Libya: Tug of War and Foreign Policy Aspects

After nearly two weeks of fierce fighting near Tripoli, it has become clear that the plan of Khalifa Haftar, commander of the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA), who wanted to dictate his own terms of reconciliation, has failed. Whatever the initial goals of this military leader were – to take Tripoli and establish his own military dictatorship, or simply strengthen positions on the eve of the reconciliation conference – it is clear now, that the conflict went beyond the framework established by Haftar himself and his external patrons. Instead of blitzkrieg, a third civil war in Libya has already begun, which could end with the complete defeat of one of the parties. And now one cannot exclude that Haftar himself may lose.

Fighting in the suburbs of Tripoli reminds us of a tug of war, when the same object can change hands five or more times, as has happened, for example, with the Yarmouk camp, the regions of Al-Sawani and Al-Zahra, etc. The LNA did not manage to enter the city and lost a number of suburbs taken during the very first and most successful days of the offensive. Now the Libyan government army, loyal to the Government of National Accord (GNA), is regaining control over the settlement of Azizia and is trying, desperately, to advance in the direction of Garyan, the main base of Haftar in Tripolitania, in order to cut off the LNA’s access to Tripoli. In turn, Haftar is having new reinforcements brought in from Eastern Libya. At the same time, new columns of militia arrive almost daily from Misrata, the main military base of the GNA, which refuses to allow Haftar to gain numerical superiority.

Essentially, the GNA’s ability to mobilise the forces of Western Libya and their willingness to act as a united front came as a complete surprise to Haftar. Moreover, as it turned out, the majority of the inhabitants of Tripolitania, from the two possible evils, prefer the “chaos” of the armed groups to the “hard hand” and military dictatorship of Haftar.

Despite a background which lacks many military successes, Haftar is trying, if not to get international support, then at least to compel the world community to regard him with a benevolent or neutral attitude. However, he is finding this harder and harder to accomplish. The warlord has promoted the idea that “terrorists” are fighting on the side of the GNA. In reality, those who are included in UN sanctions lists, such as Salah Badi or Ibrahim Jathran, who opposed Haftar on the GNA side, under closer scrutiny, can in no way be considered terrorists in principle, and certainly not at the level of al-Qaida or ISIS. Badi and Jathran are essentially the same rebels as Haftar himself, who previously opposed the GNA. For this reason, they were included in the sanctions list, unlike the current rebel commander. Those fighting for Haftar allegedly include persons who are in the ICC international wanted list, such as Mahmoud Al-Werfalli, commander of the Al-Saiqa forces, accused of non-judicial massacres and mass executions of prisoners of war.

At the same time, international pressure on Haftar is gradually increasing. As the operation stalls, civilian casualties will increase, as well as the threat of a new wave of refugees making their way through Libya to Europe. France, the main patron of Haftar in the EU, will find it increasingly difficult to block the Brussels resolutions against the LNA. Paris made a bet on Haftar back in 2014, when France began to provide Haftar with direct military assistance during the LNA operation in Benghazi. According to some information, the French companies in exchange were promised privileges in the Libyan oil production sector. However, they will be able to take full advantage of it if Haftar takes Tripoli under full control. At the same time, according to Jalel Harchaoui, research fellow at the Clingendael Institute, a think tank in The Hague, “while France seeks to design its policy toward Libya as an independent policy, in reality France simply follows the UAE”. That is, the position of France will be determined by the degree of the UAE’s engagement in the Libyan conflict. If Abu Dhabi decides to reduce assistance for the LNA, then France will not activate it. 

In turn, Britain, the United States, and Ghassan Salamé, special envoy of the UN Secretary-General for Libya, have already directly blamed Haftar for the current escalation in Libya. According to Salamé, the fact that the faction loyal to Haftar has issued a warrant for the arrest of Fayez Sarraj, the legitimate chairman of the GNA, indicates that Haftar is attempting a military coup in Libya, rather than a counter-terrorist operation, as the military leader is trying to present it.So far, Egypt can be considered Haftar’s most reliable ally. Haftar’s visit to Cairo last weekend demonstrated this. For Egyptian President al-Sisi, the fight against the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya being waged by Haftar is not just a foreign policy concern; it’s a matter of personal security. Thus, many groups that support the GNA are affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, and the fight against them has practically been elevated to the level of national ideology in Cairo.

At the same time, the other neighbours of Libya, Algeria and Tunisia, are not inclined to side with one of the conflicting parties and have called on both parties to return to the peace process. The escalation of the conflict in Libya against the background of the recent events in Algeria and rather unstable situation in Tunisia threatens to further destabilise these countries. Therefore, it is in their interests, regardless of who they support, to promote an early cessation of hostilities and the resumption of the peace process, or at least freeze the conflict.

Who Should Russia Rely on in Libya?
Until recently, Russia was trying to conduct a balanced policy in Libya and develop cooperation with the GNA, Haftar and Tobruk. However, Haftar’s visit to Moscow on the eve of the Palermo conference and the absence of simultaneous contacts with al-Sarraj lead observers to assume that Russia has changed its approach in favor of Tobruk.
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© Reuters
Libya at Crossroads: Unending Turmoil and Foreign Interests
Media reports about an alleged letter of Saif al-Islam, the son of the former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, to President Putin, asking the Russian authorities for support, raised many questions about the current political scene in Libya and the future of the settlement there.
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© 2018 Manu Brabo/AP
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