Apr 5th 2019
KHALIFA HAFTAR’S decision would be troubling enough under normal circumstances. On April 4th Libya’s strongest warlord ordered his men to march on Tripoli. His self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) already controls the east and took the south in a lightning offensive earlier this year. Now it turns to the capital, home to a weak United Nations-backed government that has no army of its own. A spokesman claims the LNA already controls three towns along a highway to Tripoli. The closest, Aziziya, is just 40km southwest. “Control” has many meanings in Libya, and the LNA tends to exaggerate its gains; it may be that locals simply let it pass. Regardless, though, it is knocking on the gates of the capital.
In a remarkable stroke of arrogance, the offensive coincides with a visit by António Guterres, the UN’s secretary-general. He is in Libya to prepare for a peace conference this month that, he hoped, would lead to long-delayed elections later this year. If the general does not quickly halt his offensive, the conference will be over before it starts. Libyans and diplomats were stunned by his audacity. One UN official sent a string of confused emojis by way of analysis.
General Haftar had long threatened to take Tripoli. Until now he was posturing. But it seems he was encouraged by his recent romp through the south. Rather than fight the LNA, many southerners welcomed it. Their region is rife with ethnic and tribal fighting, and with criminal gangs that run lucrative smuggling rings. Militants from neighbouring Chad and Sudan have joined the fray. Locals hoped the general would bring stability and let him capture towns and a major oilfield with little bloodshed.
Many foreign powers involved in Libya have tolerated or encouraged the general’s machinations. France hopes he can bring other militias to heel. Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) share his anti-Islamist politics. Russia has also sold weapons to General Haftar. All mistakenly thought they could control him, not least by threatening to restrict oil exports, and prevent the opening of a western front in Libya’s long-running conflict. They now look feckless. America, Britain, France, Italy and the UAE put out a joint statement that did not even blame the general for the escalation. It merely urged “all parties” to restore calm. Egypt did not bother to sign it.
Seizing the west will not be so easy, however. Militias from the port city of Misrata are deploying to Tripoli to counter the LNA’s advance. They are the strongest force in western Libya and won a decisive victory over Islamic State in 2016. Misratans resent General Haftar’s ambitions and have a personal link with the government in Tripoli: Fathi Bashagha, named interior minister last year, hails from Misrata.
The LNA has an unmatched advantage in its modest air force, stocked with jets and helicopters either seized from the old Libyan army or donated by Arab allies. General Haftar may also hope that western militias will switch sides. Though he opposes the Muslim Brotherhood and its ilk, he has made common cause with the Madkhalis, an ultra-conservative sect backed by Saudi Arabia. A Madkhali faction in Tripoli is aligned with the UN-backed government. But Libyan analysts point to a meeting in March between General Haftar and King Salman of Saudi Arabia, and wonder if the Saudis pledged their support.
Mr Guterres has flown to Benghazi to meet the general. The UN Security Council will convene in New York to discuss the situation. Diplomats may yet find a way to halt the offensive. But Libyans fear the ageing general, who had health problems last year, has decided to make his final push. One website posted photos of the central bank’s governor decamping Tripoli for Tunis on a commercial flight. Last month Ghassan Salamé, the UN envoy, warned that the upcoming conference was the last chance for a peaceful arrangement in Libya. If it fails, he warned, “we will be faced with only two possible options: prolonged stalemate or conflict.” General Haftar seems to have chosen his path.