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Libya: The battle for Tripoli becomes a sandbox for foreign powers

On Sunday, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, commanding the Libyan national army around the Libyan capital, ordered his troops to redouble their efforts to "teach the enemy a greater and greater lesson than the previous ones."

Defending The capital is an inconsistent Islamist militia supporting the UN-recognized transitional government.

The UN Mission to Libya (UNSMIL) called for a week-long ceasefire on Monday, coinciding with the beginning of Ramadan. Haftar responded: "Our fighting against terrorism in Benghazi and Derna has not stopped in the holy month of Ramadan, but we have increased our resolve and strength."

The conflict is also fueled by foreign states that treat Libya as a sandbox, a proxy for their broader rivalries.

Haftar, Moscow and Riyadh

Fifty years ago, Haftar took part in the coup that brought Moammar Gaddafi to power. Now, in his mid-70s, he has sent his troops from Benghazi into the desert to win over Libya.

Haftar has many foreign friends. He was celebrated in Moscow and has tacit support from Paris, where he received medical treatment last year. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said last week that France supported Haftar for "combating terrorism in Benghazi and southern Libya, and that is in our interests."

The main supporters of Haftar are the Saudis, the Egyptians and the United Arab Emirates. Days before the start of the offensive Haftar met with King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh ̵

1; the first Libyan leader to visit a Saudi monarch for more than 50 years.

As a result, Saudi's Twitter accounts accounted for "an avalanche of tweets" in support of Haftar, "which contains Libyan dialect in part and very precise references to Libyan scenes," says journalist Mary Fitzgerald, author of The Libyan Revolution and their consequences. "

In recent years, the United Arab Emirates have contributed According to a report by a panel of UN experts from 2017, Haftar's forces were using aircraft and nearly 100 armored personnel carriers United Arab Emirates most likely helped to build an air base in Khadim, a US-backed government in Libya, here's why "src-mini =" // cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/190405142003- 01-khalifa-haftar-file-small-169.jpg "src-xsmall =" // cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/190405142003-01-khalifa-haftar-file-medium-plus-169.jpg "src-sma ll = "http://cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/190405142003-01-khalifa-haftar-file-large-169.jpg" src-medium = "// cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/ dam / assets / 190405142003-01-khalifa-haftar-file-exlarge-169.jpg "src-large =" // cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/190405142003-01-khalifa-haftar-file-super -169.jpg "src-full16x9 =" // cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/190405142003-01-khalifa-haftar-file-full-169.jpg "src-mini1x1 =" // cdn.cnn .com / cnnnext / dam / assets / 190405142003-01-khalifa-haftar-file-small-11.jpg "data-demand-load =" not-loaded "data-eq-pts =" mini: 0, xsmall: 221 , small: 308, medium: 461, large: 781 "/>

A regional source believes that the governments of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia together pledged about $ 200 million for the Haftar campaign Some of them have been used to buy weapons.

None of the governments has confirmed such financial support.

Haftar's opponent – known as the "Government of the National Agreement" (GNA) – has received recognition from the United Nations, but fewer friends. Since taking office, the GNA lawsuit has hardly developed beyond the capital. It is hobbled by internal feuds and for its safety depends on rival militias, most of whom have an Islamist complexion. Some important political groups in Tripoli are associated with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Haftar paints these militias as Islamist extremists and his allies. Last week, UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash tweeted that "extremist militias" are obstructing the search for a political solution in Libya.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates see such groups in Qatar and Turkey. In an interview with al Hayat last year, Gargash said, "Qatar still backs extremism and terrorism and endorses many terrorist plans in the Arab world, and there's plenty of evidence, including Qatar's role in Libya and its support for the Muslim Brotherhood" [19659002] Arturo Varvelli, Specialist for North Africa at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies, says that "Haftar has been able to encounter various foreign policy interests – the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, whose primary goal is to fight Islamist movements, in particular Muslim Brotherhood, which is under the protection of Qatar and Turkey. "

It is perhaps no coincidence that the Trump government – a firm ally of the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates – is considering the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization designated.

