Too many players engaged on both sides in Libya’s civil war to assume that Khalifa Haftar will emerge victorious. The US is the wild card.
Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar, backed by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and France, launched an assault on the Libyan capital 4 April this year.
Despite air support from the Emiratis, the offensive quickly bogged down and has been stalemated for more than 7 months.
General Haftar’s claim that his Libyan National Army (LNA) launched the assault to topple extremists controlling Tripoli lacks much credibility.
The Tripoli-based GNA led by Fayez al-Sarraj and supported by the UN is recognised internationally as the legitimate Libyan government.
Despite reports that Haftar is poised for a breakthrough on the Tripoli frontline, a knowledgeable source has told Arab Digest that talks of a Haftar victory are “overselling the facts on the ground.”
The source said that despite claims that the Misratan militias were set to abandon the battle to defend the Libyan capital, “the Misratans will continue to support the GNA (Government of National Accord) because if Haftar takes Tripoli they know he will then come after Misrata.”
The source described “relentless air attacks” by the Emiratis in recent days as well as sustained rocket attacks, mainly Grad missiles, from Haftar’s forces on the ground.
Despite that and the presence of Russian mercenaries there are not enough troops to enable the general to achieve a breakthrough, the source says.
The Wagner Group, run by a close ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin has anywhere from 200 -350 fighters on the Tripoli frontline.
Hospitals in the capital are noting different wounds from previous casualties. “There are many more head and chest wounds,” the source reports in a reference to the skilled snipers that Wagner uses.
Those comments are backed up by a recent article in the New York Times which notes that “medics say they are seeing something new: narrow holes in a head or a torso left by bullets that kill instantly and never exit the body.”
The Russian engagement is thus far limited to mercenaries and it is unlikely that Putin will deliver the same level of support to Haftar that he gave to Syria’s Bashar Al Assad.
The source makes the point that the Russians simply “do not have the capacity” to engage in Libya to the extent they were able to do in shoring up and buttressing the Assad regime.
However, with the Wagner Group, Putin has plausible deniability that the Russian state is involved while still being able to stay a player in the game of who will ultimately decide Libya’s fate.
Another player worth watching is Turkey.
On 27 November, the Turks and the GNA signed a memorandum of understanding to delimit maritime zones in the Eastern Mediterranean in an attempt to block Greek and Cypriot energy drilling activities.
This is part of a running feud that Turkey has with Greece, Cyprus and the EU on drilling rights in the Eastern Mediterranean.
In return for Sarraj’s support, President Erdogan has no doubt committed to continue and possibly substantially upgrade the provision of arms to the GNA.
Those weapons include drones which are a key part of the air war on both sides.
The source reports that Haftar’s forces have destroyed 20 Turkish drones. Meanwhile, the Emiratis are supplying Haftar with Chinese-made Wing Loong drones.
Neither the Turks nor the Emiratis are paying the slightest bit of attention to the UN Security Council arms embargo which in June was extended unanimously for another year.
At the same time there are signs that the United States may be prepared to weigh in on ending the war.
On 24 November, a US delegation led by deputy national security advisor Victoria Coates and the US ambassador to Libya Richard Norland, a career diplomat met with Haftar and applied pressure on him to end the offensive (or as the State Department politely put it to discuss with the general “steps to achieve a suspension of hostilities and a political resolution to the Libyan conflict.”)
This represents a reversal of sorts in that Donald Trump had called Haftar when he launched the Tripoli offensive to congratulate him and give him America’s support, though, as the offensive stalled the president’s interest and support waned.
Nonetheless as various players jockey for position, America could play a decisive role in ending the conflict.
But given the vagaries and uncertainties of Trump’s capricious approach to foreign affairs such an outcome must remain in doubt.
As the source put it “America is the wild card.”