Khalifa Haftar has become increasingly desperate as his advances on Tripoli have failed and his forces weaken.
In a dramatic press conference, Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar proclaimed a landmark United Nations-led Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) to unite the country “a thing of the past,” and pledged his authorities would move toward installing a new government.
Despite Haftar’s recent statement, the UN underscored that the LPA, and the institutions emanating from it, remain the sole internationally recognised framework of governance in Libya as per UN Security Council Resolutions, reaffirming that political change should take place via democratic means.
Russia doesn’t appear to endorse Haftar’s power grab in Libya. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Moscow did not approve of Haftar’s move to seize control of the country. Since 2015, Russia has been ramping up its engagement in Libya and supporting Haftar by providing significant military help for his offensive against the UN backed government.
In December 2015, the political agreement, also known as the Skhirat agreement (LPA), was signed to form a transitional government. The deal was aimed at transcending the country’s political divide after the eruption of civil war in mid-2014 had put an end to the transitional process.
The peace process was negotiated under the auspices of the UN had not only the support of Western governments but also the endorsement of the UN Security Council. The resulting political agreement led to the establishment of a single Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Fayez al Sarraj.
Haftar has continuously refused to abide by peace proposals and initiatives. Negotiations and a political process are not part of Haftar’s plan though, and he only cares about expanding his power across the country by sheer force. Haftar has stated his opposition to civilian rule in Libya on several occasions and has repeatedly indicated that he does not believe in democracy or freedom.
The UN has been encouraging diplomatic efforts but given the failure of previous initiatives, the arms race, and Haftar’s history of undermining political solutions makes it harder for any credible diplomatic efforts to end the conflict in Libya. Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli in April 2019 prevented the UN-planned ‘national conference’, intended to be held less than two weeks later, from negotiating a framework for the transition out of Libya’s crisis.
The renewed violence has undermined any trust among the belligerents and dented the chances of generating a peaceful resolution. The timing of the attack on Tripoli – while United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was visiting – is an indication of Haftar’s defiance of international institutions.
Despite the truce, Haftar and his self-declared ‘Libyan National’ Army (LNA) continue to launch rockets on Tripoli’s neighbourhoods. The attacks came just days after he expressed his commitment to a humanitarian pause in fighting against the UN-backed government in Tripoli, so authorities could focus on stopping the spread of Covid-19.
Meanwhile, Haftar’s LNA artillery attacks are relentless and ruthless, designed to harass Tripoli’s innocent residents indiscriminately. For instance, militias have constantly targeted Tripoli’s coronavirus hospital for the 3rd consecutive time in the past week despite the ceasefire.
Operation Peace Storm launched by internationally recognised government forces to deal with the ongoing violations of the truce by the Haftar forces and to impose a new operational reality on the ground, strengthened the influence of the GNA.
Recently, Haftar’s LNA lost seven western cities stretching from Tripoli all the way to the Tunisian border. The capture of coastal towns as well as advancing on Tarhouna, a town of strategic value for Haftar forces and his last major stronghold in the area surrounding the capital, is viewed as a significant blow to Haftar and his backers, a year after he launched an offensive on the capital.
The battle is currently changing and is favouring the UN-backed government which has achieved significant victories over the past few days whereas the militias of Haftar have suffered heavy losses. The latest territorial loss has further hampered militia leader Haftar’s chances of taking Tripoli.
Even though Haftar seems too weak to seize power by force; for the other armed groups, toppling the UN backed government militarily held no prospect of assuming power. This is a classic diversionary tactic, whereby he masks his successive military failures by creating a new political reality in the East.
Haftar and his LNA are the main obstacle to reconciliation in Libya, as they continue to seek to impose their diktat on the country. While there is no alternative to a political solution, the removal of Haftar would boost the chances of the international peace plan considerably.
Libya requires indeed a determined leadership, empowered by the rule of law, as well as democratic institutions adhering to inclusive policies for the purpose of reversing the rapid deterioration of the country.