By Jalel Harchaoui
Earlier this year, the armed coalition led by eastern-Libyan-based commander Khalifa Haftar took most of his country’s southwest, an oil-rich desert expanse three times as large as Syria called the Fezzan.
This military operation has fueled speculation as to whether the aging general and former dissident is now considering a similar offensive into Tripoli, the capital on the Mediterranean coast.
Haftar has not recognized the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord in Tripoli. Its prime minister Fayez al-Serraj and his cabinet coexist with a set of powerful militias there, but do not control them.
Although the seizure of the Fezzan has bolstered Haftar’s profile, a military takeover of Tripoli would be riskier.
Haftar could increase his chances at ultimate victory by asserting greater sway over Libya’s oil money.
To understand why this is, we need to look at the full picture, to include links between Libya’s petrodollars, feuding factions, and the foreign states backing them.
Libya’s Eastern-Based Army Moves West
The idea of Haftar’s self-proclaimed Libyan National Army invading the southwest before moving to the much-prized capital has been the subject of speculation for more than two years.
In January, things came to a head. From northern Cyrenaica, where he is headquartered, the 75-year-old field marshal sent reinforcements, materiel, cash, and some of his most senior lieutenants into an airbase located near Sebha, the Fezzan’s largest city.
From there, using a combination of peaceful entente deals, pecuniary promises, and brute force, the Libyan National Army, sometimes assisted by Darfurian mercenaries, proceeded to declare the allegiance of almost all cities in the long-neglected province, as well as that of its two main oil facilities, including the vital Sharara field, Libya’s largest.
Haftar’s coalition has not, however, achieved full territorial control in every part of the Fezzan.
After meeting resistance late February in the Murzuq Basin, north of the border with Niger, many of the eastern-Libyan battalions moved back north into Jufra district in the center of the country, leaving a diminished level of security behind, including in the city of Sebha.
While not a capitulation, the Libyan National Army’s partial withdrawal from the southwest is a reminder that Haftar’s hybrid tactics — peaceful co-option mixed with the use of violence — consumes a considerable amount of resources, not only military, but also financial.
Concretely, this means that the psychological effect of the Fezzan operation may taper off if the Libyan National Army does not move to take advantage of it soon.
In Tripolitania, Friends and Foes Await Haftar
In Tripoli and its wide periphery, a tense mosaic of local armed groups could see local flashpoints flare up if Haftar is perceived to be progressing.
Some actors have already assured their loyalty to his Libyan National Army. Others are undecided and are likely to side with Haftar if offered a small concession. Still others remain resolutely opposed to him and will fight his advance.
In Tripoli proper, select militia leaders are poised to suddenly “turn” pro-Haftar, while their peers don’t have that option. As a result, clashes among neighborhood militias could happen there, too.
Given the above, a shrewd way for Haftar to make headway may be to focus on Tripoli’s financial institutions while avoiding unnecessary risk-taking in the military sphere for the time being.
The current frenzy on Libya’s financial frontline, including meetings abroad and white-collar arrests in Tripoli, indicates that such a logic may already be afoot indeed.
The financial heart of the country is the Central Bank of Libya, domiciled in the populous capital. Despite Haftar’s army holding eastern Libya’s main oil fields and terminals since 2016, the bank has thus far evaded his control.
The paradox is a product of Qaddafi’s legacy. As a result of a system put in place under the late dictator, all proceeds from legal exports of hydrocarbons are received in U.S. dollars and funneled straight into accounts held at Western financial institutions.
Sadiq al-Kabir, the incumbent governor based in Tripoli, has held the keys to those hard-currency accounts for more than seven years, and claims the Central Bank of Libya currently has more than $70 billion of foreign-exchange reserves in them.
The cash that would come with greater influence over the Central Bank of Libya combined with his existing army would offer Haftar the ability to coerce and co-opt powerful brigades in Tripolitania by modulating their access to public funds.
