Is Tripoli Next? A Warlord's Victories Risk Libya Conflagration

(Bloomberg) -- Libya’s most powerful warlord has his sights on the capital. And even his international backers are nervous.

Based in the east of Libya, Khalifa Haftar has made no secret of his ambition to capture Tripoli, the northwestern seat of the internationally-recognized government. His threats were long dismissed as bombast, but a lightening advance through the south this year has put Haftar in control of most oil resources and could embolden him to make his much-vaunted final push.

Is Tripoli Next? A Warlord's Victories Risk Libya Conflagration

Alarmed, international powers are clamoring to avert a military showdown that could rattle global oil markets and sow further chaos in a divided country already struggling to defeat Islamic State and stem the flow of migrants toward Europe.

In late February, the United Arab Emirates, one of Haftar’s main backers, hosted him and Tripoli-based Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj for talks aimed at channeling that battlefield momentum into peacemaking. The men agreed to pursue a negotiated resolution and accelerate a UN-backed roadmap to elections that has faced repeated delays.

But Haftar has continued to indicate that an offensive on Tripoli is looming, according to three Western diplomats who declined to be named. Rumors his self-styled Libyan National Army is building up troops and weapons in the west are adding to the anxious mood. LNA spokesman Ahmed al-Mismari said as recently as February that elections could only take place once the whole country was secure.

“We should be in no doubt that everything Haftar has done until now has been to get to Tripoli, to be the man in Tripoli,” said Mohamed Eljarh, co-founder of Libya Outlook for Research and Consulting, a think-tank based in the east. He’s likely to continue planning for a takeover “whether peacefully or violently.”

Southern Welcome

Since a NATO-backed war ended Muammar Qaddafi’s 42-year rule in 2011, Libya has been carved up among militias, with rival administrations eventually emerging in the east and Tripoli. Though it sits on Africa’s largest proven reserves of crude, infighting has repeatedly interrupted oil shipments and production, hitting the economy and roiling global oil markets.

A UN-brokered unity deal concluded in 2015 failed to heal divisions. The government it brought into Tripoli, led by Sarraj, has no army of its own and struggled to impose its authority. A look at the map leaves little doubt about who now has the upper hand.

Already in control of Libya’s main oil-exporting terminals, the LNA has secured its biggest oil field since beginning its southern campaign in January. That puts Haftar in control of more than 1 million barrels of production a day, giving him crucial leverage over the OPEC member’s key source of income as well as command of its most powerful fighting force.

Libya-watchers say Haftar could simply be exploiting fears about his motives as negotiating leverage. Despite the tensions, diplomats said talks were underway to form a unity government that could give Haftar more political sway in Tripoli and offer a path out of the crisis.

As well as Russia and the U.A.E, Haftar is supported by France and Egypt, which consider him an ally in the fight against Islamist militants. But even they’re seeking to reason with him, according to another diplomat with knowledge of the efforts.

The Western diplomats said Haftar also received a clear message from the U.S.: Tripoli’s off limits.

‘We Are Ready’

The southern campaign “emboldened the LNA”, said Claudia Gazzini, the International Crisis Group’s senior Libya analyst. “Even Haftar’s allies are scared of the prospect of an outright military advance to Tripoli and appear to be exercising pressure.”

The accepted wisdom is that no side has the firepower to bend the nation to its will.

Haftar captured the main eastern cities through grinding war over the past two years. In the long-neglected south -- a hub for extremists, smugglers, Chadian rebels and African migrants en route to Europe -- many were prepared to welcome Haftar’s forces if they brought security. The LNA mostly negotiated its way into oil fields and towns in recent weeks.

A military drive toward the northwest -- home to most of Libya’s population -- would be much harder.

While better organized than rivals, Haftar’s forces are a disparate collection of moderately-trained troops and guns-for-hire. They could face more determined opposition around Tripoli as well as Misrata and Sirte, where local militias jealously guard their hard-won autonomy.

A Misratan official said a force had prepared recently to attack the LNA’s rear but later stood down. “Misrata won’t fight unless Haftar comes to the city,” he said.

In Sirte, the local protection force declared a state of emergency and mobilized troops. “Any attempt to assault the city will be a declaration of war that will scorch the earth -- and we are ready,” it stated.

And despite its successes, the southern campaign also exposed the LNA’s constraints, including tribal enmities, weak finances and overreach. Overstretched, it has already had to hand over some recently-captured towns to local allies.

“The plan was to peacefully take over the south in three days,” said police Brigadier General Ahmed Barka. But a festering conflict between Barka’s Tebu community, who live in southern Libya, Chad and Niger, and fighters from the Awlad Suleiman clan, who’d been drafted into LNA ranks, triggered violence.

Where’s the Money?

Haftar’s handed the captured oil facilities to the Tripoli-based National Oil Company, which he still needs to generate revenue: various forces have controlled the oil terminals over the years, but none succeeded in selling commercial volumes of crude except through the official oil body.

What he can do, though, is turn off the taps and effectively hold negotiating rivals to ransom.

“Any deal Haftar’s willing to accept will be so lopsided that key forces in western Libya will reject it,” said Wolfram Lacher, a Libya researcher at Germany’s SWP think-tank. So “any international attempt to push through such a deal would therefore also risk provoking open conflict.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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