Two months ago, it appeared as though Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar’s faction – the Libyan National Army (LNA) – were gaining on the ground against the United Nations-recognized government of Libya, the Government of National Accord (GNA). Haftar’s combined militias had made it to the outskirts of the Libyan capital and the seat of the GNA – Tripoli – and were shelling the city. The international community, led by the United Nations, was attempting to bring the two sides together for talks. As is often the case in civil wars, and particularly messy civil wars such as this one where there are multiple militias and factions within each major group, both sides continued to fight as they talked, or in this case failed to talk. The military situation, however, appears to have swung back in favor of the GNA – at least for this week. Neither side appears interested in abiding by the United Nations Secretary General’s call for a ceasefire due to the coronavirus. The Libyan government, the GNA, did call for a lockdown in response to the spread of the virus. So, what does the latest swing in fortunes on the ground mean for some type of resolution and stability in Libya?
The latest fighting is centered around Tarhuna – a town southeast of Tripoli – where GNA forces have advanced and, according to some reporting, have taken the city (a stronghold of Haftar and his forces). Other reporting simply has GNA forces approaching the town. The GNA also reported, with some fanfare, downing an armed drone that is said to belong to the United Arab Emirates, whose government (along with Russia, Jordan, and Egypt) has been supporting the LNA. In response to losses, Haftar’s forces have stepped up shelling of Tripoli, reportedly killing and wounding civilians. Combined with the coronavirus, this targeting of civilians is taking a heavy toll on the Libyan population, and Haftar is not winning allies to his cause in the capital.
While the reporting on the fighting focuses on shifts in military lines and control, the causes for these changes in fortunes center on politics. When Haftar was making progress in January near Tripoli, it was largely due to several key militias switching sides and essentially handing him control of certain coastal approaches to the city. The GNA’s improved fortunes appear to have been caused by the same phenomena – a change in allegiances by key tribes and their associated militias. If the GNA succeeds in fully controlling Tarhuna, this may provide an opportunity for more coalition building as the town and its surrounding area are home to some important and large tribes with their own militias. It is, however, difficult to judge the reason that these various groups switch allegiances and whether those alliances will last. Even with stepped up outside support, neither major faction may have enough forces to fully defeat the other and control the country. The result could be ongoing swings in fortune or a stalemate with each faction solidifying territorial control in areas where they have the most popular and local support. The question then becomes whether Libya de facto becomes a divided country with each side doing business with its supporting states. It does not appear to be at this point yet, and both sides still seem to believe that they have a chance for a knockout blow, particularly given motivated outside support. However, that motivation may wane as states deal with the effects of coronavirus, which may limit both resources and government attention. This could lead to a slowdown or stalemate in the fighting sometime later this year.