Libya's Khalifa Haftar surprises observers with long-expected march on Tripoli

Analysis: How far the military commander will get depends on local and international actors

(FILES) In this file photo taken on May 07, 2018 Libyan Strongman Khalifa Haftar salutes during a military parade in the eastern city of Benghazi during which he announced a military offensives to take from "terrorists" the city of Derna, the only part of eastern Libya outside his forces' control. Forces loyal to Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar were pushed back on April 5, 2019 from a key checkpoint less than 30 kilometres (18 miles) from Tripoli, checking their lightning advance on the capital, a security source said. / AFP / Abdullah DOMA
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Khalifa Haftar has launched a long-expected assault on Libya's capital Tripoli.

So often has he threatened to do so since 2014, it came as a shock to many when some of his forces began moving towards the capital in the north-west of the country and entering towns south and to the west of the city on Wednesday.

Field Marshal Haftar’s forces, under the banner of the Libyan National Army (LNA), is the most powerful force in eastern Libya and some patches of the south, but have now turned their eyes to the big prize after their commander announced Operation Tripoli on Thursday.

They say they want to "liberate" the capital from corruption and terrorism, urging surrender and issuing promises that the unarmed would be unharmed in an armistice.

The threadbare institutions of the Libyan state remain bystanders to events if the LNA is truly intent on advancing on the capital, a metropolis of one million people. The ineffectual UN-backed Government of National Accord is heavily reliant on the various heavily armed militias that have carved up the city since the demise of Muammar Qaddafi, the dictator since 1969, who was ousted in a Nato-backed uprising in 2011.

The militias of the city are loath to turn it over to a more professional force that could disrupt the grip they have over the city.

Many of the militias are displaying signs of gearing up for a battle, with 128 LNA fighters captured to the west of Tripoli on Thursday. An unknown number of fighters entered from the city of Misrata to the east, whose forces enjoy a degree of backing from Turkey and contain some Muslim Brotherhood-influenced factions.

The LNA, on the other hand, seemed to pass with ease into the town of Gharyan, about 90 kilometres south of Tripoli, which is dominated by the traditional tribes of the area. The commanders were reported to have formed a number of alliances with forces friendly towards the LNA, many of whom are disgruntled at the power Tripoli's militias wield, their corruption and wealth. A joint statement from the UAE, France, Italy, the UK and the US on Thursday made clear deep international concern over the fighting near Gharyan and all parties to the situation were urged to immediately de-escalate tensions that were said to hinder prospects for UN political mediation.

Nevertheless the manoeuvres of recent days could be only the start of a new phase on the ground. The LNA is stretched, with forces now advancing in the western half of the country as well as holding its defensive lines in the east and south. A head-on battle in Tripoli, with no new alliances or defections, has the potential to escalate quickly into bloodbath as heavily armed fighters trade blows with few skills at defensive tactics. In an urban landscape the risk of unintended deaths is high.

The UN-organised national conference due to take place in less than two weeks has seen the Secretary General Antonio Guterres travel to Tripoli this week. The developments on the ground south of Tripoli cast a shadow over those diplomatic efforts as the fighting could make the conference untenable. The LNA chief could also face the conference in a stronger or weaker negotiating position depending on what happens during the Tripoli assault.

When the former Qaddafi-era general launched Operation Dignity in 2014, his powers to rid the country of terrorism were limited. At that time Libya’s fractures were myriad and deep, with pockets of chaos dotted around its major population centres.

Steadily over the years the LNA has become a central force and gained the backing of local, well-placed militias. It has consolidated control of the second city Benghazi and the eastern oil fields. What sets an assault on Tripoli apart from the other campaigns is the make-up of the capital’s militias and their strength in numbers.

Mr Haftar portrays himself as a bastion against Islamist terrorism and the Muslim Brotherhood ideology. His initial attacks in the early years of Operation Dignity, on Benghazi and then Derna in the east of Libya, certainly were against such foes. He lumped disparate groups of Islamists as well as Al Qaeda-linked fighters and ISIS cells into one enemy, finally defeating them in recent months.

The LNA’s operation in southern Libya a couple of months ago was conducted with minimal resistance.

While Tripoli's militia's are heavily armed, some are less ideologically motivated - factors that could aid the LNA's advance depending on the circumstances. Some groups in the capital are always likely to be vehemently opposed to the LNA but Mr Haftar's forces have some things in common with others. Some are ultra-conservative and are followers of religious strands that cross into LNA units. Some factions deplore the Muslim Brotherhood in the same way that Mr Haftar does.

Others are opportunistic, keen to keep their vast financial wealth. It is perfectly conceivable that they could turn towards the LNA if they feel threatened by any further advances by Mr Haftar's forces but there are no indications of this so far.

There is also the powerful city state of Misrata, which has sent some units to back the Tripoli government. A battle-hardened people, it was they who ousted ISIS from the city of Sirte in 2016 and withstood a barrage by Qaddafi’s forces during the 2011 revolution. The position of another powerful autonomous city, Zintan, a few hours to the south of Tripoli is unclear and likely to be divided.

Misrata’s position is not entirely clear, with some in the business community ambivalent towards the LNA as long as their interests are protected.

The international community, while urging calm, has done little publicly to stop the LNA advance. If it ramps up the diplomatic pressure or threatens the LNA to back off, things could change and Mr Haftar might feel he has done enough to enhance his political bargaining power.

Speaking on Thursday night a commander for the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade, the capital's largest force, told The National he "unanimously" agreed with statements by the Libyan interior minister that there was no longer any trust in the UN and international community.

It is unlikely, however, that the commander's comments fully represented the views on the entire brigade.