Libya’s Second War of Post-Qadhafi Succession
By Jason Pack
In early April 2019, General Khalifa Haftar instructed the Libyan National Army (LNA) to take Tripoli by force, initiating Libya’s Second War of Post-Qadhafi Succession.
Part V: The Outlook for Libya
In light of the current crisis, divining a final outcome appears to be an insurmountable task, especially amid under the table negotiations, hidden agendas, fake news, and overt deception—tactics all Libyan armed groups have no qualms about using in pursuit of their own interests.
What is crystal clear, however, is that Tripoli is unlikely to enjoy real stability anytime soon, undermining Haftar’s claims in early April that he would quickly “restore order across the country” by installing a new regime in the capital and creating a genuinely national army, as discussed in Part III.
Yes, Haftar my eventually acquire the upper hand, but this will not mean that he ever acquires unfettered access to Tripoli’s resources.
Even the short sketch in Part IV of the six main armed actors involved in Tripoli and another six in Western Libya demonstrates the immense challenge of the LNA subsuming all of these groups under its aegis, or of permanently eliminating their leaders, or coaxing them into exile.
Any hopes in that quarter are likely unfounded, unless Haftar receives massive support from external backers like Russia, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt or France that he can simply punch through resistance – abandoning the typical Libyan (low casualty/low intensity) way of war in the process – or buy off or intimidate his leading opponents into exile causing the resistance to find itself commander-less and be forced to scatter.
And yet if those countries are seen to be delivering external support, why then would Italy, Turkey, and Qatar not intervene to support their ally, the GNA? Moreover, recent reports suggest that this has already begun.
Many supporters of the LNA have seen President Donald Trump’s surprise announcement of a phone call with General Haftar on April as indicating a shift in the American position towards the LNA.
Yet American policy is inchoate and multipolar. Trump Administration mixed signals are nothing new.
In this instance they are indicative of the broader division within the international community, and the UN Security Council (UNSC) in particular about resolving the Libya crisis.
On 21 April, the UK attempted to pass a UNSC statement to initiate a cease-fire, which would have identified Haftar as the aggressor. Both Russia and the US vetoed the proposal.
Likewise, on 18 April, the US and Russia vetoed a UNSC proposal calling for an immediate ceasefire to the clashes, with the US requesting more time, while Russia requested the UNSC refrains from directly referring to Haftar in any of its resolutions.
Seen a month into the new civil war, international unity to support, or to oppose Haftar, seems impossible to craft.
Yet even in that scenario of extensive external support for Haftar suddenly materializing and leading to a breakthrough, the prospect of establishing a unified and truly national army under the auspices of the LNA will still likely be exposed as a mere pipedream.
As it stands, the ingrained tribalism and self-interest underlying Libya’s militias show no signs of dissipating.
If Haftar had held back on his Tripoli offensive, negotiations could have peeled some groups (possibly the Madkhali Salafists) away from the GNA and towards Haftar, but the full-frontal assault has been causing almost all of the Western Libyan militias to rally in defence of their home turf – their chances of being integrated into the LNA is far less than it would have been via negotiations.
Seen in this context, the LNA looks the most overstretched it has been in years, and may find itself refighting old battles in various regions and cities it considered previously conquered and secured.
Even if it were to win in Tripoli, a new balance of power with new spoilers would undoubtably emerge.
Hence, political upheaval, factional reshuffling and a lack of security are set to stay, as long as the country’s main players seek to maintain or redesign the status quo to their own advantage and continue to calculate their actions based on balance of power calculations.
If Libya’s immediate history teaches us anything, it is that the emergence of new fault lines will only serve to further entrench existing factional positions; in all likelihood, the divisions between those who support the LNA and a militarized state-building project, and those who oppose it and wish to preserve the status quo, will only become more embedded.
Such divisiveness does not bode well for Libya’s future and will undoubtedly hinder any future establishment of a capable centralized government and the creation of a true Libyan Army under its direct authority.
In fact, for many the mere concept of a “Libyan Army” is now anathema, dooming Libya to remain a decentralized power vacuum until a new generation emerges for which these ideas have different resonances.
