Fighting continued around Tripoli on Wednesday as forces loyal to warlord Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA) consolidated their hold on the suburbs while the U.N.-sponsored Government of National Accord (GNA) dug in with barricades and machine-gun platforms.
According to the U.N., over 4,500 civilians have been displaced by the fighting, while thousands more are trapped in the war zone.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) expressed concerns about the “disproportionate and indiscriminate use” of explosives in urban areas, along with disruptions to food and medicine delivery and the risk of destabilizing Libya’s oil economy. With half a million children at risk in Tripoli, the chances of a new refugee wave pouring out of Libya into Europe are rising.
The U.N. said on Tuesday it has begun relocating refugees from detention centers in Tripoli, while an official at one center said he merely opened the doors and told the detained refugees to flee for their own safety.
The leader of the Government of National Accord, Fayez al-Sarraj, on Wednesday ordered the Interior Ministry to launch a crackdown against “sleeper cells” of Haftar supporters in Tripoli. Such an action could easily escalate into extrajudicial arrests and violence against civilians.
The U.N. Security Council met on Wednesday to discuss the Libya crisis, while a summit of competing Libyan factions scheduled for this Sunday has been postponed.
U.N. special envoy to Libya Ghassan Salame said, “The renewed violence undermined the minimum confidence to launch any fruitful dialogue,” and also mentioned “fractures that have beset foreign positions on the Libyan issue,” which could be an oblique reference to the problem that some U.N. member states support Haftar more than the GNA.
“We cannot ask people to take part in the conference during gunfire and air strikes,” he said.
Some foreign powers that formerly supported Haftar are having second thoughts after he surprised them by lunging for Tripoli. Middle East Monitor summarized the confusion at the United Nations:
Yesterday, UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt proposed pushing for a new UN Security Council resolution on the issue, calling for economic sanctions against Haftar, despite the possibility of a Russian veto. Meetings were subsequently held alongside his Jean-Yves Le Drian, and with the UAE’s foreign ministry.
However, the controversial Libyan general has been backed by Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Israel, prompting growing outrage from Tripoli. On Friday, Libyan Brigadier General Mohammad Al-Qunidi, the government’s chief of the military intelligence, said that Haftar was attacking the capital with Egyptian, Emirati and Saudi arms.
France has also controversially backed Haftar; on Sunday it was reported that Al-Sarraj had officially asked the French ambassador to Libya to convey his protest to President Emmanuel Macron, stating that the bias contradicted previous efforts to support the country’s political transition.
However, yesterday Macron reportedly called Al-Sarraj to deny any connection between Paris and Benghazi’s current campaign. The French president condemned the assault, demanding an immediate halt to the fighting.
Haftar has ignored calls from the United Nations, the United States, and European leaders to halt his offensive. While early responses to the attack speculated he was merely positioning himself for a good seat at the negotiating table in the summit that was supposed to begin on Sunday, some longtime students of Haftar’s career believe this is a moment he has been building toward for decades, including his somewhat enigmatic years of living in the United States.
A former Qaddafi supporter with solid reasons for growing disillusioned with the increasingly erratic dictator, Haftar saw an opportunity during the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 and began amassing the power he needed for a campaign that swept across southern Libya and culminated in the siege of Tripoli. Some of his former associates think he intends to bring a refined form of idealistic Qaddafism back to Libya, essentially implementing the dictator’s original policy platform without the personal eccentricities that came to define his rule.
If this analysis is accurate, Haftar is unlikely to back down from his only real chance at taking over the country by capturing Tripoli. He probably would have done very well at the U.N.-brokered talks scuttled by his invasion. He pulled the trigger on Tripoli because he wants more.
Foreign Policy on Wednesday speculated Haftar miscalculated badly, perhaps due to impatience, megalomania, or personal anger at GNA officials. On a tactical level, he seems to have forgotten how Tripoli tends to rally against outside invaders. On a strategic level, his offensive is making it impossible for anyone except Russia to support him – a state of affairs the Russians might not find disagreeable, provided Haftar can win the battle for Tripoli and move Libya firmly into Moscow’s orbit.
Haftar’s support from Western nations and their Arab allies was based largely on his success at subduing gangs and Islamist elements across Libya, but those Western powers have always been firmly devoted to elected government and peaceful political solutions for Libya, not a dictator riding into the capital at the head of an armored column, especially if he drives past shivering refugees and a mountain of civilian corpses on the way in.
Furthermore, Haftar’s shift of attention and manpower to Tripoli threatens to undo some of his successes against Islamist elements. Middle East Eye reported on Wednesday the Islamic State is threatening to make a comeback in the south after carrying out an attack that killed several people and destroyed the home of a local council leader on Monday.
Foreign Policy (FP) argued it was a mistake for the U.N. to postpone its Sunday conference in Libya, “a decision that unfortunately appears to reward Haftar’s use of force.”
“Key players, led by the U.N., should make clear that all sides will be represented at the conference, which should be delayed only slightly, and then go ahead no matter how intense the fighting gets. They should incentivize combatants to put down their arms by promising inclusion to all forces that stand down immediately while revoking the invitations of any continuing aggressors,” FP recommended.