Will Haftar succeed in taking Tripoli?

There are three possible outcomes of the ongoing military conflict in western Libya.

Members of Libyan National Army (LNA) commanded by Khalifa Haftar, get ready before heading out of Benghazi to reinforce the troops advancing to Tripoli, in Benghazi
Members of the Libyan National Army (LNA) commanded by Khalifa Haftar prepare to join forces advancing on Tripoli on April 13 [Reuters/Esam Omran Al-Fetori]

On April 3, renegade military leader Khalifa Haftar announced an offensive on Tripoli to “liberate” the capital and the entire west of Libya from the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), headed by Fayez al-Sarraj.

Many now believe that Haftar had been planning this military takeover since 2014 when he called for a military coup in Tripoli. His attempt at overthrowing the first democratically elected parliament in Libya, the General National Congress (GNC), failed, which led him to launch “Operation Dignity” in Benghazi a few months later.

His consolidation of power in the east and then gradual expansion south and west of the territories under his control have been seemingly aimed at eventually taking over Tripoli, which would allow him to establish a one-man military rule over the country, similar to that of the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

The announcement of the operation launched by Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) came just days before a national conference organised by the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) was to be held in the city of Ghadames on the border with Algeria.

This conference was expected to achieve a breakthrough in the political impasse and produce a roadmap to resolve the Libyan conflict, which would have included holding fresh elections to unite the country’s divided institutions. Such a political deal would have put an end to Haftar’s personal ambitions of achieving absolute power in Libya, supported by his main international backers, the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

The fact that he chose to wage war on Tripoli just ahead of this important conference (initially scheduled for April 14-16) demonstrates that he has always been disingenuous about reaching a political settlement and that his attendance at all the international peace talks, including in Paris, Palermo and most recently Abu Dhabi, was merely a tactic to buy time.

Haftar’s offensive has antagonised the entire west of Libya, especially the cities of Tripoli, Misrata, Zawia and Zintan, and their military factions, which were quick to unite under the banner of defending the capital and put up a viable resistance to his forces.

Now as the chances of a political settlement in Libya are vanishing by the day, there seem to be three possible scenarios that could unfold moving forward.

The scenarios

First, Haftar’s offensive could grow into a protracted conflict and eventually a military stalemate. This means that the fighting would go on for many months, possibly even years, especially if both sides keep receiving support from international backers in the form of weapons, ammunition and financing.

This scenario would be devastating for the country, causing a large-scale humanitarian crisis and widespread damage to civilian infrastructure and housing. It would also mean the end of the UN-led dialogue process, further division between the east and west of Libya, and continuous bloodshed throughout the country.

Second, the LNA could also choose to withdraw, facing potential defeat. Haftar gambled on the element of surprise and a quick entry into Tripoli before his opponents could react and mobilise. That, however, did not happen; his forces failed to break through the defences of the capital.

Haftar has been using two staging posts for his offensive on Tripoli: the cities of Gharyan and Tarhouna, some 80km south-west and south of the capital. His supply lines, however, are vastly stretched, with his forces fighting hundreds of kilometres away from their base in the east.

If his long supply lines are cut and needed supplies of fresh ammunition, fuel and new fighters diminish more quickly than expected, then LNA is likely to end up retreating.

This could in turn lead to the GNA forces advancing and reclaiming lost territory in both the south and the strategically important Jufra area in the centre of the country. Haftar’s control of the oil-crescent area between Sirte and Benghazi could also come under threat if his forces withdraw.

Third, there is also a possibility that the LNA, boosted by fresh military supplies from his staunch supporters the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt would defeat the forces currently defending Tripoli.

If the LNA manages to advance into the capital, some opposition armed groups may switch their allegiances to Haftar and some of his reported sleeping cells may become active and help with the take-over.

However, resistance in the form of street fighting may go on for a while before the renegade military leader could establish full control over the capital. Conquering other key cities outside Tripoli, such as Misrata (220km to the east) and the Nafusa Mountain towns (200km to the south) would take much longer, possibly months if not years.

Will Haftar succeed in his war on Tripoli?

Whether Haftar will succeed or not in his war on Tripoli will depend mainly on the stance taken by the international community, especially the permanent members of the UN Security Council.

So far, these key players have resigned themselves to issuing statements of condemnation, calling for the cessation of fighting. Meanwhile, other countries have continued supplying weapons, ammunition and logistical support, which are fuelling and prolonging the conflict.

In my opinion, the indications are that Haftar has now lost the element of surprise and miscalculated the level of military resistance that he would face. The supply lines for his troops are difficult to maintain and it is most likely that he would not be successful in taking Tripoli.

A defeat would mean the end of Haftar’s ambitions of securing total military and political control of Libya and the end of his perceived legitimacy to be part of any further political process. He would have to be left out of any further efforts to achieve reconciliation and political accord.

The chances of Libya ending the conflict and the current divide, bringing about genuine peace and stability, would indeed increase if Haftar, the biggest obstacle, was removed.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.