Libya Has Never Had a Truly National Army
None of Libya’s Imperial rulers – the Ottomans, the Italians, or the British – ever unified Libya administratively or militarily. Its domestic potentates have fared only slightly better.
During his monarchy, Idriss al-Sanussi was a polarizing figure who drew support from very specific segments of the population and was terrified of creating a truly national army, correctly surmising that some disgruntled subaltern or colonel might eventually overthrow him.
He preferred a Pretorian guard, the Cyrenaican Defence Force, which drew its manpower primarily from the sada tribes of Cyrenaica.
During the Qadhafi period, the country was further unified economically and institutionally, but never militarily. Qadhafi eviscerated the army, creating his own Pretorian guard from the previously disadvantaged Magraha, Warfalla, and Qadhadhifa tribes.
He too was terrified that equipping and training a national army might lead to some part of it eventually overthrowing him – exactly as eventually came to pass.
Unlike other Arab States, even those with artificial colonial borders like Algeria, Iraq or Syria, Libya has, therefore, never had a coherent national army.
In most Arab states cobbled together by the Imperial powers out of diverse Ottoman wilayat, mid-20th century state building was conducted by an army which acted as a sovereign.
Not in Libya. The ability of a financial central authority to distribute vast oil revenues to a small and dispersed population granted it power, not the Army.
Even if he were to conquer Tripoli, why would Haftar be able to break this pattern of forging a truly national army when he lacks access to both oil revenues and international legitimacy?
A Role for the International Community?
Politically, the National Conference has now been postponed and UN Envoy Ghassan Salamé may step down in the near future.
Hence, a political solution to the current crisis caused by the conflict in Tripoli – let alone the broader, longer-term issues Libya needs to address – looks increasingly hard to achieve.
Seen in retrospect, it is quite possible that late March 2019 will represent the high-water mark for a political solution to the institutional fragmentation that has bedevilled Libya since the summer of 2014.
The blocking power of HoR Speaker of the House Agilah Saleh to prevent elections or a constitutional referendum was nearly bypassed, as the National Conference would have opened up a new pathway to elections.
And yet it was not to be. Viewed from late-May 2019, it appears that too many actors benefited from the status quo of militia domination to allow any political progress to proceed unchecked.
Only concerted leadership by a neutral power, such as the UK, Germany, or the EU could correct these issues and create an alternative political process.
In the absence of decisive action, the international community and UNSMIL is likely to lose the ability to effectively mould developments on the ground.
So far in the first weeks of the crisis, there has been no indication that major players are willing to exert determined or far-sighted leadership on the Libya file.
What Does Haftar Want for Libya?
Understanding Haftar’s underlying motivations, strategy and psychology is arguably the most critical factor to forecasting how the current crisis in Libya will unfold.
It now seems that Haftar’s intention was never to compromise on his desire to achieve complete leadership of the Libyan armed forces, unfettered by civilian oversight.
His intention was to increase his power and leverage before the National Conference by taking control of Tripoli or creating a media perception of dominance, allowing him to dictate the terms of the political process or ignore it completely.
Seen in this light, Haftar appears either stubborn or megalomaniacal. He was on the verge of being anointed Libya’s most powerful actor by the UN political process, yet that was not enough for him.
Psychologically, he appears incapable of accepting defeat. If the international community does not propose a genuine face-saving solution, Haftar may feel that he has little choice but to redouble his current efforts to take Tripoli, as he may never get another chance, due to his advanced age and ill-health.
As such, we believe that Haftar’s health, psychology, and decision making, as well as international actions either in support of the various combatants or to provide concrete, face-saving ways out the current impasse, will remain the decisive factors in how the conflict is resolved.
As international actors have not shown any willingness to insert peacekeeping forces into the fray, financial pressure is likely their most potent policy tool. First, financial muscles should be flexed, then the warring sides required to desist from fighting and invited to parlay.
