Is Libya Battling ‘Existential Fight’ in Tripoli?

Two months after launching a surprise assault on the Libyan capital Tripoli, the forces of strongman Khalifa Haftar are locked in a stalemate at the gates of the city.

Their initial lightning advance was stalled by militias backing the internationally recognised unity government, which rushed in to prevent Haftar from establishing what they deemed a new “military dictatorship”.

The fighting has left more than 600 dead and 3,200 wounded, according to a Monday report from the World Health Organization.

With frontline positions fixed and fighting stalled, both sides have refused to negotiate a truce over fears their “own survival” is at risk, according to the International Crisis Group’s Libya expert Claudia Gazzini.

AFP spoke with her in Tripoli about the conflict.

Is military win possible?

“When Haftar forces launched their offensive on Tripoli, they were banking on a swift entry into the capital and considerable international support.

They did not expect armed groups from two military power centres near Tripoli – Zintan and Misrata – would stand in their way.

But the latter did, and over time other fighters from across western Libya also mobilized to prevent Haftar forces from taking the capital.

With both sides now seemingly equally numbered and equipped with comparable military arsenal, the fighting has stalemated around the southern suburbs of the capital with neither side able to make a breakthrough.

In the current trajectory, it is highly unlikely that either side will prevail.

Obviously this could change if one side begins to receive substantial military aid or is able to deploy more, or better trained, fighters.”

What if stalemate lasts? 

“In normal circumstances a military stalemate should be an incentive to accept ceasefire negotiations.

However, in the case of the battle in Tripoli, neither Haftar-led forces nor the Tripoli-based government has accepted to embark in talks in large part because they both view this war as an existential fight.

For Haftar, anything short of the capture of the capital would be comparable to a military defeat and this could tarnish his own standing in eastern Libya where his Libyan National Army (LNA) is based.

It would also dampen his political project to unify Libya under his control.

For the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord, allowing forces allied to Haftar to remain in the outskirts of Tripoli entails recognising the LNA’s de-facto conquest of a large part of western Libya and enabling them to attack the government once they have resupplied – two scenarios that would put at risk the government’s own survival and that of its military allies.

Their rejection of a ceasefire is also due to the fact that both feel victorious and confident that their respective international backers will continue to support them.

These are the UAE, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia on Haftar’s side, and Turkey and Qatar on the Tripoli government’s side.

This means that rather than a cessation of hostilities, in the near future we are likely to see an escalation with increased foreign support.

The net result would be a proxy war reflecting a primary geopolitical rift in the Gulf region, with no guaranteed winner.

For the residents of Tripoli, this would mean having to suffer the brunt of continued shelling, the displacement of thousands of families (on top of the 17,000 already displaced) and possibly also a breakdown in public services.”

Role of international community? 

“International efforts to pressure Haftar to stop his siege on Tripoli have so far failed.

Rather than condemning Haftar for seeking to forcibly remove the UN-backed government, the White House threw its weight behind him in mid-April.

This has had a domino effect in paralyzing the UN Security Council from passing a resolution calling for a ceasefire and has also induced European capitals to refrain from explicitly denouncing Haftar’s offensive or call for the withdrawal of his forces from Western Libya, a demand made by the Tripoli government.

With the GNA and the LNA refusing to halt hostilities and amid diplomatic paralysis, the war in and around Tripoli is likely to drag on.

A first step to reverse this current escalatory dynamic requires that both parties and their external backers acknowledge that neither side can prevail militarily and that they stop pouring oil on the fire.

This might create the conditions to persuade them to conclude an immediate ceasefire entailing a partial withdrawal of Haftar’s forces from the Tripoli front lines and give the UN the chance to restart peace talks.”