In Brief

The Fight for Libya: What to Know

Khalifa Haftar’s march on the Libyan capital is a bid for control of a fragmented state. Backed by a set of powerful governments, he could carry on the fight for a long time.    

Fighters under Khalifa Haftar’s command have met militia resistance as they marched on Tripoli. Steven A. Cook, CFR’s Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies, offers his assessment of Haftar’s advance on the Libyan capital, which a UN envoy has described as a coup attempt.

Who is Khalifa Haftar, and why is he marching on Tripoli?

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Khalifa Haftar is a military officer and onetime loyalist of Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi. In 1987, after Libyan forces were defeated in Chad, Haftar and his men spent time in a Chadian prison. After his release, the general broke with Qaddafi. He made his way from North Africa to Northern Virginia and is rumored to have been in the employ of the CIA. Like many Libyan exiles, he went back to his country after the uprising against Qaddafi began in February 2011.

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On Valentine’s Day in 2014, Haftar appeared on Libyan television demanding the dissolution of what was then the parliament in waiting, the General National Congress, and the establishment of a presidential council. Libya’s leaders at the time dismissed Haftar and his demands as bluster, but unbeknown to them he had raised an army in the country’s east. Haftar’s march on Tripoli is the culmination of his five-year-long effort to make himself Libya’s leader.

As more and more militias join the fighting, do you foresee all-out civil war?

Yes. A few days after Libya’s uprising began, Qaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, warned Libyans that unless they settled their differences, the country would experience civil war for the following forty years.

Libyan National Army members, commanded by Khalifa Haftar, head out of Benghazi to reinforce troops advancing to Tripoli, April 7, 2019.
Libyan National Army members, commanded by Khalifa Haftar, head out of Benghazi to reinforce troops advancing to Tripoli, April 7, 2019. Esam Omran Al-Fetori/Reuters

Libya has experienced violence since the uprising against Qaddafi, as well as fragmentation. It has two competing governments, large numbers of militias, and a variety of extremist groups. The best efforts of some Libyans to write a new constitution and settle internal conflicts through dialogue, though laudable, have often seemed separate and parallel to the competition among violent groups. Haftar’s move shattered any remaining hope that dialogue could put Libya on a better path. He seems intent on establishing his authority in Tripoli and the rest of the country. His opponents seem equally committed to stopping him.

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Even as the Tripoli-based government has international recognition, Haftar has the backing of Egypt, France, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Russia. How will these dynamics shape the conflict?

The support that Haftar enjoys from those governments certainly provides him with considerable resources to pursue his goals. None of these countries ever believed in the promise of the Arab uprisings to produce more open and democratic societies. Their view is that the uprisings have only empowered Islamists and sown chaos. They also regard the internationally recognized government as one that is aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar, and Turkey—enemies of the governments in Cairo, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Thus the Egyptians, Saudis, Emiratis, Russians, and French have bet on Haftar to repress Islamists and establish stability. For the French, Haftar may also be helpful in stemming the flow of migrants to Europe and protecting their oil interests. Given the internal and external dynamics that are driving support for Haftar, he may be able to carry on his fight for a long time.

What are the United States’ and the European Union’s concerns, and how are they responding?

At the beginning of Haftar’s offensive, the State Department expressed its “concern” about the fighting, but the U.S. government has made no effort to bring the conflict to an end. The Trump administration recognizes the government in Tripoli under Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj but has made it clear that other than fighting extremists in Libya, the United States does not want to be involved in Libyan politics, leaving that to the United Nations and its envoy, Ghassan Salame. For its part, the European Union is divided on Libya. The French support Haftar while the Italians, British, and others continue to support Serraj’s government.

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The fighting has postponed a UN conference on national reconciliation. Was the UN-led peace process viable, and is there a way out of the conflict now?

This is what is puzzling about Haftar’s move. It seems that he undertook military operations in order to short-circuit the UN conference on national reconciliation, but the chances of those talks succeeding were quite low. At the moment, the conflict is not ripe for mediation. For mediation to take place, there needs to be a hurting stalemate that convinces all sides that continuing to fight is too costly. They are not there yet.

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