Libya. When Haftar Obliterates Years of Diplomacy

On April 4, Khalifa Haftar launched a military offensive into Tripolitania, the country’s northwestern province, also the most densely populated one. After three weeks of fighting, the 25,000 soldiers of the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army remain blocked on the outskirts of Tripoli. But his offensive has already claimed one victim: diplomacy.

Khalifa Haftar with members of the Libyan National Army (2016).

The dangerous escalation to which the offensive has given rise has had many observers note that the Marshal miscalculated. It is indeed difficult to visualize a “victory” for Haftar, given that it took him more than three years to win Benghazi, a city notably smaller than Tripoli. Before coming to any conclusion, however, one must take into account the international dimension of the crisis.

The incursion is tantamount to a coup attempt led by Haftar, according to Ghassan Salame, UN special envoy to Libya. Regardless, the Marshal and his army have not received international condemnation. On the contrary, a French official said that the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli has links to al-Qaeda. Similarly, in an April 15 phone call with Haftar, U.S. President Donald Trump “recognized” the operation in Tripolitania as “counterterrorism efforts”.

To put this international sympathy in perspective, it is necessary first to recall the negotiations in which the Libyan field marshal, his advisers, his foreign sponsors and his Tripolitania rivals participated prior to April 4.

“Getting” the international dynamic

Two years ago, an almost uninterrupted series of talks started with a meeting instigated by the United Arab Emirates between Haftar and Fayez al-Serraj, the head of the internationally recognized government in Tripoli. This diplomatic track, which was subsequently emulated by France, the UN and others, held promise—but eventually ended up leading to a serious deterioration on the ground. The more expansionist Libyan camp indeed decided to abandon all dialogue and attempt a conquest by force. Haftar and his allies made this choice precisely because the diplomatic format had favored them. This is the logical outcome of a policy of appeasement, which rewarded almost systematically the Marshal’s territorial seizures by bestowing more legitimacy upon him.

In addition to the above, the UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, France, Russia and other countries have supported Haftar’s military campaign since 2014-2015, often in contravention to the international arms embargo. A desire to combat political Islam is one of the main drivers that led most of these states to interfere in Libya. Owing to this ideological lens, peace and calm in Tripolitania are not necessarily their top priority.

So much external backing has induced the Cyrenaica-based strongman to pursue reckless strategies, under the assumption that foreign states will increase their support should he experience difficulties. Moreover, Haftar’s background is that of a soldier, not that of a politician. This is partly why force appeared to him as the best way to seize power on a nationwide basis. By opting for this path, the Marshal sacrificed—but also exploited—years of genuine diplomatic progress.

In the months leading up to their offensive, Haftar and his allies approached a number of actors from Tripolitania. The LNA insisted then on its desire to avoid fighting, just as it had been able to do in most of the Fezzan. The LNA’s relatively non-violent campaign across the southwest in January-February 2019 had a psychological effect on Tripolitania and cast a positive light on Haftar.

Foreign states, too, were impressed: French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian applauded Haftar’s military “victories” in the south. As early as February 27, the Emiratis organized a summit meant to convert Haftar’s military gains in the Fezzan into political advances in Tripolitania. Negotiations between Prime Minister Serraj and Marshal Haftar in Abu Dhabi revolved around the formation of a new Tripoli-based government recognized by the UN and profoundly friendly to the military chief. The latter was to be declared Supreme Commander of the Libyan Armed Forces.

Haftar also wanted a weak civilian government so as to prevail de facto over all Libyan institutions. The main stumbling block in this regard was Misrata, the revolutionary-slanted city located east of the capital and capable—when it is not divided—of mobilizing 18,000 fighters, perhaps more.

The government envisaged in March featured only one meaningful representative of the merchant city: Fathi Bashagha, who was to remain in his position as Minister of the Interior. In the hope of achieving greater sway on the future government and maintaining its influence on the Central Bank, various Misrata elites became active during the January-March negotiations. However, a significant block of notables and businessmen from the port city were resigned to accepting an ascendant Haftar, under the condition the military did not enjoy total political hegemony. The Marshal feared that an agreement allowing counterweight to his authority, even modest, would prevent him from attaining absolute power. Despite these points of contention, a political opportunity nevertheless did exist until early March. If seized upon, it would have resulted in a power structure very favorable to Haftar. Yet, that seemed unsatisfactory to him because it wasn’t entirely subservient.

At that point in time, the Marshal asked for more concessions, including the permission to deploy eastern-Libyam brigades in the capital to provide security for future elections. Despite Serraj’s refusal regarding this matter, plans were made for a second meeting between the two leaders in Geneva by the end of March. The objective was to announce a new national government more than two weeks prior to the April 14 National Conference organized by the UN. But as early as March 12, negotiations were stalemated. According to a Western diplomat interviewed, even the Emiratis failed to share the intransigence of Haftar during those crucial days of March. Now that it was within reach, Abu Dhabi would have preferred to take a tangible step towards a unified Libya, with an one government and one anti-Islamist military junta accepted nationally.

