Military strongman Khalifa Haftar’s intended lightning seizure of Libya’s capital stalled, but he is unlikely to face pressure from abroad to pull back as the arrival of hard-line opponents bolsters his war cry against “terrorism”.
Haftar’s eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA) advanced to the outskirts of Tripoli almost two weeks ago, predicting defections, victory within two days and joyful women ululating in the streets.
The internationally-recognised government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj managed to halt them in southern suburbs, thanks largely to armed groups from various western Libyan factions.
Instead of ululating, many women joined a rally against the offensive.
Renewed conflict scuppered for now a UN peace plan for Libya, with a national reconciliation conference planned for this week postponed. It threatens to disrupt oil supplies from the OPEC member and cause new migration across the sea to Europe.
Diplomats believe Haftar will face no pressure from backers including the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and France, who see him as the best option to end the chaos and divisions since the ousting of Gaddafi in 2011.
ISLAMISTS IN TRIPOLI
Their case, which undermines calls by former colonial ruler Italy and others for a political solution, is aided by the arrival of militants to help Serraj’s forces.
One of them is Salah Badi, a commander from Misrata port with Islamist ties and possible ambitions to take Tripoli. In videos from the front line, Badi directs men as well as a UN-sanctioned people trafficker.
Some hard-core Islamists, previously affiliated to Ansar Sharia, have popped up in fighting, according to videos. That group was blamed by Washington for the 2012 storming of a US diplomatic compound in Benghazi that killed the ambassador and three other Americans. France, with oil assets in Libya though less than Italy, called for a ceasefire – albeit more reluctantly than Rome – while echoing Haftar’s narrative that extremists were among the Tripoli defenders.
“There is an over-simplification. It is not just Haftar the baddy against the goodies in Tripoli and Misrata. There are groups at the end of the day allied to al Qaeda on the other side,” said a French diplomatic source.
“If those opposed to Haftar had done a deal in 2017, the balance of power would not have shifted,” the source said, referring to when France brokered Haftar/Serraj talks in Paris.
Serraj’s government downplays the presence of hardliners. “On both sides there are members accused of being violators,” Mohamed Siyala, his foreign minister, told reporters.
Haftar’s own troops are swelled by hundreds of Salafist Islamists and one of his commanders is wanted by the International Criminal Court over the alleged summary execution of dozens in Benghazi.
It was there Haftar in 2014 launched his “Operation Dignity” campaign, naming his forces an “army” to try distinguish from “militias” elsewhere.
He won the Benghazi battle against mainly Islamists in 2017 with covert support from the UAE, Egypt and France, but some defeated foes now in seek revenge.
Neighbouring Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi met Haftar in Cairo and in a statement “confirmed Egypt’s support for efforts to combat terrorism.”
Wolfram Lacher, a researcher at German think tank SWP, said there was exaggeration of the presence of militants in Tripoli for propaganda purposes.
“These elements are a tiny minority of the forces fighting Haftar right now, but this could become a self-fulfilling prophecy the longer this goes on,” he said.
“Anybody who has an interest in preventing jihadist mobilisation in Libya should have an interest in stopping this war.”
In the past, the UAE and Egypt supported Haftar with air strikes in eastern Libya, but it is unclear whether they would do so in the current campaign, diplomats and analysts say.
For Paris, Haftar, or a perceived stable army in Tripoli, is key to its wider policy against militants in the Sahel.
France has some 4,500 troops in the deserts to the south and west of Libya, and wants to ensure the porous borders are locked. Its support of Haftar will depend on whether it thinks he can win or how civilian casualties can be contained.
Should those escalate and refugee numbers swell, it may be forced to be more proactive in pressuring Haftar.
It will also depend on how UAE support evolves.
France listened increasingly to Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed’s views on Libya since President Emmanuel Macron came to power. An internal policy battle in France between the foreign and defence ministries prior to his arrival blurred Paris’ lines.
“While France is keen to project its Libya policy as a home-grown policy, in reality France follows the UAE — more or less,” said Jalel Harchaoui, research fellow at the Clingendael Institute think-tank in The Hague.
“What this means today is: Unless MBZ decides Haftar has blown his chance and failed, Emmanuel Macron is unlikely to alter or subdue his pro-Haftar policy in Libya.”