By Hafed Al-Ghwell & Karim Mezran
The attack launched by General Khalifa Haftar against the city of Tripoli and its 2.5 million inhabitants on April 4 has been halted and pushed back by the armed forces of the city and their allies from other towns in the western parts of Libya, like Misurata and Zintan.
The military situation is still, however, very fluid — within the same day the front moves forward and back many times. One thing that is clear so far after six weeks of fighting is that Haftar’s promise to take over Tripoli within days has failed to materialize.
There is indeed the risk that this situation will protract for much longer than anyone wished, especially given the active involvement by foreign countries which support Haftar’s forces with money, air support, and weapons in defiance of the UN’s esolutions against arming the warring factions in Libya.
The foreign support for Haftar recently triggered the involvement of other regional powers to support the Government of National Accord (GNA) and its leader, Prime Minister Fayez el-Serraj, in Tripoli in defending the city.
Haftar’s attacks have shown clearly that he is not interested in any political solutions for Libya as he has thwarted the UN’s Special Envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salamé, who was preparing for a peace conference with all Libyan parties to the conflict on April 14.
The situation on the ground now means that there should be a common and coordinated new policy from the UN and the European Union to redesign a negotiated solution among the main actors in the Libyan scene.
The UN, EU, African Union, as well as countries like the U.S., France, UK, and Italy have all said, at least publicly, that they are in favor of the establishment of a ceasefire after which the warring parties would have to engage in direct negotiations.
This was indeed the whole point of Mr. Salamé’s idea of creating a national conference where years of negotiations would bear fruit. Haftar’s unilateral move to suddenly attack Tripoli just days before the conference was supposed to convene threw all of that out.
The problem is that no one in the western part of Libya and especially the internationally recognized GNA in Tripoli can anymore trust or sit at a table with Haftar. The general has become an impediment to any solution to the Libyan conundrum.
That means that the various tribal and Islamist militias that act as the “Padrino” of Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) should seriously think about an alternative leader if they are indeed any sort of real army with an organized leadership and not just a one man show.
The theory of negotiations tells us that for any negotiation to be successful, the most important condition is that there be a “hurting stalemate” on the ground.
In other words, both sides must be suffering in a deadlocked conflict and intend to get out of it.
This has not occurred throughout Libya’s years of conflict. In fact, Haftar never believed in a negotiated solution or any democratic process and has said so publicly and privately even to U.S. officials. Thanks to his foreign supporters, he believed he had the ability to impose a military solution.
Could this hurting stalemate be possible today?
The answer is no, not with the situation as is.
The current situation requires that the United States step up its engagement with Libya. The United States is the only actor that has the authority and power to convince the external supporters of the two factions to withdraw their support and abide by the UN-established arms embargo.
American leadership would be of particular importance in this moment, and the United States needs to take some concrete steps in order to successfully reach and complete a viable negotiation process.
The United States currently has some serious shortcomings that it needs to overcome in regard to its Libya policy.
First, it has lost some credibility after the Trump telephone call with Haftar. It signaled to the GNA and its forces that they have been abandoned by the United States.
The GNA and its forces have worked successfully with U.S. military and intelligence services to defeat Daesh in the 2016 battle of Sirte, where ISIS had established themselves, a fight that cost the GNA forces over 800 Libyan fighters.
These forces now feel that their sacrifices have been completely forgotten by Washington because of Trump’s phone call. This also sends a very negative signal to the United States’ other local partners in counterterrorism efforts around the world.
Second, given the recent letter by seven members of Congress, both republican and democrat, demanding that the FBI investigate the possibility that Haftar, a U.S. citizen, has committed war crimes, any new contacts with Haftar or any perception of U.S. links with him will be translated as the administration’s support for a potential war criminal in the eyes of the law.
To move forward and establish a new road map for a fresh political solution in Libya, the United States and its European allies need to do the following:
First, NATO under U.S. leadership should declare a no-fly zone over the whole Libyan territory. This would prevent both sides — and their foreign supporters — from using air force to cause more death and destruction of civilian targets, as has happened over the past few weeks.
Second, no cease-fire would be acceptable to the defenders of Tripoli unless it is preceded by the re-establishment of the previous status quo, as the United States had demanded in the beginning of this war on Tripoli.
Equating the aggressor with those defending themselves and their city is not realistic, nor is it a viable starting point.
Third, the UN-established negotiation process is practically dead. A new and more inclusive process should be undertaken.
All options should be on the table, even the one that sees a federal system or even partition of the country in two or more parts as a viable exit from the intricacies and failings of the Skhirat agreement and years of civil war that has pitted regions and tribes against each other mainly for the control of oil revenues.
Fourth, there should be a serious effort in separating a 76-year old ailing Haftar, as a persona, from the tribal and military structures he leads in the east of the country.
This means that a new leadership in the East should emerge that can be trusted to not spoil again any political process. One can still support the forces of the East, but not the person of Haftar.
If the forces of the East are really an army, then this army can put forth a new leadership. If not, it will be clear we are dealing with a one man show supported simply by militias, as many experts have observed.
Fifth, UN resolutions prohibiting the supply of arms to various Libyan factions should have some teeth, and countries named in the UN reports need to be held responsible for their violations over the years as an example to others.
Finally, there should be an official recognition that the Libyan story is a civil war since its start in February 2011. It was then a conflict between Libyans, those supporting Gaddafi and those against him, as it still is now.
NATO’s involvement was simply in support of one side over the other.
The failure to recognize that it was and still is a civil war is what led to ignoring the concrete steps that follow such recognition. The recognition of civil wars and internal conflicts for what they are tends to trigger a process of reconciliation, disarmament, and the integration of militants back into civilian life.
The United States and international community must show their seriousness in dealing with the Libyan civil war.
Failing to do so now sets a bad precedent and will invite the same behavior and disregard for UN resolutions and international peace and order in other parts of the Middle East and North Africa and elsewhere in the world.
The time to act is now.
Hafed Al-Ghwell is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute (FPI) of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University.
Karim Mezran is the Director and Resident Senior Fellow of the North Africa Initiative at the Atlantic Council.