As stated in the “Second Challenge: LNA’s Purse Strings” section of Part III, international policymakers possess the ability to occasion a cash flow crisis for the LNA by using sanctions to block 1) financial transfers to the LNA from its international backers and 2) to prevent the Eastern branch of the CBL and the Eastern commercial banks accessing foreign currency reserves and inflows.
If implemented coherently by a united front of Western actors, these steps (even in the face of a Russian veto at the UN) would curtail the LNA’s access to funds, likely bringing it to its knees in a short period.
Conversely as mentioned in the “The Anti-LNA Coalition’s Coherence and Capabilities section of Part IV,” should the international community wish to bring the anti-LNA forces to the negotiating table, they should force the GNA to implement the stalled economic reform program, especially dinar devaluation, subsidies reform, and cracking down on letter of credit fraud and smuggling.
If the International Community made such actions the price for its continuing to uphold the legitimacy of Fayez Serraj as GNA Prime Minister and Sadiq al-Kabir as Central Bank Governor, they would have no choice but to comply.
Paradoxically, Libya’s Second War of Post-Qadhafi Succession has given international actors more leverage over developments in Libya than they have had in many years.
Failure to act will facilitate the growth of global jihadi movements, increase migrant flows to Italy, and eventually lead to oil price shocks and decreased energy security for Southern Europe.
Conversely, the above mentioned, even-handed approach could smooth intra-European tensions and provide a unified platform for action.
If major international players genuinely wish to exit the dysfunctional squabbling over the Libya file – which has heretofore prevented a unified approach – and definitively prevent Libya from becoming permanently enshrined as a kingdom of militias, the international community must swiftly rally together to cut off the belligerents’ purse strings.
Appendix: Khalifa Haftar – A Potted Biography
As a military man rather than a politician, the LNA’s leader, 76-year-old Khalifa Haftar, has famously proclaimed that “Libya is not ready for democracy.”
Originally from Ajdabiya, Haftar was involved as a junior military officer under Qadhafi during the coup which seized power in September 1969.
During the 1980’s, Haftar headed the Libyan forces dispatched to the conflict in Chad, but was defeated and captured by the French-backed Chadian forces.
Consequently, Haftar was disowned by Qadhafi, who paradoxically denied that any Libyan troops were present in Chad. Haftar sought exile to the US, where he was granted citizenship and progressively developed ties with US intelligence services.
When the uprisings began in 2011, Haftar returned to his native Libya and attempted to present himself a commander of the rebel forces in the east, but was denied a commanding position by the top National Transitional Council (NTC) brass who viewed him with suspicion.
Due to the killing of Abdul-Fattah Younis in late July 2011, the rebel forces never had an acknowledged and respected leader, leaving the door open for Haftar to attempt to fill the void.
As mentioned in Part III, in February 2014, Haftar re-emerged, calling on Libyans to overthrow the General National Congress (GNC), the first elected legislative body to appear in the wake of the fall of the Qadhafi regime.
Haftar initially claimed that the Zintanis would support him; this support never materialized, causing the putsch to be aborted. Three months later, Haftar launched “Operation Dignity” to drive out Islamist militias from Benghazi and eastern Libya.
In 2015, Haftar was declared the commander of the LNA by the HoR and, by February 2016, his forces declared that they “liberated” Benghazi.
He then pivoted towards getting invited to international conferences and burnishing his international image.
On 10 April 2018, Haftar spent several weeks in a French hospital, leading to a torrent of contradictory reports regarding his health, ranging from LNA’s spokesperson Ahmed al-Mismari stating that he was alive and well, and due to return to Libya any moment, to reports by Islamist-leaning media on 13 April suggesting that he had died.
After 17 days of speculation and mix messaging, on 26 April, Haftar landed at Benghazi’s Benina Airport, where he was welcomed with great fanfare by senior LNA commanders, as well as political and tribal leaders from Eastern Libya.
In the weeks that followed, the LNA’s leadership was reshuffled in response to rumours about a potential coup in Haftar’s absence.
Jason Pack is the President of Libya-Analysis LLC, a consultancy organisation specializing in evidence-based analysis, forecasting and stakeholder mapping of Libya.
Italian Institute for International political Studies