With the Help of Russian Fighters, Libya’s Haftar Could Take Tripoli
But Russian aid will come at a cost.
TRIPOLI, Libya—In a shattered villa south of the Libyan capital that serves as his field headquarters, a middle-aged militia commander named Mohammed al-Darrat, an engineer in another life, fretted over incoming ordnance. These were not just any artillery shells, he explained during a lull in the fighting late last month: They homed on their target through a laser designation from a ground spotter. The projectiles had forced him to move his headquarters more than three times in the last several weeks. And they were just one of several worrying upgrades to the arsenal of his foes in this latest phase of Libya’s ongoing civil war, which started on April 4, when a septuagenarian Libyan general named Khalifa Haftar launched an assault to topple the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli.
Ostensibly undertaken to rid the capital of militias, the campaign by Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (also called the Libyan Arab Armed Forces, a coalition of regular units and militias) was in fact a baldfaced grab for power and wealth. The United Nations envoy to Libya has said it “sounded more like a coup.” As it unfolded, al-Darrat and other militia leaders from Tripoli and its environs set aside their differences to confront the incursion. They were joined by fighters from across the country: On the front lines recently, I met militiamen from the eastern city of Benghazi and ethnic Tuareg from Libya’s deep south. The war that ensued started as a grinding, largely stalemated fight that blended aging Soviet artillery and state-of-the-art drones, piloted by personnel from the United Arab Emirates, which backs Haftar, and Turkey, which supports the GNA.
But the deck was shuffled in early September, which saw the arrival to the Tripoli front of yet another foreign meddler—more than 100 Russian mercenaries from the so-called Wagner Group early that month, joined, in recent weeks, by hundreds of additional fighters, who’ve inflicted an uptick in casualties among al-Darrat and his men. The Libyan commander bemoaned the apparent improvement in the precision of the ever present armed drones that destroy his vehicles at will, day or night, constricting his movements and forcing him to hunker down for hours on end. There is a seemingly endless supply of mortars that rain down. Russian anti-tank missiles, the dreaded Kornets, snake between sand berms to incinerate their target with a devastating accuracy.
And then there are the Russian snipers. Their shots to the chest and head, al-Darrat says, reveal a professionalism he’s never seen before, accounting for 30 percent of the deaths in his unit. One of these marksmen had recently killed a 23-year-old fighter, whose body still lay on the battlefield. al-Darrat and his men plotted for hours one morning about how to retrieve it using ropes or armored cars: It lay directly in the path of snipers, who’d already wounded a soldier in a previous recovery attempt, with an anti-materiel rifle. The mission seemed all the more urgent because the dead man’s father was imploring al-Darrat to return his corpse.
All this may sound like good news to Haftar, who, for the first time, could conceivably take Tripoli. But the battlefield advantages that come with Russian aid may carry costs. On Nov. 14, the U.S. State Department issued its most forceful condemnation yet of his war, singling out his militia by name and asserting that his alliance with Russian mercenaries is a dangerous breach of Libyan sovereignty. In tandem, the U.S. Congress is growing considerably more concerned about the war’s effect on civilians and its boon to Russian influence in the region. Bipartisan legislation is pending in both the House and Senate that would place sanctions on the Russian contractors and their enablers.
Together, these moves represent an encouraging departure from months of U.S. ambivalence about the latest twist in the Libyan civil war. The disastrous “wait and see” policy stemmed from a phone call by U.S. President Donald Trump to Haftar in mid-April, in which he endorsed the general’s attack as being in line with U.S. counterterrorism goals. Beyond its boost to Haftar’s war, the phone call was confounding because most of America’s counterterrorism activity in western Libya has been conducted with the militia commanders whom Haftar is now fighting. al-Darrat is one of them. In 2016, I had joined him as he led militiamen in a battle against the Islamic State in its stronghold in the central city of Sirte. Back then, he had U.S. intelligence and airstrikes to help him. But now he questions Washington’s commitment to its old allies.
He doubts that the State Department’s Nov. 14 statement and Congress’s increased scrutiny will mark a constructive shift in U.S. policy. Not much will change from America, he told me the day after the announcement, in the weary tone of a hardened soldier. “And they’re going to attack tonight,” he predicted of Haftar’s forces, in a defiant retort to Washington’s admonitions. And sure enough, at the front after dusk, two missiles from an Emirati drone streaked across the sky. Hearing the low-pitched hum of another, we ducked under some foliage until it was out of earshot.
The next morning, there was a volley of mortars and machine gun fire from Haftar’s positions, only several hundred yards away, to dodge.
