Can LNA’s Tripoli campaign help resolve the Libyan crisis?

One thing that the Tripoli operation has highlighted is that an approach based on granting the armed militias in Libya political legitimacy is unacceptable.
Tuesday 09/04/2019
 Forces loyal to the internationally recognised Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) are pictured at the entrance gate leading to Tripoli's old airport on April 8, 2019. (AFP)
Forces loyal to the internationally recognised Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) are pictured at the entrance gate leading to Tripoli's old airport on April 8, 2019. (AFP)

The military operation by the Libyan National Army to liberate Tripoli from armed militias carries many political and security implications with consequences for the balance of power in Libya.

The operation could shake up the stalemate that the international community seems to have grown accustomed to. This new normal came as a result of the blockage caused by the widening gap between the various parties in Libya and their unwillingness to end the chaos and restore security and stability in a country that has been without them for eight years.

The timing of the military operation is significant. The various forces involved in the crisis have been entangled in intractable power disputes and manoeuvres aimed at arranging the situation according to their own visions.

Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar seems to have considered the many direct and indirect messages he received about his role in fighting terrorism. He interpreted the messages as encouragement towards further progress on that front or at least as expressions of “no objection” to his plans. He therefore became convinced of the wisdom of undertaking a major operation in Tripoli.

Another factor was that the Algerian Army, which had previously vetoed any military escalation in Libya, was entangled in a crisis of its own. Haftar saw a ripe opportunity for settling the situation in Tripoli before it became too late.

Since the Palermo Conference last November, France was the first to hint that it would not object to Haftar’s intent to capture Tripoli. France’s position may have stemmed from Paris’s desire to counter Rome’s role in Libya, end the proliferation of armed groups and strengthen its relations with Haftar.

The first signs of the cooperation between Paris and

Haftar emerged during the battles in Derna and southern Libya against terrorist groups. From the perspective of Paris, if the Libyan National Army (LNA) entered Tripoli smoothly, the prize would go to France. However, if Haftar met with fierce resistance, all armed forces and groups in Libya, including the LNA, would become exhausted and weaken militarily, which could create conditions ripe for a political solution.

Before their move on Tripoli, LNA leaders had taken warnings against such a move seriously. They hesitated more than once. The operation required taking crucial measures in connection with some of the major forces in Tripoli, particularly full coordination with Misratans, who have the upper hand in Tripoli, and cooperation with Minister of Interior Fathi Bashagha, who had taken decisive actions in recent months to ease tensions in the capital and contain some of the militias there.

The LNA’s military success in the south encouraged its commanders to set their eyes on Tripoli, especially in light of the absence of any resistance on the road to the capital and the rapid victories achieved there, in addition to reassurances from various quarters appreciating the army’s actions, the growing general distrust in steps taken by the UN mission in Libya and the reluctance of the international community to adopt specific policies and actions in Libya.

The path of action taken by the UN mission under the leadership of Ghassan Salame was deemed futile and inefficient by many. The UN actions were perceived as biased, which placed a big question mark on the likelihood of the forum scheduled for April 14-16 in Ghadames.

The forces opposing the forum said it would lead to the expansion of the role of the Islamists in Libya by removing from the equation some influential forces, most notably Haftar and his forces. Many Libyans consider him as a crucial actor in the military balance and a vital safety valve, in addition to being the only one who can bring the armed militias under control.

The LNA commander realised that the forum could legitimise a situation or an agreement that could significantly reduce the area of influence that he had secured through military victories.

The Tripoli operation began a few days before the forum was to convene. Haftar wanted to convey a clear message that underestimating his successes and role would add to the obstacles of implementing the results of the Ghadames forum. That forum represents the last chance for the UN mission in Libya.

By taking Tripoli now, Haftar would be pressuring the forum not to underestimate the excellent position of the LNA in the equation and not to equate the army with any of the other opportunistic and domesticated forces, which, encouraged by certain interested parties behind them, would like to seize the forum to undermine Haftar’s future political role.

In its statement, the LNA leadership insisted that the objective of the military operation was to end the influence of the militias that have overrun Tripoli and become an obstacle to political balance. Such a situation is unacceptable to forces rejecting terrorism. They refuse to close their eyes to these militias under any security-related pretext that would constitute an obstacle for ending the domination of the armed gangs.

After the LNA’s success in securing and stabilising the situation in the east and the south, the Tripoli operation came to confirm the army’s ability to take the initiative in Libya. Only the western region, and Tripoli at its heart, was the missing piece from the LNA’s total control of Libya and putting the country under one unified military institution.

Whether Haftar succeeds or fails in Tripoli, his military campaign constitutes a push forward for the Libyan crisis. Now, the eyes of the international community are focused on Libya and this promises further serious dealings with the crisis.

One thing that the Tripoli operation highlighted is that the approach based on granting the armed militias in Libya political legitimacy is unacceptable. This is why keeping silent about Qatar’s and Turkey’s support for terrorist groups in Libya with weapons and funds must end.

The goal of preserving the integrity of the Libyan state is certainly not served by secretly working to allow for the Islamists’ ascendance by sidestepping nationalistic visions and neglecting the role of the regular military establishment. Most importantly, some of the erroneous options on the agenda of the forum need to be corrected.