The 18 February 2020 attack on Tripoli’s main seaport is the latest in a series of measures by Libyan warlord, General Khalifa Haftar, to secure a military victory over his rivals, the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA). His self-styled ‘Libyan National Army (LNA)’ also seized the port city of Sirte in January, and halted shipments of Libyan oil in an attempt to weaken the Tripoli-based GNA. The Tripoli seaport attack ended UN-brokered ceasefire negotiations between the two sides. Haftar, who is supported by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and France, among others, has been emboldened by the lack of censure for his actions. His decision not to endorse a January 2020 ceasefire agreement mediated by Turkey and Russia was rewarded by the UAE with two fighter jets. 

The February port attack followed increased Turkish support for the GNA, enabling it to force back LNA troops to pre-April 2019 battle lines. Thus, apart from Haftar’s capture of the strategic city of Sirte in January 2020, his ten-month siege of the capital, Tripoli, which commenced in April 2019, has resulted in limited gains. This despite the fact that his forces have had an enormous military hardware advantage, having received arms from the UAE and Egypt, with Chadian, Sudanese, and Russian mercenaries being attracted to support his advance. To break the military stalemate, Haftar imposed an oil embargo in an attempt to strangle the GNA, which relies on oil revenues to provide services and compensate militias. Haftar has not attempted to resell the oil, but his control of most of Libya’s oil and water resources – which are located in the country’s east – allows him great leverage.

Between January and February this year, the UAE provided Haftar with over 4 600 tons of military equipment, allowing him to snub UN and Turkish-Russian mediation efforts. Turkey, on the other hand, supports the GNA. Ankara enhanced this support in recent months by deploying Syrian rebels and Turkish Special Forces to Libya after Haftar captured Sirte. Ankara and the GNA also concluded a maritime border agreement in 2019, strengthening Turkish claims over natural gas in the Mediterranean, and undermining the claims of Greece and Cyprus. Ankara thus regards support for the GNA as critical to its national interests, and will likely further augment its support, despite suffering dozens of casualties among its soldiers. It is noteworthy that Syria and the eastern House of Representatives, which Haftar is influential over, concluded an agreement in March jointly to confront Turkey; the two will likely soon exchange diplomatic representatives. The HoR followed the UAE and Bahrain in re-establishing ties with Syria, which were severed following the start of the Syrian uprising.

Meanwhile, the UN continues to be hamstrung by divisions within the Security Council. Haftar’s continued obduracy has been encouraged by support he receives from France, a permanent member of the UNSC, and, more recently, Russia, another permanent member. His march on Tripoli, a week before a UN-sponsored national conference scheduled to be in Libya (which was subsequently cancelled), and his issuance of an arrest warrant for the head of the GNA, Fayez al-Sarraj, elicited little censure from the UNSC, despite the UN’s now-former special envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salame, labelling the move a coup. In addition, Haftar’s shutting down of oil terminals also resulted in no repercussions, despite UNSC Resolution 2510, which affirms the need to resume oil production.

Further, the UN has had an obsessive focus on elections as a means out of the conflict, and has not given much attention to consensus-building and bottom-up negotiations, which were hallmarks of the initial phases of the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement and the subsequent Skhirat agreement. The UN had planned for elections to be held in 2018, but these have continually been postponed. In February, UNSC Resolution 2510 ratified the January 2020 Berlin Roadmap calling for a full ceasefire and an arms embargo on Libya. Implementation of the resolution will be difficult, however, especially since Russia, a key Haftar supporter, abstained from the vote, indicating it is unlikely that it will support the implementation of the resolution.

A 13 January 2020 ceasefire agreement, mediated by Turkey and Russia, failed because Haftar refused to endorse it, while a fifty-five point roadmap endorsed by most roleplayers in Libya, including the UAE, Turkey, and France, in Berlin on 19 January is also proving difficult to implement.  Ceasefire talks between five military officials from each of the two sides in February in Geneva agreed on a tentative ceasefire, but the two rival governments overruled this. Another seemingly-useless initiative is the EU’s February endorsement of a new mission to complement its Operation Sophia, which seeks to enforce the Libyan arms embargo, but which fails to account for the fact that this will not hamper Haftar since most of his weapons come through Egypt. France, which had despatched forces to support Haftar from 2014, and which had vociferously advocated for the new mission, opposes Turkey’s support of the GNA.

The current stalemate suggests that a political solution is the only real way out of the crisis. However, it is doubtful that Haftar will enter into negotiations in good faith; he has continually acted to scupper any talks that might limit his power. On the sidelines of the Berlin conference, he insisted that talks to form a government could only occur after Tripoli was disarmed, supporting an earlier LNA statement that a militarily-imposed solution was the only way to ensure security. His attitude is hardened by the support he continues to receive from regional and global powers, which emboldens him, even though consolidating control over Tripoli and the country’s western regions has proved more difficult when compared to his rapid march through the South in early 2019. Haftar’s recent announcement of a humanitarian ceasefire was a result of pressure from the USA, and is unlikely to lead to real change. Already, the LNA has undertaken attacks in Tripoli, killing two.

