In Libya, Marshal Haftar Is Suffering Setbacks, France Too

The tide is turning in favour of the coalition in power in Tripoli. Its troops have won back control of several cities from the forces of Field Marshal Haftar, albeit with Turkish support but also with that of a population apparently hostile to the idea of a military dictatorship. The numerous regional and international powers involved in Libya might try to avoid the prospect of an escalation.

Tripoli, 20 May 2020. — Troops of the National Alliance Government of Fayez Serraj parade around with a Pantsir air missile truck they captured at Al-Watiyya Air Base, the last stronghold of Marshal Haftar west of the capital.
Mahmud Turkia/AFP

It is a warm Ramadhan evening, the 19th of May, and there is jubilation in Martyr’s Square in Tripoli. It has been a long time since the inhabitants of the Libyan capital have been able to come together to celebrate something. For months, they have been subjected to bombardments by Field Marshal Haftar’s forces, invaded by anxiety about the spread of Covid-19, and faced with daily disruptions of water and electricity, problems getting food supplies, and mounting piles of garbage: people here want to believe in the coming victory.

Nobody wants to miss seeing the huge mobile surface-to-air missile launcher, the Pantsir 2-S1, captured the previous evening by the troops of Fayez Al-Sarraj’s Government of National Accord (GNA) at the al-Watiyya airbase, Haftar’s last remaining stronghold west of Tripoli. Now paraded triumphantly, this Russian air defence system, delivered recently to Khalifa Haftar’s forces by the UAE,1 symbolises the game that has been played in Libya in recent weeks. The tide of war has turned in the GNA’s favour. It now has the initiative, and Haftar’s “Libyan Arab National Army” is suffering mounting setbacks, described by its spokesman as "tactical retreats.”

Turkish involvement the catalyst for victory

In the space of a few weeks, the GNA forces regained control of the dozen or so towns in Tripolitania which had gone over to Haftar, before launching their successful attack on the huge airbase at al-Watiyya. Now Haftar’s last outpost in the whole of Tripolitania, the town of Tarhunah 50 km south-east of Tripoli, is besieged by the GNA troops. Gen. Usama Jweili, commander of GNA forces in the western military sector, said the capture of Tarhunah is his next objective.

Turkey’s military involvement on the GNA’s side has undoubtedly been the catalyst for Tripoli’s victories. Before the phased reinforcement of this Turkish support, the bombardments by drones supplied by the UAE to Haftar’s forces and the mercenaries of the Russian Wagner group regularly foiled those of Tripoli. Turkish involvement allowed the balance to be shifted by the double role of drone intelligence and bombardments. This ability to bombard enemy supply lines, command posts and troop concentrations was thus decisive.

But first and foremost this victory was down to the GNA forces, who managed to rise above their rivalries and fault lines to work together and combat what they see as the risk of a military dictatorship being installed in their country. The events of the past few months have disproved the arguments of those who claim that the situation in Libya is “chaotic” and that the only alternative is an authoritarian, i.e., military, regime. It demonstrates the continuing aspirations of the Libyan people, the overwhelming majority of whom do not want a military regime. That was the clear conclusion of popular consultations held in 2018 by the UN Special Representative, Ghassan Salameh, as part of the preparations for a Libyan national conference.

A political way out of the crisis

There may have been no visible opposition or dissident voices raised at this stage against Khalifa Haftar in his eastern Libyan power base in Cyrenaica, but criticism of his military offensive has begun to circulate. The Field Marshal’s announcement on the 27th of April that he had “a mandate from the people to run the country” met with few favourable reactions, apart from a few feeble demonstrations probably organised by his own security forces.

Furthermore, just a few hours after the announcement, the speaker of Parliament in Tobruk, Aguileh Saleh, a long-time Haftar supporter, launched his own political initiative, proposing notably to change the current presidential council2 into a tripartite council made up of the president and two vice-presidents, each from one of Libya’s historic regions (Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan). Aguila Saleh’s announcement made no reference at all to Khalifa Haftar’s "mandate.” His initiative was not rejected by officials in Tripoli, who saw it not only as a possible way to weaken the opposition camp but also, for some, as a starting point for a credible political way out of the crisis.

