The Libyan National Army’s patchy walk toward Tripoli
 
 
Courtesy: Mohammed Ali
 

When Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army lost the main command center from which it had conducted its three-month-old campaign to seize Tripoli at the end of June, spokesperson Ahmed al-Mesmari chose to frame it as “betrayal.” 

The site of this “betrayal” was Gharyan, a mountain city 100 kilometers south of Tripoli, which forces fighting under the internationally recognized Government of National Accord seized on June 26. As they approached the city, where public sentiment had turned against Haftar, GNA forces received support from armed militants inside Gharyan, local sources told Mada Masr at the time. The field marshal’s forces were quickly overwhelmed and sent fleeing to Tarhouna, 100 kilometers east, where their logistical support center is based. 

Haftar launched Operation Flood of Dignity to take Tripoli on April 4. So far it has left 986 dead and 5,011 wounded, including both combatants and civilians, according to a medical source in the World Health Organization. Throughout the campaign, the LNA has been buoyed by support from a host of actors at the local and international level, despite their divergent interests. 

With Gharyan’s loss, however, what constitutes loyalty might move beyond a rhetorical flourish to become the biggest concern for the LNA ⁠— itself a mix of military units and tribal or regional-based armed groups nominally termed as an “anti-Islamist” force. 

Over the last three months, Haftar’s attempts to establish clientele relations with autonomous cities in west Libya have come up against the politics and apprehensions of a post-Muammar Qadhafi landscape. Now, with Gharyan’s fall, the LNA is confronted with a troubled base among those cities it had brought under its control at the start of April.

The question of support for Haftar at the international level also isn’t without complication, as the patchwork of pragmatic alliances that have held together since the start of the campaign show small signs of coming apart at the seams in the face of the LNA’s major setback. 

On the road to Tripoli with the LNA and the bumps on the way

Haftar’s advance on Tripoli was fundamentally centered around Gharyan and Tarhouna. These two major cities acted as gateways to Libya’s capital and served as centers for the LNA’s operations. As the LNA set up operations in both cities, by April 4 fighting had erupted on Tripoli’s southern and southwestern borders. 

Haftar’s alliances with Gharyan and Tarhouna were primarily based on recruiting powerful actors by offering legitimacy and money to armed groups within the cities. In Gharyan, Haftar brought the forces of Adel Daab, who previously fought against the LNA with Islamist coalition Libyan Dawn, to his side. In Tarhouna, a city once favored by Qadhafi, Haftar turned to a local militia called the Seventh Brigade. Also known as the Kaniyat Brigade, as it is lead by four members of Tarhouna’s Kani family, the Seventh Brigade pledged loyalty to and integrated with the GNA in 2017, but has clashed several times with Haitham al-Tajuri’s Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade, one of the militias that control Tripoli and are nominally aligned to the GNA. Since August 2018, the Seventh Brigade had struck out into direct conflict with the GNA by making multiple moves to “liberate the capital from militias,” sparking clashes that left over 100 dead and displaced thousands. 

According to a high-level security source from the GNA, Haftar paid out large sums of cash to the leadership of armed groups in the west of Libya, including those in Tarhouna and Gharyan. 

The GNA source’s account about the LNA buying out armed groups’ support in western Libya echoes accounts from nearby Bani Walid.

Bani Walid is home to the powerful Warfalla tribe, which makes up 1.5 million out of 6 million Libyans throughout the country and is a former Qadhafi stronghold that did not accept the former ruler’s ouster in 2011. The city held out against rebels for two months longer than the capital.

Bani Walid was able to broker a ceasefire in repeated clashes between Tripoli militias that started in August 2018. While the United Nations Special Mission in Libya repeatedly failed to get the factions involved to put a halt to the fighting, Bani Walid succeeded in January. 

The LNA has made repeated attempts to bring Bani Walid into the Tripoli power struggle because of this social influence — most recently when the city’s 52nd Battalion announced it would support Haftar in April. The city’s elders council rejected the battalion’s announcement, however, asserting that only the local social council can speak on the city’s behalf. 

A Bani Walid tribesmember involved in decision making in the city told Mada Masr that the elders council aims to maintain neutrality in the current conflict and would consider playing a mediation role, despite Haftar’s tempting offers to draw them into the fight. 

