The warlord Khalifa Haftar, who controls eastern Libya, has never disguised his ambitions. Once one of Muammar Gaddafi’s generals, he returned from exile in the US when the dictator fell in 2011, attempted to launch a coup three years later, repeatedly declared his intention to take Tripoli and has said that his country may not be ready for democracy.
So the professions of shock from his backers when he mounted his assault on the western capital, held by the internationally recognised Government of National Accord, cannot be treated with great seriousness. The only real surprise about his advance was its timing. By moving while the UN secretary-general was in the country, to discuss arrangements for a UN-organised conference intended to lead to elections, he destroyed muted hopes of a political solution and underscored his already evident contempt for the process. As the prime minister, Fayez al-Sarraj, complained, the response of many supposed allies was silence.
Mr Haftar apparently hoped to flip the ragbag of militias on which the GNA relies and saunter into Tripoli. But with his self-styled Libyan National Army stalled on the outskirts, the cost of his ambitions is becoming clearer. Libyans, who endured decades of Gaddafi’s rule followed by the bloodshed and turmoil after his overthrow by rebels with Nato support, now face a new chapter of suffering. More than 260 have already died, including civilians, and many more are wounded. Around 32,000 people have been displaced. Refugees held in the country’s brutal detention camps have also suffered. Last week’s attack on an LNA airbase in the south served as reminder that the attack on Tripoli may well ignite fighting elsewhere.
Yet Libya’s crisis is not Libya’s alone. Both Russia and the US blocked a British-led ceasefire security council resolution critical of Mr Haftar. Donald Trump, who held a chummy phone call with him, is merely the latest to succumb. Mr Haftar needed external backing to launch this attack, and it appears unlikely that he can manage a protracted campaign without such support. Weaponry appears to be pouring in for both sides. His advance on Tripoli happened shortly after he visited Saudi Arabia, where he was welcomed by King Salman and Mohammed bin Salman. The UAE has been a particularly enthusiastic provider of arms and military support. Egypt is another backer. Both countries are believed to have lobbied the US on his behalf.
More shocking, perhaps, is that while France claims to be a mediator, it has repeatedly bolstered him, clashing with other EU members and in particular with Italy. The two European countries have competing oil interests at stake. But France also seems to have believed Mr Haftar’s hype, which casts him as a Sisi-like strongman who can unify and stabilise his country, clamping down on extremists and stemming the flow of migrants through it. In truth, he himself relies on Salafist militias, looks far less mighty than his backers hoped, and in his recklessness and authoritarianism is more likely to further fracture and inflame his country. The military “solution” they perceive is no such thing.
Stemming the flow of arms is a priority: the UN arms embargo imposed in 2011 has been repeatedly and flagrantly breached. Meanwhile, the rest of the EU must press France to think more sensibly about Europe’s interests: the continent will feel the repercussions as others will not. There is a real risk of Islamic State taking advantage of the chaos. Libya’s crisis did not just result from events within its borders. Nor will it end there.