17 May 2019

Is war the solution for Libya’s peace?

Claudiu Nebunu

Marshal Khalifa Haftar has started a new operation to get Libya’s capital. Haftar’s troops got to Tripoli’s periphery and are trying to get to the heart of the capital… The internationally recognized government has mobilized its troops and started a counteroffensive to defend the city. Fights, bombs, tens of dead people, hundreds of hurt ones, thousands of refugees… The big powers could not get to an agreement, which proves that the situations depends on an international game… Possible evolutions: the start of a catastrophe in Libya or a simple attempt from General Haftar to test his enemies? Is war the solution for peace or just a switch of positions for new negotiations?

Image source: Mediafax

Libya – afire again…

After a calm period, the confrontations between the two camps fighting for their authority in Libya (West- the Government of National Accord /GNA, internationally recognized, installed to Tripoli and East- the Representatives Chamber/ Tobruk Parliament) erupted again, despite the signals that were inducing some hopes (more about what’s happening in Libya, solution efforts for the conflict, as well as the challenges that are blocking the reconciliation in the DSM analysis).

Last week (Thursday, 4th of April), Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA), the armed forces of the Eastern camp, has announced (through an online audio tape) the launch of a military campaign to take over the control of Tripoli, the Libyan capital. Immediately after that, the press offices published a video recording wherein tens of armored vehicles, marked LNA, were marching towards the capital (“Tripoli will fall in 48 hours” were saying the LNA members).

Friday (5th of April), Haftar’s troops got to Libyan capital’s suburbs and took over the control of the International Tripoli Airport (inoperative after the 2014 fights).

The Western camp was blindsided. GNA tried to fight back by mobilizing different militias to defend the capital and, eventually, Saturday, they have deployed their first air stroke over Haftar’s forces. LNA responded with an air raid over Tripoli’s Southern periphery. GNA re-dislocated troops and technique in Misrata and Zawiya (Islamic militias) and passed to counteroffensive (named “Volcano of Anger”) to “clean all Libyan cities from aggressors”.

There was violent fighting on Sunday, close to the Libyan capital, with no armistice time to even evacuate the dead and hurt people. The fights continued also at the beginning of this week. At least 47 people died and other 181 were hurt in the military confrontations in Tripoli’s area, according to information provided Tuesday (8th of April) by the World Health Organization. Also, more than 3400 people were evacuated, said the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

Despite how serious the problem is and the risk of escalation into new bloody confrontations, the international community’s answer was rather unconvincing. The UN Security Council tried to adopt a declaration by which to ask the marshal to stop the offensive, but Russia interfered and blocked the process, calling on all the Libyan forces to stop the attack, not only Haftar’s. France and Russia insisted on a minimum pressure over LNA forces.

The US are “deeply concerned” with Tripoli’s fights and are calling on the “immediate stop” of Khalifa Haftar’s offensive launched over the capital, stated on Sunday the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo. At the same time, Washington has withdrew part of the troops dislocated in Libya.

Because of the contradictory information coming from both camps, we can hardly find out what is actually happening on the field. Now, it is only clear that Haftar had/has enough support for his campaign. The result will depend on next weeks’ actions.

Why attacking now?

Even if these two camps’ confrontations seemed to have stopped, showing some positive signals on negotiating conflict’s solution, and LNA’s operation to take the control over the Libyan territory, mainly the capital, remained Eastern camp’s viable action option.

Given the UN’s National Conference, planned for the middle of this month (14-16th of April), Haftar hastened to maximize his territorial winnings and, implicitly, his leverages over GNA’s opponents.

After taking total control over Benghazi (Est of Libya), in 2017, Haftar has constantly tried, last year, to enlarge the territories controlled by Tobruk, concurrently with having discussions with GNA under different foreign actors’ mediation.

At the beginning of this year, his forces launched an operation to take the control over the large oil camps in the South. At the beginning of January, LNA members entered Sabha, the biggest city in South of Libya. After having the control of more than two thirds of the national territory, the Marshal focused his eyes on Tripolitania (West of Liby) and Tripoli.