The United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres says his meeting with Libya's most powerful military commander, General Khalifa Haftar has ended in failure. Yesterday, Haftar ordered his forces to advance on the capital Tripoli. Guterres met with Khalifa Haftar in Libya's city of Benghazi in an attempt to prevent a major new military confrontation. For more on this story, we are now joined on the line by Ebrahim Deen, a researcher at the Afro-Middle East Centre-AMEC.

Haftar's march on Tripoli

  • May 31, 2020
  • Published in Libya

Khalifa Haftar’s 4 April announcement declaring his march on Tripoli, and the subsequent attack on the Libyan capital by his forces, threaten to gravely impact the already tenuous process of placing the country on a more inclusive and representative trajectory, and highlights his intention to subjugate all of Libya to his rule. As a result of the Haftar threat, the Libyan National Conference planned by the UN, and which was to be held this week, was postponed. Significantly, unlike in relation to his rapid capture of the South between December 2018 and March 2019, Haftar’s move westwards is likely to be fraught with challenges; even if it is successful, his grip on power will continue to be subject to low-level insurgent warfare. 

Haftar’s decision to march on Tripoli was likely influenced by the announcement of the UN’s national conference, which was to be held in the southwestern town of Ghadamis. It was hoped the conference would agree on a roadmap for Libya’s future that would include a provision for elections to be held before the end of this year. Haftar’s likely fear was that the diverse, and fairly representative 120-person conference would have opposed his super-sized role in the country’s future, especially since he wants to become the supreme military commander in any future settlement. Significantly, a February meeting in the UAE between Haftar and the head of the internationally-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), Fayez al-Sarraj, sought to formulate a compromise, and proposed reducing the Presidential Council (PC) that controlled the GNA from nine members to three, and tacitly acknowledging that Haftar would be one of the three. Indeed, the proposed compromise was too heavily weighted in Haftar’s favour for it to be implemented by the GNA.

Haftar calculated that his march on Tripoli would spur militia groups in the West to quickly change sides, joining his forces and allowing him to rapidly conquer the city. His previous such offensive was in the South where, through crafting opportune alliances and by instigating rivalry and warfare between southern tribes, he was able rapidly to capture much of that part of the country, even though his hold on the area is tenuous. With the fall of the South, Haftar now controls all Libya’s oil resources, which empowers him in any future negotiations.

However, he had miscalculated; a few smaller towns, such as Rujban and Surman, shifted allegiances, but most militia groups mobilised to defend the capital. Significantly, the large Bunyan Marsus militia from the city of Misrata dispatched troops to defend Tripoli, even though Haftar attempted to involve it in local skirmishes around Sirte. Further, militia form the city of Zintan also joined the Misratans, even though Zintan’s leadership is divided on whether to support the GNA. After Haftar’s initial approach to Tripoli, the frontlines have remained constant, just outside the city, with his self-styled Libyan National Army being unable to breach its barriers.

Foreign powers, especially France, Russia, the UAE and Egypt, continue to support Haftar, even though French diplomats claim they did not authorise the march on Tripoli, and despite the fact that these countries issued a statement on 4 April asking Haftar to halt his offensive. An example of this support is that a 6 April UNSC formal statement condemning Haftar was blocked by Russia, with the result that the UNSC issued just a press statement that called on ‘all forces’ to halt activities. Echoing that sentiment, the French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said, ‘both sides will have to come to a new understanding’. 

It is likely that the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia green lighted Haftar’s march on Tripoli. In his visit to Cairo on 6 and 7 April, he received unequivocal support from Egypt’s president, Abdul Fattah El-Sisi. France is unlikely to halt its support to Haftar; Paris is keen to control Libya’s vast oil resources, and Haftar’s counter terrorism rhetoric that paints all Islamists as terrorists appeals to Macron. Paris is also attracted by the ‘stability’ that a Haftar victory would bring, especially since France maintains strong interests in former colonies Niger and Chad, which have been negatively impacted by Libya’s current chaos. 

Moscow dispatched troops, equipment and private contractors to support Haftar; Russia’s interest is resuming the large military contracts it had lost after Gadhafi’s ouster, which it believes Haftar will revive. In general, Moscow also favours strongmen, which it, like France, believes would ease its re-entry into the continent; it has thus supported Sisi’s Egypt and Bashir’s Sudan.

Highlighting the fact that Libya has become a battle ground between foreign powers, Russia warned against outside interference, fearing that the USA and Italy might strengthen support for the GNA. Matteo Selvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister, recently intensified criticism of French activities in Libya in support of Haftar. Meanwhile, the EU’s statement on Libya, which would have condemned  Haftar, similar to the US statement, was blocked by Paris. 

The African Union continues to be a non-player, restricting itself to monitoring events. The continental organisation had planned a July reconciliation conference on Libya, but it is now uncertain whether it will go ahead or have much impact, despite the AU’s insistence that there were no plans for a postponement. Algeria, one of the key actors influencing the AU on Libya, is currently involved in its own leadership transition.

If Haftar’s move on Tripoli intensifies into a battle, Libya’s civil war will enter a deadlier phase, especially since weapons’ proliferation in the country is ubiquitous. It will also increase destabilisation in the region, where contestation over power is occurring in Sudan and Algeria, and where conflicts in Mali, Burkina Faso and, to an extent, Egypt continue. The international community must ensure that the Libyan National Conference goes ahead as soon as possible.

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