This temptation, the source adds, came in the form of 31 oil trucks and 10 supply trucks sent at the end of April to Bani Walid from the interim government of Abdullah al-Thinni in the east, which backs Haftar. This coincided with the GNA’s temporary suspension of the city’s oil supply for fear it might align with Haftar, a decision since reversed. 

Haftar’s representatives have also promised to pump 40 million Libyan dinars into Bani Walid banks if the city throws its weight behind the LNA, the source adds. 

In the face of these attempts to sway the city’s political allegiance, there have been discussions between Misrata and Bani Walid over the last month, according to a political source informed of security arrangements in Misrata, the powerful city-state from which GNA Defense and Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha hails, and a second source in Bani Walid familiar with the city’s security arrangements. This is a notable fact given the cities’ deep-seated antipathies, stemming from the aftermath of Qadhafi’s fall. 

According to the source in Bani Walid, the nature of this communication between leaders in the two cities revolves around an attempt to create a military force from Bani Walid that would control security and clamp down on Haftar loyalists in the city. Misrata, the source adds, wants to support Bani Walid’s neutral position in the conflict. The local force would be an incentive for Bani Walid’s supported neutrality. 

But what keeps a city like Bani Walid, which has seen cash shortages since November 2018, from accepting Haftar’s overtures? The answer highlights some of the deeper dynamics posing problems to Haftar’s cash-and-status strategy.

For Jalel Harchaoui, a research fellow focusing on Libya at Clingendael Institute in The Hague, the answer lies in the fact that Haftar’s model of governance “is vertical and tyrannical and excludes all forms of pluralism, even slight. What he has in mind is a competitive form of clientelism.”

“Haftar has been depicted by the Gulf, Egypt and France as a figure disinterested in political power and fully committed — owing to altruistic reasons — to performing a strictly security task void of any political ambition. In reality, counterterrorism was only a means to a political end,” Harchaoui says. 

“People forget that his campaign has always followed the logic of a military coup in slow motion. All international diplomacy initiatives systematically portrayed Haftar as a figure open to compromise with his political adversaries. In reality, there is no evidence of that. The marshal has never veered away from the military option, which happens to be the military campaign he kickstarted half a decade ago. So when one starts talking about the negotiations table, one must bear in mind that there has never been a single instance wherein Haftar conceded anything at all to actors unwilling to submit to him.”

Bani Walid, Harchaoui adds, is skeptical of Haftar because his war effort in northwestern Libya increasingly relies on Qadhafist strongholds, even though in the late 1980s he struck a deal with the US to try to oust Qadhafi, after a failed campaign in Chad saw him abandoned by all sides. And in September 2011, as the head of the Libyan army, Haftar attacked Bani Walid, then the last stronghold for Qadhafi forces in the country. 

After the fall of Gharyan, Haftar has taken advantage of permission to transport the LNA’s wounded and killed through the Bani Walid airport to transport arms to the frontlines. Officials in the city with ties to the GNA have tried to stop this practice in recent days in order to preserve neutrality, according to a GNA military source, who adds that the Tripoli-based government has refrained from bombing the airport for fear it will push the city into Haftar’s hands. 

Unable to secure the backing of Bani Walid and without Gharyan, Haftar will increasingly depend on the Seventh Brigade. But Gharyan’s loss has engendered a wave of fear among those in Tarhouna, where the integration of the LNA and the city’s militia was already slightly rocky

A leader in the elders council in Tarhouna tells Mada Masr that the city is now open to potential negotiations with the GNA, adding that their continued participation in the war is not representative of the will of the people in the city, who have been taken hostage by the military power of the Seventh Brigade.

The elders council source explains that the Seventh Brigade has refused to pull out of Haftar’s battle against the GNA, adding that in a recent meeting Tarhouna residents discussed their unwillingness to have the battle come to Tarhouna in the event that Haftar loses control of Tripoli. The source adds that the brigade’s commanders know they will not lose control of the city as long as they keep the battlefront away from Tarhouna and are backed by the LNA.

Yet, Seventh Brigade commanders were shaken by Gharyan’s loss, the source says, and contacted officers close to Haftar to demand an explanation and emphasize an urgent need to provide additional troops to take back the city and thus avoid an approaching GNA siege. 

