By Jonathan Fenton-Harvey
Initially buoyed with supreme levels of confidence, Khalifa Haftar has since struggled in his campaign to capture Libya’s capital Tripoli, with the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) managing to repel his advances.
The GNA successfully reclaimed previously captured territory from Haftar’s self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA) on 27 June, retaking the town of Gharyan, which Haftar had seized on 4 April.
Incensed by such obvious setbacks, Haftar has already retaliated with a series of attacks on GNA military targets in Tripoli. The conflict therefore looks set to take a more dangerous turn, unless stronger international peacekeeping efforts take place.
Haftar, the rogue general who heads the LNA, became a dominant figure in Libya’s internal affairs after his return to Libya to fight against Muammar Gaddafi in the 2011 Libyan revolution.
Previously favoured by the United States and Israel particularly, Haftar’s counter-extremism charm offensive has has since cemented the backing of various international backers.
These include Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, France and Russia, after Haftar began commanding a network of tribal forces, militias and Salafists under the umbrella of the LNA, triggering a new civil war in 2014. He now seeks to overthrow the UN-backed GNA government.
Since then, Libya’s divisions have grown more entrentched, with the UN-backed GNA regime headed by Fayez al-Sarraj in Tripoli, pitted against the Tobruk-based LNA, aligned until recently with the House of Representatives (HOR).
Though Haftar sought a quick, easy victory, launching his unprovoked campaign on Tripoli in April after having captured southern territory and oil fields earlier this year, he shows signs of faltering.
The GNA’s seizure of the town of Gharyan from Haftar, shows the Tripoli government can successfully resist the LNA’s onslaught, but that it can also also push the warlord back.
Ahmed Milad, a pro-GNA fighter, told Al Jazeera: “We coordinated with our fellow fighters inside the city [Gharyan] along with the western region military command to set the incursion. It took us weeks, but the city fell into our hands in about seven hours.”
Though both sides suffered losses during the latest clashes – particularly amid fighting towards Tripoli’s south – the GNA is a powerful force in Tripoli which Haftar will be unable to defeat easily. Now it looks unlikely that Haftar’s forces could successfully penetrate the capital, and the GNA will receive further support from its foreign backers, namely Italy, Turkey and Qatar, thus solidifying its position.
Haftar’s desperation to target the internationally recognised government has led him to order attacks on Turkish ships and drones, with his spokesperson stating, “Turkish strategic sites, companies and projects belonging to the Turkish state (in Libya) are considered legitimate targets by the armed forces.”
For Haftar, this is an attempt to cut off support to his rival the GNA. This worrying development could lead even to targeting aid mechanisms, which would risk plunging Libyan civilians into a deeper crisis.
As his forces command air superiority over Tripoli, he could use this to his advantage, and continue to target Tripoli’s only functioning airports in the country, to pressure the GNA.
Clearly Haftar’s ambitions do not come without human cost, particularly as a bloody stalemate is the likely outcome in the near future. Not only have his moves damaged hopes for Libya’s peaceful, diplomatic solution, his stubbornness to continue fighting will likely result in an even longer drawn-out civil war.
Neighbouring counties such as Tunisia could face security concerns. As Mark Curtis observes, the Tunisian terrorist who committed the 2015 Sousse beach massacres, killing and injuring dozens of tourists, was a product of the disastrous NATO-backed regime change campaign, having been trained in Islamic State camps, which flourished after the 2011 conflict.
A descent into deeper chaos could create the environment for radicalisation to flourish. And despite Haftar’s own counter-extremism narrative, the LNA itself does consist of some Salafists militias, with his war giving them an opportunity to strengthen.
Haftar’s backers’ continued breach of the UN arms embargo could lead to more weapons ending up in the wrong hands, including extremist factions, due to Libya’s current instability.
Meanwhile, Europe – as they see it – would be forced to deal with a greater refugee crisis. The EU had soon after Haftar’s advance on Tripoli warned of such an outcome in the event that a deeper civil war broke out, and that remains a prospect.
Along with the risks of damage to Libya’s economy, which showed signs of stabilisation prior to Haftar’s assault, a renewed civil also war threatens international stability. Haftar, in control of vital oil fields, may block oil exports to Tripoli, as a tool of war.
Libya is a significant oil and natural gas hub, and the conflict has the potential to throw global energy markets into disarray. Europe is also somewhat reliant on Libyan crude oil, and damaging oil ports could have serious repercussions; not to mention the knock on effect for Libyan civilians.
Such an outcome could conceivably provoke European powers to protect their interests, but by then, the conflict may have spiralled out of control.
The failure of Haftar’s advances so far could be linked to his dwindling international support.
Though Donald Trump initially backed Haftar, US officials had reportedly snubbed the Libyan warlord in June, while his lobby in the US government is now seemingly failing to secure unconditional support.
Meanwhile, Russia who had supported Haftar in the past will likely adopt a more balanced solution to support unification in the country, as violence could damage its geopolitical and economic interests in Libya.
Recent reports from the Libyan government that US weapons sold to the UAE had ended up in the hands of LNA militias in Gharyan could hopefully lead to greater investigations and scrutiny into the international support for Haftar. This should lead to further pressure on such countries supporting Haftar.
If both Russia and the United States, as two global superpowers, shift towards supporting dialogue and opposing the LNA’s aggression, it could damage Haftar’s previously high morale. Dwindling foreign support could then force him back to the negotiating table.
Haftar has already shown he rejects democracy, and the GNA will now be far more sceptical about negotiating with him, or integrating him into a government. And the sooner the international community moves away from backing Haftar, the sooner Libya’s prospects can be revived.
Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a freelance journalist. He is a researcher who focuses on conflict, geopolitics and humanitarian issues in the Middle East and North Africa.
THE NEW ARAB