Apr 16, 2019 | 10:30 GMT

8 mins read

An Escalation in Tripoli Pushes Libya to the Brink of Open War

The Libyan National Army's recent ambush on the country's capital has likely shattered the possibility of peace talks any time soon.
  • By launching a military offensive on Tripoli, Khalifa Hifter has made it clear that he views himself as the sole solution to Libya's political crisis, and that any negotiations to weaken his control of the Libyan National Army (LNA) are unacceptable.
  • Hifter's staunch commitment to these tenets will continue to prove problematic for outside efforts to unify Libya's competing governments, and will make it difficult for him to agree to a cease-fire. 
  • France, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Russia will continue to support Hifter militarily and politically — not wanting to lose their investments in him as a leader over the past five years. 
  • The offensive has also likely ended the possibility of any political negotiations between the LNA and the Government of National Accord for the time being by hardening Western opposition to Hifter. 

Libya is, once again, teetering on the edge of full-scale civil war. On April 4, Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter and his Libyan National Army (LNA) launched an offensive against Tripoli, likely as a ploy to gain an unassailable position before his rivals with the Government of National Accord (GNA) could respond. But it appears Hifter may have underestimated his enemy, as his attack was quickly met with a fierce and unified resistance. 

Since then, the commander of the GNA's southern forces has reportedly seized control of Sebha in the Fezzan region — taking advantage of the LNA's reduced presence there after the fighting in Tripoli broke out. Meanwhile, the Islamic State has already claimed two attacks, on April 9 and April 11, in central Libya. 

The Big Picture

Libya has devolved into another round of violent conflict between the internationally backed Government of National Accord and the Libyan National Army. The fighting upends an ongoing peace process and cease-fire that had largely remained in effect over the past four years — raising the question of whether a negotiated settlement is possible in the country, or if renewed open warfare is inevitable. 

The best case scenario at present for the prevention of further escalation and the resurgence of the Islamic State is a cease-fire between Hifter's LNA and the pro-GNA militias. Otherwise, the conflict in Tripoli will likely remain a stalemate as the civil war risks spreading to other parts of the country. But getting Hifter to accept a cease-fire — even one backed by his loyal foreign supporters — will be easier said than done, given the doctrine he has committed himself to. 

Prospects of a Prolonged Civil War

From both the perspective of the pro-GNA militias and the LNA, it makes tactical sense to broaden the fight beyond Tripoli. Hifter likely thought he would be able to gain a foothold in the capital through a surprise attack, but the opportunity for such an ambush seems to have passed. As a result, Hifter must now prepare for a longer fight in Tripoli, which means protecting the LNA's long supply chains to the city by opening up an offensive around Sirte. 

The GNA militias Hifter is facing in Tripoli, however, are better organized, trained and equipped compared with those he fought previously in Fezzan, Darnah and Benghazi. And it appears that Misratan militias — which are some of the most powerful forces currently backing the GNA — have already set their sights on severing the LNA's supply chains. In addition to sending forces to reinforce GNA efforts in Tripoli, the Misratans have bolstered their presence in central Libya in preparation for a potential LNA attack, and have launched airstrikes against Hifter's supply chains that run south of Sirte. They might also try to take advantage of Hifter's overextended forces to seize valuable oil terminals east of Sirte — forcing Hifter to retreat in order to retake them.

The International Response  

Hifter's foreign backers have been crucial to his rise and continued dominance over the past five years. Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates and France have all invested heavily in Hifter's future since his offensive in Libya was first announced in 2014 — viewing Hifter as a strong military commander who could help stabilize a country rife with security threats. And while it's not clear whether these four countries have backed his latest offensive, Hifter's recent trips to Moscow, Cairo and Abu Dhabi — along with his meeting with Saudi King Salman in March — signify that they will continue to support him as a leader, both militarily and politically. 

