By Frederic Wehrey
This text is testimony given before the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee.
RISKS OF A PROTRACTED CONFLICT
Haftar’s assault on Tripoli was clearly a risky gambit. He had planned to use the strength of his narrative—and cash—to flip local militias and political blocs to his side. To be sure, some have joined him, such as those from the town of Tarhuna south of the capital. Armed groups in other towns, like Zintan in the Nafusa mountains, are split.
Other militias have half-heartedly committed their forces against him, hoping to hedge in the event he becomes the dominant force. But overall, his attack on Tripoli has not gone according to plan. Disparate armed groups the capital and its environs have rallied against him. Lacking sufficient strength to seize and hold urban terrain, Haftar has resorted to rocket and artillery attacks and airstrikes. As civilian casualties mount, citizens who might’ve welcomed his forces are turning against him.
Haftar seems unlikely to take the capital anytime soon. But as he demonstrates his staying power outside of Tripoli, his outside backers—namely, the UAE and Egypt—will be tempted to escalate their military intervention. Already, the United Nations is investigating the use of armed, Chinese-made drones, which are known to be in the UAE inventory.
For their part, Haftar’s opponents in the GNA coalition are seeking military aid from Turkey and are reportedly employing foreign personnel to fly fighter aircraft, as evidenced by the LNA’s recent capture of a pilot of apparent Portuguese nationality.
There are other signs that the conflict is becoming more intractable. The fighting could expand geographically, as Haftar’s opponents try to disrupt his supply lines to eastern Libya or as Haftar tries to flank Misrata by attacking the city of Sirte. In virtually every scenario, oil production will be placed at risk.
Facing a potential funding shortfall in eastern Libya, Haftar may try to leverage Libya’s oil wealth. Already, according to the chairman of Libya’s National Oil Corporation, Haftar has tried to “militarize” oil installations in the Gulf of Sidra by basing his forces near terminals. He may also try to unilaterally sell oil on the global market.
Meanwhile, the response of international powers has been marked by ambivalence and divisions. Most crucially, President Donald Trump publicly endorsed Haftar in a phone call on April 15th.
At the United Nations Security Council, Russia and France, along with the United States, have blocked a resolution calling for a ceasefire. Some European states have called for a ceasefire without a withdrawal of Haftar’s LNA to pre-April 4th lines—a truce that is unacceptable for the GNA side.
With both sides committed to fighting, the outlook remains grim. To move past the impasse and avert a wider escalation, Western powers, especially America, must use a mix of diplomacy and economic tools to stop regional states from worsening the conflict. They must also work to shape battlefield dynamics toward a stalemate that compels the warring Libyan factions to return to a political process.
ROLES FOR THE UNITED STATES
Mr. Chairman, in my recent conversations with numerous Libyans, as well as foreign diplomats, it is clear that the U.S. maintains unique leverage in Libya and is viewed as a relatively neutral broker. A more resolute U.S. policy response in this current crisis does not mean “owning” the Libya problem. But even modest U.S. diplomacy could prevent the country from spiraling into broader conflict. In particular, the U.S. should focus on three core areas.
First, the United States should exert diplomatic leverage to dissuade regional meddlers from sending arms and material to both sides. Such pressure should also include greater Congressional scrutiny of violations of the United Nations arms embargo and sanctions on logistical companies that facilitate these violations.
Second, American diplomacy should safeguard Libya’s oil assets and prevent oil from being illegally sold outside the country. The U.S. has already proven its value here: in the summer of 2018, after Haftar’s LNA had seized oil facilities in the central Gulf of Sidra, American diplomats, working with the United Nations, ensured their return to the rightful authority of the National Oil Corporation.
Additionally, the U.S. should use the threat of sanctions and war-crimes prosecution, against all sides, to deter attacks on civilians, medical workers, and critical infrastructure and marginalize spoilers. Congress should play an important oversight role in the implementation of these measures.
All of these U.S. actions can help limit the scope and duration of the conflict and steer it toward a political process. It is up to Libyans of course to decide the composition of these negotiations. But the mistakes of the past should be kept in mind, to include the repeated offers to Haftar to join in a peaceful settlement, which he has rebuffed and undercut with military force.
As the talks gets underway, the U.S. and its partners should redouble their outreach to Libyans who reject the binary choice between militia-run chaos or a return to authoritarianism. This includes the country’s vibrant civil society, women and youth, and elected municipal councils, who have long enjoyed a measure of popular legitimacy. A particular focus should be on communities in the east and south, some of whom backed Haftar out of sense of exclusion.
Much of the international effort thus far has been focused on national parliamentary and presidential elections. Here, however, a word of caution is in order. The previous rush to elections in 2012 and 2014 had disastrous consequences for the country, setting up a cycle of armed contestation that continues to the present.
Current security conditions and militia violence in many areas would deter turnout—and in areas under LNA control, free and fair campaigning would be difficult. Aside from promoting a return to stability, the U.S. should help ensure that Libya has the appropriate voting laws and constitutional framework in place before elections.
On security matters, the U.S. should play an important supporting role in facilitating talks on the unification of Libya’s military and police, between eastern and western factions. Tragically, figures from these two sides were already engaged in various degrees of rapprochement before Haftar launched his attack on the capital.
A security track in a renewed political process should pick up where this dialogue broke off, emphasizing mutual security concerns as well as respect for the rule-of-law and elected civilian authority.
The U.S. should also support the dismantling of the militias that have preyed on the Tripoli government and plundered Libya’s financial resources. This will be a difficult task that will involve a new political compact as well as technocratic, economic, and bureaucratic reforms.
As noted above, Libyan officials, backed by the United Nations, were making modest progress on these reforms before Haftar’s attacks. Those efforts need to be strengthened, albeit under a new, more legitimate political authority. Their success is far from assured—but they still stand a better chance than the current military assault that has thrown Libya into a civil war.
Mr. Chairman, members of the committee, in closing, I cannot stress enough the rapidly shutting window for action. Libya stands on the brink of a dissolution that threatens American interests and the interest of our allies. On top of this, it faces a worsening humanitarian crisis.
The solution is not to pick one side in this complex, multi-faceted conflict—especially the side that offers the false promise of an authoritarian, military-led stability. Rather, it lies in supporting a return to dialogue and a more inclusive path.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you here today. I look forward to your questions.
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Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His research deals with armed conflict, security sectors, and identity politics, with a focus on Libya, North Africa, and the Gulf.