“They hit us under a tree!” A fighter ran up to tell al-Darrat. “We had to fall back!”
“Deal with the enemy!” the commander exhorted his men. But the young man’s belt-fed machine gun had jammed.
Fighters dashed back-and-forth, and mutual accusations were shouted into walkie-talkies—“You didn’t cover my flank!” The toll of this relentless violence—the results of Haftar’s recent technological edge—was etched on the faces of these combatants: It was a stark difference from when I met them this summer, when they were flush with a boisterous confidence.
Several days later, in the midst of another barrage, one of al-Darrat’s fighters radioed back to an operations room and begged for artillery support, which had been severely degraded by Haftar’s strikes.
“There’s two or three of us dying here every day,” the fighter pleaded. “If you don’t give us artillery, I’m going home.”
It wasn’t an empty threat: al-Darrat later acknowledged that some of his men have left the front and done just that. He’s asked for reinforcements from other parts of the Tripoli battlefield, but they aren’t coming, he said, because this section of the front is known for “producing a lot of martyrs.” But that’s only part of the story: An undercurrent of distrust runs deep among the disparate armed groups in and around the capital, which are unified mostly by a shared enmity toward Haftar.
Meanwhile, the damage that Haftar’s war is inflicting on Libya’s political unity and social fabric is becoming more severe as each day passes. It is probably irreparable. Driving through Tripoli after a visit with al-Darrat’s forces, the evidence is everywhere. More than 140,000 people have been displaced in and around the capital because of the fighting. The beleaguered Tripoli government, the GNA—never a paragon of service delivery—is failing in even basic functions of governance and incurring the wrath of citizens. Some of the corrupt militias that nominally ally themselves to this government are growing more brazen because of the war.
Civilian deaths are mounting, the result of reckless airstrikes by Haftar-aligned jets and drones that have drawn little distinction between military and nonmilitary targets. The horrific results were apparent one cloudless afternoon. In a verdant area south of the capital sat a biscuit factory that had been struck just hours before by Emirati drones flying on behalf of Haftar’s forces. Smoldering vehicles lay wrecked next to an alfalfa field where panicked workers had fled the factory. Impact craters, ringed by stains of blood, charred clothes, and scraps of human flesh, were all around. Field hospital staff reported that 10 civilians had died and dozens were wounded. The United Nations envoy to Libya has called the strike a possible war crime. This scene of carnage has been repeated with impunity countless times, against hospitals, a migrant detention center, and ordinary homes.
If ever there were a moment for more resolute U.S. diplomacy on Libya, it is now. A modestly positive sign of that happening occurred last week, when a high-level U.S. delegation, including a senior White House official, met with Haftar at an undisclosed location to reportedly urge a halt to the fighting. But it’s far from enough. The Libyan general has a history of using such meetings with diplomats to bide for time while he advances on the ground—and of interpreting anodyne U.S. utterances as a “yellow light.” And right now, with battlefield momentum in his favor, he has little incentive to stand down, especially if his foreign patrons continue to egg him on. Beyond applying stronger, unequivocal pressure on Haftar, then, and in addition to opposing Russian interference, the United States must convince the United Arab Emirates, Haftar’s most powerful Arab ally, to stop its direct military intervention and return to dialogue. Doing so doesn’t mean taking sides or giving unconditional endorsement to the problematic GNA—which, tragically, a U.N.-brokered process prior to Haftar’s April 4 attack was intended to replace. Rather, it is about averting an imminent humanitarian catastrophe and a longer-term conflict—both of which could be exploited by Russia, which may position itself as a fresh power broker.
Contrary to the propaganda of Haftar’s backers, the collapse of the GNA cordon in southern Tripoli and a push into downtown areas, abetted by a brutal Russian ground campaign and Emirati air power, will not produce a quick victory. Instead, bloody block-by-block street fighting is likely to ensue, especially in neighborhoods and enclaves long opposed to the general’s project: Militiamen from some of them recently told me that they would fight to the death. If he takes power, the militia firmament in Tripolitania will not disappear but will continue, albeit reconfigured, rebranded, and under Haftar’s loose authority—a co-option strategy he’s employed toward armed groups elsewhere in Libya. And Haftar’s style of governance—currently marked by the stoking of communal tensions in the south and economic predation and repression in the east—will not foster much-needed unity but will force his opponents into an protracted insurgency. That conflict could indirectly give new life to weakened radical groups like the Islamic State or inspire some new jihadi mutation opposed to the tyrant in Tripoli—an ironic twist given the counterterrorism narrative that Haftar has long sold to the world.