Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA), surprised everyone by launching his “Flood of Dignity” military offensive to take the capital Tripoli. While the operation was expected; embarking on it now is astonishing.
I have previously warned that Haftar’s next destination was Tripoli but that this could change, and now this is what has happened. Even European diplomats who visited him recently failed to discover that he was preparing a military campaign; while spy satellites did not pick up the convoy of trucks moving westwards.
Haftar’s timing is puzzling however, coming just days before UN envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salame’s planned Libyan National Conference on 14 April; which has been postponed as a result of the latest attack.
The international community is divided about whether to restrain the LNA and Haftar. There is a sense that major powers, like the US, France and Italy, are willing to allow Haftar to take control of Tripoli provided that he does it quickly and with minimum civilian casualties.
When the UN Security Council met on 5 March, it was divided on the issue. Russia threatened to veto any resolution which named the LNA as the aggressor. The council settled on a press statement demanding de-escalation, reiterating its support for the UN’s roadmap. G7 countries and the UAE issued similar statements followed by another by the European Union.
Yet Haftar appeared determined to force a military solution and continued his offensive. The
LNA’s military offensive was launched on 4 April with an attack on Gharyan, about 100 kilometres south of Tripoli. It is ongoing today in a number of areas at the same time. Its strategy appears to be not to hold any town or village unless there are tactical reasons to do so as many population centres on the road to Tripoli are already loyal to the LNA and are willing to help. Some areas already have military contingents ready to join the marching troops. LNA troops can pass them without fear of betrayal.
As the attacks on the capital, from the south and southwest, continue, the LNA’s eastern and southeastern flank remains vulnerable. The coastal highway, linking Tripoli to Misrata 300 kilometres further east, is vital supply route for forces loyal to the Government of National Accord (GNA). Misrata has the strongest militias and semi-professional troops known as Al-Bunyan Al-Marsos famous for ejecting Daesh from Sirte in 2016
Reinforcements from Misrata are already arriving in Tripoli to join those countering Haftar’s attack. Misratan militias are only happy to help since it means they will return to the capital they were ejected from six years earlier.
However, as the situation evolves the battle for Tripoli is going to be bloody and long one.
But the longer the battle continues, the weaker Haftar’s position will become. While he enjoys some public support in western Libya, a long term fight would diminish it. Militarily, the LNA is up against a well-armed and staffed fighting coalition of militias and experienced paramilitaries.
Haftar appears, at least so far, not only determined to take the capital but also to re-invigorate his public base in western Libya by directly communicating with different tribal leaders in towns and villages near Tripoli, encouraging them to join the battle. His emissaries are said to be busy visiting Tarhouna, Bani Walid and Zintan in the western mountains urging as many tribes as possible to join the LNA. In fact among its high ranks, the LNA has cadres from tribes across Libya, and portraying it as an eastern Libya force is misleading. It, also, includes people from tribes known to support the former Gaddafi regime.
Any kind of ceasefire does not help the LNA either and any political settlement to the conflict at this point could spell the end of Haftar. This is why the strongman is as determined as ever to take Tripoli at any cost. On the other hand those defending the capital are no less determined to fight for their own interests and not for the sake of democracy and peace as they claim. Again the public support is likely to diminish quickly as the battle prolongs!
So where does all that leave Salame’s mediation efforts and how could it reshape the political and military landscape in the country?
Last week, Salame vowed not to give up, stressing that his plans for the conference in Ghadames are still on course. By 8 April he changed his mind and he has now postponed the conference indefinitely. He also insisted that he will not leave Libyans alone.
Despite efforts by the UN and regional as well as international powers, and maybe because of it, all political settlement initiatives to tackle the Libyan crisis have so far failed. At the same time civilian casualties and the number of displaced families are only rising particularly from southern Tripoli while the war continues.
Sometimes it seems that the western powers, who rushed to destroy Libya in 2011, are now realising their mistakes, and wishing that some local strongman emerges to fix the mess at any cost. This strongman could well be Haftar even if it means having another Al-Sisi in Libya. The unfortunate reality though is this: political settlement is impossible as long as Libyan politics is dominated by the current immoral and corrupt elite.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.