The trepidation in Tarhouna is compounded the Seventh Brigade’s losses in the fighting around Tripoli in recent weeks. According to multiple sources in the LNA and in Tarhouna, at least six high-ranking officers under Haftar have been killed in the Tripoli campaign in recent weeks. Some were leading figures in the Seventh Brigade, according to the sources, an assertion supported by images of the officers’ funerals posted on social media.

A crumbling international bloc

Throughout his campaign to take Tripoli, Haftar has relied on backing from Russia, France, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, including military advice and air support, sources tell Mada Masr. Despite the differences between these backers being held at bay as Haftar remained at a standstill in Tripoli, the setback in Gharyan may trouble his patchwork of alliances and cause rifts to emerge.   

Egypt, long considered a staunch Haftar ally, shares a long and porous border with Libya — any increased instability, such as an assault on Tripoli, poses a potential threat to Egypt’s security. As early as December, when Haftar, was preparing for a large-scale military campaign to enter Tripoli, Egypt made it known it was against such a move. 

An Egyptian official told Mada Masr at the time that Haftar then refused to meet with Egyptian officials and that the relationship 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.

What changed between December and April, when President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi urged US President Donald Trump to back Haftar, with Cairo becoming, in the words of an Egyptian official, “very hands on” in the Tripoli campaign by mid May? 

Much of the answer appears to come down to the UAE’s de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. A second Egyptian official tells Mada Masr that Zayed has exerted extreme pressure directly on Sisi’s office to support the assault on Tripoli. 

Zayed directly keeps Sisi informed of the overall picture of consultations between the UAE and Haftar, a source in the UAE informed of its relations with Egypt says, adding that the Emirates are lending Haftar serious support, some offered jointly with Egypt. 

Despite this support, according to a third Egyptian government official speaking in April, Haftar did not fully inform Egypt of his military moves.

“Egypt is not in control of Haftar. It is trying to exert control, but it is not succeeding, and it gets agitated when it is not fully informed about his consultations with Russia, the UAE and others,” the UAE source says. “Egypt cannot give up on Haftar even when it is disappointed or dismayed by his performance, because without Haftar Egypt would have no real influence on the ground in Libya.” 

While the UAE and Saudi Arabia support Haftar, the source adds, because he defies Islamists — militants and others backed by Qatar — Egypt’s aim at the outset of the campaign was largely a continuation of the political work it had done up to that point: ensuring that GNA Presidential Council Chairman Fayez al-Serraj sits at the head of Libya’s political authority, and Haftar at the head of its military. 

“Cairo is trying to promote a political line whereby Serraj would inevitably acknowledge Haftar as the single military commander and Haftar acknowledge Serraj as a temporary head of government,” the third Egyptian official told Mada Masr in April. “What is crucial for Egypt is for all the militias and groups that do not follow Haftar be defeated or marginalized because Egypt has concerns about the role these militias will play in smuggling arms and militants over the Egyptian border.”

Haftar exploited these differences to his advantage in setting up a war of attrition, at least until he lost Gharyan, in Harchaoui’s estimation. 

“Egypt can’t say no to the UAE, and Egypt cannot afford to see the LNA defeated, humiliated or dismantled. Egypt has little leeway, and Haftar isn’t in the business of giving his foreign sponsors leeway. On the contrary, the key concept is submission,” Harchaoui says. “Haftar prefers perpetual war to a peaceful coexistence with Misrata, wherein the latter isn’t broken into submission. Egypt knew that Haftar was heading into perpetual war and didn’t like that prospect. Unlike the UAE, Egypt needs a calm Libya.”

For Harchaoui, that is why Egypt was likely to intervene more decisively once the campaign started. “Because Haftar has cornered Cairo into this situation,” the Libya researcher says. 

By mid May, the rhetoric coming out of Egypt was more bellicose and urgent. This coincided with what an informed Western diplomat called a “growing and more direct and on-the-ground support [for Haftar] from his Arab allies and also from Russia.” In the words of a fourth Egyptian official who spoke to Mada Masr at the time: “Haftar is not losing ground, and it is not true that he cannot win over Tripoli. It is our assessment that he can make it. Serraj is too weak to be Libya’s leader and the situation cannot wait for the endless diplomatic games that seem unlikely to deliver anything anytime soon.”

Information on the ground corroborated the first Egyptian official’s characterization of Cairo’s involvement in Tripoli as “hands-on.” 

