The forces of the military-dictator Khalifa Haftar retreated from the town of Tarhuna last Thursday, their last stronghold in the Western reaches of Libya. With it comes the end of the fifteen month siege of the Libyan Capital of Tripoli where the internationally-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) is based. This comes as a harsh reversal to Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) which only months prior, was on the verge of bringing the city to its knees. Local militias that had defended the capital gave chase but reportedly the LNA put up little resistance in its flight. Local citizens and tribes are now left to pick up the pieces and decide what the next move will be.
“Our battle continues and we are determined to extend state control over all the territory of Libya,” said Fayez Serraj, prime minister of the GNA, on the subject of the country. As many of the fighters under the GNA’s flag are members of irregular militia units, there are fears that civilians in Tarhunah could be made to suffer. However, armed forces loyal to the GNA warned that any who conduct reprisals or theft would be subject to, “-the most severe penalties”. Local civilians may still be in grave danger. A report by Amnesty International alleged that LNA fighters booby-trapped residential areas, presenting a deadly mess to clear.
The world now waits to see how the conflict will unfold from this point. The GNA’s reversal of fortune has no doubt come as a surprise to both Haftar and his many foreign backers such as Russia, France, and the UAE. Just a week ago the Pentagon alleged that Russia was sending a number of fighter aircraft to Libya in order to aid the LNA, further cementing the idea that their hold on the region was unbreakable. Now the momentum has shifted. That the internationally-recognized government is asserting its dominance over Libya may be beneficial for the long-term stability of the country, but the GNA must take caution that it does not bring harm to more of its citizens. The government has stated that it plans to retake several more military strongholds in its goal to reestablish control. Much of the fighting is often concentrated in civilian areas, leading to excessive civilian deaths. This is further complicated by the spread of COVID-19 which has forced many to stay in place. A re-conquest of Libya will necessarily include putting thousands of non-combatants at risk and that could sour support for the government.
There is a long history of state-sponsored violence in Libya and for many, it is all they have ever known. With the LNA now on the back foot, the GNA could use its momentum to secure a position of strength from which to negotiate. Even if they can manage to end the current civil war by way of military victory, that does not guarantee that another will not take its place. The political and tribal divisions that the current administration inherited from Ghaddafi must be addressed in some way. Reconciliation is a necessary step in creating real peace rather than an uneasy one.. And any peaceful negotiation will also have to incorporate the international state actors who have involved themselves. Only a solution with all parties will have a long-lasting impact. Most importantly though, Libya itself must be the one that decides its future rather than disparate powers engaged in a proxy struggle.
The Second Libyan Civil War began in 2014 when the newly elected government, the House of Representatives, was denied access to parliament by the former administration. The House fled to the eastern reaches of the country under the protection of General Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the Libyan Armed Forces. He then vowed to retake the country. The GNA was created in 2016 with widespread international support in an attempt to mend the divide between the warring factions but domestic support quickly fell apart. The GNA was left to fend off both rampant militias and Haftar’s army. Thus far 8788 have been killed in the conflict.
Whatever solution is passed, Haftar must not be allowed to remain in government. Libya has already known the rule of the military strongman. It left a trail of dead and a legacy of state-oppression. It took the first civil war just to end Ghaddafi’s rule. The people of Libya have been subject to violence for nine years now since they first protested in 2011. Now the impetus stands on the Government of National Accord to bring the violence to an end and put Libya on a path to rebuilding.