He saw on Algeria’s demonstrations and social complaints an opportunity to launch military operations against GNA. Concerned with the possibility of Libya’s conflict to get expanded outside the borders, the Algerian authorities have called on a political solution in the neighbor countries, even hosting several meetings between the internal Libyan actors. For Alger, GNA and the Islamic militias from Libya should be part of any reconciliation effort. Hence, Haftar’s actions were seen as dangerous and destabilizing. Furthermore, being the leader of North Africa, Alger sees in Haftar’s supporters- Egypt, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia- the geopolitical enemies and opposes the consolidation, through the Marshal, of their influence in Libya.

Given the Algerian military and political influence in the region, Haftar avoided, until now, to conduct military actions nearby Algerian borders and maintained open channels of communication with this country’s authorities.  Former president’s actions, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, of overthrowing some high security and military officials, as well as the demonstrations erupted in February 2019, offered Haftar the opportunity to start an expansionist military campaign, without being concerned with Alger’s reaction.

Haftar also received, probably, the approval of foreign supporters. It is no (longer) a secret that Egypt, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and, lately, Russia and France, supported politically and military the Eastern. It is less probable for these “allies” to not have been informed with his actions.

The “meek” attitude of the international community in front of his actions- launched during the visit of the UN General Secretary in the Libyan capital, Antonio Guterres, for the national conference planning- shows that the marshal has more supporters than the declared number, who see him as the solution for Libya’s peace, rather than a destabilizing factor.

At the same time, Haftar hopes to eliminate Western Libya’s people increasing complaints. The Tripoli situation, alike other Libyan cities, has been constantly deteriorating. Crimes, insecurity and corruption are more and more present, meanwhile the existence’s conditions have been seriously worsened, because of the economic and social and health services collapse. The capital only has few militias in influence zones and GNA’s administrative system is ineffective and corrupt. Calling on Gaddafi’s times, Haftar tries to create himself an image of strong military leader, able to lead the country to peace and reinstall stability and order (“Libya’s savior”).

Interests and other interests…

France and Italy, former suzerain powers on different part of Libya, are the countries to have the biggest interests in Libya, proved by their great will of solving the conflict, from different perspectives. Besides oil, the French see in the Libyan conflict a matter of honor. The Italians are strongly affected by the migrants’ flow. However, despite many negotiations, both countries cannot find a common denominator and collaborate in Africa, each following its own interests and aiming at sabotaging its enemy.

But Russia also wants the biggest oil resources in Africa, hence, alongside Egypt, wants to increase their influence in the region and we already know how the Moscow-Tobruk relation works and the meetings between the Marshal and Russian officials.

No one wants, of all these big powers, a military conflict in Libya, at least at a declaratory level. It seems that Haftar has power and support, because on the contrary he would not be able to attack Tripoli. Moscow, though on Haftar’s side, has announced that a peace solution is needed. Such solution could be Haftar’s offensive success and imposing marshal’s control over the entire country.

Everybody already knows Moscow’s duplicitous attitude, developed in other geographical areas as well, so Putin may use the same tactic in Libya too.

What’s next?

The situation in the field changes quickly and it is quite unpredictable, however, we still have three possible scenarios for Libya’s future.

The first one- the offensive over Tripoli could turn into an extended conflict but, like the one in Benghazi, which lasted three years. This evolution could significantly affect the people and the infrastructure and would destroy Haftar’s hopes to be seen as the long-awaited savior.

The second one-the marshal will get a quick victory. This scenario depends on Haftar’s ability to get the support of opposed militias and make them join his forces to take the control of Tripoli without violent fighting and many losses. The LNA leader already initiated negotiations with leaders of some strategic militias, a strategy which achieve success in the campaign conducted in South Libya. 

However, getting to an agreement with some militias/ armed groups depends on their military and economic interests, hence, this anarchy affecting Libya will continue. When Haftar will want to destroy them, he will face large-scale rebellion.

The third scenario- giving up the offensive actions and reinforce the new status-quo, wherein the LNA forces are stopping the campaign against Tripoli, but maintains strategic positions to pressure Tripoli and GNA. This would involve other negotiations rounds, with or without UN, wherein Haftar will try to impose conditions.

Whatever the scenario will be, one thing we know for sure: Libya will continue to be, at least on short term, the ground zero of North Africa’s crises and a major concern on the international scene.