Who let Haftar attack Tripoli?

Tripoli has been under attack for a while. In March, General Haftar of the self-styled ‘Libyan National Army’ launched an offensive on Libya’s capital, seeking to bring about an end to the civil strife by military force. The assault came about as the UN called for new negotiations and dialogue in order to find some way forward out of the crisis that has engulfed Libya since the fall of Colonel Gaddafi.

Haftar believes that in his advance on Tripoli, there are two possible outcomes. The first is that he seizes Tripoli itself and becomes the number one de facto power in Libya. He would then expect the international community to recognise him and the ‘stability’ that he would represent in a similar way to which the international community recognised Egypt’s Marshall Sisi after he overthrew the democratically-elected Mohamed Morsi.

The second is that even if he fails, his assault on Tripoli would set him as the most influential party in any subsequent talks. The militias in Tripoli would find it impossible to follow up their resistance by marching on Haftar-controlled territory and are more likely to return to infighting than forming a united front. Haftar will have noted that despite Serraj being backed by the UN, the militias who were supposed to support him waited on the shore on the day he was to return to Tripoli hoping to prevent his entry, and he subsequently had to be smuggled in during the night. As a force that cannot be unseated domestically, Haftar believes that these subsequent talks would reflect this reality in a similar fashion to the way the Houthis are currently treated in Yemen and taken seriously following the inability of the Saudi-led coalition to inflict major military defeats.

Haftar will also have been encouraged by the reaction of the international community. Firstly, Libyans are acutely aware of the French-Italian/Total-Eni rivalry and how Paris and Rome are seeking to outdo each other in being the party that brings about a final resolution. Italy sees Libya as its old stomping ground. France is flailing amidst geopolitical changes in Tunisia, Algeria, and the wider North African region. Paris surprised the international community by recognising Haftar and inviting him to Paris. Rome later countered by organising the Palermo conference. Both conferences failed. France is now accused of backing Haftar while Italy seeks to preserve Serraj.

The US have demonstrated an interest only in so far as oil prices are affected. In July 2018, Haftar marched and seized the oil ports while the head of the Libyan National Oil Corporation Mustafa Sanallah was in Geneva looking for investors. This was a brazen attempt to undermine Tripoli which was swiftly rejected by Trump who reacted to the subsequent jump in oil price by threatening to sanction and bomb Haftar’s forces. Haftar retreated and surrendered control of the ports back to Sanallah.

However, Haftar seems to have interpreted from this incident that Trump, and indeed other members of the international community, are not particularly aligned to Serraj or even the outcomes of the UN negotiations that led to the internationally recognised government. Instead, the international community are deeply divided with multiple actors seeking different ends. Haftar’s assessment of this is reflected in his subsequent shift in tactics.

Haftar decided to march south and become an integral part in combating ‘terrorism’ and an additional obstacle to migrants seeking to cross the Mediterranean. In those short months, he won praise from Trump for combatting ‘terrorism’ and positioned himself as an ally in France and Italy’s efforts to ease the migrant crisis which has badly split members of the EU and increased pressure on the idea of the union itself.

The result was that Haftar’s march on Tripoli was met by a divided international community with mixed feelings about the operation. Instead of condemning the attack, the White House gave out a statement of a telephone call between Trump and Haftar praising the latter’s role in fighting terrorism and securing oil resources. France was notably muted and images emerged later of French arms in Haftar’s arsenal. The UAE amplified the media coverage to send out a message of a Libyan army bringing ‘terrorists’ to account. Haftar began attacking and the international community began exploring the pros and cons of the offensive.

The US position is clear; it supports relative ‘stability’. Policymakers in Washington often express privately the opinion that Libyans had their chance at elections and democracy and failed miserably. Given the rise in terrorist threats, its is more important to establish security and stability. In other words, the US is well aware that the ‘winner’ of the Libyan conflict will end up visiting Washington for investment and international support. Trump is therefore not concerned over the possibility of Haftar seizing Tripoli and sees no reason to intervene.

The French brought Haftar to the negotiations and essentially gave him the international ‘legitimacy’ he had been craving. Paris would not be mistaken in believing they might be rewarded for such support in a Haftar-led Libya. Moreover, with the Algerian political scene in disarray following the popular uprising against long-term ally Bouteflika and uncertainty over the Tunisian elections, France is scrambling to fill the cracks in its crumbling influence in North Africa.

The UAE and Egypt have been open in their support for Haftar, continuing the anti-Islamist line in funding think tanks across European capitals and in Washington to crush any pro-Islamist sympathies and advocate that the chaos in the region stems from such ideologies. Any Islamist success in the region offers a spark for the democratic elements crushed by Sisi when he overthrew Morsi. It is therefore seen as a major priority in Cairo to prevent their political re-emergence in Libya. To this end, Egypt has been providing the logistics while the UAE has been more active by providing arms.

However, not all international players have been exploring the pros and cons of Haftar’s offensive. In the midst of this international apathy, Serraj has found solace in Turkey and Qatar. Turkish drones proved vital in pushing back Haftar’s forces, incurring such anger from the latter that he seized Turkish civilians in a bid to embarrass Ankara. The Qataris have not abandoned their Islamist allies, continuing to provide funding, positive media coverage, and lobbying efforts in Western capitals.

However, Serraj will be acutely aware that Qatar and Turkey’s support for Tripoli is not necessarily support for him or his position as head of the UN recognised government.

Qatar sees Libya as part of a wider fight against a concerted Saudi-UAE effort to extinguish the influence it has worked so hard to achieve since 1996. Turkey’s interests do not necessarily lie in the success of Serraj’s government or indeed of the Islamist factions. If Turkey was pursuing a pan-Islamist agenda, it would have aided Bashir in Sudan who was a key ally. Turkey’s interest in Libya have more to do with what it perceives as an intended encroachment of its interests in the Mediterranean by Greece, Egypt, and Israel. Should Haftar seize Tripoli, then the antagonistic UAE would more likely join the ranks of Greece and Egypt in curtailing Turkey’s role in the region. Turkey’s support for Serraj lies in its bid to prevent itself being contained as contentious issues flare up such as the rights to the gas fields south of Cyprus.

Serraj can take solace in that the conflict in Libya is being seen in Ankara as a vital issue and he can continue to expect continued support, at least for now. Moreover, international apathy was based on the possibility that Haftar would take Tripoli in a matter of weeks. However, as months go by, Haftar seems no closer to taking the capital. Moreover, with the militias united for once against a common threat, with even the militias from Misrata joining in the anti-Haftar resistance, the window of opportunity is gradually closing as the death toll rises and the pressure increases on Macron, Salvini, and Trump to intervene and force new negotiations. Such negotiations are unlikely to succeed. However, there will be tempers flaring and much chagrin in Abu Dhabi and Cairo at Haftar’s incompetence and failure to take such a golden opportunity.