Libya: Haftar Overplays His Hand in Libya

Khalifa Haftar
9 April 2019

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The essentials: General Haftar, a military strongman who commands about 25,000 fighters from eastern Libya, last week started an offensive to capture the capital Tripoli. After early advances, the offensive is now stuttering, invoking the spectre of a deadly drawn out conflict.

After days of fighting, who controls what in the suburbs of #Tripoli? check out my latest piece on the current situation in north-west #Libya:

The context: Since the fall of dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi in 2011, Libya has remained a failed state with territorial control split between a myriad of local militias and larger coalitions. The two main power centres are the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli and General Haftar's Libyan National Army. In recent weeks, Haftar consolidated control over much of the east and south of the country in a string of military offensives and strategic alliances with local tribes and militias.

Now he is making a bold move for the capital in the west, undoubtedly hoping to become the only major player in Libya and consolidate power over the whole country from a position of strength. Unfortunately for Haftar and really everybody, the general underestimated the speed at which the GNA would be able to mobilise its own substantial forces and allies. Haftar's advance has been halted south of the capital.

Haftar has overplayed his hand. He gambled on the element of surprise, on slow mobilization by western Libyan forces, on side-switching.

That failed. Now, there are three scenarios: 1) protracted conflict south of Tripoli; 2) a humiliating withdrawal; 3) a devastating defeat.

Apart from Haftar's disregard for the consequences of his actions for the civilians living in and around Tripoli, his approach also displays a dramatic disdain for the international community and its attempts to mediate the conflict. The Tripoli offensive was announced while UN General Secretary Antonio Guterres was in the capital to push for further talks and, eventually, elections. Haftar himself had in the past few months announced his support for elections, while clearly planning to present everyone with a fait-accompli when he triumphantly entered Tripoli.

The escalation also has an international dimension: Haftar is supported by regimes in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, which see in him a reliable stalwart against political Islam. The UAE Air Force has a base in eastern Libya and has intervened on Haftar's behalf in the past. Both countries have delivered weapons to his forces.

The good: General Haftar has likely overplayed his hand and will suffer at least a bloody stalemate and the possibility of being ostracised by the international community for his blatant disregard for the political process. Should his offensive fail badly enough, this could increase pressure on his camp to finally agree to elections and a new government.

The bad: Both sides are bringing heavy weaponry to the theatre. Should Haftar insist on seeing the offensive through to the end, Libyans could face a very bloody conflict right in the capital.

The future: This escalation erases all hopes to resolve Libya's political crisis anytime soon. All international mediation efforts will have to readjust after the dust settles and a new balance of power establishes itself.

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