Libya's warlord Haftar wages war for power control

Libya's warlord Haftar wages war for power control
Comment: If Haftar is successful, it could derail any hopes of transitioning to a constitutional, democratic Libya, writes Guma El-Gamaty.
6 min read
22 Apr, 2019
Recent fighting between rival militias has killed more than 250, including many civilians [Getty]
On 3 April, renegade General, Khalifa Haftar declared his move to advance his forces on the Libyan capital, Tripoli.

His aim, he claims, was to "liberate" the capital and the entire west of Libya of the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), headed by Fayez Serraj, and the forces under their control, branding them as "criminals and terrorists".

This move came as a shock to many, surprising Libyans, the UN support mission in Libya (UNSMIL) as well as the wider international community. Haftar's forces were hoping for a quick entry into Tripoli, predicting a swift victory within days as they used the element of surprise.

But more than two weeks since he declared war, Haftar has only succeeded in mobilising his opponents against him, managing to resurrect the Libyan conflict once more. His latest move has reignited the flames of war in the country, causing widespread chaos and a huge escalation in violence, probably the worst in recent years.

The international community has been divided over how to react and handle the situation thus far. The UN Security Council has failed to reach any decision over how to respond and has been unable to issue a unanimous call for a ceasefire, due to differences over whether to condemn Haftar's offensive, and call for his forces to withdraw to their previous positions.

Haftar enjoys the support of his main regional backers - Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. He is also supported by Russia, who has vetoed security council resolutions and France, who has blocked EU statements condemning Haftar.

What caused Haftar to advance on Tripoli?

Haftar's offensive has come at a time when the UN-backed peace process was reaching a crucial stage, with the much-anticipated National Conference, due to take place in the Libyan city of Ghadames,from 14-16 April.

There is also the dangerous possibility of Haftar succeeding, bolstered by support from his main international backers

This conference had been organised by UNSMIL, led by special envoy Ghassan Salame, and was expected to achieve a breakthrough in the political deadlock and produce a new roadmap to resolve the Libyan conflict.

Many now believe that this is what caused Haftar to urgently advance on Tripoli, suggesting that he sees his control of the east of Libya - which he later extended to the south - as just a stepping stone to the main goal of taking over the capital by force.

Haftar would have viewed the National Conference as a major disruption to his plans for a military coup in order to establish his one-man military rule over Libya, rather than reaching a compromise with fellow Libyan partners.

What are the implications?

This latest attack and the war that has emerged from it has led to further divisions. The west of the country, where more than two-thirds of the population reside, has united against Haftar, with residents taking to the streets in cities such as Tripoli, Misrata and Zawia, to protest his attack on Tripoli and attempts to -as they see it - return the country to military rule.

The implications of this latest attack by Haftar are many. Firstly, it has succeeded in halting UNSMIL's dialogue process and has put any peace talks, as well as the planned National Conference, on hold, and unlikely to resume or take place soon.

Secondly, it has led to a military showdown between Haftar's advancing forces and the GNA forces defending Tripoli, with daily battles and fighting taking place south of the capital. The GNA has so far managed to repel Haftar's forces, and has kept fighting to the city's outskirts.

On 18 April, Prime Minister Serraj labelled Haftar a war criminal, and issued a warrant for his arrest. The warrant was issued for air strikes used by his forces against civilian areas, including on Mitiga Airport, as well as for other alleged crimes.

Serraj and his GNA have also been documenting and looking to file Haftar's crimes with the International Criminal Court (ICC). A spokesman for the GNA said it was seeking an international arrest warrant against Haftar for war crimes, due to indiscriminate rocket fire that killed six innocent civilians, including women and children.

Read more: Dozens killed in Libya battle as Haftar forces fight for Tripoli

For now, though, the international community will be mainly concerned with the divisions and continued military conflict that could lead to a rise in terrorist activity in the country, forces that seek to exploit the chaos and divide, as well as a surge in migrants hoping to reach the shores of Europe.

What are the possible outcomes?

There are several possible outcomes that could emerge from Haftar's attack and this latest war. The first is a protracted military stalemate leading to a long and bloody civil war causing huge destruction that could last for many years. This could also lead to a de facto division of the country with Haftar's forces controlling the east and GNA in the west.

There is also the dangerous possibility of Haftar succeeding, bolstered by support from his main international backers, which would allow him to defeat the GNA forces currently fighting against him.

This would also mean the removal, or even arrest of the Presidential Council, headed by Fayez Serraj, and ousting the GNA from office.

This could also lead to a de facto division of the country with Haftar's forces controlling the east and GNA in the west

Haftar succeeding could lead to him scrapping the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) signed in 2015, killing off the political process and any further peace talks backed by the UN and establishing his military rule over the entire country, derailing any hopes of transitioning to a constitutional democratic state.

The third possible outcome is that Haftar's forces are defeated by the GNA in the west, and forced to lose their recent gains in the south, eventually driving him back to his stronghold in the east. Haftar knows he has taken a huge gamble, for military defeat would also mean a huge political defeat, as he would no longer be trusted as a viable partner in any peace talks moving forward.

He would almost certainly lose the support he has built up over the years, both inside Libya and from his main international backers. This may even force him to flee the country or face possible arrest for his coup attempts and eventually be tried for his alleged war crimes, either inside Libya or through the ICC.

The UN-led Dialogue could then be resumed without him and his obstructions. The country could then move towards a civil and democratic state, adopt a new constitution, hold fresh presidential and parliamentary elections to unite the country, and begin the serious work of establishing and unifying the Libyan army under one civilian authority.

Guma El-Gamaty is a Libyan academic and politician who heads the Taghyeer Party in Libya and a member of the UN-backed Libyan political dialogue process.

Follow him on Twitter: @Guma_el_gamaty

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab.