Khalifa Haftar’s march on Tripoli on April 4 was a paradigm-shifting event whose importance remains lost on the global diplomatic community. Haftar’s actions closed the door on the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) and on attempts to amend it, including a series of negotiations between Haftar and Government of National Accord (GNA) Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj and the resulting ill-fated Abu Dhabi deal. A new landscape is emerging in Libya, forcing policymakers back to the drawing board for a solution.
The LPA’s political institutions (the House of Representatives and Government of National Accord) and the political framework for power sharing it defined can no longer contain or reflect Libya’s political and military realities. From Haftar’s perspective, the LPA can no longer ensure his personal advancement, so he gambled everything on his invasion of Tripoli. If he succeeds, the political process will no longer be necessary. If he fails, then he will have more pressing concerns, namely trying to keep his alliance together under his command. The Government of National Accord feel deeply betrayed by an international community that focused on pressuring western Libyan factions toward diplomacy, while forgiving Haftar’s military escalations and hoping appeasement would encourage him to negotiate.
Both sides now see war as their only option. Unfortunately, the victory for which each is hoping seems beyond the capabilities of either. Even if Haftar can transport his superior weaponry and sufficient men across a treacherous 1,000-kilometer (620-mile) route from his base in Benghazi to Tripoli, he would initiate a grinding siege that would decimate his political capital and popular support. If the western militias opposing Haftar want a decisive victory they would not only have to push him out of western Libya and negotiate the surrender of the towns which have supported him, but they would have to unseat him from the strategic locations (such as oilfields and airports) that he controls in eastern Libya to ensure that he cannot simply launch a new campaign. The smash-and-grab raid by southern Libyan forces under Ali Kanna on April 18 against the Haftar-controlled Tamanhint airbase and the mobilization of Haftar’s troops toward Sirte show how this war will escalate across the country.
As a nationwide state of war continues, not only will the level of conflict escalate, but also its nature as both sides seek to bolster support bases and create a strategic advantage. For example, with Haftar in control of the oilfields, but Tripoli controlling cash distribution, the Libyan economy has already started to become the next battleground, with Haftar’s forces attempting in 2018 to export their own crude oil and bypass the national oil company (which deposits all revenues into the Tripoli-controlled central bank). If Haftar is unable to maintain a foothold in western Libya, his next move would likely be to once again sell oil outside of the existing system to save face, finance his operation, and cut off the revenues his opponents rely on to wage war.
Both sides are ignoring the calls for a ceasefire. This is partially because diplomats are offering something nobody wants: a freeze to the conflict that will only reboot the same political process that resulted in war in the first place. But it is also because they are talking to the wrong people. At this stage, Haftar cannot be talked down. The only way to temper his belligerence would be to convince Cairo, Abu Dhabi, and Riyadh—his primary suppliers of arms, funding, and strategic assistance such as air strikes—to end their support for his operation. Similarly, Serraj has proven to be almost entirely irrelevant within the opposition camp. Haftar’s attack triggered what is probably the largest mobilization of forces in Libya since 2011, with a wide variety of civilian militias, gangs, and other forces from across western Libya holding the front lines against Haftar. This development has lessened Serraj’s already scant control, and it is doubtful he could influence—let alone reverse—the mobilization that has already taken place. Instead, power at the GNA level is increasingly concentrated in the hands of Minister of Interior Fathi Bashagha, also the minister of defense as of April 14, and any ceasefire would have to reflect consensus among the various leaders commanding the defense of the capital.
The inability of any existing institution to exert control, the fervor with which all belligerents believe in their fight, and the unsuitability of the existing political framework are why international efforts at a resolution are failing. As the situation devolves, Libya’s population and neighbors are facing greater threats and stability is becoming more elusive. As Libya’s political negotiations have completely given way to military campaigns and outside interventions fuel the ability of both sides to continue waging war, the situation is escalating—making it even harder to achieve a ceasefire among players too heavily invested in the conflict. Realistically, a ceasefire can only happen when Haftar and his supporters find war to be too costly—whether because they can literally not afford to continue, their outside arms shipments are blocked, or they become international pariahs—and when the GNA and its allies have guarantees that Haftar will not exploit any ceasefire to consolidate his position in preparation for a fresh attack. If they can reach a ceasefire, this opens the way for a new political process to cement this new reality. This might include a push to conclude the UN-sponsored national conference consultations, which could transform popular support for a military solution into widespread public pressure on Libya’s factions to reach a political solution. Ultimately, engaging the Libyan public will be key to both undermining desire for war and making any political process successful.
Haftar’s attack on Tripoli has not only drastically polarized Libya, but also the international community by forcing many who were previously ambivalent, such as Washington, or who were happy playing all sides, such as Moscow, to pick a side. France, Haftar’s main backer in Europe, has been stung by attacks from GNA officials and Tripoli residents for their long-standing partisan involvement, forcing them to temper their position, at least publicly. However, the war advertised by Haftar and his regional backers as a quick, clean, success has been anything but. As the war escalates and Libyans become more polarized—and if Libya succumbs to impending humanitarian, energy, and security catastrophes—then it will likely force Western countries to re-think their implicit or explicit support for Haftar.
To adjust to the new Libya, international policymakers will instead need to ready new tools for engagement and provide new forums for more effective multilateral discussions. The existing P3+3 working group that includes the United States, United Kingdom, France, Italy, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates could be expanded to include such actors as Russia and Turkey. Widening the tent of international discussions may make consensus harder to reach, but it does more accurately reflect the perspectives at play and lessen the potential for rival diplomatic processes launched by those frustrated at being left out of the official negotiations. It will take time for policymakers to adjust to the new reality, but it will also be some time before the moment is ripe for diplomatic intervention. It may seem perverse that the path to a ceasefire in one country should lay entirely outside it, but if the many states who influence Libyan proceedings are unable to come together, then Libya’s civil war will undoubtedly continue to degenerate to the detriment of all involved.