The war is not yet over, and the equation has so many parameters that nobody can predict what comes next. Since 2011, Libya has been an arena for growing international interference, to the point of becoming a cockpit for regional and international rivalries and conflicts of interest. If indeed the Libyans have today reached the point of clearing the road to a political way out of the crisis, that cannot happen without a minimum of unity among the external actors, or at the very least an undertaking to halt their military support for the warring parties. That is a necessary precondition, but it is not enough, as was significantly demonstrated by Haftar’s refusal in Moscow in mid-January to commit to a ceasefire sponsored by Russia and Turkey.

France’s unflagging support

As for France, whose then President Sarkozy was so quick to opt for war and the overthrow of the regime in 2011, it has not only refused to condemn Haftar’s offensive of 4 April 2019, but has also consistently refused to blame him for the war. For the past 13 months, Paris has done its best to ensure that the two parties remained at odds, and to go easy on Field Marshal Haftar and his main arms suppliers, the UAE. Even before he launched his offensive, France’s support, at least as Haftar interpreted it, reassured him in his choice of the military option. This extract from Le Figaro of 20 March 2019 seems all the more juicy with hindsight:

At the headquarters of the Libyan National Army near Benghazi in eastern Libya, you would almost think you were in Switzerland. Perfectly manicured lawns, with delicate, freshly watered flowers. General Haftar’s men are more disciplined and more open than the militiamen of Tripoli. Inside, the buildings smell clean, the carpets are spotless, and the tea well served. “You haven’t been to see me for a long time!” Tall, impressive and self-assured, Khalifa Haftar receives his guests under a huge golden eagle, one of Libya’s national emblems. “We were waiting for your victories!” shoots back [French Foreign Minister] Jean-Yves Le Drian. It is clear that the two men respect one another.

Illustrating as it does the tame spirit of the mainstream press vis-à-vis the French government and a blatant bias in favour of the Field Marshal, this article needs to be seen in context. It is the end of March 2019. A few months earlier, Field Marshal Haftar had launched an offensive aimed at regaining control of the Libyan south. Relying on some loyal allies, the few hundred men of Haftar’s Libyan Arab National Army have managed to gain a foothold in the main towns of the south. The intensive publicity campaign accompanying the operation, and the favourable welcome from local people who had felt completely abandoned since 2011, led certain observers to believe in a promising victory for Haftar.

Itself militarily involved in the Sahel, France gave a positive welcome to this military takeover of the Libyan south. In the Ministry of the Armed Forces, but also among those around President Macron and Jean-Yves Le Drian, there were many who wanted to play the card of another strong regime in Libya. Jean-Yves Le Drian, who left his job as defence minister two years earlier, backs this line in the name of “combatting terrorism.” That implies a perception of France’s interests which is confused with those of its military-industrial complex and the war aims of its army’s massive involvement in the Sahel. Some of those in Paris, especially among President Macron’s advisers,3 had concluded in April 2019 that Field Marshal Haftar was capable of capturing Tripoli in a few days, as he himself declared. As the Figaro headline put it, the aim of the Foreign Minister’s visit to Libya was to ”reconcile the Libyan brother enemies". But the first few lines of the article leave little doubt about the minister’s preferences.

Failure of the national conference

At the same time, the UN Special Envoy, Ghassan Salameh, was busy organising the national conference which was supposed to be held on 15 April in Ghadames, 400 km south of Tripoli. One of the four elements in his road map which was endorsed by the Security Council, the conference was to be the culmination of a process of popular consultation that gave a voice to thousands of Libyans. The report resulting from the consultations was the basis of the agenda for the Ghadames gathering, which was meant to adopt a national charter and a roadmap leading to eventual elections.

But the conference was never to happen. Field Marshal Haftar launched his surprise attack on Tripoli on 4 April, at the very moment when the UN Secretary General was on an official visit to the city. The Security Council met on 18 April. It appeared divided and unable to take a unified position other than repeating that there was no military solution in Libya. That division persists to this day, though there are some indications that things might develop in the wake of Haftar’s military setbacks. He announced a massive new campaign of aerial bombardment, and reinforcements continue to pour in on both sides,4 raising fears that military escalation might be a real possibility; it seems that the regional and international powers might have decided to avoid the worst.

US manoeuvres

After phone calls with the French and Turkish presidents on 19 and 20 May, Donald Trump called for de-escalation in Libya. The Russian and Turkish leaders also announced agreement on the need for an accord in Libya. The first aim of that particular agreement was probably to secure the safe withdrawal of several hundred mercenaries from the private Russian military company Wagner who were fighting on Haftar’s side to the south of Tripoli. Thus they were able to reach Bani Walid airport safely and leave western Libya by air on 24 May.

