Khalifa Haftar’s march on Tripoli has ground to a halt in a war of attrition with the internationally recognised government’s forces on the city’s outskirts. The parties should conclude a ceasefire including Haftar’s partial withdrawal as a prelude to renewed UN peace talks.


IV. Diplomatic Paralysis

Efforts to stop the war through diplomatic channels have failed to take off. Rather than condemning Haftar for seeking to forcibly remove the UN-backed government, the White House threw its weight behind him in mid-April. 

This surprise turnaround in Washington, which contradicted U.S. policy as articulated by the secretary of state, contributed to paralysis within the UN Security Council, preventing it from condemning the assault and instructing international action. 

It also led European capitals, even those that, like Rome, had an initial impulse to denounce the offensive, to adopt a more complacent approach, condemning it verbally but doing little more. 

The new U.S. position also emboldened Haftar’s regional backers in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Cairo to continue their financial and military support for Haftar’s military assault, which an Egyptian diplomat described as Haftar’s “national duty”.

The UN Security Council has been conspicuous in its inaction. Ten days into the offensive, Council members could not even agree to vote on a UK-drafted resolution that called for a ceasefire. France and Russia, in particular, objected to a draft placing the blame for the escalation solely on the LNA.

Both requested additional wording calling on the Tripoli government to step up its counter-terrorism efforts. But diplomats agree that the U.S. played a decisive role in halting any discussion of the text.

Washington justified its rejection of the UK draft by saying it did not envisage a mechanism to ensure that the ceasefire would be respected; ultimately, its opposition prevented the draft from moving forward.

Retrospectively, it is hard to see the U.S. argument as more than a cover for the pro-Haftar policy shift it had already executed but did not make public until 19 April.

Nothing has changed since then. Following its closed-door consultation on 10 May, the best the Council could muster was a tepid statement expressing concern “about the instability in Tripoli and worsening humanitarian situation which is endangering the lives of innocent civilians and threatens the prospects for a political solution”, and calling on all parties to “return to UN political mediation, and to commit to a ceasefire and de-escalation to help mediation succeed”.

Though European capitals officially recognise the GNA, most appear to have lost hope in it, while remaining fearful of what a Haftar takeover could entail. 

The EU Foreign Affairs Council has used the strongest wording of any international body so far to describe the war in Tripoli. Its 13 May final communiqué called the LNA’s military attack and subsequent escalation in and around Tripoli “a serious threat to international peace and security”.

But the council failed to translate these words into action, limiting itself to calling on “all parties to implement a ceasefire” and return to political negotiations.

Had it wanted to, the council could have slapped sanctions on those accused of disrupting international peace and security, and even called on EU member states to use their resources (such as naval assets, already mandated under the EU’s Operation Sophia, or satellites) to help monitor implementation of the UN arms embargo.

The fact that it did not, a EU diplomat said, attested to a “cosmic vacuum” reigning in the EU with regard to Libya. Though European capitals officially recognise the GNA, most appear to have lost hope in it, while remaining fearful of what a Haftar takeover could entail.

Aside from effecting heavy destruction to the capital, a majority fears that he will apply in Tripoli the same heavy-handed leadership style he has used in eastern Libya (where he has jailed Islamists and other political opponents, and has carried out extrajudicial killings). 

This dilemma, coupled with Washington’s refusal to condemn the assault on Tripoli and France’s close ties to Haftar and his Gulf backers, has led to a policy paralysis among most EU member states.

Officially, France recognises the GNA but among European states it is the most openly supportive of Haftar, having maintained close relations with him since 2015.

This goes in tandem with Paris’s strong military cooperation with Abu Dhabi and is consistent with its own counter-terrorism priorities in the Sahel, where it has deployed 3,000 troops as part of Operation Barkhane.

Neighbouring Chad is a key partner in Barkhane and, in many respects, France’s support for Haftar is a corollary to its longstanding backing of Chadian President Idriss Déby.

Haftar and Déby are close allies, and from Paris’s point of view Haftar, with his strongman inclinations, is the better partner in Libya to prevent jihadist and Chadian rebel infiltration from southern Libya. 

This to the frustration of the Serraj government, which threatened to shut down operations of Total, the French oil company, in mid-May to persuade Paris to change its policy toward Haftar.

Instead, French officials have accused the Serraj government of insufficient action against “terrorists” in western Libya, a position similar to that expressed by UAE officials.

Despite an earlier, more even-handed approach, Rome and Berlin appear to be coming somewhat closer to Paris’s position, hesitating to explicitly denounce the Haftar offensive or call for an LNA withdrawal from western Libya – Serraj’s primary request when he toured European capitals in early May.

This is due in part to the U.S. change of policy: major European capitals would hesitate to take an opposite position to that of the U.S. on Libya, even more so now that the Tripoli government’s main allies are Ankara and Doha.

In addition, Paris’s support for the LNA and more technical evaluations of Haftar’s chances of succeeding militarily also appear to have factored into Europe’s tepidness toward the Tripoli camp. 

At least that was the case until mid-May: now, seven weeks into a war that increasingly looks like the military stalemate Crisis Group foresaw, some European officials, including potentially French ones, appear once more to be re-evaluating their assumptions.

The prospects are likewise dim that either Tripoli or Benghazi would accept monitoring: Haftar has rejected a ceasefire and Tripoli refuses any project that does not include the full withdrawal of Haftar’s forces from western Libya. 

To France’s credit, and somewhat paradoxically, Macron is the only European leader to have at least called for an international mechanism to monitor a ceasefire. 

French officials say they are looking into how monitoring could work; options include the use of radar and/or observers on the ground. Yet the chances that these ideas will take concrete form remain slim because of the difficulty of monitoring military positions in cities.

