.
A prerequisite for a negotiated de-escalation is for both sides to feel that their basic interests have been adequately addressed. The Serraj government and the military forces aligned with it say they want the LNA’s violent effort to unseat the GNA to end, the assault on Tripoli to stop, and guarantees that military power will remain under civilian oversight. The eastern government says it wants its fair share of oil revenues and to liberate the capital from what it considers militia rule before restarting negotiations over a political roadmap. Taken at face value, these objectives are not necessarily incompatible, and so a negotiated ceasefire that would allow the resumption of political, financial and military negotiations that achieves them should be possible.
International stakeholders ought to press the parties to accept a ceasefire reflecting a compromise between their respective positions: a withdrawal of Haftar’s forces from Tripoli’s immediate periphery but, at this stage, not (as Serraj demands) from other towns in the greater Tripoli area. They also should agree to steps to maximise the chances that both sides implement such a ceasefire: first, giving international legal backing through a UN resolution to an agreed ceasefire; secondly, endorsing and establishing an international monitoring mechanism, which could consist of unarmed monitoring personnel from EU member states with access to surveillance equipment and satellite imagery; thirdly, imposing sanctions on any eventual ceasefire violators; and fourthly, fully complying with the UN arms embargo on Libya, which is being openly flouted at present.
To pave the way for a political settlement, both parties will also need to allay their opponents’ deepest fears and prejudices. On Haftar’s side, this entails moving away from the belligerent rhetoric adopted so far and instead publicly recognising the GNA as a legitimate partner in UN-led negotiations to which it would have to commit. On Serraj’s side, this means ensuring that the GNA-allied military factions accept a negotiation whose outcome could well spell the end of the Libyan Political Agreement, the 2015 power-sharing deal that gave rise (and UN backing) to the GNA. Any subsequent negotiations ought not to be strictly limited to Haftar and Serraj alone, but rather should include a broad array of stakeholders from across Libya’s multiple institutional and military divides.
The U.S. in particular ought to recalibrate its approach toward the parties by reaffirming its support for the internationally recognised GNA and pressing both sides to accept an internationally monitored ceasefire such as outlined above and return to talks. Washington could also make a tangible difference by nudging the two sides toward an agreement on how to manage state finances and reunify economic institutions that have been split since 2014, such as the Central Bank. This last agreement will not solve everything, but as described in a recent Crisis Group report, it is essential to avert another crisis and address some of Libya’s post-2011 ills.
Barring a sudden – and improbable – radical change in the balance of forces on the ground, the battle for Tripoli is likely to be long, destructive and deadly. For now, both the Tripoli government and its allies, on the one hand, and Haftar’s forces, on the other, are embarked on a perilous path toward escalation that could well draw external actors deeper into the fight. The longer the fight for Tripoli continues, the greater the risk that it will ignite an all-out civil war, setting ablaze yet another country in an already deeply troubled region.
There is an alternative path, but it will require the two parties to compromise and – importantly – their respective international backers to stop fuelling the conflict and, instead, agree to work toward a ceasefire and empower the UN special envoy to restart political, financial and military negotiations.
Republished, with permission, from the International Crisis Group.