Khalifa Haftar, the head of the Libyan National Army (LNA), is preparing a large scale military campaign to enter the Libyan capital of Tripoli, which is under the control of the rival Government of National Accord (GNA), military and diplomatic sources tell Mada Masr. The planned military push has opened up a rift with Egypt, which stands against the move.
The plan to “liberate Tripoli of militias” has been the subject of meetings between senior military officers and Haftar over the past week, according to an LNA military source who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity. The campaign, the source adds, will come in concert with a military operation to advance toward the south of Misrata.
Haftar’s decision to launch an assault comes after a high profile meeting with GNA head Fayez al-Sarraj, on the sidelines of a conference in Palermo, Italy last month. In an unprecedented move, Sarraj extended an invitation to Haftar to visit the Libyan capital, but the LNA chief declined to give an immediate answer and his renewed push for a military assault on Tripoli appears to be a blunt rebuke of any prospect of an official visit.
A Libyan diplomatic source told Mada Masr that Haftar met with Sarraj and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte in Rome earlier this month but that nothing was achieved during the talks, which the source described as a “failure.” The collapse of the talks may have further prompted Haftar to plan a military assault on Tripoli.
Meanwhile, Conte took an unexpected trip to Libya on Sunday, his first official visit since taking office in June. The Italian prime minister arrived in Tripoli where he met with Sarraj before heading east to meet with Haftar in Benghazi and House Speaker Aguila Saleh in Tobruk, though few details of the substance or outcome of the visit have been disclosed.
Italy has been stepping up its role in trying to find a political solution for the quagmire in Libya. A Libyan diplomatic source said Conte’s visit came in the wake of the Palermo conference which failed to produce any significant change to the status quo. The source added that Italy is looking to play a bigger role in the upcoming United Nations-sponsored national conference, which is scheduled to be held in early 2019 and, among other issues, will reportedly gather opinions from Libyans on whether to call for parliamentary or presidential elections.
Italy’s primary concern in Libya over the past several years has been stemming the flow of migrants to Sicily. Rome has worked with Haftar’s rivals in western Libya to try and maintain stability, which has led to tense relations between Haftar and the Italian government in the past. However, ties between the two have warmed recently owing to a significant decrease in the flow of migrants and the rise of nationalistic politicians like Matteo Salvini.
“As far as Libya is concerned, the ideology of the Italian government pushes it into embracing Khalifa Haftar,” said Jalel Harchaoui, a lecturer in geopolitics at Versailles University who focuses on Libya. “If one major battle disrupts western Libya, the belief today in Rome is that migrant statistics will still remain at zero.
“Conte is currently trying to smooth out a careful transition. His strategy is to try and shift into a full embrace of Haftar without disrupting the Tripoli status quo in too brusque a manner.”
A rift with Egypt
Amid the flurry of diplomatic moves, Haftar’s plans for a military push on the capital is also affecting ties with Egypt. For the past several years, Haftar and the LNA have been Egypt’s primary political and military ally in Libya, and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi reportedly played a pivotal role in convincing Haftar to attend the Palermo conference. Yet relations have become increasingly strained over disagreements regarding Haftar’s planned military assault.
An Egyptian diplomatic official told Mada Masr that Haftar has refused to meet with Egyptian officials and that the relationship between the two sides did not appear to be good. “Egypt has become slightly upset with Haftar because of his lack of commitment to political and security cooperation between Libya and Egypt,” the official said.
Egypt has long remained concerned over the political situation in Libya with the two countries sharing a long and porous border, and any increased instability posing a potential threat to Egypt’s security.
Furthermore, a source at the Libyan Foreign Ministry told Mada Masr that Egypt will not support an LNA military campaign in Tripoli and described it as a serious mistake. “Egypt wants stability and understands a war in Tripoli led by Haftar will be counterproductive,” the source said.
The developments have also caused disagreement between Egypt and the United Arab Emirates over the preferred course of action in Libya, but the Libyan Foreign Ministry source told Mada Masr that “Egypt’s relations with the UAE over Libya have cooled recently.”
The UAE is also a supporter of the LNA and a UN report that accused Abu Dhabi last year of violating an arms embargo on Libya by sending military equipment to Haftar. Unlike Egypt, the UAE — which does not share a border with Libya and stands less to lose if the conflict escalates — is backing Haftar’s planned military push into the capital.
A political source close to the general command of the LNA told Mada Masr that Haftar’s troops are planning to enter Tripoli from two main axes. The first is from east of Tripoli, where the Seventh Brigade — which entered the capital in August and fought fierce battles against rival militias, ending with a tenuous UN-brokered ceasefire agreement in September — is headquartered, in the town of Tarhuna, and which will constitute a new command force for the eastern campaign.
The second axis of the planned assault is from the west, after securing alliances with local tribes, where three military operation rooms will be formed.
An LNA military source told Mada Masr that Haftar’s forces have increased their presence in the western region to eight army camps in order to amass troops closer to the capital. Bases in Gharyan, al-Aziziya and al-Watiya are being used to train new recruits and reintegrate active soldiers.
The push toward the capital coincides with a military operation to advance toward the south of Misrata, to the east of Tripoli, home to powerful brigades and a rival power center in Libya. Last week, LNA forces advanced on an area south west of Misrata, near Beni Walid, and clashed with forces loyal to the former commander of the Petroleum Facilities Guard, Ibrahim Jadran. Over the summer, the LNA declared that they plan to “liberate” Misrata as part of a plan to assert control over the entire country.
The prospect of an escalated military conflict in Libya threatens to erase tenuous political efforts to unify the country and rebuild some semblance of a coherent Libyan state.
“Any kind of move into Tripoli by Haftar remains extremely difficult and risky,” Harchaoui, Versailles University’s geopolitics lecturer, said.