The prospects are likewise dim that either Tripoli or Benghazi would accept monitoring: Haftar has rejected a ceasefire and Tripoli refuses any project that does not include the full withdrawal of Haftar’s forces from western Libya.

V. A Way Forward

Allowing the battle for Tripoli to unfold without a credible effort to push the sides to a ceasefire is very dangerous. Fuelled by foreign support, the conflict could escalate, causing immense material destruction and human suffering in the capital and surrounding areas.

It could also eventually destabilise eastern Libya, Haftar’s base, where tribal leaders are beginning to voice discontent over a deadly fight in the capital they consider unnecessary. 

In the south, the security vacuum caused by the sudden redeployment of LNA troops to the capital in April has allowed Islamic State militants to rebound – a development that directly undercuts the logic of France’s support for Haftar. 

And a protracted battle for Tripoli could ignite a fight for control of the country’s finances and hydrocarbon resources in other parts of the country.

With the GNA and the LNA refusing to halt hostilities amid diplomatic paralysis, the war in and around Tripoli is likely to drag on.

At the moment, neither side seems ready for a ceasefire or a political settlement, as both are itching to score a decisive victory that would allow them to either freeze the UN-backed political framework (in the case of the GNA, which benefits from nominal international recognition and what this entails financially and militarily) or reset it in their favour (in the LNA’s case).

The dynamics on the ground point in this negative direction. In particular, it is unclear whether Haftar and his supporters inside and outside of Libya will be satisfied with anything short of full capture of the state that would allow them to dictate the terms of a new political framework, with Haftar in charge.

Many in Tripoli today believe that they will not and, for this reason, vow to fight on. Conversely, many in Haftar’s camp do not consider Serraj a credible negotiating partner, portraying him instead as a hostage of the militias that surround him; for this reason, they dismiss the very notion of negotiations and fight on themselves.

A prerequisite for a negotiated de-escalation is for both sides to feel that their basic interests have been adequately addressed. 

The situation might well escalate, with weapons and equipment pouring in from abroad, but will likely end up producing another version of a stalemate, only with greater levels of destructiveness.

This is why both sides, and their external backers, ought to more realistically assess the balance of power and the prospects it offers, and on that basis move away from their boastful rhetoric of imminent triumph.

These regional actors, especially those on Haftar’s side, also should have an interest in de-escalating tensions, lest they find themselves having to bankroll the LNA and the eastern government that supports it; both are set to run out of funds when a banking crisis that has been building since October 2018 reaches its climax in the very near future.

A prerequisite for a negotiated de-escalation is for both sides to feel that their basic interests have been adequately addressed. The Serraj government and the military forces aligned with it say they want the LNA’s violent effort to unseat the GNA to end, the assault on Tripoli to stop, and guarantees that military power will remain under civilian oversight.

The eastern government says it wants its fair share of oil revenues and to liberate the capital from what it considers militia rule before restarting negotiations over a political roadmap.

Taken at face value, these objectives are not necessarily incompatible, and so a negotiated ceasefire that would allow the resumption of political, financial and military negotiations that achieves them should be possible.

International stakeholders ought to press the parties to accept a ceasefire reflecting a compromise between their respective positions: a withdrawal of Haftar’s forces from Tripoli’s immediate periphery but, at this stage, not (as Serraj demands) from other towns in the greater Tripoli area.

They also should agree to steps to maximise the chances that both sides implement such a ceasefire:

(a) first, giving international legal backing through a UN resolution to an agreed ceasefire;

(b) secondly, endorsing and establishing an international monitoring mechanism, which could consist of unarmed monitoring personnel from EU member states with access to surveillance equipment and satellite imagery;

(c) thirdly, imposing sanctions on any eventual ceasefire violators; and

(d) fourthly, fully complying with the UN arms embargo on Libya, which is being openly flouted at present.

To pave the way for a political settlement, both parties will also need to allay their opponents’ deepest fears and prejudices.

On Haftar’s side, this entails moving away from the belligerent rhetoric adopted so far and instead publicly recognising the GNA as a legitimate partner in UN-led negotiations to which it would have to commit.

On Serraj’s side, this means ensuring that the GNA-allied military factions accept a negotiation whose outcome could well spell the end of the Libyan Political Agreement, the 2015 power-sharing deal that gave rise (and UN backing) to the GNA.

Any subsequent negotiations ought not to be strictly limited to Haftar and Serraj alone, but rather should include a broad array of stakeholders from across Libya’s multiple institutional and military divides.

The longer the fight for Tripoli continues, the greater the risk that it will ignite an all-out civil war.

The U.S. in particular ought to recalibrate its approach toward the parties by reaffirming its support for the internationally recognised GNA and pressing both sides to accept an internationally monitored ceasefire such as outlined above and return to talks.

Washington could also make a tangible difference by nudging the two sides toward an agreement on how to manage state finances and reunify economic institutions that have been split since 2014, such as the Central Bank.

This last agreement will not solve everything, but as described in a recent Crisis Group report, it is essential to avert another crisis and address some of Libya’s post-2011 ills.

VI. Conclusion

Barring a sudden – and improbable – radical change in the balance of forces on the ground, the battle for Tripoli is likely to be long, destructive and deadly.

For now, both the Tripoli government and its allies, on the one hand, and Haftar’s forces, on the other, are embarked on a perilous path toward escalation that could well draw external actors deeper into the fight.

The longer the fight for Tripoli continues, the greater the risk that it will ignite an all-out civil war, setting ablaze yet another country in an already deeply troubled region.

There is an alternative path, but it will require the two parties to compromise and – importantly – their respective international backers to stop fuelling the conflict and, instead, agree to work toward a ceasefire and empower the UN special envoy to restart political, financial and military negotiations.


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