By Yousuf Eltagouri
Of the hundreds of militias and armed groups scattered across the country, the Libyan National Army (LNA) has long been perceived as Libya’s only unified military organization.
Bound together by a fragile network of tribal and local alliances, the LNA is led by General Khalifa Haftar, a former CIA asset-turned-military commander who oversees eastern Libya under his authoritarian rule.
Haftar serves as the only commander capable of leading the patchwork of militias under one banner. Last month, the LNA conducted a dextrous military campaign across Libya’s oil-rich Fezzan region, swiftly capturing Libya’s two largest oil fields: the Sahara and El-Feel. Haftar’s campaign in southern Libya mostly comprised of negotiating with and buying off local militias in exchange for nominal loyalty.
This strategy worked considerably well in the Fezzan, given the complex and fragile inter-tribal conflict that has destabilized southern Libya for years.
Capitalizing on the success in the south, Haftar set his sights toward Tripoli after a blitzkrieg military campaign that captured the town of Gharyan, a geostrategic launching pad for his military assault on Tripoli, just 30 miles south of the capital.
The LNA’s march on the capital is Haftar’s closing move: a high-stakes winner-take-all campaign, manifested in his discontent and frustration with the political process.
The UN-backed Government of National Accord’s (GNA), the current interim government created under the terms of the 2016 Libyan Political Agreement, can hardly describe its security forces as integrated or unified.
The Tripoli Protection Force (TPF), a loose conglomerate of militias who have exploited Libya’s government and corrupted its economy, has protected the GNA for the past several years.
Just last Septemeber, fighting between factions of the TPF, Misrata, and Zintan killed 115 individuals and left another 283 injured. Now, a united front of western Libya’s militias, they have mobilized against the LNA, creating a military confrontation that has wreaked havoc on Tripoli, displacing thousands of people and intensifying the country’s already-dire humanitarian crisis. So far, over 100 casualties have been reported in just a few days of fighting.
Haftar has postured his military crusade as a liberation campaign targeted at clearing western Libya from criminal militia leaders, such as Haithem Tajouri, Emad Trabelsi, and Salah Badi.
Badi, a U.S.-sanctioned Misratan militia leader who recently joined the fight against Haftar, is known for his significant contributions in the clashes that occurred in September 2018.
Through criminal enterprises and networks intricately entrenched within state institutions of the GNA, militias in Tripoli have undoubtedly had a hand in defrauding the Libyan people, benefiting only themselves and select businessmen and politicians.
While the LNA’s recent operation to take Tripoli, dubbed “Operation Flood of Dignity,” has only further polarized the political arena in the country, it is clear that Haftar is the clear aggressor in the latest round of Libya’s drawn-out civil war.
Recent advancements by the LNA have come after years of political deadlock. Libya’s political stalemate is characterized by a broken legal framework, competing interests, and gross corruption inextricably rooted in Libya’s weak institutions.
Instead of leveraging his recent military gains in the Fezzan at the national conference for a position of power, which would irrevocably legitimize his military rule through a new power-sharing paradigm, Haftar hedged his bets on the success of a military takeover.
The most recent developments by the LNA could have only occurred with renewed support by some of Haftar’s foreign patrons.
The LNA has long been politically and financially bankrolled by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt, even providing the army with military air support during operations aimed at clearing eastern Libya of Islamist-armed factions.
Just one week before the LNA’s march on Tripoli, General Haftar had met with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman to discuss recent developments in Libya and to affirm “keenness for the security and stability of Libya.”
While the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) does not publicly back Haftar, hosting the rogue military commander speaks volumes, especially considering both Riyadh’s and Haftar’s like-minded vision for what a post-Ghaddafi Libya entails.
The KSA has a particular interest in having a hand in the social and religious sphere of Libyan society. Through Saudi-influenced Madkhali Salafism, Saudi Arabia has already benefited from its relationship with Haftar, having heavily influenced society in eastern Libya and among some ranks of LNA.
A shared opposition of the Muslim Brotherhood and democratic Islamists further align the KSA and Haftar, which invites the possibility that the KSA may have bolstered Haftar in his latest military endeavor.
