Battle for Tripoli becomes a sandbox for outside powers

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The grinding war of attrition for control of the Libyan capital is nearly a month old. It has already claimed the lives of at least 392 people and nearly 2,000 have been wounded, according to UN figures. Thousands more have been displaced and there is widespread fear that clashes will intensify ahead of the holy month of Ramadan.Whatever the claims of either side, the fight has less to do with ideology and more to do with a thirst for power. And it’s being stoked by foreign states treating Libya like a sandbox, a proxy for broader rivalries.The man whose forces have Tripoli under siege is Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. Fifty years ago, as a junior officer, he took part in the coup that brought Moammar Gadhafi to power. Now — at the age of 76 or 77 — he has sent his Libyan National Army across the desert from Benghazi in a bid to win Libya for himself. Defending the capital are disparate militia that prop up the UN-recognized transitional government. 

Haftar, Moscow and Riyadh

Haftar has plenty of foreign friends. He has been fêted in Moscow and has tacit support from Paris, where he received medical treatment last year. His main backers are the Saudis, Egyptians and the United Arab Emirates.Days before the offensive began, Haftar met King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh — the first Libyan leader to visit a Saudi monarch for more than 50 years. Subsequently, Saudi-linked Twitter accounts unleashed “an avalanche of tweets” in support of Haftar, “some containing Libyan dialect and very precise references to Libyan locales” says journalist Mary Fitzgerald, author of “The Libyan Revolution and its Aftermath.”In recent years, the UAE has provided Haftar’s forces with aircraft and nearly 100 armored personnel carriers, according to a United Nations Experts report. The same report said the UAE most likely helped Haftar develop an air base at Khadim.Related Article: A US citizen wants to overthrow a US-backed government in Libya. Here’s whyOne type of aircraft assisting Haftar’s forces has been the Chinese-made AT 802U, a crop-duster converted into a light-attack aircraft. The UAE has been a major customer for the plane.One regional source believes that between them the governments of the UAE and Saudi Arabia have pledged some $200 million to the Haftar campaign, some of which has been used to buy weapons. Neither government has confirmed such financial support. Haftar’s adversary — known as the “Government of National Accord” (GNA) — has the recognition of the United Nations, but fewer friends.Since taking office (but not power) in 2016, its writ has scarcely extended beyond the capital. It is hobbled by internal feuds and depends on rival militia for its security — neither a government nor national.Haftar and his allies paint these militia as Islamist extremists. On Thursday, the UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, said that “extremist militias” were “derailing” the search for a political solution in Libya. A UAE diplomatic source told CNN that the contest in Libya is a battle over “ending Qatari and Turkish regional influence and their sponsorship of Muslim Brotherhood-led militias in the region.”It’s perhaps no coincidence that the Trump Administration — a firm ally of the Saudis and the UAE — is considering designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization

The Russia factor

It’s not only the Gulf rivalry that is playing out in Libya. Senior US military commanders have expressed alarm about a growing Russian presence there. In November, Haftar visited Moscow to meet Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Fitzgerald says that: “Diplomatically, Moscow still tries to present itself as engaging with many different actors in the Libyan power struggle. It doesn’t appear to have fully thrown its cards in with any one faction.”But some analysts believe the Kremlin has tilted towards Haftar, noting that it blocked a UN Security Council statement calling on Haftar’s army to “halt its military activity” toward Tripoli.The outgoing head of US Africa Command, Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, told a Congressional committee on March 7 that Russia’s dealings with Haftar were “aimed at accessing Libya’s vast oil market, reviving arms sales, and gaining access to coastal territories on the Mediterranean Sea.”For its part, the Trump Administration has sent mixed messages. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on April 7: “We oppose the military offensive by Khalifa Haftar’s forces.” But days later, President Trump spoke with Haftar about “ongoing counterterrorism efforts” and “recognized Field Marshal Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources,” according to a White House statement.Long-time Libya watcher Geoff Porter at North Africa Risk Consulting says that, “US support for Haftar (with the White House unilaterally breaking from the US diplomatic community’s consensus) means that Haftar may be able to start to market oil exports under his control without having to worry about US trying to stop him.” There’s also a European dimension to the Libya story. France and Italy are sniping at each other, with the President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, blaming Paris for “historical mistakes” that contributed to Libya’s instability. French sources insist Paris was not aware of Haftar’s plan to attack the west, an assertion that has met a skeptical response in Rome. But France blocked an EU statement that would have called on Haftar to stop his campaign. French, Italian and Russian oil companies all see opportunities in Libya. 

Bogged down

Haftar had long threatened to move on Tripoli — and after consolidating control over important oilfields in the east earlier this year was ready to push westwards. In the process he has defied UN attempts to convene a national peace conference, now indefinitely delayed.”Haftar has tried to undermine the UN process at every turn since it began in late 2014 by presenting himself as a force to be reckoned with,” Fitzgerald told CNN. “He wants the UN process to bend to accommodate him rather than compromising in any way himself.”Fitzgerald, who met Haftar in Benghazi in 2014, recalls: “One of his advisers told me that Haftar wanted to ‘rule Libya’ and went on to argue that Libya needed what he called a strongman. Haftar has said he believes Libya is not ready for democracy.”But if he thought his adversaries would buckle quickly, Haftar seems to have miscalculated. Related Article: Libya Fast FactsArturo Varvelli, of the Italian Institute for International Political Studies, told CNN that, “Haftar was probably aiming to enter the capital as the ‘savior’ of his country. He reckons the population is tired of chaos and will support him; he feels the militia leaders have little appetite for fighting. He probably overestimated himself and underestimated the resistance in Tripoli.”Haftar has said his goal is to purge jihadists and criminal gangs from Libya. But far from stamping them out, some experts expect his campaign will only provide them a foothold.In a March article for the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, Lachlan Wilson and Jason Pack describe ISIS as resurgent in Libya, after losing the territory it held in 2016. The terror group was “progressively rebuilding its capabilities, restructuring its organization, and regaining its confidence,” they wrote, warning the group would thrive amid further conflict.Last month, ISIS remnants launched an attack in southern Libya, killing two people in the town of al Fuqaha, 600 kilometers south of Tripoli. Referring to the attack in his recent audio message, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi congratulated “their steadfastness.”And late Friday, ISIS attacked a camp of Haftar’s forces near Sabha. Local media reported that nine members of the Libyan National Army were killed. ISIS claimed credit for the attack within hours, claiming that 16 had been killed or wounded and prisoners held at the camp had been freed.As Porter observes: “There is nothing the Islamic State likes more than a chaotic battlefield which affords it the opportunity to insert itself.For now, Haftar’s forces are camped around Tripoli. But they are at the end of a long supply chain and one source says running short of fuel.Varvelli says it took Haftar years of fighting before he freed Benghazi. “Even if it looks as if he can win Tripoli soon, keep power in a Libya that lacks government institutions, and presumably bring the country some stability, how long is that stability likely to last?”The international community may issue periodic appeals for an end to the violence, but the UN-sponsored peace process is now moribund. “The UN if they are not supported by relevant powers cannot resolve this issue,” says Varvelli. “Haftar knows perfectly well there are no real constraints on what he does.”