The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, meanwhile called the head of the Presidential Council in Tripoli, Fayez Sarraj, and was also in touch with Khalifa Haftar. For a number of observers in Tripolitania, Pompeo’s call to Sarraj indicated that the US had drawn conclusions from Haftar’s military setbacks and were on the way to reconsidering its benevolent neutrality towards him.5 As for Russia, which always kept up relations with different players in Tripolitania, it has already changed its tone towards the Field Marshal, condemning his”referendum" of 27 April and backing the political initiative of the speaker of the Tobruk-based parliament, Aguila Saleh.

It’s too early to tell whether the Haftar period, at least in its current form, is on the way out. Without strong pressure from the US and France, is the UAE ready to drop its military backing for the Field Marshal? Haftar’s main argument for fighting the old “Ottoman coloniser” is the spectre of the Turks setting up strategic bases in Tripolitania and installing themselves there for the long term.

People in Cyrenaica are open to this argument, including those who do not support Haftar’s political ambitions. The prospect of a Turkish implant in Tripolitania is a major source of concern to the UAE and Egypt, who see a risk of support for the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood. Like Cairo, Paris also sees the emergence of a new power in Libya as a threat to its strategic interests in North Africa and the Sahel.

Goal of a revived political dialogue

So, the worst is not inevitable. Paradoxically, the time might be ripe for de-escalation and the resumption of political negotiations under UN auspices. As the acting Special Representative in Libya of the UN Secretary General, Stephanie Williams, recalled in her quarterly report to the Security Council on 9 May, the idea of restructuring the Presidential Council around a president and two vice-presidents was one of the realistic goals of the revived political dialogue whose first session was held in Geneva in February. This structure for the new presidential council, as proposed in the Parliament Speaker’s initiative of 23 April in Tobruk, was accepted by Fayez Sarraj on 5 May.

The success of future political dialogue sessions under UN auspices will depend on the participation and commitment of all the Libyan parties. The absence, exclusion or marginalisation of any of the parties to this political forum, as happened at Skheirat in 2015, would have the same consequences and would be disastrous for the Libyans, whose hopes for a way out of the crisis have been consistently dashed in recent years.

Contrary to the view of many observers, the current war is not a clash between Libya’s East and West. History, geography, living conditions and sociological structures may have helped produce distinct regional identities in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, but there exists none the less a Libyan national feeling. That feeling of belonging to the same nation has survived the destruction of the state, numerous foreign interventions, and nine years of instability and fragmentation. The great diversity of the population (city dwellers, Bedouins, mountain people, Berbers) and the fragmentation which followed the 2011 war have brought about a political culture of negotiation and compromise which is embodied in the government of national accord in Tripoli. In Cyrenaica, the social structures around the big Bedouin tribes adapted more easily to a pyramidical power structure and a military form of governance.

If the issue of fragmentation and the weakness of power may appear problematic today in western Libya, the issue of the concentration of power is equally so in the east. That does not mean that the two cultures cannot cede to a national political culture yet to be evolved. To be in tune with the realities of the country, such a political culture needs to take into account the relationship between the local and the national, the equitable distribution of resources, and social justice, at the heart of the Libyan people’s concerns.

The road will be long, and fraught with pitfalls, but the goal is not unrealistic. As for Jean-Yves Le Drian, if he is planning to wait for Field Marshal Haftar’s next victories before making another visit, it may be a long time coming.

1So far, at least 10 Pantsir systems delivered by the UAE have been confirmed in Libya. Nine have been destroyed in recent days by forces affiliated to the GNA.

2The current Presidential Council, led by Fayez Sarraj, which emerged from the Skhirat agreement of December 2015, comprises a president, a vice-president and seven members. At present, only the president, vice-president and one member are active. In fact, the council has never functioned as envisaged in the Skhirat agreement.

3Let us recall in this context that President Macron is the first European head of state to receive Field Marshal Haftar, thus helping confer political legitimacy on a person who only presents himself officially as the commander of the Libyan Arab National Army. The Russian president Vladimir Putin has never received Haftar.

4Six Russian Mig 29 Fulcrum jet fighters arrived from Russia at the al-Jufra airbase controlled by the Libyan Arab National Army, and several cargo flights from Turkey at Misrata airport.

5Without condemning it as the Russian foreign minister had, the State Department none the less “regretted” Khalifa Haftar’s announcement on 26 April of his “referendum.”