Has Haftar already lost in Libya?
Background of the Libyan civil war
Since the death of Libyan leader Gaddafi in 2011, various Libyan groups have been engaged in a civil war, that has escalated since 2014.
Since 2014, as the main forces in the conflict, the UN-recognized Tripoli government under Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, known as the Government of National Accord (GNA), has been fighting against the Libyan National Army (LNA), led by General Khalifa Haftar. Backed by the parliament, LNA is based in the eastern city of Tobruk.
Over the last few years, foreign powers have increasingly intervened in Libya’s civil war to defend their own strategic and economic interests. The GNA is backed by the UN and western countries, but its main allies are Turkey, Qatar and Italy. The LNA enjoys the support of Russia, Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser extent, France and Jordan.
As it stands, The LNA retreated in the last three weeks from its position near Tripoli and slowed down its advance into the strategic city of Sirte, as the GNA recaptured the capital.
There have been many attempts to solve the conflict peacefully, as several international conferences with the participation of world powers and regional actors in Paris, Abu Dhabi, and Palermo sought to find a political solution and stabilize the situation in line with relevant UN resolutions, however with limited success.
After meeting with Haftar, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi on June 6 proposed the “Cairo Declaration,” calling for a cease-fire in Libya on June 8, talks in Geneva, the election of a leadership council, the disbanding of militias, and the exit of all foreign fighters from Libya. The GNA did not attend the meeting in Cairo and kept silent to the new offer, while turkey and EU said the new proposal is “unacceptable.”
Many believe Cairo is engaged in a desperate attempt to save Haftar from the latest losses he has suffered from the Turkish backed offensive by the GNA.
Haftar and his allies suffer major setbacks
Despite early gains, and controlling much of the landmass of Libya, as well as heavy support from Russia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates, General Khalifa Haftar’s self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA) rebel forces have continued to lose ground to the Government of National Accord (GNA), whose forces have received air and ground support from Turkey. This month, GNA forces successfully pushed the LNA out of large swathes of western Libya since April. This includes taking control of al Watiya Air Base, which had served as an important defensible position in western Libya for the LNA during its year-long attempt to take Tripoli. GNA forces also strengthened their positions around Tripoli by retaking control of Tripoli International Airport and the town of Tarhouna, the former rear base of the LNA.
As a result, new borders and fronts are developing in Libya’s civil war. Conflict has been intensifying in the areas around Sirte located on the coast between western Libya and eastern Libya, displacing populations west of Sirte. Meanwhile, many Haftar-aligned forces have retreated to al Jufra Air Base in central Libya.
In addition to this, in response to an increased Russian presence in Libya, with Russian fighter jets at Jufra airbase, and Russia sending hundreds of mercenaries to the war, it appears the US will take the side of the Turkish-backed GNA in the conflict. This month, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu indicated potential cooperation between Turkey and the U.S. in regard to Libya. According to him, during phone calls between President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and President Donald Trump, the two leaders agreed to work together and told their top diplomats to coordinate on Libya.
On the other hand, Haftar’s allies are trying to get the US on their side and fight against Turkey in Libya, in a sign of desperation. “Unless Turkey’s actions in Libya are checked, this could easily go from bad to worse,” Emirati Ambassador to the U.S. Yousef al Otaiba emphasized in a letter to U.S. officials, TRT World said Monday, publishing an image of the message. Otaiba’s message was delivered by Hagir Elawad, a former legislative affairs director of the UAE’s embassy in Washington, and an employee of the lobbying firm Akin Gump, in an email sent on June 22 addressed to “Friends.”
It is therefore clear that Haftar’s recent losses have had a big impact on attitudes and confidence levels in his camp and with his allies, as the UAE is calling for US help, and as we will see in the next section, Egypt is thinking about taking the conflict to the next level.
Will Egypt save Haftar?
After the recent advances of the Turkey-backed GNA, Egypt who backs Haftar, has felt its interests have been threatened and have warned that they could deploy troops to Libya. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi last week warned forces loyal to the Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli not to cross the current front line between them and forces loyal to renegade commander Khalifa Haftar, whom Cairo backs. Sisi, who visited an airbase in Matrouh near the Libyan border, alluded to the possibility of sending “external military missions if required” adding that “any direct intervention in Libya has already become legitimate internationally”.
It is therefore clear that Egypt’s president has now openly hinted that the army could be used on foreign soil. His goal is to get the US to take seriously his demand for a ceasefire. Turkey has said it will build new military bases in Libya and has stated that it now has bases in nine countries.
Abdurrahman Shater, a member of the GNA-allied Libyan High Council of State, said his country’s security and democracy have been in danger since el-Sisi insisted on bringing in military troops that Libyans did not accept. “Take your hands off us, do not repeat the tragedy in Yemen,” he tweeted.
Egypt has acted before in Libya. It has carried out airstrikes after attacks in Egypt and on Egyptians. But Egypt hasn’t sent tanks and serious equipment. Nevertheless, Saturday’s speech by Sisi to the soldiers is a major step, that will take the conflict to another level, and send Libya into further turmoil. However, unless Egypt do intervene, it appears Khalifah Haftar will not be able to make up for the losses suffered from the GNA.