Has Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar overreached in his high-risk military advance on Tripoli? The dominant view is that he has erred politically by throwing everything into an all-or-nothing play for domination, and militarily by underestimating the difficulty of conquering the capital and the cohesiveness of local militias. The alternative view is that while military options remain open to him, there is no reason to compromise, especially with the militias who increasingly dominate and control the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). He may still have some advantage to gain.
Although the Libyan National Army (LNA) advance was widely anticipated, it caught international players by surprise. UN secretary-general António Guterres was still in Tripoli attempting to set up a national peace conference when it started. The LNA military prosecutor has since issued arrest warrants for GNA leader Fayez Al-Sarraj and other senior government and militia figures.
One view is that Haftar intended to establish forward positions deep inside the city before its defenders could react. The GNA and its militias would then have had to fight in populated areas or cede a permanent advantage. The plan failed as local units rapidly blocked LNA advances and none switched to his side. According to this interpretation, Haftar cannot win the gruelling street-to-street campaign needed to subdue a city, which is largely against him.
However, this is not his only option. LNA commander Abdessalam El-Hassi has secured the backing of tribes in the Jebel Nafusa south of Tripoli and stationed forces at seven key entry points to the city. Instead of advancing into unwinnable fights, he is drawing opponents into engagements on the edge of the city, taking territory and then deliberately relinquishing it. Haftar’s forces are better adapted to this kind of engagement outside populated areas where they can use superior firepower and air support. “We are looking at a long siege, a war of attrition,” said one Libyan analyst.
For now, Haftar appears to have the support of Egypt, Russia, the UAE and possibly France. He needs to retain these elements of international backing, while containing the conflict within manageable bounds. As always, a key factor is how the powerful militias based in the port city of Misratah will act. So far, they have not engaged with Haftar around Tripoli or at the crucial logistical military hub at Jufra. LNA reinforcements from the east have taken care to avoid confrontation in the coastal area controlled by Misratah; taking an indirect path from Jufra southwards to Sebha and then back north to Tripoli.
Another key factor is what happens to the finely balanced arrangement governing control of oil production and revenues. Haftar has occupied all producing onshore oil and gas fields, but has no say over operations or revenues. National Oil Corporation chairman Mustafa Sanalla has remained doggedly independent, breaking down local blockades while avoiding political or other influences. He has already spoken of his fear that the spread of armed conflict will interrupt production.
Revenues are controlled and distributed by the Central Bank of Libya, which is also supposedly independent from the GNA. It still pays Haftar’s troops, and money leaks out in many other ways, provoking frequent allegations of abuse but also ensuring the mutual self-interest of even the most antagonistic factions. Dependent as they are on expediency rather than principle, these arrangements have already survived longer than anticipated, but their time is running out. In the logic of military coups and civil wars everywhere, Haftar needs the capital, but cannot claim victory until he commands the central bank and the oil company.
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