How far can Haftar get with his Tripoli offensive?

Recent territorial gains and the upheaval in Algeria allowed Khalifa Haftar to advance on western Libya.

Tripoli offensive
Libyan General Khalifa Haftar announced an offensive on Tripoli against the UN-backed Government of National Accord on April 4, 2019 [Still image from video/Reuters]

On April 4, Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar announced in a voice recording circulated online that he was launching a military campaign to take over the capital, Tripoli. His media office then released a video purporting to show tens of armoured vehicles bearing the emblems of Haftar’s “Libyan National Army” (LNA) heading towards the Libyan capital. Tripoli would fall in 48 hours, his forces declared.

The Tripoli-based and UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) seemed taken by surprise. It scrambled to mobilise various militias backing it to defend the capital and eventually launched airs attacks against Haftar’s forces.

Despite the severity of the situation and the risk of another bloody escalation in the years-long Libyan conflict, the response of the international community was rather weak. The United Kingdom called an emergency Security Council meeting on Friday night, which resulted in a statement calling on Haftar to “halt all military advances”, after Russia and France insisted on minimal pressure on the LNA. Meanwhile, the US pulled out some of its troops stationed in Libya.

As the GNA announced a “counteroffensive” on Sunday, the situation in the country remains tense. With conflicting reports coming from both sides, and what appears to be a massive battle of misinformation raging on, it is very difficult to judge what is really going on on the ground.

At this point, what is clear is that Haftar has received enough international backing to press on with his operation and its outcome will be determined by what happens in the coming weeks.

Why did Hafter attack now?

An LNA operation to take over Tripoli was always just a question of time. After securing full control over Benghazi in eastern Libya in 2017, over the past year, Haftar has steadily pressed on to expand the territories under his control, while also engaging in talks with the GNA sponsored by various foreign actors.

In January, his forces launched an operation to take over major oilfields in the south and by the end of the month were able to enter Sabha, the largest city in southern Libya. Having established control, at least nominally, over two-thirds of Libya, Haftar turned his gaze on Tripolitania (western Libya) and the capital Tripoli.

With a UN-led national conference scheduled for mid-April, Haftar hastened to maximise his territorial gains and hence his leverage over his opponents at the GNA. At the same time, the ongoing civil unrest in Algeria gave him a rare window of opportunity to launch a military operation.

Worried about the Libyan conflict spilling over into its territory, the Algerian leadership has been pressing for a political solution in Libya and has hosted several meetings between Libyan actors. For Algiers, the GNA and the Islamist forces in Libya have to be included in any conflict settlement to ensure the stability of the country. It has perceived Haftar’s zero-sum games as dangerous and potentially destabilising. Moreover, in its status of North Africa’s hegemon, Algiers sees his Arab allies – Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia – as geopolitical foes.   

Given Algeria’s political and military clout in the region, Haftar had avoided moving close to Algerian borders and kept open communication channels with the Algerian leadership until a few months ago. The purge that Algeria’s security and military apparatus went through in mid-2018 and the uprising which erupted in February 2019 against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s rule gave Haftar a unique opportunity to launch his expansionist military campaign, without much backlash from Algiers.

Haftar probably also received the green light from his foreign backers. It is no secret that Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and increasingly Russia and France, have been providing the LNA with military and political support.

In late March, Haftar travelled to Riyadh to meet Saudi King Salman, which roughly coincided with a visit Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed paid to Egypt, where he met Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. It is quite unlikely that Haftar’s closest allies were not informed about the planned operation.

The timid response by the international community to his offensive on Tripoli – which was launched as UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was visiting the Libyan capital – shows that many countries consider Haftar as the solution for Libya, not just the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Haftar is also hoping to capitalise on the increasing discontent among the civilian population in western Libya. The situation inside Tripoli – as in other Libyan cities – has been steadily deteriorating. Crime, insecurity and corruption have been on the rise, while living conditions have markedly worsened as the local economy has struggled and the provision of social and health services has nearly collapsed.

The capital is divided between different militias, and the GNA is itself weak and corrupt. As nostalgia for the Gaddafi era has crept in, Haftar has tried to project himself as a military strongman who could unite the country and bring back stability and order. This self-styled image as Libya’s saviour has been promoted by a massive propaganda machine largely backed by the UAE.

What happens next?

The situation on the ground is changing rapidly and is rather unpredictable, but at this point, there are at least three possible scenarios for what happens next in Libya.

First, the Tripoli offensive can become a protracted conflict similar to the one that Benghazi witnessed, which lasted three years. This would take a heavy toll on the civilian population and infrastructure, and would spoil Haftar’s hopes to enter the capital as a popular and much-awaited saviour.

Second, a quick victory is also not out of the question and it would very much depend on whether Haftar is able to win over enough militias that would join his forces and help him take control of Tripoli without a fierce fight. He has been conducting negotiations with a number of militia leaders already – a strategy that had helped him make quick territorial gains in his campaign in southern Libya.

Striking a deal with armed groups, however, would mean that he will have to guarantee their military and economic interests. This means that the lawlessness which is currently plaguing Libya’s west would persist. And if Haftar decides to crack down on militias in the future – as he has promised – he might face a widespread rebellion.

Third, a retreat or a consolidation of the new status quo could also take place, where the LNA forces cut their offensive short but retain strategic positions in order to keep the pressure on Tripoli. This may be followed by another round of negotiations, with or without the UN, in which Haftar would have the upper hand.

Whatever scenario unrolls in the following weeks, one thing is for sure: Libya will continue to be an epicentre of the crisis in North Africa and a major source of concern beyond its borders.

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