By Wolfram Lacher
Recent advances by Khalifa Haftar’s “Libyan Arab Armed Forces” in southern Libya are changing power relations in Libya in ways that undermine the UN’s ongoing attempts at brokering a political solution.
Western Libya and the GNA’s Fate
Continued progress by Haftar in the south would trigger major repercussions in western Libya. Haftar has yet to make major inroads into the large population centres of the northwest, and he has yet to face any of Libya’s military heavyweights: the forces of Misrata and Zintan, those of the Amazigh towns, as well as the militias that control the capital.
These forces, and most of the local constituencies from which they are drawn, remain overwhelmingly hostile to the prospect of a military strongman seizing power.
Many have watched Haftar’s advances in the south with growing alarm, and they now increasingly see the need to prepare their defences against the possibility of Haftar expanding into Tripolitania.
However, western Libyan cities are politically divided.
Each one hosts several different armed groups. Such rival factions will define their positions towards Haftar not only according to how they assess his chances of seizing power, but also according to the potential advantage their alignment will accord them locally.
Realignments at the local level could have major consequences:
In Zintan, for example, the bulk of forces are currently aligned against Haftar, but public opinion in the town is much more ambivalent. In addition to such local divides, factions from different cities continue to vie for influence in Tripoli, where alliances change constantly and the risk of escalation is never far.
Political and military actors are closely watching each other’s moves, suspicious that some may be conspiring with Haftar against their opponents.
From here, two basic scenarios are conceivable.
The First, western Libyan forces could close ranks against the looming threat of Haftar’s forces moving towards Tripoli.
In interviews with political and military actors in Tripoli and Misrata, in February 2019, this tendency was already perceptible, driven by a palpable sense of alarm at Haftar’s expansion in the south.
But it is by no means a straightforward proposition, given that the Tripoli militias, in particular, have been engaged in intense rivalry with Misratan factions over the distribution of spoils in the capital.
A catalyst for such a closing of ranks could be Haftar gaining control over a city – such as Tarhuna or Zawiya – from which he could directly threaten the capital. The political consequences could be far-reaching.
If Tripolitanian forces were to reach an anti-Haftar consensus, this would force the GNA to adopt a more hardline position towards him, which, in turn, could cause Haftar to retaliate – for example, by blocking oil exports, and therefore the Tripoli-based central bank’s revenues.
The second scenario would involve an increasing range of players in western Libyan cities bandwagoning behind Haftar because they expect him to seize power and seek to gain a privileged position in a new power structure.
This could occur if forces newly loyal to Haftar simultaneously emerge into the open in several cities – possibly including Tripoli – without immediately seizing all-out control of them.
This scenario would lead to increasing confrontations within and between local communities. It would also make it more difficult for the GNA to adopt a clear position against Haftar; the GNA would likely lose the support of key military forces in Tripolitania.
Haftar will seek to initiate dynamics along the lines of the second scenario. Judging from his moves over the past two years, he will advance gradually, exploiting divisions among his adversaries and buying local loyalties.
Outside eastern Libya, Haftar has shown much care to avoid directly confronting other forces while expanding, placing the onus on his opponents to respond and appear as the aggressors.
However, a largely peaceful takeover of entire swathes of territory, as in the southern operation, is not a possibility in western Libya.
In the south, alignments of armed groups with rival camps have been largely opportunistic since 2011, and Haftar’s takeover represented an existential threat for few local actors.
In the west, a number of cities host major forces that are deeply embedded in the social fabric, strongly committed to the rejection of authoritarian rule due to their experience in 2011, and justifiably worried that they would face violent repression if Haftar seized power.
Moreover, whereas Haftar’s advances in the south could be construed as a welcome effort at stabilising a neglected region, any progress into Tripolitania immediately raises the question of power.
The most likely outcome of any attempt by Haftar to seize Tripoli would therefore be protracted, large-scale conflict.
Western governments have remained noticeably silent as the latest events have unfolded, anxious not to strain relations with Haftar at a moment when, for the first time, he appears to have a credible chance at seizing power.
France has lent political – and most likely other forms of – support to Haftar’s operation in the south and prevented its Western partners from issuing joint statements on the issue.
The UN Support Mission in Libya has veered between subdued expressions of concern and outright support for Haftar’s southern operation.
This permissive attitude towards major changes in the military balance of forces risks encouraging broader escalation in western Libya. It further reduces the chances for a deal by severely undermining trust in the ability of international actors to function as neutral arbiters and enforcers of an agreement. It is also driven by a misguided sense of realpolitik.
A military victory for Haftar remains unlikely and would, if at all, only come about after violent conflict in western Libya of an intensity and duration that would likely surpass anything Libya has witnessed since 2011.
And even if Haftar succeeds in seizing power at such massive cost, this would not offer a credible pathway towards stabilisation:
Haftar is 75, and the structure he has established is likely to disintegrate with his demise, given its highly personalised nature and the conflicting interests Haftar balances within it – including those of his sons, who have gained key positions in Haftar’s forces but are widely unpopular in them.
With Haftar’s departure, the deep rifts his campaign has inflicted on the social fabric, particularly in the east, are also certain to return to the fore.
At the same time, a negotiated settlement is currently almost as unlikely as a military victory. This is because all actors – but most importantly Haftar – now expect continued changes in the military balance of power.
To improve the prospects for a negotiated way out, international actors would need to help stabilise the balance of power by exerting serious pressure on all sides to refrain from further attempts at expansion and provocation.
This would require not only a fresh effort at curbing foreign military assistance to Haftar; Western states would also have to revisit their support to the GNA if the latter becomes engaged in an escalating struggle with Haftar.
Given Haftar’s increased weight, a settlement would need to include robust guarantees by foreign actors.
In other words, returning to a negotiating process would require a complete reversal of Western governments’ current stance.
A key challenge in negotiating such a reversal is the disunity between Western governments on Libya – particularly US disengagement; the diplomatic spats between Italy and France, for which Libya is one arena; and the unilateral French support for Haftar’s southern operation.
Given the potential consequences of conflict in western Libya, the stakes are sufficiently high to warrant much greater effort by European states to agree on a common policy with the aim to prevent escalation.
Dr Wolfram Lacher is a Senior Associate in the Middle East and Africa Division at SWP.
Source: The German Institute for International and Security Affairs