The commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar announced on 27 April 2020 “acceptance by the Armed Forces General Command ofthe people’s mandate to govern the country and end the Skhirat Agreement”, signed in 2015 between Libyan parties. The announcement coincided with the intensification of the battle of western Libya between the LNA and the army loyal to the Government of National Accord (GNA). While the GNA army has made concrete gains on the ground, a number of questions are raised regarding the future of the military situation in western Libya and its impact on the political solution approach in Libya.
Current military facts
It is clear that the LNA project to regain the capital Tripoli, which started in April 2019, currently faces increasing difficulties in the aftermath of the military gains achieved by the GNA army led by Fayez al-Sarraj in the last few days. After the takeover of some coastal areas, mainly Sorman and Sabratha, an intensive attack was launched on the strategic city of Tarhuna (located 88 kilometres southeast of Tripoli) and the airbase in Al-Watiya (140 kilometres from Tripoli). If the Tripoli army manages to take control of those two vital centres, it would then have taken control of the entire western region from Abu Qurayn to Ras Ajdir at the Tunisian border.
While the LNA forces maintain some strongholds, especially in areas traditionally loyal to the Gaddafi regime, in the city of Bani Walid and the tribes of Alseaan, Al-Nawael and Wershfana, the loyalty of those parties is not fully guaranteed. Besides, they heed the positions of the Misurata province which is a strong supporter of the Tripoli government.
Obviously, the GNA strategy is based on driving the forces of FM Haftar completely out of western Libya to enhance its deteriorating international legitimacy and embark on a second stage to take over oilfields by regaining the Gulf of Sirte and its vital port at the heart of the Libyan oil crescent.
Three main factors have contributed to the improved military capabilities of the Tripoli army, namely:
1. The large-scale Turkish intervention after signing the defence agreement between the Tripoli authorities and the Ankara government in November 2019 and the subsequent heavy military support which focused on the air force and drones. This provided the necessary aerial cover for land attack operations by the militiamen constituting the Tripoli army in addition to the Syrian mercenaries sent by Turkey to the Libyan arena, estimated at around ten thousand fighters.
2. The local and international equation stemming from the spread of the coronavirus. The Tripoli forces have benefited from international calls for a truce to launch a surprise attack on the other party which has been under continuous pressures to join the peaceful negotiation process endorsed by the Berlin Conference on Libya, held in January 2020. In addition, the countries supportive of the LNA, particularly Egypt, have been preoccupied with countering the epidemic which has strongly affected their political and diplomatic priorities.
3. The emergence of regional positions opposed to the control by the LNA over western Libya, mainly in Algeria and Tunisia, despite initial contacts between the new leaderships in both countries and the FM Khalifa Haftar wing. Several concrete indications have emerged regarding the objection of the Algerian military establishment to the arrival of Egypt’s allies to Algeria’s vital security space in western Libya. Furthermore, the Tunisian government, whose official position is based on neutrality vis-à-vis the Libyan internal dispute, seems closer to the Sarraj government and cautious about the LNA expansion to western Libya.
Three major factors will affect the shaping of the future internal military and political situation in Libya:
1. The impact of FM Khalifa Haftar’s decision to terminate the Skhirat Agreement which had established the international legitimacy framework in the Libyan setting by recognizing the Sarraj government as the representative of the Libyan state despite the actual handling of the Libyan crisis from the perspective of substantive facts on the ground which entail the recognition of the LNA as a fundamental player in the Libyan arena.
2. The emergence of a pattern of power balance between the regional and international front supportive of the LNA and the front supportive of the Sarraj government based on Turkey and Qatar along with a weaker, albeit influential, Italian role at the European level.
3. The disruption of the political settlement path which was established by the Moscow understandings, Berlin agreements and African Union initiatives. With the resignation of the former UN envoy Ghassan Salame and failure to nominate former Algerian foreign minister Ramtan Lamamra, it has become difficult under the current international conditions to push the peaceful political settlement process in Libya forward.
Prospects of the Libyan landscape
A reading of the Libyan future could reveal three distinct scenarios:
1. Scenario of actual partition of Libya in case of increasing gains by the GNA in western Libya and transition by FM Khalifa Haftar to the stage of direct political rule in his capital in eastern Libya (Tobruk) while maintaining his strongholds in the south and the oil crescent. This would lead to shaking the legitimacy of the Tripoli government and shifting the dispute into a conflict between two states existing on the ground, although it is unlikely that any of them would militarily determine the present conflict.
2. Scenario of collapse of the Tripoli government in case the LNA regains western Libya through a broad alliance with coastal western tribes and strong support from its regional and international allies, particularly Russia which is quite influential in Libya despite its complicated relationship with Turkey and the well-known influence of decision centres in Algeria on its strategies in North Africa.
3. Scenario of reaching an interim and gradual settlement of the conflict (likely) through international initiatives calling for a truce and the initiation of peaceful negotiations through UN diplomatic mechanisms. This is the EU-African position that the different parties may accept in case they become militarily exhausted.
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