Since the beginning of the crisis field marshal Khalifa Haftar visited a number of countries to secure support from his traditional allies. Foreign assistance is set to continue, which means that his efforts may succeed in the future, or at least to some extent. The stakes are extremely high for him, and LNA sponsor countries know this all too well, having invested heavily since 2014 in strengthening the army as a tool for promoting military and political stability in Libya.
Two weeks have passed since the beginning of an active stage in the military operation by the Libyan National Army (LNA) to take over Tripoli, the capital of Libya, and its suburbs. It is now obvious that it failed to deliver on the objective of conquering Tripoli, as Brigadier General Ahmed al-Mismari had promised. LNA had hoped that the sudden march on the capital would take its opponents by surprise, but this never happened. Not only did the blitzkrieg fail in military terms, but it also affected the standing of the army’s commander, Khalifa Haftar. Instead of just flexing military muscle in order to put pressure on the national peace conference that was scheduled to take place on April 14-16 to adopt political decisions in his favor, the field marshal not only completely undermined trust in him among the many players within Libya and made Ghadames talks impossible in the near future, but also discredited himself in the eyes of the international community. When the hostilities broke out, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was in Tripoli, becoming a witness of and a participant in these events that cast Khalifa Haftar and his actions in an extremely unfavorable political light, undermining progress toward lasting peace sought by the UN and other mediators.
LNA troops succeeded in gaining a foothold on the city’s remote outskirts, but were prevented from making any further advances by organized resistance of the local militia units led by the Defense Ministry of Fayez al-Sarraj’s Government of National Accord (GNA). Well-organized and armed, adequately disciplined and extremely motivated militia units have evolved into the main military force in the Libyan conflict over the past eight years. Far from losing their morals, they were able to overcome internal divisions and confronted Khalifa Haftar’s forces as a united front. They continue to vehemently oppose the very idea of personal rule that Haftar has embodied ever since he started speaking on behalf of LNA, the House of Representatives and the Tobruk-based interim government without formally holding any political office. While LNA receives massive foreign assistance from Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and France, militias from Tripoli, Misrata and Zintan are backed by local residents only, but still command a substantial inventory of weapons. Not only did they succeed in creating a mobile and effective defense system, but they also succeeded in carrying out a series of painful counterstrikes against the enemy.
Since the beginning of the crisis field marshal Khalifa Haftar visited a number of countries to secure support from his traditional allies. Foreign assistance is set to continue, which means that his efforts may succeed in the future, or at least to some extent. The stakes are extremely high for him, and LNA sponsor countries know this all too well, having invested heavily since 2014 in strengthening the army as a tool for promoting military and political stability in Libya. For this reason, even after being forced to give up on the blitzkrieg plan, LNA command persists with its military efforts in order to block and besiege the capital, as it had already done in Benghazi and Derna in the northeast of the country. If they do succeed to encircle the capital, LNA leadership and their sponsors will be ready to return back to the negotiating table, confident that their interests would be taken into consideration.
Several conditions must be met in order to get there. First, the flow of financial aid from the Gulf countries must continue since it is not uncommon for those who cannot be defeated on the battlefield to fall prey to promises and generous payouts. Second, military advisors from Egypt and France must continue their work with LNA troops to ensure effective command and management. Third, more mercenaries must arrive from Sudan and Chad, as well as militias from the northeast and the south (subject to reaching common ground with them). Finally, non-interference in Libya’s domestic affairs from the outside must be ensured.
Against this backdrop, France’s efforts within the UN Security Council and the European Union are obviously designed to create a favorable foreign policy environment in order to help LNA succeed in its undertakings, taking into consideration that international institutions can not only condemn Khalifa Haftar’s actions, but also approve various types of interventions. These could be not so much military but rather economic tools, including targeted sanctions and blocking bank accounts of political leaders within Libya and its foreign diaspora who have ties with LNA.
Rome remains the main opponent of Paris when it comes to this matter. Not only does Italy maintain close contacts with the Government of National Accord, but also has a military and economic presence in Tripolitania. The takeover of the country’s northwest by Haftar and his allies would mean that the migrant issue would not be dealt with in the medium-term in Rome’s favor, while Italian businesses could lose ground in all sectors of the Libyan economy, including in the field of oil extraction.
Today, most neighbors of Libya and North African countries in general lack the means and political will to influence the developments within Libya in any significant way, preferring to rely on a wait-and-see approach and just making brief statements to express concern over the developments along their borders. Algeria is currently going through a transition, and its military command is consumed by restoring the autonomy they lost during Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s rule, and keeping the situation under control ahead of the presidential election. For them, the developments in Libya create uncertainty, threats and can be too toxic to fathom interfering in it. Tunisia cannot influence the developments in Libya either, while Libya can have a negative effect on Tunisia in terms of the economy, refugees and IDPs. For the Transitional Military Council that assumed power in Sudan after Omar al-Bashir stepped down, the Libyan problem is far from a priority. Nevertheless, it has to be taken into consideration that the Council mostly relies on the rapid response forces formed by border guards from Darfur and Arab militias (Janjaweed), which can affect Haftar’s relations with his mercenaries from Darfur.
Against this backdrop, Egypt seems to be most heavily involved in the developments in Libya. It is not a coincidence that its political leadership was the first to support LNA in its fight against “international terrorism represented by the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood.” Egypt’s military assistance, alongside financial support from the UEA and the political umbrella offered by France, are the main pillars of the offensive on Tripoli, as well as for LNA in general. For Egypt, whether Haftar succeeds in his undertaking is critical not only in terms of creating a safety zone along the border with Libya, but also in terms of restoring the status of a regional power that was substantially dented after the Arab Spring. The army restored its positions in Egypt after Abdel Fattah el-Sisi came to power. Having the biggest and most powerful military in the region, the country suffered from domestic challenges, including the terrorist threat on the Sinai Peninsula. At the same time, the completion of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and a number of other developments undermined Egypt’s political authority on the international arena. Now Egypt can restore and even strengthen its positions. This would benefit Egypt, as well as its allies that are also interested in North Africa being stable.
Apart from Riyadh and Abu-Dhabi that, just like Egypt, supported Haftar, Washington and Moscow have been following the developments in Libya. Today, both are presented with a rare opportunity to have the luxury of adopting a wait-and-see posture until there is a clear winner. Taking into consideration that both the US and Russia maintain official contacts with both sides of the conflict and have no specific interests in Libya that need to be protected at any cost, they can afford to delegate the privilege of dealing with the Libyan problem to those for whom it matters more.