The sound of machine gun fire in Tripoli after the start of Khalifa Haftar’s military campaign to “liberate the city” is accompanied by a bitter squabble between two conflicting sides aired by media outlets and on social networking sites.
These opponents are Fayez Mustafa al-Sarraj’s Government of National Accord (GNA), which controls the capital and a number of regions in the West, and the government in the East (in Tobruk), supported by the Libyan National Army (LNA) headed by Khalifa Haftar.
The GNA camp has generated a powerful groundswell of discontent towards the Field Marshal, as he is the leader of the “military camp” who undermines civilian authority. His actions have been portrayed as an attempted “coup”, aimed at returning the country to its authoritarian past, which shaped and “raised” the 75-year-old veteran.
Khalifa Haftar’s opponents allege that the Field Marshal intended to capture Tripoli via an attack from the North in previous years. But his plan failed because his forces encountered resistance in the city of Misrata, and a densely-populated enclave in this region stood in their way. He then headed to Tripoli via the South, which is much more scarcely populated.
The leadership in Tobruk is directing its bursts of vitriol at the vulnerabilities of Fayez Mustafa al-Sarraj’s regime. It has accused factions of Tripoli’s police force of abuse of power, since they carved up the capital into different zones, where each of them exerts its influence, and of corruption, as they divide the riches of the nation’s economy.
These units, which prop up the authorities, apply pressure on banks with impunity and extort finances from the Central Bank.
The camp in Tobruk rejects the claim that the LNA plans to capture Tripoli. Its actual aim is to expel terrorists and mercenaries from the police ranks. The GNA is held captive by these forces and cannot rid itself of them, hence, it is the army’s job to do so.
According to experts, Khalifa Haftar chose when to conduct his operation carefully. Having established his control over the city of Benghazi in 2017, he began to consolidate his position via military means as well as negotiations.
In January, the Marshal’s forces captured large oil fields in the South of the country and entered Sabha, a key city in the Sahara Desert. Khalifa Haftar is now in control of at least two thirds of the nation’s vast territories.
The leader of the LNA certainly knows what he wants. Fayez Mustafa Al-Sarraj has met Khalifa Haftar more than once and has negotiated with him. On every occasion, the Field Marshal used these meetings to consolidate his military victories, and to continue his operations without interruptions. According to TV channel Al Jazeera, it is possible that Khalifa Haftar’s forces will stop at the outskirts of the capital and pressure isolated GNA units without entering certain districts of the city, in order to avoid unnecessary casualties. In the end, the stand-off could lead to the next round of negotiations under the guidance of a UN representative, during which Khalifa Haftar is expected to gain an advantage and be in the lead.
Perhaps he is already engaged in “behind-the-scenes” negotiations with commanders of police units in order to ensure they abandon the camp of Fayez Mustafa Al-Sarraj. The situation in battle fields changes and territories change hands. Military reports by both sides are viewed through the prism of confrontation between two opposing factions as depicted by the media. The information war has reached its peak, and all the means used to divide and misinform opponents are in use, as each side tries to gain new supporters.
For example, Tripoli is preparing a list of individuals who committed war crimes, which is to be sent to the International Criminal Court. In response, the LNA spokesperson has stated that a prosecutor in Tobruk ordered the arrest of 23 people, who had been accused of committing crimes against humanity and supporting terrorism, and include military personnel and civilians from Tripoli’s top echelons.
All of these developments are happening at a time when numerous attempts by external forces to resolve the issues facing Libya have been seen to fail. The two camps continue to rule a divided country despite efforts undertaken by mediators from neighboring nations.
Tripoli’s supporters in the Middle East, i.e. Qatar and Turkey, are busy with their own internal problems. An influential player in the game, Algiers is currently experiencing a leadership crisis with unknown consequences after the current President is replaced.
After the conference on Libya in Palermo (in November 2018), Italy decided to broaden its cooperation with Libyans, including Khalifa Haftar. However, France’s determined efforts are preventing Italy from actually doing so.
In the opinion of experts on Libya, various countries both from the East and the West, who proclaim that they wish Libya to return to its normal stable state, actually bear their own interests in mind, which often diverge.
There are three possible outcomes of the battle for Tripoli. The LNA wins, or the GNA and its police allies retain control over Tripoli, or the confrontation between the opposing factions continues, and slowly transforms into drawn-out and inconclusive military operations with each side unable to defeat its foe.
Yury Zinin, Leading Research Fellow at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”