By Stasa Salacanin
Military rogue General Khalifa Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli comes as no surprise. It was only a matter of time when Eastern Libya’s strongmen launched the offensive against governmental forces.
With the “liberation” of Tripoli, General Khalifa Haftar would be just a step closer the final victory in the long-lasting civil war. But the final victory is not as close as it seems.
Besides achieving military dominance, Haftar took advantage of some regional and international events which created a “perfect storm” enabling him to come with a decision to launch a full-scale offensive against his opponents.
A deepening political crisis in Algeria, which has been a strong advocate of political dialogue between rival factions in Libya has given Haftar opportunity to act. The same goes for Turkey and Qatar – two main supporters of the Libyan Islamists operating in the West alongside the Government of National Accord [GNA] and Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. Both countries are currently facing a series of other challenges that would likely keep them occupied for some time.
Finally, Haftar has managed to convince some of the foreign key powers (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE as well as France and Russia) that he is the only political leader in the country capable of bringing order and stability, which resulted with more or less open support to his faction.
Haftar’s offensive is not the final chapter in Libyan conflict
Gaining control over large parts of the country, including onshore oil reserves and backed by powerful foreign powers, the rogue general seems to be in a much better position than his GNA rivals.
Giuseppe Dentice, Associate Research Fellow at Italian Institute for International Political Studies [ISPI], observes that without considering the full context of the civil war, it may look like that Haftar is the winner in this prolonged crisis.
But this could also be a smokescreen as there are multiple fractures existing in Haftar’s coalition and sometimes conflicting interests among his regional and international supporters, reflecting a complexity of the struggle for the power in Libya.
Moreover, “Haftar’s decision to attack Tripoli was a fatal oversight and misjudgement of the situation and the real strength of his opponents.
What seems more likely to happen is that he will be forced to halt the offensive and to engage in a political process from the considerably weakened position that he was in before,” Dentice told The New Arab.
With the conflict showing signs of extending beyond Tripoli, and both sides seeking armed reinforcements, it is quite likely that the fighting would go on for many months, possibly even years.
Since Haftar no longer can rely on the element of surprise it would be very hard for the self-styled Libyan National Army [LNA] to conquer Tripoli as defenders have managed to deter attackers and consolidate their defensive parameter around the capital.
Dentice noted that the military offensive may last for some months but without a real opportunity to gain Tripoli and shift the balance of war to Haftar’s favour – at least as long as Misrata militias maintain a strong foothold in those areas in favour of the GNA and Sarraj.
Dentice is quite convinced that “Haftar simply does not have the necessary military force to overtake Tripoli.”
Moreover, Haftar’s troops may face the same fate as battling armies during the North Africa Campaign in World War Two.
Axis armies led by famous General Erwin Rommel also known as “Desert Fox”, encountered ever greater logistic problems as their supply lines were stretched beyond breaking point, to what largely contributed to their retreat at the end of 1942 after suffering defeat at El Alamain.
So, although Haftar’s forces currently control most of the country, his supply lines are vastly stretched as his troops operate far away from his core bases in the east.
Libyan treacherous lawless desserts and logistic challenges may once again prove as the toughest opponent in the war. And if these supply lines are cut, it is very likely that LNA battlefield initiative will diminish resulting with retreat.
However, some analysts point out that some armed militias in Tripoli may switch the side and join Haftar if his offensive continues.
Additionally, the role of Haftar’s sleeping cells located in the city should not be underestimated as they can activate and help the Haftar’s troops to seize the city.
Adjusting to a new reality
The escalation of the conflict may end the UN dialogue process and intensify the internal divisions in the country which would then be even harder to unify.
For Dentice, the United Nations have badly managed the peace process in Libya and partly contributed to another great failure of the international community.
The absence of functional institutions and lack of efficient political framework, which would reflect Libya’s political and military realities, is the prime cause for repeating international failures.
This brings us to the question of foreign support to Libyan military and political factions which seems to be part of the problem and not part of the solution.
While Sarraj has proven to be an almost entirely irrelevant factor within the opposition camp for years, implicit or explicit support to Haftar is also questionable in the context of recent humanitarian and the security crisis in the country.
Trump’s recent surprise expression of support to Khalifa Haftar has shocked European leaders as it undermined their efforts to reach an international consensus in condemning the attack on Tripoli and ending the escalation of hostilities.
In a phone call between Donald Trump and Khalifa Haftar, the US president “recognised Field Marshal Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources”.
Tarek Megerisi, a Libyan political analyst pointed out in his paper, published by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, that adapting to the new reality in the country and introduction of the new tools for engagement as well as new forums for more effective multilateral discussions are the first step towards de-escalation of the conflict.
Existing working group P3+3 made of six states is simply not relevant anymore and the peace process requires the inclusion of all international players which are engaged in the Libyan conflict, primarily Russia, Turkey and Qatar.
While it is quite possible that reaching consensus among them would be even harder to achieve due to conflicting interests, it would more accurately reflect the interests of all parties involved.
Finally, only a unified internationally backed decisive stance aimed to restrain the hostilities can prevent the country from slipping into a prolonged civil war.
Stasa Salacanin is a freelance journalist who writes for several newspapers across the Middle East, including BQ Doha and Qatar Today. He has written extensively on Middle Eastern affairs, trade and political relations, Syria and Yemen, terrorism and defence.
THE NEW ARAB