By the same token, without affecting change at the helm of the bank, Haftar may not be able to seize power and rule. What happens next depends to a large extent on what Western powers and Gulf states agree on.
When Haftar Took the Fezzan, the United States Was Mum
Eight years ago, the United States led a wide-ranging coalition of allied and partner states to intervene in Libya’s burgeoning rebellion against Qaddafi’s rule.
NATO members Italy and Turkey initially dissented but the United States pushed them into line. The first weeks of the campaign revealed further disagreement among America’s Arab friends as to what post-Qaddafi Libya should resemble.
Those fault-lines only deepened in 2014, when the country descended into civil war.
France, unlike Italy, is not affected by irregular migration via Libya. It is also not nearly as dependent as Italy on Libya’s crude oil, natural gas, and other products.
These and other asymmetries explain why Rome has been substantially more averse to a military solution to Libya’s problems than Paris.
The latter sees in Libya an opportunity to enhance France’s prestige in the Arab world in a way that complements its existing sphere of influence in Africa.
In contrast, the United States is leery of being dragged into the fratricidal conflict between Libyans and does not wish to see Libya destabilized or partitioned.
Since the United States helped install the Government of National Accord in Tripoli four years ago, it has supported it diplomatically.
The Pentagon has tended to carry out its counter-terrorism airstrikes in partnership with that particular government, not its eastern rival.
Wary of disruptions, Washington has issued statements calling for restraint whenever either side has attempted to alter the balance of power by force. But this year has been different. Washington opted for silence as Haftar’s offensive unfolded.
The growing retrenchment of the U.S. government opens a previously obstructed avenue for France. Last spring, President Emmanuel Macron’s diplomatic push for swift elections in Libya was resisted by London, Rome, and Washington.
Many policymakers in those capitals had seen in Paris’ unilateral rush towards elections a premature ploy to help install a military autocracy headed by Haftar.
Faced with much less Western dissent on Libya this year, France applauded Haftar’s military campaign for eliminating major terrorist targets near Sebha and disrupting human traffickers’ activities in the Murzuq desert.
South of the border in Chad, Paris carried out airstrikes against rebels opposed to President Idriss Déby after they quit Libya, a relatively safe haven for non-state actors prior to the Libyan National Army’s push.
The timing and location of the French military intervention suggests tight coordination with Haftar, whom Paris has backed militarily since early 2015.
Italy — usually a Haftar skeptic — has stayed out of the way. Rome’s new policy embraces the strongman and is in part attributable to the fact that the number of irregular migrants arriving via Libya into Sicily has become almost zero, down from thousands per month two years ago.
Before the drop in migrant statistics, the Italians resisted Haftar because they feared his military approach would disrupt the arrangements they had struck with a motley array of local armed groups in the western half of the country.
Nowadays, Rome, although still issuing token calls for caution, fully accepts that the anti-Islamist camp is winning, an eventuality it has been preparing for since 2016.
As for Italy’s substantial energy interests, its right-wing populist government has utilized its rapport with Russia to help ensure they be looked after by the Libyan National Army.
Moscow, too, has assisted Haftar for more than three years, and has his ear. Also, the Giuseppe Conte government exempted a $1.4 billion subsidiary of Libya’s sovereign wealth fund from a U.N. freeze in place since 2011, a move bound to indirectly increase the eastern-Libyan faction’s ability to raise cash through the sales of real-estate holdings in Italy.
continues … part 2
Jalel Harchaoui joined the Conflict Research Unit of the Clingendael Institute in February 2019 as Research Fellow. His work focuses on Libya, covering aspects such as the country’s security landscape and political economy. Jalel holds a master’s degree in Geopolitics from Paris 8 University. His doctoral research has focused on the international dimension of the Libyan conflict. A frequent commentator on Libya in the international press, He has published widely, including in Foreign Affairs, Lawfare, Politique Étrangère, Middle East Eye, and Small Arms Survey.
WAR on the ROCKS