Is Libya moving towards new turmoil?

Libyan General Khalifa Haftar launched a military campaign on April 4 to seize the embattled capital Tripoli. In 2011, this oil-rich north African country was pushed into turmoil by countries that thought they had the responsibility to protect the Libyan people from their leader Muammar Gaddafi. This self-claimed responsibility caused the loss of tens of thousands of Libyan lives. At present, Libya is faced with renewed hostilities after eight years of protracted infighting. So, the country’s oil wealth has become again a curse for its people.

It took too long for the international community to take steps to bring back stability. Two major powerhouses emerged in the country in the early years of the Libyan crisis, each one supported by various groups of foreign actors. In the 2014 elections, the Islamists won 30 out of 200 seats in parliament. The secular majority of the parliament, which called itself the Council of Deputies, refused to cooperate with the Islamists and moved its headquarters to Tobruk, hence its name the Tobruk Government. This group is recognised as Libya’s legitimate government by the majority of the international community. The Islamist group calls itself the National Salvation Government and is based in Tripoli. It is supported by three countries: Qatar, Sudan and Turkey. If Sudan changes its attitude after the recent military coup, Turkey and Qatar will become further isolated in their support for the Tripoli government, if it survives.  

In December 2015, The UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) worked hard to merge these two rival governments and formed a Government of National Accord (GNA), which is also headquartered in Tripoli. UNSMIL was trying to eliminate the remaining issues between the rival branches of the merged government, but Haftar’s operation poured cold water on that plan. He decided to put an end to this rivalry and launched a military campaign to seize Tripoli. This is an operation by the internationally supported branch of the GNA against its Islamist-dominated branch.

General Haftar, 76, has had a tumultuous life. He took part in the coup that brought Muammar Gaddafi to power in 1969. He also took part in the Yom Kippur War against Israel in 1973. In 1987, he became a prisoner of war during Gaddafi’s military conflict with Chad – the so-called Toyota War. Haftar was released in 1990, thanks to a deal negotiated by the United States and stayed 20 years in Virginia, and became U.S. citizen. During this period, he was sentenced to death in absentia for crimes against Libya. When the Libyan crisis broke out, he came back and took part in overthrowing Gaddafi.  

The previous Libyan parliament was elected in 2012 for two years, but refused to dissolve itself when its term in office had come to an end. Haftar led a campaign against the Islamists and was instrumental in securing the holding of elections in 2014.

Despite his control of more than 90 percent of the country’s territory, his operation to seize Tripoli has been bogged down, because various fighting groups that were supporting the Tripoli government rapidly organised to resist him. The clashes are still going on, and the outcome is uncertain.

Egypt vowed full support to Haftar. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are also likely to support him. The attitude of Western powers is ambivalent. A meeting was scheduled under UN auspices to take place in Libya to sort out remaining issues between the two competing wings of the GNA. Permanent members of the UN Security Council such as the United States, Britain and France did not want to extend open support to Haftar’s expedition, because they would be contradicting the resolution they adopted in the UN Security Council. Therefore, they paid lip service by announcing that hostilities had to stop. However, they did little to prevent Haftar’s attack on Tripoli. France last week blocked a draft resolution that was condemning Haftar's operation and that was calling him to retreat. Some countries say loudly the hostilities have to stop, but do not stop providing weapons to Haftar.

If Haftar cannot accomplish his mission in a relatively short period, the chance of a protracted war is a real possibility. 

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.