M113 AFV outside of Misrata

Backing the Wrong Horse: Field Marshal Haftar’s Advance on Tripoli

Since the fall of Colonel Muammar Gadhafi in 2011, Libya has remained in a precipiced state of collapse as rival factions claimed legitimacy as either a national or independent regional government. This situation has been amplified by disparate efforts by the international community to bring order to the nation, with multiple foreign powers supporting various different factions. In this assessment, Lewis Tallon analyses whether the international community (with the exception of those powers already supporting the opposition) would have made better progress in bringing stability to the nation by supporting an alternate faction.

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Libya remains awkwardly divided between the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), and the Tobruk-based Libyan National Army (LNA), with the nation’s mix of well-armed militias – generally arranged along tribal or local community lines – mostly aligned with one of these factional governments. While the front lines have shifted significantly in the last year, now setting the bulk of Libyan territory under the control of the LNA, the situation is further complicated by the varying alignment of foreign powers. Officially, the United Nations supports and recognises the GNA, while Russia, Egypt and the UAE have largely supported the LNA forces under Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. Russia has officially denied direct military involvement in Libya, reports have circulated as early as 2017 that a contingent of Russian special forces and a UAV force had been deployed at Sidi Barrani in Egypt in support of the LNA, and that same year Moscow invited Haftar aboard the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov for talks on defence cooperation.

Libyan territorial dispositions May 2017 vs April 2019

Fig 1.0 – Livemap showing territorial dispositions in Libya, May 2017 (left) and April 2019 (right). Blue represents GNA, Red the LNA, Pink Tuareg territories and Green Tribal militias.

While the U.S. under President Obama staunchly supported the GNA, President Trump hasn’t succeeded in issuing a clear policy for Libya (with the exclusion of recent comments in support of Haftar), leaving international efforts on Libya largely in the hands of middleweight regional powers with their own divided agendas. Despite the legacy position of supporting Prime Minister Fayez al Sarraj’s GNA, U.S. diplomats and military officers have reportedly maintained extensive contacts within Field Marshal Haftar’s organisation; a sensible posture given the realities of Libya’s balance-of-power.

Despite UN support, the GNA has been unable to effectively extend its authority beyond Tripoli, and even at its peak areas supposedly within GNA borders saw rampant lawlessness and breakaway militia activity. Several neighbourhoods within Tripoli itself have at times fallen into a state of near anarchy. In addition to this, the fragile security situation had brought much of the country’s crucial hydrocarbons sector to a standstill until recent advances by Haftar’s forces brought enough security to the Sirte Basin region to resume operations, although production remains relatively unreliable. This has increased economic tensions that in turn aggravate the local socio-political situation. Despite holding Africa’s largest proven oil reserves, export disruption has cost Libya an estimated $160 billion since 2013.

Where this national divide persisted in the form of an uneasy stalemate over the past few years, with the LNA generally holding the upper hand, Field Marshal Haftar’s operational objectives appear to have shifted in recent weeks. Whereas originally it was assessed that Haftar was advancing on Tripoli in an attempt to gain better leverage for anticipated negotiations with the GNA, it now appears that he may indeed be seeking outright victory over the Tripoli government. His offensive on Tripoli, which has been enabled after Haftar established control of southern Libya and its vital oilfields, now appears poised to actually enter and seize the city. Given his battlefield successes, rather than returning to the negotiating table, the Field Marshal now appears to be positioning himself to become Libya’s de facto ruler.

Despite his successes so far, Haftar’s strength and territorial gains remain reliant on a shaky network of affiliated militia groups, many of which have murky motivations and whose loyalty to the Field Marshal is far from guaranteed. While he has clearly leveraged these militia networks far more effectively than the GNA, he is still beholden to their local motivations at the tactical level, which in turn will hinder his strategic objectives in the medium term.

As a result of this clash between two mismatched – but still shaky – powers, the likelihood a lasting ceasefire in the near term is low. Multiple reports of indiscriminate shelling and careless applications of air support by forces on both sides have caused civilian casualties, particularly in the residential districts of southern Tripoli. This will undermine local support for both factions – which in turn will weaken the loyalty of the militia networks. This is resulting in tarnished images on the crucial battlefield of public opinion, which is also being exacerbated by evidence of foreign interference playing a role in the conflict. In the most recent example, Tunisian authorities this week reportedly detained two groups of armed men crossing into Libya under French diplomatic passports, provoking accusations that the individuals were military advisors being supplied to Haftar’s forces by Paris. France has denied the allegation, stating that the detained operators were part of a diplomatic security team tasked with protecting the French Embassy in Libya, and claims that it supports the Libyan government in Tripoli; a rebuke of little impact given the nation’s historic posture of tacitly supporting the LNA.

Haftar is likely to become increasingly dependent on foreign support in the coming weeks, including the crucial allies of Russia, the UAE and Egypt. The GNA’s control of the National Central Bank – in addition to legacy suspicions of Haftar among local communities – is likely to ensure that the UN-recognised government retains at least some capability to resist the LNA. This would in turn protract the conflict further. Haftar’s political ambitions are seen by many in Tripoli’s government as standing in the way of  post-Gadhafi reconciliation efforts, as the Field Marshal is said to want to centralise power around a “ruling council” comprised of himself and a handful of key allies with little more than token positions for GNA representatives should he negotiate rather than take power by force.

The GNA also remains far from blameless, having been broadly criticised for its inability to bring meaningful governance to areas beyond central Tripoli, and for failing to restart the nation’s shattered economy. The Field Marshal has seen more tangible successes than the GNA despite his lack of broad international support, gaining significant kudos for leading his forces into the Islamist-held Benghazi and seizing control of the nation’s critical oil and gas production and export facilities around the Sirte basin.

While both Tobruk’s LNA and Tripoli’s GNA remain deeply flawed governments, the current partition of Libya has only served to allow terrorism, arms smuggling and militancy to flourish, while simultaneously causing the national economy to grind to a halt at the expense of the local population. The recent recommencement of direct hostilities has made this situation significantly worse, and at some point the UN and wider community must question whether the GNA was the right faction to recognise in the role of national government.

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Lewis Tallon is a former British Army Intelligence Officer with several years experience working and living in the Middle East and North Africa region and Asia Pacific in geopolitical, armed conflict risk and threat intelligence roles. Lewis currently specialises in providing MENA-region geopolitical intelligence support to the oil & gas industry, and the financial & technology sectors.

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Photo credit: joepyrek from Richmond, Va, USA