Libya's hopes for diplomacy fade as warlord closes on Tripoli

Libya has long been torn between a UN-recognized government and the forces of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who is now moving on Tripoli.

Members of Misurata forces prepare themselves to go to the front line in Tripoli, Libya, on April 8. Militia forces, including Misurata's, are aiding government troops against an insurgency that threatens to overthrow Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj's U.N.-backed regime.

Hani Amara/Reuters

In Libya, intense fighting in the capital the past several days is threatening to plunge the country into another civil war, topple the United Nations-backed government, and snuff out the flicker of hope for democracy and stability in the North African country.

On one side is the U.N.-recognized government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, whose Government of National Accord (GNA) and allied militias control Tripoli and large swathes of western Libya. On the other are the advancing forces of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and his self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), which for two years has run a parallel government in eastern Libya and has recently captured the oil-rich south.

At stake is more than just democracy in Libya. For regional backers of the opposing sides, it’s about the message being sent to the Arab world.

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Q: Why now?

After months of diplomatic deadlock, General Haftar launched his assault on Tripoli on Friday – the very day U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres arrived in the Libyan capital to prepare for a U.N.-backed conference to organize new elections.

Many observers believe General Haftar launched the offensive to either strengthen his position ahead of next week’s talks or ensure the conference never takes place at all. He likely also timed the assault to coincide with Mr. Guterres’ visit to undermine the international community’s and Libyans’ confidence in Mr. Sarraj. The siege also comes at a time of political turmoil in neighboring Algeria, whose military leadership had been wary of General Haftar and his Gulf backers. As such, it is an act of defiance and confidence bordering on arrogance that has been a hallmark of the general’s rise to the top in Libya.

Q: So who is General Haftar, and what does he want?

A former Libyan general, he was once a key ally of ousted dictator Muammar Qaddafi, whom he had helped seize power in a military coup in 1969. General Haftar fell out with the Libyan strongman after Qaddafi abandoned him as a prisoner of war in Chad following a failed military operation. In the 1990s, General Haftar defected to the United States, where he became a leader of the Libyan opposition in exile.

The general returned to Libya during the 2011 uprising to help lead the fight against Qaddafi. In the power vacuum and infighting since the dictator’s ouster and death, General Haftar has billed himself as a military strongman who would restore stability and prosperity to the country, slowly conquering town after town and allying himself with various militias in the eastern part of the country.

Although he prides himself on being a secular leader cleansing Libya of “terrorists” and “Islamists” such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the general has no stated ideology or platform other than the belief that Libya must be ruled as a military dictatorship – with him at the helm.

General Haftar reportedly is no fan of democracy, pluralism, or individual freedoms; his LNA has cracked down on environmental activists and even organized book burnings in Benghazi. Observers and those who have met the rogue general frequently describe him as a “warlord,” a “proud strongman,” and a “dictator without a state.” Should his LNA forces succeed in taking Tripoli, the general may soon have that state he has longed for.

Q: Who has the upper hand on the battlefield?

Prime Minister Sarraj’s GNA, whose troops are few in number, relies on various militias from cities along the coast, including Misurata and Zawiyah; skilled fighters who played key roles in ousting Qaddafi in 2011. Another core member of Mr. Sarraj’s alliance is the Justice and Construction Party – the Libyan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Despite billing itself as a unified “national army,” General Haftar’s LNA is a mishmash of militias, tribes, ideologies, and interests, united only in their frustration with the status quo and collective faith that Qaddafi’s former right-hand man can lead them to power and prosperity. Belying the general’s anti-Islamist credentials, the LNA has also absorbed ultraconservative Salafi Islamists who wish to impose an austere form of Islam on Libya.

By offering protection, a sense of belonging, and weapons, General Haftar has quickly grown and broadened his coalition in a few short years. It is believed that in terms of sheer manpower and arms, he has the upper hand.

Q: Who backs whom?

Mr. Sarraj’s government has the backing of the U.N. and Qatar, and the recognition of much of the West and wider international community. However, most of the West has only passively approved of the GNA, offering words of support, but little else.

General Haftar’s LNA has more invested and involved backers: Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, France, and Russia. The UAE has supported General Haftar the past few years, partly due to its rival Qatar’s backing of Mr. Sarraj, but also due to the renegade general’s intention to clear Libya of the Muslim Brotherhood. It is said that Abu Dhabi has provided support and even built an airport within General Haftar’s territory. France, meanwhile, has reportedly provided military and intelligence support to General Haftar at the same time it was acting as a broker between the two sides.

Russia was also quick to ally itself with General Haftar, with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov hosting him in multiple high-profile visits to Moscow the past three years. Singling out the warlord as Moscow’s man in North Africa, Russia has sold weapons to the LNA and even printed Libyan banknotes in exchange for agreements allowing Russian military bases on Libyan soil.

Yet neighboring Egypt is perhaps General Haftar’s staunchest ally. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi sees a kindred spirit in the military strongman waging a crusade against Islamists. Egypt is determined that General Haftar succeeds not only in maintaining a tight grip over eastern Libya along Egypt’s borders, but in rooting out the Brotherhood – the democratically elected group Mr. Sisi overthrew in a military coup in 2013.

Q: How have they responded to the fighting?

As with elsewhere in the Middle East, Libya has become an outlet for regional powers to play out their rivalries. But this time there is a sense of alarm among some of General Haftar’s backers that their proxy has overruled them and is acting unilaterally.

The UAE, ever pragmatic and eager to protect its recent investment projects and planned overhaul of Libya’s oil infrastructure, does not want to see his offensive plunge Libya into civil war, and spoke out against the offensive in a joint statement with the U.S., France, Italy, and the United Kingdom.

Egypt, however, reportedly is pushing the general to continue his march to Tripoli. Observers also link his drive with the rogue general’s meeting last week in Riyadh with Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who have expressed renewed interest in becoming involved in North Africa.

The Saudi monarchy, eager to prevent democracy from spreading from Algeria eastward in a “second Arab Spring,” has allegedly given General Haftar the green light to march on Tripoli, a move that threatens to strain ties between the normally united Gulf monarchies.