Battle for Tripoli becomes sandbox for outside powers
The grinding war of attrition for control of Tripoli is nearly a month old. It has already claimed the lives of at least 432 people and more than 2,000 have been wounded, according to the World Health Organization. Fifty-five thousand have been displaced, according to UN figures.
On Sunday, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who commands the Libyan National Army surrounding the Libyan capital, ordered his troops to redouble their efforts, to “teach the enemy a greater and bigger lesson than the previous ones.”
Defending the capital are disparate Islamist militia that prop up the UN-recognized transitional government.
The UN Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) appealed for a week-long truce starting on Monday to coincide with the beginning of Ramadan. Haftar retorted: “Our battles against terrorism in Benghazi and Derna did not stop in the holy month of Ramadan but we increased our determination and strength.”
The conflict is also being stoked by foreign states treating Libya like a sandbox, a proxy for their broader rivalries.
Haftar, Moscow and Riyadh
Fifty years ago, as a junior officer, Haftar took part in the coup that brought Moammar Gadhafi to power. Now in his mid-70s, he has sent his forces across the desert from Benghazi in a bid to win Libya for himself.
Haftar has plenty of foreign friends. He has been fêted in Moscow and has tacit support from Paris, where he received medical treatment last year. Last week, the French Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said France backed Haftar because he had “fought terrorism in Benghazi and the south of Libya, and that’s in our interest.”
Haftar’s main supporters are the Saudis, Egyptians and the United Arab Emirates. Days before the offensive began, Haftar met with King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh — the first Libyan leader to visit a Saudi monarch for more than 50 years.
Subsequently, Saudi-linked Twitter accounts unleashed “an avalanche of tweets” in support of Haftar, “some containing Libyan dialect and very precise references to Libyan locales” says journalist Mary Fitzgerald, author of “The Libyan Revolution and its Aftermath.”
In recent years, the UAE has provided Haftar’s forces with aircraft and nearly 100 armored personnel carriers, according to a report by a panel of UN experts from 2017. The same report said the UAE most likely helped Haftar develop an air base at Khadim.
One regional source believes that between them the governments of the UAE and Saudi Arabia have pledged some $200 million to the Haftar campaign, some of which has been used to buy weapons.
Neither government has confirmed such financial support.
Haftar’s adversary — known as the “Government of National Accord” (GNA) — has the recognition of the United Nations, but fewer friends. Since taking office, the GNA’s writ has scarcely extended beyond the capital. It is hobbled by internal feuds and depends on rival militia for its security, most of which have an Islamist complexion. Some key political factions in Tripoli are associated with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Haftar paints these militia as Islamist extremists, and so do his allies. Last week, the UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, tweeted that “extremist militias” were derailing the search for a political solution in Libya.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE see Qatar and Turkey as supporting such groups.
Last year, in an interview with al Hayat, Gargash said that, “Qatar still supports extremism and terror and endorses many terrorist plans in the Arab world. Evidence of this abounds, including Qatar’s role in Libya and its support of the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Arturo Varvelli, specialist on North Africa at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies says that “Haftar was able to match various external interests — the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt — whose first goal is fighting Islamist movements and in particular the Muslim Brotherhood that is under the protection of Qatar and Turkey.”
It’s perhaps no coincidence that the Trump Administration — a firm ally of the Saudis and the UAE — is considering designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.
The Russia factor
It’s not only the regional rivalry that is playing out in Libya. Senior US military commanders have expressed alarm about a growing Russian presence there.
In November, Haftar visited Moscow to meet Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
Fitzgerald says that: “Diplomatically, Moscow still tries to present itself as engaging with many different actors in the Libyan power struggle. It doesn’t appear to have fully thrown its cards in with any one faction.”
But some analysts believe the Kremlin has tilted towards Haftar. When the UK drafted a statement at the UN Security Council that called on Haftar’s forces to stop their advance, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov retorted: “I think it is counterproductive to judge one side while excusing the others.”
The outgoing head of US Africa Command, Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, told a Congressional committee on March 7 that Russia’s dealings with Haftar were “aimed at accessing Libya’s vast oil market, reviving arms sales, and gaining access to coastal territories on the Mediterranean Sea.”
For its part, the Trump Administration has sent mixed messages. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on April 7: “We oppose the military offensive by Khalifa Haftar’s forces.” But days later, President Trump spoke with Haftar about “ongoing counterterrorism efforts” and “recognized Field Marshal Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources,” according to a White House statement.
Long-time Libya watcher Geoff Porter at North Africa Risk Consulting says that, “US support for Haftar (with the White House unilaterally breaking from the US diplomatic community’s consensus) means that Haftar may be able to start to market oil exports under his control without having to worry about US trying to stop him.”
There’s also a European dimension to the Libya story. France and Italy are sniping at each other, with the President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, blaming Paris for “historical mistakes” that contributed to Libya’s instability.
French sources insist Paris was not aware of Haftar’s plan to attack the west, an assertion that has met a skeptical response in Rome.
Not coincidentally, French, Italian and Russian oil companies all see opportunities in Libya.
Haftar had long threatened to move on Tripoli — and after consolidating control over important oilfields in the east earlier this year was ready to push westwards.
In the process he has defied UN attempts to convene a national peace conference, now indefinitely delayed.
“Haftar has tried to undermine the UN process at every turn since it began in late 2014,” Fitzgerald told CNN. “He wants the UN process to bend to accommodate him rather than compromising in any way himself.”
Fitzgerald, who met Haftar in Benghazi in 2014, recalls: “One of his advisers told me that Haftar wanted to ‘rule Libya’ and went on to argue that Libya needed what he called a strongman. Haftar has said he believes Libya is not ready for democracy.”
But if he thought his adversaries would buckle quickly, Haftar seems to have miscalculated.
Varvelli told CNN that “Haftar was probably aiming to enter the capital as the ‘savior’ of his country. He reckons the population is tired of chaos and will support him; he feels the militia leaders have little appetite for fighting. He probably overestimated himself and underestimated the resistance in Tripoli.”
Haftar has said his goal is to purge jihadists and criminal gangs from Libya. But far from stamping them out, some experts think his campaign will only provide them a foothold.
In a March article for the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, Lachlan Wilson and Jason Pack describe ISIS as resurgent in Libya, after losing the territory it held in 2016. The terror group was “progressively rebuilding its capabilities, restructuring its organization, and regaining its confidence,” they wrote, warning the group would thrive amid further conflict.
Last month, ISIS remnants launched an attack in southern Libya, killing two people in the town of al Fuqaha in the south of Libya. Referring to the attack in his recent audio message, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi congratulated “their steadfastness.”
Another attack claimed by ISIS at the weekend against Haftar’s forces near Sabha is reported to have killed nine soldiers.
As Porter observes: “There is nothing the Islamic State likes more than a chaotic battlefield which affords it the opportunity to insert itself.”
Varvelli says it took Haftar years of fighting before he took control of Benghazi. “Even if it looks as if he can win Tripoli soon, keep power in a Libya that lacks government institutions and presumably bring the country some stability, how long is that stability likely to last?”
“The UN – if they are not supported by relevant powers – cannot resolve this issue,” says Varvelli. “Haftar knows perfectly well there are no real constraints on what he does.”
Editor’s note: This article has been updated throughout to incorporate the latest developments.
Nada Bashir and Kareem Khadder contributed to this report