Libya Tribune

By Giorgio Cafiero & Dr. Khalid al-Jaber

Officials in several Arab states and France believe that General Khalifa Haftar’s plans for achieving a military victory in the Libyan civil war can lead to a resolution of the country’s conflict.

Yet this thinking is dangerously misguided.

What Libya needs most is for external actors which are involved in the civil war to pressure their clients into moving toward a diplomatic (not military) solution.

Bogged down in violent turmoil since the Arab Spring of 2011 and a civil war since 2014, Libya’s state of affairs remains chaotic.

Since General Khalifa Haftar launched his westward offensive to capture control of Tripoli from the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) nearly seven months ago, approximately 1,000 have died and another 5,500 have suffered injuries, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

As Libya’s civil war transitions from being a mostly ground-based conflict to one fought in the sky with foreign-sourced aircraft and drones, the nightmarish crisis continues without any end in sight.

Unfortunately, the increasingly visible foreign involvement in Libya dims the prospects for resolving this five-and-a-half-year civil war.

Because Haftar’s external backers have misperceptions about what their support for his Libyan National Army (LNA) can do to bring stability to the war-torn country, the eastern commander continues receiving significant support from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and France.

The eastern bloc has also received some backing from Israel, Jordan, and Sudan too.

On September 10, the GNA released a statement on social media explaining its decision to file a complaint at the UN against the UAE.

The Tripoli-based government accused the Emiratis of hostility and backing a coup plot against the internationally-recognized Libyan government. 

According to the GNA, Abu Dhabi has become a media platform for undermining the government led by Prime Minister Fayez Seraj, accusing Abu Dhabi of bearing “spiritual and moral responsibility” for violence in Tripoli.

Libya’s UN-respected administration filed this complaint three days after the LNA announced its decision to disregard the international community’s calls for negotiating peace at roundtable talks.

As Haftar sees it, only a military solution can resolve Libya’s civil war.

Speaking at a press conference in the UAE, a spokesman for the LNA declared that “The battle [for Tripoli] is in its final phases” and that “the time of going back to dialogue is over” because the best strategy is “to spread security and reimpose the law” through a military solution.

In response, the UN Special Envoy to Libya Ghassan Salameh stated that “the idea that war should be given a chance and that a military solution is at all possible is quite simply a chimera.”

The Haftar-allied House of Representatives (HoR), which is the GNA’s rival government in Tobruk, lacks recognition from the UN.

Nonetheless, Haftar and the LNA/HoR have successfully obtained significant support from powerful influential actors based on a view that the eastern commander and his forces are Libya’s last hope for stability.

But this oversimplistic narrative is misguided and dangerous. 

Put simply, after years of Haftar’s external backers sponsoring the LNA, the former Qaddafi regime official’s forces have not stabilized Libya.

To the contrary, Haftar’s campaign to usurp control of Tripoli—“Operation to Liberate Tripoli”—has exacerbated the chaotic unrest besetting the North African country.

As Emadeddin Badi put it, “In supporting [Haftar’s] ongoing offensive on Tripoli, foreign states are undermining their own narrative of authoritarian stability.”

Additionally, Haftar’s westward campaign has granted Islamic State (ISIS) new opportunities to regain a degree of influence that it lost in December 2016 when the US military and Misratan militias ousted ISIS from Sirte.

In September, the US military carried out our airstrikes against ISIS targets in Libya, after a one-year pause. Strikes on September 19, 24, 26, and 29, which killed 43 ISIS fighters in the Fezzan, underscored the extent to which the extremist group’s resumed operations in the North African country are becoming a growing concern for Washington. 

Without the Libyan civil war cooling down, there is every reason to expect ISIS to continue exploiting the warfare between the GNA and LNA/HoR to advance its own agenda.

Undoubtedly, a strong ISIS in Libya threatens not only the Libyans themselves (on both Tripoli and Tobruk’s side of the conflict) but also neighboring countries such as Tunisia, which struggles with its own security challenges exacerbated by the Libyan crisis.

With Saudi Arabia’s deep pockets financing Haftar’s campaign and the LNA receiving UAE-provided Chinese Wing-Loong drones, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have contributed significantly to Haftar’s confidence, emboldening him to launch his ongoing offensive.

Initially, the LNA captured some territory that was previously controlled by GNA-allied militias. The element of surprise as well as the GNA’s own weaknesses and divisions contributed to the LNA’s gains in April.

Nonetheless, Haftar’s campaign in Tripolitania stalled soon after the armed factions loyal to the GNA improved their coordination and the Turkish government stepped up its military assistance to forces allied with the UN-respected government.

Specifically, the drones that Ankara sent pro-GNA militias made a major difference in terms of stalling Haftar’s “Operation to Liberate Tripoli.”

Not only did Turkey-sponsored GNA forces stop the LNA’s westward offensive, but they also managed to take back land from Haftar’s fighters, including the LNA’s forward base in Gharyan, located 37 miles south of Tripoli.

The external powers supporting Haftar did not react to Haftar’s stalled offensive by pressuring him to return to the negotiating table to make compromises with the GNA.

To the contrary, the UAE and other states sponsoring the LNA’s offensive to capture Tripoli have increased their backing for Haftar.

A continuation of this strategy is a recipe for exacerbated instability across the North African country, despite their support for the eastern commander rooted in their perceptions of the LNA being the only force capable of stabilizing Libya. 

An examination of divisions within the LNA, such as the friction between loyalists of the old regime and Madkhali-Salafis plus tensions between the 106th brigade and members of Benghazi’s powerful Awaqir tribe, raise questions about how much longer Haftar can maintain his side’s relative unity that was initially appealing to Abu Dhabi, Cairo, Paris, and other foreign capitals.

Realistically, the only road to lasting stability and peace in Libya goes through diplomacy and disciplined efforts on the international community’s part to curtail the flow of arms into the Maghrebi country.

It is necessary for foreign states involved in Libya’s civil war to begin showing restraint, rather than emboldening their clients to embrace increasingly rejectionist stances rooted in the perceptions that continued combat can achieve their political objectives.

In order to push Libya’s different groups toward reaching a political compromise, their external sponsors must commence the process of draining their clients (or so-called “proxies”) of weapons and money. 

Starving Haftar of his air assault capacity will significantly limit his ability to continue an offensive in the west,” Ben Fishman, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, opined.

Deterring Turkish shipments would similarly reduce the GNA’s forces from rearming.” On October 22, 2019, Amnesty International called out Turkey, Jordan, and the UAE for violating the arms embargo that went into effect in 2011, maintaining that such violations have fueled potential war crimes.

Unfortunately, without the will from the international community to prioritize resolving Libya’s civil war through imposing punishments on foreign actors that have excessively militarized the country’s conflict, there is a grave risk of the crisis further heating up.

Problematically, too many global and regional states view the civil war as a zero-sum game that could, or should, be fought until a military solution is reached. 

Ultimately, there is no military solution to the Libyan conflict that can restore stability to the beleaguered North African country.

***

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, D.C.-based geopolitical risk consultancy.

Dr. Khalid J. Al-Jaber  is an Assistant Professor of Political Communication at the Gulf Studies Program in Qatar University. ____________