Libya is caught between a military strongman who sells himself as the only one who can driving out terrorists, and a U.N.-backed government whose attempts to hold a national vote have, so far, only entrenched divisions. With a call placed last week, the White House appears to be reversing decades of policy and going with the strongman: Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.
On April 4th, Haftar launched an assault on the capital of Tripoli that has so far killed 278 people and displaced more than 30,000, according to the U.N. Reports have described shells falling on residential neighborhoods overnight. The city’s forces — a loose smattering of militias, really — have managed to press Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) back. But on Monday, the LNA warned they’re only getting started.
To understand the conflict, zoom back to the last time a military leader tried to depose a Libyan leader put in power by the U.N. The year is 1969. The leader is Libya’s King Idris. And the military leader is Muammar Gaddafi, who seized the country by force at age 27 and held onto power for 42 years. That’s when the Arab Spring, which saw Gaddafi shot and killed, led to chaos that Barack Obama has called the worst mistake of his presidency, and when it subsided, left Libya with two parallel governments.
Once a commander under Gaddafi, Haftar represents a government based in the eastern city of Tobruk, which is backed by the UAE, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. He’s been accused of war crimes, and has touted victories against pockets of ISIS fighters that have taken advantage of instability to plunder oil. That may be what makes Haftar so attractive to regional superpowers. And to President Trump.
On the other hand, Tripoli’s government is backed by the European Union — which has a major stake in who controls the ports that are a gateway for the migrants that end up there. Its Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, a government bureaucrat, was appointed by the U.N. And Haftar’s assault seemed timed to send the agency a message; the U.N. had been planning a conference to address a non-military solution to the divide, when the LNA surprised the city. Those peace talks have been postponed.
As Haftar told VICE in 2016, “Our country should be prepared and ready for democracy.” But it should also have “an organized army and police force.” And right now, Haftar runs the country’s only organized army, which is now making an assault--just as Gaddafi did 50 years ago--on a city backed by the U.N.