Is Libya on the brink of yet another civil war?

Europe's World

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Mary Fitzgerald
Mary Fitzgerald

Libya Analyst, Award-Winning Journalist, 2013 European Young Leader

Mary Fitzgerald is a researcher specialising in Libya. She has worked on Libya since 2011 and lived there throughout 2014. She is also a European Young Leader (EYL40)

A dangerous conflict is unfolding around Libya’s capital, Tripoli, threatening to plunge the country into its second civil war since Gaddafi’s fall. Such a scenario would have serious consequences for Europe. The EU must overcome the member state disunity that has prevented a more robust collective response.

It shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise that Khalifa Haftar, commander of self-styled forces he has named ‘the Libyan National Army’ (LNA), chose to launch his offensive on Tripoli the same day UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was visiting the city in a bid to boost a faltering UN peace plan. Not only has Haftar – who is based in eastern Libya – sought to undermine the UN process at every turn since it began in 2014, he has been vowing to march on Tripoli, the seat of the UN-backed unity government known as the GNA, for years.

The day after he announced his offensive, a bullish Haftar told Guterres he was determined to continue despite UN pleas. On Thursday, Haftar’s spokesman announced “arrest warrants” for the head of the GNA and other GNA-aligned figures, including military officers. Haftar’s contempt for the UN process could not be more obvious.

In just over a week, scores have been killed and thousands displaced as some of western Libya’s most powerful armed groups rallied to counter what many consider an existential threat from a man they accuse of seeking to impose himself as military ruler of Libya. Such fears were a key driver of the civil war that erupted in 2014, just months after the then Prime Minister Ali Zeidan accused Haftar of attempting a military coup. Last week, Haftar’s jets bombed Tripoli’s only functioning airport, prompting the UN to condemn the strikes as a violation of international law. A UN peace conference due to take place this weekend in the town of Ghadames has been postponed indefinitely.

Haftar’s intentions have been clear from the outset but some have chosen to overlook them

Haftar’s supporters – including within Libya’s last elected parliament, which appointed him commander of the forces aligned with it – laud him for bringing a measure of control to the country’s eastern flank. He has had some success in projecting himself, both to domestic and international audiences, as a military leader determined to purge Libya of Islamists.

In reality, aside from a military core, the motley forces Haftar oversees are comprised of tribal militias, Sudanese rebels, hardline Salafists linked to Saudi Arabia and one commander wanted by the ICC for alleged war crimes. While the LNA has battled UN-designated terrorist groups in eastern Libya, it was Haftar’s opponents who dislodged the so-called ‘Islamic State’ from its Libyan stronghold in Sirte.

Haftar’s intentions have been clear from the outset but some have chosen to overlook them. When I met the septuagenarian Haftar in early June 2014, he grew testy at the mention of Libyans wary of his ambitions. One of his advisors was upfront, telling me Haftar wanted to “rule Libya”. Some policymakers and diplomats have put too much faith in Haftar’s lukewarm expressions of support for elections. He has told journalists that Libya is not ready for democracy, suggesting he sees the ballot box as a means to an end.

Haftar may now have overreached. His offensive on Tripoli has not gone as smoothly as he had hoped and the counter-mobilisation has been greater than many expected. Many Libyans I know who had supported Haftar’s operations in eastern Libya since 2014 and believe his LNA is key to building a future national army, are now either strongly opposed or are deeply uneasy about his Tripoli offensive. They include prominent figures who were seeking to hitch their political star to Haftar’s military wagon. That is because a protracted battle for the Libyan capital is in no one’s interest. Not only is the city home to 1.2 million people, it is also where the pillars of the shaky Libyan state – its national oil corporation and central bank – are based.

Much now depends on how external powers respond to the growing conflict

Furthermore, all-out war in Tripoli – the fighting has not yet reached the city centre – could easily tip into a wider conflagration, drawing in a patchwork of armed groups across the country. Such a scenario would jeopardise existing EU efforts to manage migration flows from Libya, which hinge on cooperation with the Tripoli-based GNA. In addition, radical elements could be empowered and the Islamic State would likely see opportunity in the chaos as it did when Libya tipped into civil war in 2014.

Much now depends on how external powers respond to the growing conflict, particularly as Haftar’s military strength largely derives from the assistance he has received from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates despite a UN arms embargo. Various actors have condemned the escalation, urged all parties to exercise restraint and either halt military operations or withdraw to previously held positions. None has raised the threat of sanctions.

As for the EU, its response has been blunted by the fact that France tilts towards Haftar – French special forces have supported him in eastern Libya – and has prevented a more muscular collective censure of his offensive. With Libya just south of Europe’s Mediterranean rim, it is in the interest of all EU member states to prevent the current escalation from spiralling into a major battle for Tripoli and a wider civil conflict. Whatever wishful thinking about Haftar and his usefulness may have existed before, his foolhardy gambit in Tripoli has shown the mercurial general cannot be trusted.

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