Stories

Foreign powers fuel Libya’s bloody stalemate

Fighters loyal to the GNA government fight in the southern suburbs of Tripoli. Photo: inhua/Amru Salahuddien via Getty Images

Libya’s UN-backed government is calling on the Trump administration to pressure its Middle Eastern allies to abandon warlord Khalifa Haftar, whose military offensive has stalled in the suburbs of the capital, Tripoli.

Why it matters: The UN has warned of “a long and bloody war” waged with arms flowing in from powers in the region. The UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt support Haftar, while Qatar and Turkey back the Tripoli government. Both sides have claimed President Trump as an ally.

Catch up quick:

  • Libya has been gripped by violence and instability since the fall of dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. The Government of National Accord (GNA) holds power in the capital, but militias loyal to Haftar control the sparsely populated east.
  • Haftar shocked the world by launching a surprise assault in April. Ten weeks later, at least 600 are dead and 3,200 wounded.
  • Trump spoke with Haftar in mid-April. A White House readout said the two had a “shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system.” That stunned the GNA, which was scrambling to repel Haftar.
  • Times have changed. The Guardian reports that while Trump once supported the offensive, his “fleeting enthusiasm for Haftar has waned” and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is now “considering a range of options, including a US-enforced ceasefire.”

Between the lines: “The idea of Haftar is attractive for a number of countries — a reliable military figure you can work with against the terrorists and bring order,” Jonathan Winer, U.S. envoy to Libya from 2013-2017, tells Axios. “The problem with Haftar is he can’t build alliances. It’s all about him.”

  • Winer says Haftar was “seeking a very quick victory, a stampede” and banking on support from the Egyptians and Emiratis, who would love to see an allied strongman take control.

Ahmed Omar Maiteeg, deputy prime minister in the Tripoli government, says that while "someone" had clearly been “passing the message” that Haftar was an effective partner, Trump surely realizes by now that he “cannot succeed."

  • Referring to the U.S. as “our main ally,” Maiteeg told Axios in Washington on Friday that the GNA is not seeking financial or military assistance, only “strong diplomatic help and leadership.”
  • He said Trump should “send a clear message” to its allies to “stay out of Libya.”
  • Maiteeg insisted that Haftar lacks the strength to take Tripoli, “but he will have Libya divided. ISIS will be stronger. Our production of oil will be falling strongly.”

State of play: Barring major outside interventions, “it is highly unlikely that either side will prevail,” Claudia Gazzini, a Libya analyst at the International Crisis Group, told AFP.

“Rather than a cessation of hostilities, in the near future we are likely to see an escalation with increased foreign support. The net result would be a proxy war ... with no guaranteed winner.”

The bottom line: "Haftar's dream of a military dictatorship doesn't fit with the reality in Libya,” but the 75-year-old strongman has “no incentive to quit unless his troops desert him," Winer says.

  • A deal to share oil revenues could open a path forward. But Winer foresees a "grinding civil war" if external forces can't "help build a way out."
"This isn't a hopeless situation, but yes it could turn into Syria."