Libya’s LNA pushes ahead to Tripoli, buoyed by regional, global shifts

The change in Egypt and the declining influence in Libya of Qatar and Turkey enhanced Haftar’s profile as a bulwark against Islamic extremism.
Sunday 14/04/2019
Members of Misrata forces, under the protection of Tripoli’s forces, prepare themselves to go to the front line in Tripoli, Libya, April 8. (Reuters)
Members of Misrata forces, under the protection of Tripoli’s forces, prepare themselves to go to the front line in Tripoli, Libya, April 8. (Reuters)

TUNIS - Libyan National Army forces led by Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar slowly advanced towards Tripoli, encouraged by the implicit backing of major powers and a more favourable climate in Libya and the region.

The Libyan National Army (LNA) tried to surprise the forces defending Tripoli by moving swiftly across hundreds of kilometres from their eastern stronghold. The sudden campaign was the continuation of an ambitious strategy by Haftar since his formation of the LNA in 2014. The group was established to thwart a wave of attacks against military and security officers by extremists and later to roll back political gains by Islamists, enjoying Qatari and Turkish support.

Momentum for Haftar’s move has been building with the emergence of a new regional climate after US President Donald Trump took office in January 2017 and the election of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt in 2014.

The change in Egypt — backed by Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates — and the declining influence in Libya of Qatar and Turkey, which backed the field-marshal’s rivals in Tripoli and Misrata, enhanced Haftar’s profile as a bulwark against Islamic extremism.

The Tripoli-based government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj has struggled to build a credible counter strategy with few signs of effective Western support and stark European divisions. The Tripoli government has received only formal backing, essentially limited to pleas for Haftar to halt his campaign.

Haftar’s troops began a major military offensive April 4 to capture Tripoli and “free it of terrorists” as they did for Benghazi and Derna but the pace of the campaign and its humanitarian repercussions in a city of 1.2 million inhabitants are likely to be different.

The LNA is painstakingly taking its initial advances outside inhabited areas.

Haftar has received the support of the parliament, whose speaker, Aguila Saleh, said: “The deployment of the LNA to any place in the country does not require an authorisation or order from anyone except from the members of the House of Representatives.”

France blocked an EU statement calling on Haftar to halt his offensive. The draft statement said the LNA’s military operation was “endangering the civilian population, disrupting the political process and risks further escalation with serious consequences for Libya and the wider region, including the terrorist threat.”

Paris seemed to be pre-empting language used under French President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2011 and which paved the way for NATO-led raids that wiped out Muammar Qaddafi’s armed forces.

French diplomats said they had only requested amendments including mentions of migrants’ plight and the presence of UN-wanted terrorists among

anti-Haftar fighters.

The Italians see mercantile motivations for Paris, then and now. Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini told Radio RTL: “Some think that the [2011 NATO-led military intervention] in Libya promoted by Sarkozy was triggered more by economic and commercial interests than by humanitarian concerns. I hope we are not seeing the same film all over again.”

France, which has oil assets in eastern Libya, provided military assistance in past years to Haftar, Libyan and French officials said. Italy, the former colonial power and another big player in Libya’s oil sector, supported Sarraj.

Libya’s oil resources are likely to constitute a huge stake in outside support to Haftar, considering that, in recent months, LNA forces have taken control of large parts of the sparsely populated but oil-rich south.

“It’s not hard to see why the White House could be drawn to [Haftar]. Libya has the largest oil reserves in Africa and the Trump administration reportedly sees Libya’s oil production as important in keeping global prices low,” Frederic Wehrey, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Jeffrey Feltman, visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former UN under-secretary-general for political affairs, said in an opinion piece in the New York Times.

“[Haftar’s] forces have secured oil facilities in Libya’s central and southern regions, boosting output. He has highlighted his role in fighting terrorists, garnering favour among parts of the American military and intelligence agencies,” they wrote.

Analysts said Haftar has the support of large segments of the Libyan population and is considered the “saviour” from chaos and the threat of losing Libya as a united country.

Libyan analyst Ahmed Fitouri described the divide in Libya as one between Haftar, who “controls the land,” and his rivals who “control the Central Bank” with too little attention paid to the LNA as it expands its control over more territory.