There's a good chance that Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, in particular, could intervene to bolster the LNA's efforts in Tripoli. In addition to being backed by their regional rivals Turkey and Qatar, Tripolitanian and Misratan forces that have united against Hifter also include members of the jihadist and Islamist-linked Benghazi Defense Brigades — further motivating Abu Dhabi and Cairo to join the fight. France, on the other hand, may not be as willing to step in directly through airstrikes and equipment, but will likely push for a diplomatic settlement that rebuilds Hifter's political capital and keeps it intact.

Compared with Hifter's loyal foreign backers, the countries backing the GNA will likely not step in as readily or substantially in Tripoli. While Turkey and Qatar do have ties to some of its allied militias, their overall ties to the GNA remain weak. It's unlikely that Italy — the strongest pro-GNA voice in Europe — would intervene militarily either. But Rome might instead push for the European Union to respond with sanctions pressure, and could even call for a no-fly-zone or an increased EU presence along the Libyan coast to prevent a naval attack by the LNA. 

The United States, meanwhile, will likely continue its hands-off approach to the Libyan conflict, which has been a politically toxic issue since the 2012 attack in Benghazi that left four Americans dead. The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has tacitly approved of Hifter's gaining strength in recent years, but has also called for increased dialogue between the LNA and GNA. Washington has pragmatically worked with both LNA and GNA forces in its effort to counter terrorism in the Middle East. But should its access to Libyan oil get cut off amid the chaos, the United States could threaten to impose sanctions against Hifter, like it did in 2018 to get him to back down on withholding oil exports.

Hifter's Credo

Regardless of whose side they're on, the potential for renewed civil war is a significant concern for all outside powers. Hifter's foreign supporters will try to convince him to enter into a cease-fire with the GNA to prevent another war, but it is unclear whether he will be willing to do so. 

Over the years, Hifter has dabbled in peace initiatives: He flirted with the U.N.-led peace process in 2015, agreed to a cease-fire during the civil war in 2017 and has even met with the GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj on several occasions. But Hifter has yet to fully back any peace initiative or offer any significant concession, in large part because they haven't aligned with his doctrine about how the Libyan conflict should evolve. 

Two tenets define Hifter's doctrine: First, the only way to solve Libya's challenges is through a unified military that is answerable to no one and has a strong leader at its helm. And second, Libya's Muslim Brotherhood, as well as other jihadist and politically motivated Islamist elements, must be defeated. 

As evidenced by the attack on Tripoli, it is increasingly clear that Hifter views himself and the LNA as the legitimate savior from Libya's woes. The offensive also underlines that he views the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic State and al Qaeda-linked groups (such as the Benghazi Defense Brigades) — as well as their allies — with equal levels of staunch disdain, which has made it all the more difficult for Hifter to find consensus with moderate Islamist lawmakers in Tripoli.

The Slim Chance of a Cease-fire

His commitment to these tenets has been problematic for outside players trying to unify Libya's competing governments over the years. In 2016, for example, the United States and Europe tried to get Hifter to form a united front with Misratan forces in the assault on the Islamic State stronghold of Sirte. But Hifter was unwilling to work with the Misratans — who he had previously been fighting in Benghazi — instead sitting out the fight entirely.

The longer the conflict rages, the greater the likelihood that efforts to unify Libya and keep its oil exports open will collapse.

Protecting the influence he's been able to build among militia leaders in Libya will likely once again keep Hifter reticent to sign any cease-fire with the GNA. Although it is called a national army, the LNA is best described as a collection of militias underneath Hifter, each with its own interests. And many of them are demanding the retaking of Tripoli. Agreeing to a lengthy cease-fire could be viewed as a betrayal of that vision. Perhaps more important, a cease-fire would shatter the idea that Hifter is becoming a strongman fit to lead the nation and a unified army. 

But without a cease-fire, the renewed fighting between some of Libya's most powerful forces is only going to entrench animosities toward one another — complicating negotiations for a peaceful resolution to Libya's most recent full-scale civil war. Hifter's offensive on Tripoli has likely burned any bridges in the ongoing peace process with the United Nations as well, at least for the time being. After all, why would anyone in Tripoli trust him in a political settlement after his ambush? But the longer the conflict rages, the greater the likelihood that the progress made on unifying Libya's institutions — and keeping its oil exports open — will backslide. 

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