Khalifa Haftar’s Miscalculated Attack on Tripoli Will Cost Him Dearly
The Libyan general was poised to rise to power. Now his unnecessary assault on the capital is alienating key international backers and potential local allies.
On April 4, Gen. Khalifa Haftar, the head of the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA), declared his intent to take over the capital, Tripoli, with a military campaign. Since last week, Haftar’s forces have conducted multiple airstrikes, and more than 2,000 people have been displaced. Understanding this newest phase in Libya’s ongoing civil war requires an examination of Haftar’s motivations, as the most powerful military leader in the country, in choosing to attack Tripoli instead of capitalizing on recent political gains that could have allowed him to take control without firing a shot.
Indeed, before he escalated the conflict, Haftar was on the verge of being acclaimed as Libya’s dominant political force at a national conference initially scheduled for April 14-16, which was intended to establish a legal and electoral framework to end the conflict. His decision to launch an assault on the capital is not based on a rational strategy. It is rooted in his delusions of grandeur and megalomania. Haftar has demonstrated that he doesn’t want to win the presidency through elections or negotiations; he wants to seize it through battle or guile.
Diplomats and journalists who have dealt directly with Haftar concur. Jonathan Winer, the former U.S. special envoy to Libya, recalled: “During a meeting with Haftar in 2016, the general told me Libya’s politicians were worthless and the country wasn’t ready for self-government.” The more they spoke, Winer said, “it became clear to me that his strategy was to do just enough military conquest to create a stampede where all alternatives to him and his Libyan National Army collapse.” A journalist who interviewed Haftar on multiple occasions recounted a similar anecdote: “In 2015, the general boasted to me while we were at his command headquarters in Marj that he would win the post-2014 civil war by killing all the Islamists in Libya, not by simply becoming president.”
These are not the words of someone who wants to preside over a peaceful transition. If Haftar had wanted that, he could have done it long ago. Since the overthrow of Muammar al-Qaddafi, Haftar has gone from an ostracized rogue general to a major political contender feted in European capitals. But as of last week, he has thrown out that playbook in favor of a march on the capital, and it is not working out as planned.
In the first few days after his April 4 announcement of an imminent assault on Tripoli, 145 LNA fighters and 60 vehicles have been captured by pro-Government of National Accord militias, while other LNA forces have been ambushed and routed. Haftar has also faced a deluge of international criticism from adversaries, neutrals, and allies alike. These developments are likely to remind Haftar that, until now, his success has rested on his ability to take territory without provoking criticism abroad or protracted battles inside Libya.
Haftar should be keenly aware of the risk he faces by mounting a direct assault on Tripoli as a result of the costly street-by-street fighting in Derna and Benghazi, which bogged down his forces for many years. Given these precedents, it stands to reason, he might have initially intended only a media barrage about his deployments and encirclements, rather than aiming to precipitate a bloodbath. But this time, even a simulated assault is threatening his international alliances and domestic narrative.
Perception is everything, and Haftar’s stock rises—domestically and internationally—only when he is seen as a conciliator who is defending and unblocking oil fields, not when he is seen as an aggressor or blockader. With this latest move, Haftar appears to have forgotten that throughout the sporadic fighting of Libya’s ongoing civil war, the various factions have always at the very least paid lip service to the need for elections and a negotiated end to the conflict.
Haftar’s gambit is already weakening his domestic and international support, making him look more like a warlord and less like a political leader. Since the attacks began, even his key external backer, the United Arab Emirates, has signed on to the international statement of censure, and groups within Libya that supported him have turned to the opposition.
Haftar had recently deepened his traditional security relationships with France, Russia, Egypt, and the UAE while gradually bringing the primary supporters of the opposing United Nations-backed Government of National Accord—Italy, Britain, and the United States—partially onside. Many Libya experts suspect Russian help in both Haftar’s social media campaign, which employs dummy accounts to target both the domestic audience and international news outlets, and his diplomatic decision-making. Over the last three months, Haftar’s sophisticated local outreach and military progress through Libya’s southwest have been so well orchestrated that there has almost been an aura of inevitability to Haftar’s domination of all of Libya.
After declaring victory in Benghazi in 2017, the LNA has adopted an incremental, casualty-averse approach to acquiring territory. Over the past three years, Haftar swiftly seized control over oil ports, terminals, and fields in the oil crescent—often with carefully targeted payments—establishing new, undeniable facts on the ground without spurring drawn-out conflicts. These lightning moves against the oil crescent in September 2016, followed by occupying the southwestern Sharara field in February 2019, happened with stealth and few casualties.
Each time there was talk of marching on Tripoli, but actual deployments showed significant restraint. After each new territorial gain, Haftar was invited to a more important Western capital or international conference. Once he was in control of almost all of Libya’s oil-producing areas, Haftar was within range of being crowned internationally as Libya’s power broker and deal-maker-in-chief.
In other words, over the last year, Haftar’s strategy was working. Perhaps he felt that Tripoli’s symbolic importance would cement his status as the dominant political and military figure in the country. This might have caused him to ignore a significant cost: the international support he had built up from key allies. An April 4 joint statement by France, Italy, the U.K., the United States, and—surprisingly—the UAE called for an immediate de-escalation and reiterated the international community’s support for the national conference as the only way to settle Libya’s political crisis. If an invasion of Tripoli costs him his international backers, Haftar may soon find himself backed into a tactical corner.
In Tripoli itself, although some groups would likely support the LNA initially, especially if Haftar were to employ his usual mix of financial incentives and shrewd alliance building, local communities would eventually challenge its control over the city, as they have traditionally violently opposed the presence of any militias that hail from outside Tripoli. Moreover, support from key international allies who agree with Haftar’s anti-Islamist agenda would diminish if he completely backs out of the political reconciliation process or if his forces are tainted by perpetrating further massacres in the process of retaking the capital.
As the national conference draws closer, the prospect of a genuine hot war is once again a possibility if international policymakers do not handle things delicately so that a face-saving outcome is possible for all sides. The U.N. envoy, Ghassan Salamé, has now decided to delay the conference—a decision that unfortunately appears to reward Haftar’s use of force. Key players, led by the U.N., should make clear that all sides will be represented at the conference, which should be delayed only slightly, and then go ahead no matter how intense the fighting gets. They should incentivize combatants to put down their arms by promising inclusion to all forces that stand down immediately while revoking the invitations of any continuing aggressors. Preserving Tripoli’s precarious peace must be paramount.