Libya is back in the news as the so called Libyan National Army under General Hafter is moving to attack Tripoli. How did we get here?
In March 2011 the United Kindom, France and the U.S. set out to destroy the government of Libya. Muslim Brotherhood militia and al-Qaeda aligned forces, equipped by Qatar and supported by Britain, took the easten city of Benghazi. The U.S. airforce destroyed government troops on the ground and helped the militants to capture and murder Muhammar Ghaddafi. Chaos ensued as various tribal forces, local militia and Islamists fought over control of the cities and the spoils.
One person who tried to insert himself into the chaos as new leader of Libya was the former general Khalifa Haftar. He had taken part in the coup that brought Ghaddafi to power but later fell out with him and changed sides. The CIA sponsored him to launch a coup against Ghaddafi. The coup failed and since 1990 Hafter has lived in Virginia where he also became a U.S. citizen.
Haftar's attempt to take power amongst the chaos of 2011 failed. The Muslim Brotherhood aligned militia saw him as a secular Ghaddafi follower and rejected him. The situation changed in 2014 after the military in Egypt ousted the Muslim Brotherhood aligned president Morsi from power. Egypt, under the new president Sisi, feared the Islamist gangs in Libya and wanted to eliminate them. Hafter was called upon to build an army and to take over Benghazi. The United Arab Emirates financed the project. With UAE money, Egyptian air support, Russian supplies, French intelligence and special forces support Hafter slowly defeated the various Islamist gangs and took control over Benghazi.
It took him more than three years to consolidate his control and to build up his Libyan National Army (LNA) that would allow him to take the western parts of Libya.
Those western parts, including the capital Tripoli, are controlled by various feuding familes, clans and tribes, each with their own militia. There is also a nominal Government of National Accord under Fayez al-Sarraj. It is recognized by the UN but has no forces of its own. It depends on the support of local militia in Tripoli and support coming from the coastal city of Misrata. That city has a strong tribal militia which even operates a small air force.
Misrata is also what blocked Hafter from moving his troops from Benghazi in the east along the coast towards Tripoli in the west. The blocking force made it necessary for Hafter to move through the thinly populated south and then west and again north towards Tripoli. An attempt to do so in 2018 failed when local forces in the southwest (pink), supported by Algeria's military, resisted Haftar's move.
This year Algeria has its own problems as mass protests forced its president Abdelaziz Bouteflika to step down. The Algerian military is busy at home with installing a new ruler. Hafter, with the help of UAE money, bought off the southwestern forces and thereby opened the roads towards Tripoli. He also took control of Sirte in the north and the El Sharara oil fields near Wasi al Hayaa in the south. The field produces some 300,000 barrels of oil per day which can be exported through Sirte's ports. Control of these assets gave Haftar a huge power boost.
Haftar's LNA is now some 20 miles from Tripoli but resistance from local militia and from forces sent from Misrata is building up. Yesterday Haftar's military briefly took the defunct international airport of Tripoli but was soon ousted. Today fighter jets launched from Misrata attacked his forces.
If Hafter wants to succeed he will have to take the road between Tripoli and Misrata to split his enemies. He could then take Tripoli and announce his own national government. There are rumors that some of the warlords in Tripoli are willing to change sides and to join Haftar.
Hafter has open support from France, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Russia. The Trump administration is not interested to step into the mess. Hafter is an old CIA asset and if he takes control there is a good chance that the U.S. will have influence over him. As long as Libyan oil flows and keeps the global oil price down Trump will be happy. Russia is trying to stay in the background to not give the anti-Russian forces in Washington an excuse to intervene.
The Muslim Brothers, supported by Turkey and Qatar, are still in play in Misrata but have otherwise lost their influence on the ground.
Hafter and his troops seem to have nearly all advantages on their side. Their supply route from Benghazi through the south towards Tripoli is too long, but France is helping to protect it by keeping rebels from Chad and Mali in Libya's south under control. The Egyptian air force may well help again and destroy whatever planes Misrata has left.
But war is unpredictable and militia in Libya have often changed sides on a moment's notice. It may take 10 days to take Tripoli without many casualties or 100 days of intense fighting. The attempt could even fail.
Libya is a divers tribal country that is unlikely to function as a democracy. A strongman like Muhammad Ghaddafi can control it by distributing the income from its mineral resources and by keeping the Islamists down. Hafter may be able to replicate that.
But he is 75 years old. A year ago he was evacuated to France for some medical emergency procedures. His sons, two of which lead some of his militia, are of unknown quality. Another problem is brewing in Benghazi where Wahabbi preachers, trained in Saudi Arabia, replaced Muslim Bortherhood preachers and now introduce Saudi style rule over women and local culture.
A strongman ruling all of Libya from Tripoli is certainly better for Libya and its people than the long chaos that ensued after the war the U.S., Britain and France waged against the country. Given some time Hafter may well achieve that. But he is not a longterm solution. The best one can hope for is that he wins enough time for Libya to come back to its senses and for the civil war to die down.
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