When commander Khalifa Haftar ordered forces loyal to him, known as the Libyan National Army (LNA), to march on the capital Tripoli on 4 April, he did not set a time frame for this operation. Most likely he did not have any precise idea of how long such an operation would last and what it would cost. His critics sarcastically point out that on the contrary, he actually thought that he would, triumphantly, enter the capital in a couple of weeks. They accuse him of misleading his local constituency and his foreign backers including the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, by telling them that taking Tripoli would be no big deal.
The battle for Tripoli has now entered its third month and it has all but stalled. LNA troops have not been able to gain any more territory beyond what they took in the first week of the attack. On the other hand, armed militias defending the city under the banner of the Government of National Accord (GNA), have failed to break the siege the LNA has maintained around the southern outskirts of Tripoli.
The battle has clearly gone on too long for both sides and their respective foreign backers, with a mounting humanitarian cost. According to the World Health Organisation over 600 have died, including 137 civilians; over 3,200 have been injured and nearly 100,000 have been displaced. The hardest hit areas are Ain Zara, southeast of Tripoli, airport road and Al-Khala and Saladdin districts in the southwest. Further south the town of Ben Ghasher is the most affected.
At some point, just like any war, the fight will come to an end whenever that may be. This time though it looks as though neither side is willing to compromise and strike a peace deal. For Haftar in particular, a ceasefire is the same as defeat. He started his campaign to “rid Libya of militias and terrorists” and Tripoli, he believes, is the hub of his enemies. On the other hand, GNA allies, despite their irreconcilable internal differences, have little options other than winning or fleeing. Top militia commanders have been implicated in a series of crimes over the last eight years and once they have been disarmed their victims will come after them. They might agree to short periods of peace once they realise the battle is lost and that the LNA will enter the capital while they consider their next move.
This might explain why Fayez Al-Sarraj, surprisingly, announced on local TV on 16 June what he called a “peace initiative” to end the conflict. His proposal centered around re-launching the political process under the auspices of Ghassan Salame, the United Nations envoy, but without Haftar taking part. On the same day, however, Brigadier Khaled Al-Mahjoub, a top Haftar aide, rejected the offer saying “there cannot be political solutions while armed groups are in Tripoli.”
The stakes are very high for both sides of the conflict. Haftar in particular has bet his entire career on taking Tripoli at all costs. What if he wins or loses?
Any triumphant party is likely to shape the coming political landscape in the chaotic country without being able to settle the conflict entirely. Victorious Haftar, who enjoys relative public support, will accept another UN-led attempt to go back to the political process he abandoned earlier in April though any talks are likely to be on his own terms while accommodating others who did not fight against the LNA. He is, though, unlikely to accept a thorough political process that does not specifically accommodate his ambitions. Winning generals tend to take all or nothing and he is determined to do just that. Both him and his inner circle believe Libya is not yet ready for multi-party democracy, a view shared by many Libyans. They believe stabilising and securing the country through a strong, interim central government, is an essential step before any elections take place. This transition could be anywhere between one to two years.
Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar is fascinated by the Egyptian model that brought Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to power, minus the coup part. He would certainly endorse something similar in Libya with him at the driving seat. The septuagenarian, former prisoner of war with dual Libya-US citizenship, is bent on ruling Libya come what may. This is not broadly accepted across the country. However, after eight years of chaos and conflict the majority of Libyans are ready to agree to “moderate,” strong central rule, as one of his supporters told me.
If the GNA allies win the war with their conflicting interests, they are likely to engage in an internal struggle of their own. Once the current conflict is over the different militias, each claiming victory, will re-draw their turfs within greater Tripoli and the surrounding districts. They will also settle their own scores over how to divide the spoils. Their biggest problem will be ejecting the groups that joined the battle from other cities like Misrata, east of Tripoli. Misratans, always eager to return to Tripoli, will not leave without a fight.
Under this scenario we might see some kind of a government resembling the one that controlled Tripoli from 2014 until late 2016 when the Libyan Political Accord was signed in December of that year creating the current GNA. This model, dominated by Islamists, was despised by the majority of Libyans, and under that arrangement Tripoli was more of a jungle, not the kind of capital Libyans would want. Armed groups, paid by the government of the day, will only get stronger, richer and continue to be part of daily life in the capital.
With Haftar winning or losing the misery of the majority of Libyans will not end. With him winning it could be alleviated. Unless a national reconciliation process, transitional justice and reparations take place, as well as a slow move towards elections to avoid a repeat of what happened in 2012, little positive change is expected.
I personally doubt if any real peaceful, democratic and reconciled Libya will emerge in the next five to 10 years regardless of who wins the current battle.
The main issues of conflict in the country are power and resources. Without a nationally accepted formula on how to share both, Libya is unlikely to become a stable and peaceful country again. This is of course very dangerous for the entire region and for Europe.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.