In mid June, a source fighting under the GNA told Mada Masr that they had taken into custody an Egyptian who was in control of an LNA brigade. Days after the LNA lost Gharyan, the control room for the GNA’s anti-Haftar operation in Tripoli made a more public announcement that it had captured an Egyptian who had become lost and mistakenly entered a GNA-controlled area. 

Paired with this “hands-on” approach in the Tripoli campaign was a diplomatic press on several fronts. 

“We have deferred and will continue to stop all attempts ‘of some states,’ upon the wish of [UN Special Mission in Libya head Ghassan] Salamé, to pass a UN Security Council resolution to call on Haftar to immediately stop his ‘efforts to win over Tripoli,’” the fourth Egyptian official told Mada Masr in May. “We have the US, Russia and China on board for that.”

Egypt is also assisting the UAE in applying pressure on Trump. 

A Washington DC official who spoke to Mada Masr in the weeks leading up to the LNA’s loss of Gharyan said that Zayed was working very hard to get clearance from the US and UK to lift the eight-year-old arms embargo in Libya to allow weapons to flow to Haftar. The embargo has been repeatedly violated on all sides, allowing for a continued flow of arms into the country, as documented in the UN Panel of Experts report on Libya 2018. 

According to the source, the US showed a certain openness to the proposition, but no final decision had been taken because the US State Department in particular was apprehensive about the move. 

The UAE-Egypt push to have Haftar visit Washington DC for an Oval Office reception was shot down, with the consolation of a possible meeting between Haftar and US officials other than Trump, the source said. The US was concerned at how little success Haftar had in controlling Tripoli despite support from the UAE, Egypt, France and Russia, according to the source.

This is a sentiment that a Cairo-based Western diplomat shares. “Haftar has reached his maximum and had it not been for Egypt and the UAE, he would have been negotiating today for a political settlement toward power-sharing,” the source told Mada Masr in mid June. 

While the mercurial nature of Trump’s policy means nothing is clear, this lobbying push may now be jeopardized as Washington’s apprehension has been confirmed in a very embarrassing manner. 

When LNA forces fled Gharyan, they left behind a cache of powerful US missiles, usually only sold to close US allies. The four Javelin anti-tank missiles, which cost more than US$170,000 each, were photographed by GNA forces and published on social media. Markings on the shipping containers indicate that the missiles were originally sold to the UAE in 2008. 

Javelin anti-tank missiles on display in Gharyan

According to a New York Times report, officials at the US state and defense departments said they had opened an investigation into how the weapons ended up on the Libyan battlefield.

Yet consultations to find a new formula between Haftar, the UAE and Egypt began when the LNA retreated to Tarhouna, according to the third Egyptian official. Going into a high-level June 28 meeting in Rome where officials from the UN Special Mission in Libya, the US, UK, Italy, France, Egypt and the UAE were to discuss how to deescalate the violence and restart the political process, Egypt and France planned to push for the LNA to accept a ceasefire, while Haftar and the UAE continued to refuse, according to the first Egyptian official, who adds that what happened in Gharyan was “very worrying.”

While France had been helping Haftar on the ground and providing him with air coverage for his attacks against Tripoli, according to the same Cairo-based Western diplomat, the Élysée Palace suspended all aerial assistance after the LNA’s setback, the fifth Egyptian official says. 

Reports are now emerging of an LNA plan to retake Gharyan and launch renewed airstrikes on the capital, amid warnings to civilians and the launch of Operation End of Treachery. This is likely to cause high civilian casualties, as was the case this past week when an airstrike carried out by the LNA killed at least 53 migrants held in a detention center in the western city of Tajura. No international condemnation of the LNA’s role in the airstrike was forthcoming, with the US moving to block a UN Security Council statement condemning the incident and calling for a ceasefire, according to Reuters. 

In quieter quarters in the weeks leading up to the loss of Gharyan, two Egyptian officials who spoke to Mada Masr independently of one another expressed worry over the LNA’s international image in light of the ongoing campaign and how it might affect Haftar’s future ability to be a prominent player in Libya. It is much too early to dismiss him from the scene, but these voices may become louder in the coming weeks — especially if the LNA commander continues to see his patchwork of alliances crumble as he turns to more desperate measures. 

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