Khalifa Haftar’s march on Tripoli has ground to a halt in a war of attrition with the internationally recognised government’s forces on the city’s outskirts.
The parties should conclude a ceasefire including Haftar’s partial withdrawal as a prelude to renewed UN peace talks.
What’s new? Almost two months have passed since war erupted between forces loyal to Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and groups aligned with the Tripoli government in Libya.
Fighting has raged on the capital’s outskirts, causing at least 510 deaths, but neither side has been able to deal a decisive blow.
Why does it matter? Both sides view the war as existential, and reject calls for an unconditional ceasefire: Tripoli demands that Haftar’s troops withdraw to eastern Libya; Haftar wants the capital under his control. Both have put in motion a cycle of internal and external mobilisation that points to protracted regional proxy conflict.
What should be done? The parties and their external backers should acknowledge that neither side can prevail militarily and stop pouring oil on the fire.
They should conclude an immediate ceasefire entailing a partial withdrawal of Haftar’s forces from the Tripoli front lines and give the UN the chance to restart peace talks.
Almost two months have passed since Libyan National Army (LNA) forces commanded by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar marched on Tripoli from their base in eastern Libya in an attempt to seize the capital.
They expected a swift victory, banking on the belief that key units in the Tripoli area would remain neutral or switch sides. But they miscalculated: rather than swooping into the capital, they became stranded on its outskirts, settling into a war of attrition with forces from Tripoli and Misrata nominally loyal to the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and its Presidential Council, headed by Faiez Serraj.
Nevertheless, Haftar is claiming success and, seeming to believe victory is within reach, refusing calls for a cessation of hostilities. On their side, forces nominally loyal to the GNA have pegged the resumption of talks to the LNA’s complete withdrawal from western Libya.
Otherwise, they say, they will push out the LNA by force. Both sides see themselves as pursuing a just cause and, convinced that their military objective is achievable with a little outside help, have shown signs of doubling down.
Meanwhile, the fighting has created a diplomatic vacuum: the UN special envoy has seen the political process he initiated evaporate, and rifts among Libya’s external stakeholders have been laid bare, leaving the UN Security Council paralysed.
With no military solution on the horizon, the two sides will have no choice but to return to the negotiating table sooner or later. The UN’s reputation may have taken a hit, but the world body remains the only actor capable of managing peace talks.
External actors need to acknowledge these realities, and throw their support behind an internationally monitored ceasefire that would require at least a partial withdrawal of Haftar-led forces from the Tripoli front lines.
It will be no easy task, given the zero-sum logic that drives both the LNA’s offensive (and that Haftar’s regional backers share) and the Tripoli government’s demand that Haftar forces leave western Libya entirely.
But simply letting the war take its course, and possibly escalate further, should not be the only option. International stakeholders, including the U.S., need to achieve a new consensus on Libya, genuinely empower the UN special envoy, call for an immediate ceasefire and press the warring sides back to the table.
For their part, the two sides should reassess their assumptions and acknowledge that neither has the capability to prevail militarily. For Haftar and other LNA commanders, as well as the east-based government, reassessment means softening their bellicose rhetoric and publicly accepting the Tripoli government as a legitimate negotiating partner.
In turn, Serraj and military forces allied to the GNA should be prepared to commit to negotiations that could well overturn the UN-installed institutional framework of which they have been the prime beneficiaries.
Once a ceasefire is in place, an immediate priority should be the resumption of talks to resolve a banking crisis that, if left unaddressed, could impoverish the majority of the population, reignite the battle for the capital and bring Libya to ruin.
Now in its seventh week, the fighting in and around Tripoli has deadlocked. It has left at least 510 people dead, including 29 civilians, and displaced 75,000 residents from the capital.
Starting from their bases in eastern and southern Libya on 4 April, and backed by allies in the west, Haftar’s forces took their adversaries by surprise, entering a ring of Tripoli neighbourhoods from Zahra in the west to Ain Zara and Wadi Rabia in the south east, and seizing the (non-functioning) Tripoli international airport.
GNA forces mobilised within a week, however, and managed to push the LNA and its allies out of the capital’s western periphery and most of Ain Zara.
Since then, both sides have made occasional advances before retreating along a front line in the capital’s southern suburbs some 10-20km in width, with neither side able to take new ground and score a decisive victory.
The LNA has remained stuck in positions around Wadi Rabia and the international airport in the face of fierce resistance, and forces loyal to the Tripoli government have failed to realise their plan to expel Haftar’s forces from greater Tripoli and towns along the LNA’s fragile supply lines, such as Tarhouna and Ghariyan.
Even the use of airpower and drones has not significantly changed the balance on the ground. Between mid-April and mid-May, the LNA repeatedly carried out air and drone strikes against the bases of armed groups inside Tripoli and nearby towns such as Zawiya and Tajoura and against pro-GNA fighters on the front lines.
