What's new? Almost two months have passed since war erupted between forces loyal to Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and groups aligned with the Tripoli government in Libya. Fighting has raged on the capital's outskirts, causing at least 500 deaths, but neither side has been able to deal a decisive blow.
Why does it matter? Both sides view the war as existential, and reject calls for an unconditional ceasefire: Tripoli demands that Haftar's troops withdraw to eastern Libya; Haftar wants the capital under his control. Both have put in motion a cycle of internal and external mobilisation that points to protracted regional proxy conflict.
What should be done? The parties and their external backers should acknowledge that neither side can prevail militarily and stop pouring oil on the fire. They should conclude an immediate ceasefire entailing a partial withdrawal of Haftar's forces from the Tripoli front lines and give the UN the chance to restart peace talks.
Almost two months have passed since Libyan National Army (LNA) forces commanded by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar marched on Tripoli from their base in eastern Libya in an attempt to seize the capital. They expected a swift victory, banking on the belief that key units in the Tripoli area would remain neutral or switch sides. But they miscalculated: rather than swooping into the capital, they became stranded on its outskirts, settling into a war of attrition with forces from Tripoli and Misrata nominally loyal to the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and its Presidential Council, headed by Faiez Serraj. Nevertheless, Haftar is claiming success and, seeming to believe victory is within reach, refusing calls for a cessation of hostilities. On their side, forces nominally loyal to the GNA have pegged the resumption of talks to the LNA's complete withdrawal from western Libya. Otherwise, they say, they will push out the LNA by force. Both sides see themselves as pursuing a just cause and, convinced that their military objective is achievable with a little outside help, have shown signs of doubling down.
Meanwhile, the fighting has created a diplomatic vacuum: the UN special envoy has seen the political process he initiated evaporate, and rifts among Libya's external stakeholders have been laid bare, leaving the UN Security Council paralysed. With no military solution on the horizon, the two sides will have no choice but to return to the negotiating table sooner or later. The UN's reputation may have taken a hit, but the world body remains the only actor capable of managing peace talks. External ac-tors need to acknowledge these realities, and throw their support behind an internationally monitored ceasefire that would require at least a partial withdrawal of Haftar-led forces from the Tripoli front lines. It will be no easy task, given the zero-sum logic that drives both the LNA's offensive (and that Haftar's regional backers share) and the Tripoli government's demand that Haftar forces leave western Libya entirely.
But simply letting the war take its course, and possibly escalate further, should not be the only option. International stakeholders, including the U.S., need to achieve a new consensus on Libya, genuinely empower the UN special envoy, call for an immediate ceasefire and press the warring sides back to the table.
For their part, the two sides should reassess their assumptions and acknowledge that neither has the capability to prevail militarily. For Haftar and other LNA commanders, as well as the east-based government, reassessment means softening their bellicose rhetoric and publicly accepting the Tripoli government as a legitimate negotiating partner. In turn, Serraj and military forces allied to the GNA should be prepared to commit to negotiations that could well overturn the UN-installed institutional framework of which they have been the prime beneficiaries. Once a ceasefire is in place, an immediate priority should be the resumption of talks to resolve a banking crisis that, if left unaddressed, could impoverish the majority of the population, reignite the battle for the capital and bring Libya to ruin.
Source: International Crisis Group