By Alia Brahimi
Khalifa Haftar is using the narrative of the global war on terror to consolidate power. But taking Tripoli will not bring peace.
With heavy fighting on the outskirts of the capital, threatening more uncertainty for thousands of migrants and refugees, Libya lurches deeper into crisis.
The assault on Tripoli was launched earlier this month by the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), commanded by General Khalifa Haftar, as the answer to years of instability and entrenched divisions between the UN-backed government in the west and the LNA-aligned government in the east. But in trying to force a military solution, Haftar’s partisan campaign to “unify” the country portends further fragmentation and chaos.
The LNA has begun to compel civilians in Benghazi to report for military duty, according to sources within its eastern stronghold. This is a worrying indication that Haftar’s supposed lightning offensive has a lot longer to run.
The timing of Haftar’s attack on the capital was more surprising than its temerity. When Haftar launched it, his international legitimacy was running high. In recent months, he has gradually been repositioned from parochial warlord to counter-terrorism partner to potential power-sharer.
Steadfast external alliances, in particular with Egypt and the UAE – the latter boasting a formidable lobbying capability – combined with diplomatic fatigue on the part of western powers dispirited by political deadlock to give Haftar this status.
The process accelerated last year when Emmanuel Macron invited Haftar to a peace summit in Paris, effectively recognising him as a legitimate political actor.
The head of the internationally recognised government, Fayez al-Sarraj, was summoned to the UAE to meet Haftar in February.
The timing of the military operation can be understood in a few ways. To begin with, the Algerians have long been suspicious of the renegade general’s claims to be a force for stability and favoured a negotiated political settlement to the Libyan crisis that would secure the 600-mile shared border.
But in the last two months, domestic protests and the resignation of the Algerian president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, have preoccupied the Algerian military – perhaps the only force in the region with a deterrent effect on Haftar.
A meeting between Haftar and King Salman of Saudi Arabia in advance of the Arab League summit last month may also have been significant.
While Haftar has long worked hand-in-glove with the UAE, specifically Saudi support unlocks a sizeable war chest and an important channel of influence to the Trump administration.
Haftar also had a limited window to convert his recent advance in the south-west of the country into a meaningful victory.
Earlier this year, the LNA sought to establish itself as a national actor beyond its power base in the east of the country, and sent forces into strategic locations in the south.
Haftar claimed to be purging the south of terrorists and mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa, despite the scores of Chadian and Darfuri guns-for-hire within the LNA’s own ranks that address its abiding manpower shortage.
However, the perverse reality was that in order to avert imperial overstretch – supply lines were too long, local dynamics too complex and southern communities, especially the Tebu tribe, too hostile – Haftar had to keep up the momentum and force the endgame in Tripoli.
But in trying to change the political equation with a heavy hand, Haftar has borrowed from the authoritarian playbook. He has denounced all opposition to his consolidation of power as jihadist, which has led to repression and prolonged fighting within his own eastern base.
He has adopted the narrative of the global war on terror, and sought to cement counter-terrorism partnerships with international forces, most notably from France.
Haftar’s other tactic was to form alliances with Salafist groups who, despite their religious puritanism, are not currently interested in seizing political power and can be appeased with positions that allow them to influence (and Islamise) society, such as running the police, prisons and mosques.
Above all, Haftar hopes that his loud promise to stabilise a country in turmoil will drown out accusations of rights abuses. However, there are compelling reasons to doubt this.
The LNA’s national campaign is, first and foremost, a media war. Haftar is backed by a formidable electronic army, which has artfully combined misinformation with selected facts to amplify and exaggerate the LNA’s influence.
In parts of the south-west, for example, the LNA “advance” involved a handful of vehicles arriving at the outskirts of key towns such as Murzuq, disseminating photographs on social media and retreating. LNA fighters did not take and hold ground.
In other places, such as around the El Sharara oilfield, they simply paid pre-existing groups to change uniforms, creating new facts on the ground that are temporary and reversible.
The danger, of course, is that Haftar himself came to believe the myth-making of his media machine and the inexorability of his own rise.
It is likely that he has been taken aback by the strength of the resistance from Tripoli, which has bogged down his forces at its suburbs.
And if he does manage to take the capital, Haftar and his allies may well be caught off guard by the insurgency that will inevitably follow.
Alia Brahimi is co-founder of Legatus Global and a former research fellow at Oxford University and the LSE