by Giorgio Cafiero
On April 4, General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) launched an offensive on Tripoli, catching off guard the western militias loyal to the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA). In the last three months, the violence of the Libyan civil war has intensified, leaving roughly 5,000 wounded and more than 700 dead.
At the start of Haftar’s westward advance, the LNA had much momentum, initially managing to reach Tripoli’s outskirts. Yet, nearly three months into Haftar’s offensive, the LNA’s enemies—mainly from Tripoli and Misrata—have halted the assault, even managing to take back territory. The LNA’s setbacks are the result of the pro-GNA militias stepping up their coordination and receiving drones and armored trucks from Turkey.
Haftar’s loss of Gharyan on June 26 marked a costly defeat for the LNA, both strategically and symbolically. Until this recent battle, an LNA forward base was in Gharyan, a town south of Tripoli with a population of 200,000. In fact, back in April Haftar’s forces captured Gharyan two days prior to waging their offensive on Tripoli. Now, with GNA-allied groups controlling the town, Haftar will have a more difficult time defeating Tripoli’s militias and “liberating” the Libyan capital from “terrorists.”
Nonetheless, despite these LNA loses, there are no signs that Haftar is reconsidering his aim of a military victory. To the contrary, the eastern commander is calling for a “harsh response” against the LNA’s enemies following the surprise fall of Gharyan. He also has increased his staunchly anti-Turkey posturing, seeing Ankara as largely responsible for his forces’ setbacks. The LNA has banned flights from Istanbul to eastern Libya while also threatening to target Turkish ships and installations in the North African country. It detained six Turkish citizens (which it later released). On June 30, a Haftar-allied militia shot down a Turkish drone near Libya’s only functioning airport. Turkey’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar has vowed to retaliate harshly against Haftar’s anti-Turkish moves.
Although Haftar displayed considerable confidence in April, the LNA is not likely to defeat its enemies in western Libya any time soon. At this juncture, Haftar’s strongest external supporters—Egypt, France, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—must assess their positions on the civil war as Libya’s security deteriorates. If the Benghazi-based commander’s offensive on Tripoli suffers further setbacks, the LNA and GNA-allied factions could find themselves in a bloody stalemate that drags on into 2020 without either side achieving a decisive victory. Financing an overstretched and poorly organized LNA in its campaign to conquer Tripoli could become financially untenable for Haftar’s state sponsors.
At the same time, the reputation of Haftar’s state sponsors may further suffer due to the growing outcry over the LNA forces’ human rights violations. In August 2017, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for a field commander of an LNA-affiliated militia on charges of committing war crimes in Ganfouda. Since April, Amnesty International has also accused Haftar’s forces of possible war crimes during their advance on Tripoli.
Last month, four Libyan families filed lawsuits against Haftar in a U.S. district court in Virginia, demanding $100 million in punitive damages and $25 million in compensation for mental trauma resulting from his attacks. These families cited LNA missile/mortar attacks and bombing campaigns near Tripoli, as reported by NBC News.
Haftar’s strength on the ground and his confidence to wage the assault on Tripoli derive from his foreign backers. Without such support from external players, the Benghazi-based commander would have been under far greater pressure to negotiate a diplomatic settlement with militias in Tripoli and Misrata. The question of Haftar’s willingness to negotiate in the future will depend heavily on the extent to which officials in Gulf states, Egypt, and France continue to provide material support for the commander’s “Operation to Liberate Tripoli.”
External players involved in the Libyan civil war must also take blowback into account. Revenge has long been a driving force in Libyan politics, and the governments sponsoring Haftar risk creating new enemies as the violence rages on. Additionally, Libya’s Islamic State (ISIS or IS) franchise is the only actor in the country that has truly gained because of Haftar’s assault on Tripoli, and it may capitalize further if the environment around Tripoli becomes more chaotic.
As major drivers of conflict in Libya, external actors have dimmed the prospects for a diplomatic settlement. The destabilizing effects of the conflict also threaten global energy markets. Without the United States or another major global power applying adequate pressure on Libya’s competing factions—plus their foreign backers—there is no reason to be optimistic about peace or justice in Libya’s foreseeable future.