Libya Tribune

Interviewed by Frédéric Bobin

According to researcher Tarek Megerisi, the stagnation of the Marshal’s offensive on Tripoli tarnishes his image as a strong man and risks weakening his political base.

More than four months after the onset of its assault on Tripoli, the Libyan National Army (LNA), Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the strongman of Cyrenaica (east), does not end up butter on the resistance of ” Government Accord National “(GNA), Prime Minister Faïez Sarraj, supported by most of the armed groups of Tripolitania (west).

In an interview with Le Monde Afrique , the Libyan expert Tarek Megerisi, a researcher at the European Council for International Relations (ECFR), believes that Haftar’s military stagnation at the gates of the capital “tarnishes his image as a strongman”. 

Faced with the risk of “its decline“, the leader of the LNA embarks on a “climbing”potentially destructive for Tripoli, the researcher notes.

In the long run, its difficulties could open a vacuum in the heart of its stronghold of Benghazi, while the chaos would allow the organization of the Islamic State (IS) to extend its influence . 

The “Battle of Tripoli” has entered its fifth month. How to judge the evolution of the conflict, especially after the loss, at the end of June, of Gharyan, south-west of Tripoli, by the forces of Marshal Haftar who had made their base of projection towards the capital?

The loss of Gharyan marks a new stage in the conflict. This is an embarrassing setback for Haftar, who will want to restore his honor. 

He began a counter-offensive in the form of air raids against certain neighborhoods of Tripoli or nearby localities, such as Salaheddine and Tajoura. He chose climbing. 

If it fails to regain ground soon, then we can say that this is the beginning of the decline of its operations. And it is dangerous, because the more he loses, the more he becomes aggressive, and the more the conflict will become destructive for the people of Tripoli.

But it has been observed that he has not been able to carry out his counteroffensive since the loss of Gharyan. It lacks men and means. 

From then on, it masks its shortcomings on the ground by intensifying devastating air raids, not only on Tripoli but also on Misrata and, more recently, on Mourzouq, in the south-west of the country. 

This shows that the decline of Haftar will be very destructive for all Libya . And the fact that his forces carried out operations during the truce decided for Eid al-Adha proves that, despite the weakening of his position, he is still not eager to engage in a diplomatic move.

Is its stagnation around Tripoli likely to provoke chain reactions weakening its position in Cyrenaica?

It’s possible. There is a lot of dissension in the east, because of the corruption within his camp and the iron fist with which he leads the region. 

Haftar has so far maintained its position because it was perceived as the only solution. It provides money, weapons, stability. But in a situation where young men return home in body bags in the name of a war that people do not believe in, and in the absence of military success, his image of a strong man is tarnishing . 

This opens a vacuum and feeds discontent, which is very dangerous. This risk is more and more evident in Benghazi, which has recently been the scene of disorder. 

There were two car bomb attacks against LNA officers and a UN convoy, the kidnapping and possibly the assassination of a member of parliament, Siham Sergewa, who called at the end of the war. 

Other peace activists have been kidnapped or killed. This type of discernible discontent response in Benghazi reflects a kind of panic from a man who is losing control.

What are the main weaknesses of Haftar in the east?

He has disappointed many of his supporters. Some tribes are plagued by dissatisfaction. The Awagir of Benghazi largely benefited from Haftar’s military campaign, but they still blame him for the assassination of one of their tribal leaders in 2017.

Haftar’s concern about them was manifested in the promotion of more of officers from this tribe in recent weeks, a way to ensure his support. 

There are also tribes around Ajdabiya that were heavily persecuted when Haftar took over in the fall of 2016, the Petroleum Crescent. Many of their young, enlisted in the LNA, are dying in Tripoli.

The discontents are many, but as long as there is no alternative to Haftar, he can continue to impose his fragile rule. Until a change is unavoidable. 

If another option is offered by the international community and Western governments, in which the eastern population would feel a stake without fear of reprisal or marginalization, then there could be an orderly transition. 

Failing that, a competitor will eventually come forward – General al-Hassi could have played this role but he has recently been marginalized – and fratricidal fighting will break out, plunging the East into anarchy.

Could its setbacks in Tripoli affect the Petroleum Crescent or the South?

Perhaps not the Oil Crescent, which Haftar controls well and that he can protect with his aviation. But in the south and west, the local population may end up thinking that he is not the strong man he claimed to be. 

The more it loses ground in the west, the more groups that support it, like the inhabitants of Tarhouna, south of Tripoli, or those in southern communities, will begin to consider negotiations, to think of other options. This can have ramifications throughout the country.

Will the Touareg long support him?

For the moment, the Tuareg are fighting alongside him even if they do not really like him. 

Because it represents something tangible in the south for them: it offers them wages and status. It presents a familiarity with the period of Gaddafi, which the Tuareg supported: money and a position. It’s better than chaos and they do not really have other options.

For the Toubou, it’s a different matter …

It is indeed completely different. The Toubou were persecuted in the south by the Haftar allies, the Arab tribes of Fezzan, like the Ouled Sliman. 

When the LNA says, ”  We are going to expel all Chadians,  ” the Toubou perceive it as a threat to them directly. To call the Toubou “Chadians” is denigration, it is a way to signify that they are not true Libyans. 

Many were expelled, killed by the Arab allies of Haftar, so many abuses that feed them a deep sense of injustice. 

Things have worsened in recent days with air raids of armed drones in Mourzouq, which caused the death of dozens of Toubou.

In Tripolitania, will the conflict reconfigure the relations of politico-military forces within the GNA camp? With the arrival of Sarraj in power in Tripoli in 2016, the hard fringe of the Fajr Libya Islamist camp and the Misrata groups had been sidelined, to the benefit of militias in Tripoli neighborhoods. Can this landscape evolve in the heat of war?

Sarraj is indeed under pressure, but it is not necessarily a bad thing. There is dissension within the pro-Sarraj coalition. Groups fighting under the GNA banner, including those in Misrata, do not want to return to the status quo ante

They will therefore push Sarraj to adopt a political plan that convinces them that things will change after the war, that we will not return to the situation where the militias of Tripoli stole the resources of the State with the complicity of the GNA.

Is there any reason to fear future clashes between the Misrata and Tripoli militias currently fighting under Sarraj’s leadership?

There may indeed be a situation similar to the post-2011 period, when the vacuum at the summit encouraged armed groups to take the initiative, leading to the division of the capital between rival militias. 

This is possible, especially if there is no direction. At the moment, Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha is doing a good job, behaving like a minister and not a Misrati. 

It’s promising. But if it fails to create a real military structure involving officers and soldiers from all over the west, then we can fear the outbreak of fighting like the ones that followed 2011.

Haftar is ostensibly supported by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. This external support will he run out of steam with his military stagnation at the gates of Tripoli?

When he unleashed the attack on Tripoli, Haftar said in essence: “You are with me or against me. His regional sponsors have heavily invested in him. I think they will continue to help and feed the escalation, to protect an investment dating back five years. They will continue until they have other options.

In this context of escalation, is it necessary to fear that extremist groups such as IS will take advantage of this to manifest again?

It’s already the case. Before the outbreak of the Battle of Tripoli in early April, there was an average IS attack every six months. Since then, there have been seven or eight. 

They have money and means. And now there is an opportunity for them, since the forces that fought them east and west, the LNA and the GNA, now clash with each other. Thus the risk is great that IS extends its influence by using chaos as a cover.

This would pose a threat not only to Libya but also to the region and perhaps even Europe.

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Frédéric Bobinle Monde correspondent in tunis

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