Additionally, without unremitting support from France, a significant stakeholder in Libya’s eastern oil sector, Haftar would not be in the current position of power in which he finds himself. Paris has long supported the authoritarian commander by providing operational, intelligence, and tactical support to the LNA.
While France has claimed that it had no prior knowledge of Haftar’s latest operation and later publicly condemned the military escalation, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian met with Haftar just two weeks before the latest operation.
During the meeting, when Haftar asked Le Drian why he had not come for such a long time, Le Drian responded, “We were waiting for your victories,” according to a French diplomatic source.
In this latest phase of Libya’s proxy war, the Qatar-Turkey bloc has taken a more passive role in providing military support to armed groups in the country.
Both Turkey and Qatar have long been known to provide weapons and ammunition to politically aligned armed factions in the country, but with recent turmoil on the domestic front in Ankara—and increased military involvement with the war in Syria—Turkey seems to have taken the backseat.
In fact, many have speculated that Haftar’s latest move on Tripoli came on the heels of a significant electoral loss to President Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Istanbul, knowing that Ankara would be enveloped with damage control on the homefront.
While both Doha and Ankara seem to be playing catch-up regarding Haftar’s recent military move, it is doubtful that the bloc will continue to stand by idly.
While U.S. allies continue to support various factions in Libya, the United States has remained relatively neutral in Libya’s conflict, with moderately passive support for the UN-backed GNA.
U.S. strategy in Libya mostly relies upon preventing further destabilization of the country rather than taking an active role in stabilization efforts. The U.S. usually primarily involves itself in Libyan affairs when U.S. interests are directly threatened.
The U.S. remains impartial in dictating Libya’s political future, but it is committed to carrying out counter-terrorism activities in the country by targeting the Islamic State and al-Qaeda militants.
Amid the chaos of the unfolding events in Tripoli, the Islamic State attacked a small town in southern Libya, an unequivocal reminder that further political destabilization in the country may lead to a resurgence of the group, which would, in turn, renew U.S. interest in Libya’s security apparatus.
The mounting crisis in Tripoli has additionally threatened to upend Libya’s steady oil production, which would possibly jeopardize the global oil supply. The White House is sure to observe this threat carefully.
As western Libya militias begin to formulate an effective coalition to push back the LNA, it appears as though Haftar severely misjudged the civilian response in Tripoli and the unified front of military opposition.
The most significant consequence of all, perhaps, would be isolating himself from essential patrons.
A critical factor that has allowed Haftar to succeed thus far is his ability to control public discourse and manipulate the media. His ability to dominate the conversation on military and political developments involving the LNA has arguably been the group’s greatest strength.
However, Haftar is losing a critical public relations battle that is crucial to the success of the LNA’s operation in Tripoli. Key backers, including France, the UAE, and Russia, have all begun to distance themselves from Haftar.
Attempts to shield the general will become increasingly more difficult as international condemnation mounts. Since declaring his intentions to take Tripoli, it is now all-or-nothing for Haftar.
Retreating or admitting defeat would be a substantial blow to the LNA and Haftar’s credibility as the only actor capable and powerful enough to unite the fragmented country. Given the high political stakes, it is difficult to believe that the LNA will not give up easily.
Had Haftar chosen to leverage a military takeover of Tripoli rather than actually conduct one, he would have not only had the political upper hand heading into the National Conference, but he would also be in a position to dominate terms of a new legal and electoral framework.
Haftar’s march on Tripoli has not only been a massive strategic military miscalculation, but a political blow to misguided beliefs that Haftar planned on validating his power through the electoral process.
While it is difficult to know how long the battle will rage on in Tripoli, one thing is certain: Haftar showed his hand to the international community. To him, the ballot box is not, nor will it ever be, the panacea to Libya’s security, political, and financial crises.
Yousuf Eltagouri is a contributor focusing on Libyan conflict analysis, governance, and political development. He currently works on the humanitarian response to Libya’s crisis. Eltagouri is a graduate of The George Washington University and resides in Washington, D.C.
FOREIGN POLICY RESEARCH INSTITUTE