ROME–The orders in Libya are clear: “Don’t shoot civilians if they are waving a white flag.” But what’s not clear is whether Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar’s rogue Libyan National Army will listen as it advances toward Tripoli, guns blazing. The militia army, which is known to have some ISIS fighters in its ranks, has taken the town of Gharyan, about 50 miles from Tripoli, and is moving west toward the Libyan capital.
“We hear your call, Tripoli,” Haftar told his militiamen, according to propaganda tapes of a speech released on social media and reported by the Libya Observer. “It is now the time for the great victory. March forward.”
In a long video meant to rally the troops, Haftar is heard saying, “Today, you heroes, enter Tripoli conquerors with peace, using peace with those who raise no arms against you, and using war against those who do.”
The escalation comes after weeks of military buildup by Haftar, who controls much of eastern Libya from his base in Benghazi with the support of Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. (In the recent past, France has supported him; in the distant past, he allegedly had ties to the CIA while living in Virginia).
Haftar’s rule in parts of Libya is in direct defiance of a U.N.-backed government led by the country’s Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, which is supported by the United States, the European Union, Turkey and Qatar.
The country has been in a civil war since the NATO-led defeat of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 and has become a hotbed for people-smuggling of migrants into Europe by various militia groups. There are known ISIS strongholds in the area, although many were rooted out in 2018. As The Daily Beast reported, several pockets remain and continue to fight for control of the country’s considerable oil assets.
Italy has considerable infrastructure investments in Libya thanks to former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who was Gaddafi’s best friend in Europe. Italy is an official supporter of the U.N.-backed al-Sarraj, but the current leadership in Rome has tried to forge a truce between Haftar and the Tripoli government. Italy held a Libyan peace summit last November in Palermo that Haftar pulled out of at the last minute and Italy’s leaders have made deals on migration with Haftar’s militias who control the smuggling rings. Leaders from 20 countries participated, but no solution was agreed on.
Haftar’s Libyan National Army posted on Facebook that attempts at diplomacy are over. Their intent is to move “to the western region to cleanse it of the remaining terrorist groups.”
Al-Sarraj has responded with his own show of force, readying his own military to prepare airstrikes should Haftar’s troops get too close. He put his own troops in his stronghold of Misrata on alert, making sure they are ready to fight Haftar’s army and “stop the cursed advance,” according to a statement on Libyan news sources.
“We have issued instructions and declared a general alert to all military and security forces from military and army belonging to us to be prepared,” al-Sarraj said, according to local news reports.
The latest saber-rattling comes as U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres is in Tripoli to set the groundwork for what was supposed to be a peacebuilding conference on April 14, meant to pave the way for new elections in the troubled nation.
Guterres tweeted, “I am deeply concerned by the military movement taking place in Libya and the risk of confrontation. There is no military solution. Only intra-Libyan dialogue can solve Libyan problems. I call for calm and restraint as I prepare to meet the Libyan leaders in the country.”
The European Union, which has poured money into the U.N.-backed government to bolster the coast guard and pay off the smugglers to stem the flow of migrants to southern Europe, has done little to ensure democracy in the troubled nation. No one has wanted to get directly involved. On Thursday the EU called for calm as tensions brewed, clearly concerned that whatever happens next is as much its fault as its problem.