In turn, the GNA has used its own smaller air force to strike at LNA-held areas, such as Qasr Ben Gashir. For the time being, the LNA appears to have superior air capacity because it has more jets that are operational, and it alone has access to armed drones.
Its drone attacks caused significant damage to GNA forces’ equipment more than they proved effective in killing enemy fighters. The GNA also suffered the loss of its two best fighter jets (both Mirages, operating out of Misrata), with one of its pilots captured by the LNA on 7 May.
The footage of the event provided the LNA with a smoking gun for its claim that the GNA is using mercenary pilots: the captive was a white man who identified himself as a Portuguese national. In turn, the GNA accuses the LNA of relying on foreign support to equip its planes and operate its drones.
Confident that they have the means to win the war, both sides have ignored calls for a cessation of hostilities.
Despite initial setbacks and diminished flying power, GNA-allied forces appear convinced they can prevail, banking on fresh equipment, reportedly arriving from Turkey. The GNA’s air force appears to have started carrying out night strikes since early May and to have obtained surveillance drones.
The fact that the LNA has carried out no precision airstrikes in Tripoli since 14 May would suggest that the GNA’s acquisition of new technology has made a difference. Sources in Tripoli boasted in mid-May about “good surprises”, hinting at new military equipment.
On 19 May, a shipment of several dozen armoured vehicles was unloaded in Tripoli port, but it is unclear if that cargo, or others that might have arrived undetected, included any other aviation-related equipment.
Some Western military experts caution against dismissing the LNA’s failed advance as a setback, saying Haftar is pursuing an intentional “strategy of attrition” aimed at drawing out the enemy, a claim numerous LNA sympathisers also make.
But in terms of fighting power and military arsenal deployed, the two sides appear approximately equal for the time being.
Confident that they have the means to win the war, both sides have ignored calls for a cessation of hostilities from the African Union, the EU and a number of member states.
Tripoli authorities have refused a ceasefire so long as LNA forces remain in proximity to the capital and have posited an unconditional LNA withdrawal from the entirety of western Libya as a prerequisite for even considering one.
They view Haftar’s advance on the capital as a violation of international law and an act of aggression whose sole aim is to enable Haftar to take over the country, impose military rule and return Libya to Qadhafi-era authoritarianism.
In their eyes, a ceasefire based on current fighting positions without a guarantee that Haftar will respect them would amount to giving his forces time to rest and rearm before resuming their assault on the GNA and the capital.
From its side, the LNA has shown no interest even in outlining conditions for a ceasefire. Despite suffering setbacks in Tripoli’s periphery, Haftar urged his forces to continue their advance on the capital during Ramadan, which began on 5 May.
Some LNA supporters seem to believe that Haftar has set the holy month’s 20th day as the date for entering the capital; that day, which falls on 25 May this year and which Haftar referred to in a 4 April speech, is laden with Islamic symbolism because it marks the Prophet’s liberation of Mecca.
Even if that day sees an escalation, LNA’s conquest of Tripoli is unlikely, due to the strength of Haftar’s foes, as exhibited so far.
Those backing the LNA, including the eastern government (not recognised internationally), frame their operation as necessary to “liberate” Tripoli from armed groups whom they call “terrorists” or “extremists”, and to “free” the Libyan state apparatus from the shackles of militia rule, of which they claim the Tripoli-based prime minister, Faiez Serraj, is a victim.
Only after they have taken the capital, they say, would it be possible to restart the political process.
And here is the rub: by setting maximalist demands, and given the relative balance of forces, the GNA and LNA both increase the chances of a protracted and deadly war, one that is virtually bound to see increased foreign meddling.
The deceptive rhetoric of imminent triumph – and, in the LNA’s case, of the “war on terror” – is likely to encourage their respective external backers to keep supplying military equipment, ammunition and funds to urge their proxies toward victory.
For this, the LNA is counting mainly but not exclusively on Egyptian, Emirati and Saudi support.
The allegation that Islamists have infiltrated the ranks of GNA-aligned forces in particular appears to have struck a chord: “There are different militias fighting there [in Tripoli] with different agendas and some of those who are fighting with the GNA scare us”, said United Arab Emirates (UAE) Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash.
On the other side, GNA-aligned forces have been tapping Turkish and Qatari supplies to ensure that Libya does not fall to Haftar and, by extension, Ankara’s and Doha’s regional foes.
The net result would be a proxy war reflecting a primary geopolitical rift in the Gulf region, with no guaranteed winner. As time passes, the war could morph into a more multifaceted conflict, including over financial resources, namely if the LNA, strapped for cash, leverages its control over most of Libya’s oil and gas infrastructure to secure access to state funds, of which it is now deprived.
What the UN Secretary-General’s special representative, Ghassan Salamé, said in his sobering speech to the Security Council is true: “There is no military solution to Libya. This is not a cliché. It is a fact, and it is high time for those who have harboured this illusion to open their eyes and adjust themselves to this reality”.