The Russia factor

In Libya, not only does regional rivalry play a role. High-ranking US military commanders have commented on the growing Russian presence.

In November, Haftar visited Moscow to meet Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

Fitzgerald says: "Diplomatically, Moscow still tries to present itself as engaged Many different actors in the Libyan power struggle It does not seem that he has completely thrown his cards with a faction."

However, some analysts believe that the Kremlin has adjusted to Haftar. When the United Nations formulated a statement in the Security Council of the United Nations calling on Haftar's forces to halt their advance, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, "I think it is counterproductive to turn one page and apologize the other . "

Outgoing head Thomas Waldhauser, general of the US African Command, told a congressional committee on March 7 that Russian relations with Haftar were geared to "providing access to Libya's large oil market, reviving arms sales, and access to the coastal areas of the Mediterranean ".
The Trump administration has sent mixed messages. Foreign Minister Mike Pompeo said on April 7, "We are against the military offensive of Khalifa Haftar's forces." Several days later, President Trump spoke with Haftar about "ongoing counter-terrorism efforts" and "recognized Field Marshal Haftar's significant role in combating terrorism and securing Libya's oil resources," a White House statement said.

Long-time Libyan observer Geoff Porter North Africa Risk Consulting states: "US support for Haftar (with the unilateral breakup of the White House from the consensus of the US diplomatic community) means that Haftar may market oil exports under his control can, without having to worry about the US trying to stop it. "

The history of Libya also has a European dimension. France and Italy trivialize each other, and European Parliament President Antonio Tajani blames Paris for "historic mistakes" that have contributed to Libya's instability.

French sources insist that Paris did not know that Haftar wanted to attack the West, an assertion that met with skeptical reactions in Rome.

It is no coincidence that French, Italian and Russian oil companies see all opportunities in Libya.


Haftar had long threatened to advance on Tripoli – and after gaining control of important oil fields in the east earlier this year, he was ready to push west.

In doing so, he opposed the attempts of the UN to convene a national peace conference, which has now been postponed indefinitely.

"Haftar has been trying to undermine the UN process in every round since it began in late 2014," Fitzgerald told CNN. "He wants the UN process to bow down to accommodate him rather than compromise in any way."

Fitzgerald, who had visited Haftar in Benghazi in 2014, recalls: "One of his advisors told me that Haftar wanted" to govern Libya. "He went on to argue that Libya needed a" strong man. "Haftar believes that Libya is not ready for democracy. "

But if he thought his opponents would give in quickly, it would seem that Haftar had miscalculated. Varvelli

Varvelli told CNN that "Haftar probably wanted to move into the capital as the" savior "of his country, believing that the people of Chaos are tired and will support him, he feels that militia leaders have little fighting spirit He probably overestimated himself underestimated the resistance in Tripoli. "

Haftar said his goal was to remove jihadists and criminal gangs from Libya. But far from eradicating them, some experts believe his campaign will only gain their foothold.

In a March article for the Center for Combating Terrorism at West Point, Lachlan Wilson and Jason Pack describe how ISIS resurrected in Libya following the defeat of Lebanon. The terrorist group has "gradually rebuilt its capabilities, its organization restructured and regained their confidence, "they warned, warning that the group would thrive in another conflict.

Last month, ISIS remnants launched an attack in southern Libya, killing two people in the city of Al Fuqaha in southern Libya. Regarding the attack in his recent audio message, ISIS leader Abu Bakr congratulated Baghdadi on "their steadfastness".

Another attack ISIS called on the weekend against Haftar's forces near Sabha is said to have killed nine soldiers.

As Porter notes, "There is nothing the Islamic State likes more than a chaotic battlefield that gives it the opportunity to introduce itself."

Varvelli says that Haftar needed years of struggle before taking control of Benghazi. "Even if it looks like it could soon win Tripoli, hold its power in a Libya that lacks government institutions, and probably bring stability to the country, how long will that stability likely last?"

"The UN – if they are not supported by relevant powers – can not solve this problem," says Varvelli. "Haftar knows for sure that there are no real restrictions on his work."

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to reflect the latest developments.

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