Since our posting of 15 April fighting has continued around Tripoli between forces supporting the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) under Fayiz al-Sarraj and the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) commanded by Khalifa Haftar and backed by the House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk.
(HoR) has just met for the first time in Benghazi, the western capital. Thousands of civilians including refugees and migrants are trapped and unable to flee.
On 20 April heavy explosions shook Tripoli following a night-time airstrike possibly by drones, suggesting that the LNA was no longer solely dependent for air power on its ageing MiGs;
Tripoli’s only functioning airport Mitiga was closed by an LNA airstrike and promptly reopened.
On 21 April the LNA forces were pushed back some miles to the south of Tripoli, and although they announced that they were intensifying the assault on Tripoli>
By 23 April they had been pushed back further, with GNA forces retaking Aziziya nearly 40 miles south of Tripoli.
Reports are conflicting, but the picture appears to be one of inconclusive fighting which amounts to a setback for Haftar’s forces, which have long lines of communication to their heartland in eastern Libya and were counting on quick victory.
A Chatham house report suggests that protracted fighting could undermine the economy of eastern Libya and the funding of the LNA.
By 23 April the death toll had reportedly reached 264, with 1,266 wounded and more than 30,000 believed to be displaced according to WHO.
With the military confrontation more or less in stalemate the international background has changed sharply with an unexpected and typically confusing intervention by President Trump.
On 19 April the White House said he had spoken by telephone on 15 April to Haftar and discussed “ongoing counterterrorism efforts”; he “recognised Field Marshal Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources, and the two discussed a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system”
(Haftar styles himself Field Marshal – UN statements refer to him as the commander of the self-styled Libyan National Army).
Reuters comments that it is unclear why the White House waited several days to announce the phone call.
The LNA spokesman said Trump’s call showed the pivotal role of the LNA in fighting terrorism.
Reuters quote a comment that the telephone call was tantamount to support for Haftar’s operation creating “an environment where a military intervention by foreign states, like Egypt, is likelier… One reason behind Trump’s phone call is that Haftar’s army has revealed itself less powerful than the Libyan strongman had claimed.”
The acting US secretary of defence Pat Shanahan did his best; he said that the Pentagon “and the executive branch are well aligned on Libya… A military solution is not what Libya needs, so what we’ve said before and what I do support is Field Marshal Haftar’s support in terms of his role in counterterrorism but where we need Field Marshal Haftar’s support is in building democratic stability there in the region.”
(Haftar has said in the past that Libya is not ready for democracy.)
The US position had previously been one of support for the UN process and opposition to military action.
Mike Pompeo said on 7 April that the US opposed Haftar’s military offensive and called for an immediate halt to military operations around Tripoli – there was no military solution.
But on 18 April the US together with Russia blocked without giving any reason a British proposal at the Security Council which would have named Haftar (Russia’s UN position was consistent – support for the UN process but without name-calling – but the US had earlier blocked a Security Council statement for the opposite reason, that it did not repeat not mention Haftar).
Jeffrey Feltman writing on the Brookings website comments that a devastating battle over Tripoli now seems inevitable – “Trump has snatched leverage for diplomacy out of the United Nations’ hands”, but “As appealing as Haftar’s pose as a supposed strongman might be to an authoritarian-infatuated White House, he is not Libya’s savior.”
The New York Times quotes Frederic Wehrey of Carnegie who adds that the battle for Tripoli has diverted attention from the fight against IS in Libya (according to a social media report IS in Libya had issued no statements in the first three months of this year, but three since Haftar’s offensive began on 4 April)
“It is nuts. Even judging by the hard-nosed American goals of stabilizing the flow of oil and combating terrorism, this is completely shocking.”
France has been accused of supporting Haftar and has also declined to name him. The Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian spoke to the UN special representative Ghassan Salamé on 17 April assuring him of France’s full support for his mediation and for a negotiated solution to the conflict.
An 18 April statement from the Élysée confirmed French support for the GNA.
Salamé has formally denied media reports alleging he had made statements that Haftar moved freely in Eastern Libya while Sarraj moved “under the protection of militias” and that “the ongoing war in Tripoli will enhance control of militia groups in the capital.”
According to unconfirmed social media reports he is currently out of Libya for a few days to meet international interlocutors.
If true that is only realistic; the priority now must be to prevent the Libyan conflict becoming a proxy war.
Realistic action by Washington and Moscow is probably too much to hope for, as unfortunately is restraint by Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia.