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Libya - first lessons from Marshal Haftar's offensive on Tripoli

Libya - first lessons from Marshal Haftar's offensive on Tripoli
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

The offensive of the Libyan National Army (LNA) - led by Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the strong man from the Libyan East - on Tripoli, launched on April 4th, has at first glance two consequences: it probably marks the beginning of a "third Libyan civil war"; it reveals in a cruel light divisions, more subtle than elsewhere perhaps but nevertheless essential to understanding the situation in Libya, between the foreign powers concerned.

The internal conflict in Libya is increasingly coupled with a regional civil war, reminiscent in some respects of the protracted one in Syria, but without having degenerated so far, as is the case in Syria, into a globalized civil war.

Marshal Haftar and his rival, the Prime Minister based in Tripoli, Fayez al-Sarraj, met in Abu Dhabi in February under the auspices of the United Nations. As they had done at La Celle-Saint-Cloud in spring 2017, as part of a mediation attempt by France, then again in Paris in May 2018 and finally in Palermo in November of the same year, this time at the initiative of the Italians, the two men made a commitment to find an agreement that would pave the way for elections and the restoration of unified institutions.

It was in fact clear, at least since the Palermo meeting, that the agenda of Gaddafi's former comrade-in-arms was on a different ground than that of a political settlement. The leader of the Western camp, Fayez al-Sarraj, in his capacity as head of the Government of National Accord (GNA) recognized by the international community, was undoubtedly reluctant to implement his part of the contract. If the man of Tripoli had had a more constructive attitude in recent weeks, would there have been any chance that the Marshal, supported by the Tobruk Parliament (the rival authority of the Government of National Accord), adopt a less aggressive line? This is highly questionable for at least three reasons.

Firstly, given Khalifa Haftar's profile, it is difficult to imagine that he can wisely comply with the constraints of a political process. All the diplomats who met him describe a man who is foreign to political considerations, a military leader with the qualities of a dictator, quick to describe his opponents as terrorists, convinced that his compatriots are not ready for democracy, and who is above all a believer in order based on coercion.

Khalifa Haftar then joined the CIA and is now 75: his conversion to democracy or even a readiness to compromise would have been a surprise.

Khalifa Haftar rebelled against Gaddafi in the 1980s only because the Libyan president wanted him to take the blame for a defeat in front of the Chadians. He then joined the CIA and is now 75: his conversion to democracy or even a readiness to compromise would have been a surprise. The timing of the attack on Tripoli - while United Nations Secretary-General Gutierrez was there visiting - shows his indifference to international institutions.

Secondly, the Marshal's adventure as post-Gaddafi Libyan warlord, after a difficult start in 2014-2015, had turned more and more successful in recent years. From its initial base in Benghazi, he succeeded in taking control of the oil crescent bordering the Gulf of Sirte in 2016. He then progressed inexorably, combining various forces, ranging from former soldiers of the Gaddafi era to the so-called "madkhalist" Salafists (whose inspirer, a Saudi sheikh, advocated "obedience to the governor" whoever he may be). The ANL now controls 70% of the country. It is clear that the Marshal thought that the balance of power allowed him to conquer Tripoli and establish his power all over Libya.

Will this bet succeed? For many observers, the answer is no. Haftar had relied on the rallying of a number of militias and tribal factions supposedly always ready to change side but in fact, the country's other major military force, the Misrata militias, came to the rescue of the Government of National Accord, which also found support in the armed groups ruling Tripoli (including Islamist groups not to be trusted). Some go as far as to say that a military failure in Tripoli could lead to the political fall of the Marshal. However, the most likely outcome remains an escalation of the conflict. An important factor will be external support - including arms supplies - for both sides.

This brings us to the third reason that made Marshal Haftar's power grab predictable. He has long received arms from the United Arab Emirates - the United Nations panel of experts noted in 2017 and 2018 that they were not complying with the UN embargo; he is supported by Egypt, with which he has concluded major agreements to secure the Egyptian-Libyan border. In March, he was received by the King of Saudi Arabia, who reportedly granted him significant loans.

The Libyan National Army now controls 70% of the country.

It is said that he has just made a secret trip to Moscow; this is unsure, but it is certain that the Russians have had a sustained dialogue with him in recent years. On the other side, not surprisingly, we find, as elsewhere, Turkey and Qatar.

And then there are the Europeans. In Misrata, at the moment, demonstrators are marching in the streets denouncing France's aid to the putschist Marshal. Everyone knows that the French government supported the ANL a few years ago by sending special forces, even air strikes, when Marshal Haftar's troops destroyed pockets of jihadists who had established themselves in the south and east of the country. One of the Marshal's assets vis-à-vis Europeans is his ability to prevent the return of Libyans who left for Syria to join Daesh's ranks, as well as to prevent the departure of migrants to Europe. Although they often appeared to be in competition, the Italians and the French, through their mediations, helped to confer a sense of repute to the Marshal. Only the Germans - who had abstained on the resolution 1973 authorizing the intervention in 2011 - stand firm in their disapproval of Marshal Haftar. The British are trying to develop international action for a ceasefire.

On the surface, however, the international community remains united in its call for de-escalation and its support for UN mediation. From this point of view, we are still far from a "globalization of the conflict". Washington has very little interest in it for that matter. However, "weak signals" show the limits of the unity of the powers concerned: Egypt has not joined any common call; Russia did not want the ANL to be mentioned in a Security Council text in New York; among Europeans, there is strong suspicion that France's role is ambiguous. Very involved in the case, Mr. Le Drian was in Libya, where he met again Mr. Sarraj and also the Marshal, a few days before the offensive on Tripoli. In terms of image, French diplomacy is playing big in this affair: it has given the impression in recent years of compromising itself with a dictator's apprentice; this risky attitude can be justified if it gives it the means today to send convincing messages to Marshal Haftar to stop the fighting. This would be all the more important as, at a time when the latter is seeking to reclaim the role of the "strong man" indulged by foreign powers for his hostility towards Islamists, Algerians and Sudanese show that the desire to get rid of authoritarian regimes remains well alive in the region.


Copyright : Mahmud TURKIA / AFP

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