When Khalifa Haftar, the leader of the self-declared Libyan National Army, released an audio message announcing his offensive on Libya’s capital, Tripoli, on April 4, he likely expected things to go very differently. Despite being the centerpiece of a United Nations political process that his international backers—primarily France, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt—had essentially hijacked to provide him a diplomatic route to uncontested power in Libya, Haftar used the assault on Tripoli to send a clear message that he rejected even the semblance of diplomacy and power-sharing. After all, it began on the same day that U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres arrived in Tripoli to carry the political process over the line. Haftar believed he could blitz western Libya as he had done the country’s south, flipping a critical mass of local militias over to his breakaway army that first appeared in eastern Libya in 2014.
But too much pride and too little preparation often send plans awry, and Haftar’s offense was no different. His ominous announcement and dismissal of even a fig-leaf of a political process provoked a backlash across western Libya and meant that even those who had suggested a willingness to work with him found themselves feeling existentially threatened. Far from arriving to celebrations as his supporters suggested, Haftar was instead met with fierce resistance and the greatest mobilization of fighters Libya has seen since the 2011 revolution against Moammar Gadhafi. In addition to the politicians and militia fighters who feel their futures have been jeopardized, civilians who perceive Haftar to be a new dictator in the making—and who feel duty-bound to defend a revolution they have already shed blood for—are driving this resistance movement.
Almost a month later, little has changed. Although the war has escalated, the front lines have not shifted dramatically, and if anything, Haftar’s assault seems to be faltering. This was not the war that either he or his foreign backers had envisioned. With a treacherous supply line that snakes through more than 1,000 kilometers of harsh Libyan desert, and a limited amount of men in the west of the country who are willing to fight on his behalf, Haftar is being forced to rely increasingly on outside help to maintain his edge. This is a dangerous trajectory for Libya and forces the conflict onto a regional level. The more the UAE and Egypt get involved, the more it will attract opposing powers such as Turkey—and the more Libya risks becoming a Syria-style proxy-war at the center of the Mediterranean.
The prospects for a negotiated solution look dim. Haftar has gone all-in on this assault, since any failure would be devastating for his reputation and jeopardize the integrity of his Libyan National Army, to say nothing of his hopes of assuming absolute power. Haftar’s various opponents are also avowedly disinterested in diplomacy at the moment. Political entities, including the internationally recognized government in Tripoli, feel betrayed by an international community that has appeased Haftar’s aggression and coerced them down a political track that steadily lost its integrity and led to the current military onslaught. Other militias that have joined in to fight Haftar and his forces see a lucrative future for themselves if they not only deal Haftar a decisive defeat, but claim a slice of Tripoli for themselves in the process.
Where does this leave the Libyan people? As ever, they have no one offering a constructive vision for their country’s future. They are fed-up with the corrupt and unruly status quo that U.N.-backed Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj has presided over since 2015. Yet they feel existentially threatened by the kind of military dictatorship that Haftar promises, modeled on President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s repressive regime next door in Egypt.
Haftar’s offensive has inspired opportunism from a range of states and shattered the facade of a cohesive international policy in Libya.
Meanwhile, the U.N. and its special representative to Libya, Ghassan Salame, appear helplessly stuck between familiar discord in Libya and obstructively partisan international actors. The U.N. can’t compel the warring parties to the negotiation table, let alone try to force a peace deal. Haftar’s offensive has inspired opportunism from a range of states and shattered the facade of a cohesive international policy in Libya, mediated by the U.N. with the goal of some kind of political power-sharing deal.
Russia was the first country to break ranks. Despite maintaining a message that it communicates with all sides in Libya in the hopes for a negotiated solution, Moscow blocked early attempts at the U.N. Security Council to call for a cease-fire or pass a resolution that may have hindered Haftar’s assault in any way. Perhaps more significant was the about-face in American policy. Following years of steady, if not active, support from the State Department for the U.N.’s mission in Libya, including regular condemnations of violence and advocacy for a political process, the U.S. all but gave Haftar a green light to take Tripoli. Apparently under heavy lobbying from Egypt’s Sisi and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of the UAE, the Trump administration threw its support to the would-be strongman, undercutting American diplomats in Libya. The administration addressed Haftar as “field marshal” in a public statement and praised his “significant role in fighting terrorism,” thus openly undermining the Sarraj government and endorsing Haftar’s own rhetoric for his offensive.
Although this major outside support is unlikely to translate into military interventionism in Haftar’s favor, it ensures that the U.S. and other powers won’t be wielding tools of international leverage, such as sanctions or enforcing an already existing arms embargo, to compel Haftar to stand down.
Europe is well aware of the consequences of prolonged warfare in Libya, given the risks of more refugee flows and instability across the Mediterranean. This probably explains the continued push for a cease-fire by the United Kingdom at the Security Council, and, within the EU, Italy’s insistence that “a military option cannot be a solution.” Yet positions within Europe are hardly cohesive. France, which has long been a key backer of Haftar, may have scaled back its public support for him amid a diplomatic backlash since his offensive. But France won’t burn its bridges with Haftar, especially with no clear endgame in sight.
It’s a position that sums up the current dilemma in Libya. Stakeholders, both in Libya and internationally, are all hedging their bets given the uncertainty and unrest. But the inability of countries like the U.S. and France to clearly reject one outcome—in this case, Haftar’s militarism—forecloses the space for an alternative diplomatic solution. The fate of Libya remains beholden to a crude and clumsy game of realpolitik. The only certain outcome involves the Libyan people, whose suffering will worsen and whose aspirations for a new state will be more elusive than ever.