Playing the military card

Before the Abu Dhabi summit of February 27, the LNA had already started gathering forces quietly in the central district of Jufra. To supplement the latter with even more units, the LNA began withdrawing from the newly captured Fezzan in early March. When it became clear that the Geneva summit was not going to happen, Haftar compensated for the lack of progress with Serraj by being welcomed as a statesman in Riyadh on March 27 by King Salman, a meaningful moment for a Sunni Arab country whose leaders have almost always been despised by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. The kingdom promised tens of millions of dollars for the purpose of a military solution to the Tripoli problem. That gift rivaled an injection of additional material resources by the Emirati government into the LNA shortly before the January launch of its Fezzan operation, according to an Egyptian source. Haftar visited Abu Dhabi again on April 2, by which time the army’s movements in Jufra had become an obvious advance warning.

In late March and early April, even as ominous signs piled up, the UN was hesitant and foreign capitals remained silent. The UN, which was scared of denouncing Haftar’s hawkish attitude, hoped that the presence in Libya of Secretary General António Guterres on April 4 would elicit more political forfeit from Tripoli and thus resuscitate the peace process.

Haftar chose the day of Guterres’s visit to cross the Rubicon by ordering his army to enter Gharyan, a town located 90 km south of Tripoli and secured recently by the LNA after only a small number of violent incidents. Seeing the surprise assault on the capital, a wide array of ambivalent Tripolitania actors who, until a few weeks earlier, had shown some propensity to be amenable to the LNA, reacted differently. Faced with violence, their instinct was to forget previous discussions and coordinate with more-resolutely anti-Haftar groups.

By choosing to be neither careful nor patient, the strongman of Cyrenaica decimated a frail modus vivendi, an assuredly flawed equilibrium but still valuable, and which had required years of slow diplomacy. Prior to April 4, the rate of destruction and violent death was subdued; the economy was improving; oil production hovered at around 1.2 million barrels a day. The banking sector, disjointed albeit not irremediably so, could have inched towards gradual reunification.

All of the above is now in serious jeopardy and the fighting is unlikely to remain confined to Tripolitania. In addition, ripple effects from Operation Flood of Dignity will probably include a significant growth in the human flow into Italy and Tunisia, not to mention internal displacements, which have already begun. Concerns about an upsurge in migration help explain why Rome now regrets the pro-Haftar policy it has followed since July 2018 while maintaining a military presence in Tripolitania.

Betting on a more foreign interference

Khalifa Haftar likely led his various foreign patrons to believe he could deliver a swift, decisive takeover of Tripoli. The reality he has since delivered is more akin to a quagmire that could last years. Yet, despite his failure, none of his outsiders seem willing to change direction just yet. Regardless of whether or not it worsens the situation in Libya, Abu Dhabi, Paris and Riyadh have so far remained more or less committed to pursuing the same policy as before April 4, especially knowing that the Marshal has made sure he is difficult to replace. As for Moscow, which has been supporting Haftar for almost four years, it has not shown any signs of backing off, either, even if its discourse professes a neutrality that gives Russia leeway.

Another important factor that enabled Haftar to launch his operation on Tripoli was the complacency of the United States during the takeover of the Fezzan. Noticing the change from the first two years of the Trump presidency, the eastern-Libyan faction interpreted that unusual silence as a go-ahead.

The Egyptian government, which knows the vulnerabilities of the LNA better than any other government, felt little enthusiasm for Haftar’s adventurism in Tripolitania. Despite this, Cairo is now likely to increase its military support to the headquarters of Tripoli. Egypt does not wish to see the sole reliable security actor in Cyrenaica collapse, fragment, or even be humiliated symbolically.

A growing risk of instability

As part of an attempt to boost the anti-Haftar camp, Qatar and Turkey are very likely to strengthen their activity in Tripolitania simply because reputational risks have decreased. Indeed, the LNA’s campaign has sown the kind of disorder and fog that makes interference easier. This is a paradoxical consequence of Haftar’s decision, as meddling by the two pro-Islamist and pro-revolutionary states had decreased in Libya over the past two years.

A hardening of Haftar’s enemies isn’t incompatible with his strategy. By resorting to indiscriminate violence, he knows he is more likely to revive the antagonisms that split his moderate enemies until March. The solidarity they have displayed this month may prove transitory. Such a schism, combined with extremists’ return into action, would help Haftar convince his foreign sponsors to back him even more. The U.S. President’s personal endorsement for Haftar’s adventurism has created an international environment wherein a military intervention by foreign states against the GNA is more likely.

Large amounts of outside help could give Haftar a superficial “victory” in the form of a weak authoritarian regime. That process implies several years of urban warfare in the Tripoli area, while increasing the chances of fragmentation in Cyrenaica along with deleterious repercussions in the rest of North Africa. Such a scenario would still be perceived as success by Haftar, since it would grant him international prestige and access to the country’s resources. In any event, the method chosen by his faction runs the risk of plunging Libya into more violence, fragmentation and economic dysfunction than at any previous moment in the last several decades.