By Ben Fishman
April 4 marked the one-year anniversary of Libya’s third civil war since 2011. Last year, Khalifa Haftar, the head of the eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA), sought to invade Tripoli after another aborted attempt to mediate his conflict with the internationally-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli.
The war has left over 2,000 dead, 10,000 wounded, 150,000 internally displaced, and a humanitarian crisis in an oil-rich country.
There should be no question at this point about Haftar’s culpability in initiating and perpetuating the latest Libyan civil war.
With the support of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Russia, France and others, he has fruitlessly pressed his offensive against GNA-aligned groups in western Libya, barely gaining territory and resorting to drone and artillery strikes as casualties mount on both sides, including civilians.
For years, international mediators including the United States have stressed that there is no military solution to Libya because no one group is powerful enough to control the country by force.
However, after a year of this latest round of violence, it is time to recognize that there is also no diplomatic solution with Haftar. The international community should not keep chasing after such an intransigent actor.
The start of 2020 brought some hope of diplomatic progress. During a visit to Moscow, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who signed a defense pact with the GNA in November, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose mercenaries ramped up support for Haftar in September 2019, called for a ceasefire in Libya before meetings with Haftar and GNA prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj.
Haftar walked away while the GNA signed. Soon after, German Chancellor Angela Merkel convened a summit in Berlin, on Jan. 19, which produced a 55-point agreement among the main international players to produce a ceasefire and renew Libya’s long-stalled political transition.
Unfortunately, the follow-up meetings after the Berlin Conference soon sputtered. During this reduced period of violence, both sides were rearming with dozens of fights from the UAE to eastern Libya and arms shipments from Turkey to the GNA, as reported by the United Nations and flight trackers.
Tragically, violence has escalated once more. The indiscriminate shelling of neighborhoods around the capital have killed civilians and forced others into even riskier situations.
Haftar’s forces bombarded a hospital intended to treat COVID-19 patients twice in the past week. The tireless U.N. envoy, Ghassan Salamé, resigned on March 2 after two-and-a-half years of attempting to resolve Libya’s internal disputes.
Multiple international appeals for a ceasefire have not been fully heeded for any meaningful duration. Most recently, a humanitarian ceasefire supported by the U.S., several European countries, Turkey and the UAE was violated almost immediately.
The last U.N. Security Council Resolution on Libya “demands full compliance” with the long-ignored arms embargo but has been ignored.
Now, the European Union has established a naval patrol mission that essentially will target Turkish shipments but do nothing to limit the ongoing LNA air supplies from the UAE.
All this is occurring in the midst of the threat of coronavirus in an ill-prepared health system and horrid conditions among tens of thousands of migrants and internally displaced Libyans crowded into Tripoli from a year’s worth of violence.
Electricity and even water increasingly are in short supply. If a significant COVID-19 outbreak is not enough to pause Libya’s civil war, it’s difficult to imagine what will.
The options going forward are limited. Both sides can continue fighting as casualties mount, more foreign actors put weapons and fighters into the fray, humanitarian conditions worsen, and the country slides deeper into financial ruin.
Haftar has blockaded oil exports since January, eliminating Libya’s primary source of revenue and costing the country nearly $4 billion, according to Libya’s National Oil Corporation. Even if the country manages to resume exports, it must contend with the global price and demand crash.
Given the constraints in international diplomatic efforts symbolized by Salamé’s resignation and the stalled follow-up meetings to the Berlin diplomatic efforts — let alone the global preoccupation with coronavirus — it is time to try another approach.
Instead of continuing to court Haftar in European capitals (he most recently visited Paris and Berlin in late March), international actors who care about Libya must recognize that Haftar continues to block any form of diplomatic compromise.
Nevertheless, Haftar represents a part of Libya that cannot be ignored. The challenge will be to identify actors in the east who may be more amenable to compromise with political actors in the west and do not view them all as radical extremists as Haftar falsely asserts.
Seeking an alternative to Haftar requires reaching out to his international backers, especially in Abu Dhabi, Cairo and Paris, to identify potential alternatives to his leadership of the east within the disparate military and tribal representatives that comprise the LNA.
Haftar’s foreign supporters undoubtedly are frustrated with his inability to deliver on his multiple attempts to take Tripoli.
Doubling down on an ineffective commander will only lead to more destruction.
Haftar is only as strong as his ability to monopolize the distribution of arms and funds in the east; changing those supply lines would substantially weaken him.
To encourage his backers to search for an alternative, Turkey should commit to pausing its own military support to the GNA during a U.N.-mediated dialogue between a new eastern-backed leadership and an empowered representative of Libya’s west.
Such a diplomatic sequence and political intervention will be difficult to orchestrate without a strong American initiative — an effort that has been lacking at senior levels for the past year.
But absent a dramatic change, it is likely that Libya’s civil war will still be raging in April 2021.
Ben Fishman is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and member of the Beth and David Geduld Program on Arab Politics. He served from 2009 to 2013 on the National Security Council, including as director for North Africa and Jordan.