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Haftar has clearly been given the green light to conquer Tripoli

April 18, 2019 at 11:00 am

People shout slogans near flag-draped coffins of those who lost their lives in rocket attacks by East Libya-based forces led by commander Khalifa Haftar at the Abu Salim neighborhood, during a funeral ceremony at Martyrs’ Square in Tripoli, Libya on 17 April 2019 [Hazem Turkia/Anadolu Agency]

When the Libyan National Army (LNA) launched its current offensive on Tripoli on the orders of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, his regional backers as well as international sympathisers were quick to deny any prior knowledge of what he was doing. France, in particular, a major European Union (EU) member and Haftar supporter, vehemently denied Italy’s accusation that it was conspiring with eastern Libya’s strongman. The United States as well as other major countries also wanted to distance themselves from the onslaught on Tripoli as soon as it started. Britain, notably, never liked Haftar from the start so it was spared the clatter of its western allies.

Even Haftar’s main backer, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), denied any prior knowledge or involvement in what happened. To distance itself further from the attack on Tripoli, the UAE signed up to the G7’s ministerial statement issued by the group’s foreign ministers during their meeting in France on 5 April.

A week before, the UN Security Council had also called for restraint in a press statement, because it failed to adopt a more formal stance. Nor could it agree on a full resolution, for which Britain had lobbied, in the face of a Russian veto as long as the draft text named the LNA as the aggressor.

READ: If Haftar pulls back now, he could spell his own demise 

Despite all the denials, though, many countries not only knew what Haftar was doing beforehand but also promised him that they would look the other way while he headed for Tripoli. Without actually saying anything they were telling him to do what he had to do, but to do it quickly.

The US, for example, withdraw its military contingent from Tripoli on 7 April, just three days after the LNA made its first move westwards. The unknown number of US troops were “relocated” due to a “response to security conditions on the ground,” explained US AFRICOM. This is easy to interpret as Washington’s green light for Haftar to go ahead, safe in the knowledge that the US will not intervene.

Egypt and the UAE, two Haftar supporters in the region, provided assistance to the LNA in terms of military hardware, finance and probably intelligence. Saudi Arabia was also involved, providing either finance or equipment as well as political and diplomatic influence. The Libyan Field Marshal visited Cairo and met President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi on 14 April, just after the latter’s visit to Washington. It is certain that Al-Sisi told him that the Trump administration, despite its public utterances, could accommodate his action against Tripoli.

On the other hand, countries like Qatar, Turkey, Italy and, increasingly, Britain, support Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. Doha and Ankara have never stopped helping GNA-allied militias, particularly in Misrata, east of the capital. Italy has a serious stake in supporting the GNA given the flow of migrants from western Libya, as well as its energy giant Eni’s oil and gas projects.

General Khalifa Haftar taking over Libya - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

General Khalifa Haftar taking over Libya – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Publically, though, every one of these countries keeps calling for peace and support for the UN political process in Libya. This is part of the hypocrisy of international relations, because every one of them heard Haftar declare his intention to liberate the Libyan capital from “terrorists”. Eastern Libya is already under his control, and after taking the southern region known as Fezzan, it was known to be only a matter of time before he moved on Tripoli. Not a single country with interests in Libya can claim otherwise with any degree of conviction.

When no action is taken, the various parties to the Libyan conflict interpret it in their own favour; this is what happened with the LNA’s ongoing offensive. Haftar felt that there was little to worry about.

Moreover, as early as November last year, on the sidelines of the Palermo conference about Libya, French officials, for instance, hinted to Haftar that Paris would not mind if he marched on Tripoli as long as he did so quickly and with minimum damage.

Ironically, the same countries, regional and international powers included, still sign up to the UN road map as proposed by UN envoy Ghassan Salame, and still repeat the mantra that there is no military solution to the conflict. In fact, deep down, they know that this is wishful thinking.

Nevertheless, why would France, the US and, to a certain degree, Russia give Haftar the green light explicitly or implicitly to conquer Tripoli and trigger the possible collapse of the UN-initiated political process already in place? The answer is simple: after eight years of the mess that the major powers helped to create in Libya through NATO’s 2011 bombing campaign, they have realised their mistake. Furthermore, they have been watching helplessly as the conflict rumbles on in the oil rich country, and they now wish that someone, preferably local and with some public support, can come forward and clear it up for them.

READ: UN condemns latest clashes in Libya’s Tripoli 

That person happens to be Haftar and his LNA. He is willing to guard their interests and help control the flow of refugees. He also enjoys sizeable public support across Libya. Above all he is in control of nearly three-quarters of the vast country.

The LNA is now a major fighting force and has some legitimacy through the support of the only elected parliament in Libya, however controversial that might be. Haftar himself has been around enough for others to know him. Italy, France and others have hosted him on different occasions and diplomats from Britain, Italy and many other western countries have visited him many times and have a clear idea about what he is up to and what he can do on the ground.

Haftar himself has already passed the point of no return. Even simple ceasefire could be politically costly for him. Every day that the GNA stays in place is a gain for the multitude of the militias that operate under its umbrella, albeit not under its control.

The people of Libya, meanwhile, are still a long way from peace and stability, despite eight years’ worth of promises of freedom, prosperity and security. Even when this war ends — and it will — Libya will be no closer to peace and reconciliation than it was before this round of fighting. For that elusive objective to happen, the country needs the militias to be disarmed, which will have to be done by force, regardless of whose it is, and when.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.