THIS WAS supposed to be a rare moment of cautious optimism in Libya. On April 4th António Guterres, the UN’s secretary-general, arrived in Tripoli, the capital, to prepare for a peace conference which, he hoped, would lead to long-delayed elections later this year. But hours after he arrived Khalifa Haftar, the warlord who controls much of the country, launched an offensive to seize the city. At times his self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) has reached within 10km or so of Tripoli’s centre. Dozens have been killed. Flights were suspended after General Haftar’s jets bombed the city’s only functioning airport. The conference has been cancelled. “The UN is deeply engaged in negotiations for peace,” Mr Guterres said later. “We’re not always successful, I must confess.”
The general had long threatened to take Tripoli. Until now he was posturing. No one is quite sure why he chose this moment to move on the capital. Whatever his reasons, his offensive is starting to look like a big miscalculation. He would have entered the conference in an enviable position, holding most of Libya’s land and oil wells. Instead the LNA is now bogged down on several fronts. The general risks losing not only the battle for Tripoli but many of his other gains as well.
He may have been encouraged by his recent romp through southern Libya, seized in a lightning campaign earlier this year. Many southerners welcomed the LNA. Their region is rife with ethnic and tribal fighting, and with smuggling gangs. Militants from neighbouring Chad and Sudan have joined the fray. Locals hoped the general would bring stability. He seized towns and a big oilfield with little bloodshed.
Grabbing all the west will not be so easy. Militias from the port city of Misrata have vowed to block the LNA’s advance. One contingent has deployed to reinforce Tripoli. Another is preparing a counter-offensive to the south and east. The Misratans are the strongest force in western Libya and won a decisive victory over Islamic State (IS) in 2016. They resent General Haftar’s ambitions and are linked to the government in Tripoli through the interior minister, Fathi Bashagha, a Misratan. General Haftar had worked for months to co-opt forces in the west, some of whom are frustrated with the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. Now they seem united against him.
His offensive is embarrassing his numerous foreign allies. Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have provided air support. France has special forces deployed in the east. Russia has sold him weapons. (The GNA counts Qatar, Turkey and Italy as partners.) The general’s friends nominally back the UN-led peace process but have tolerated and encouraged his machinations. France has not asked him to pull back. Instead it wants him to meet Fayez al-Serraj, the GNA’s leader, for peace talks in Geneva. Egypt did not even bother to sign an American-led statement calling for calm.
After eight years of chaos, it is understandable why General Haftar looks appealing. He brought a measure of control to the east, while the GNA has struggled to keep Tripoli calm. Egypt and the UAE share his anti-Islamist politics. But the capture of Benghazi caused the destruction of large parts of the city. The general himself is 75 and in patchy health. His LNA is a hotch-potch of militias bound by mutual interests and money. It does not represent the entire country, and some of its members are not even Libyan. General Haftar’s empire may not outlast him.
Even his attitude toward Islamists is driven by interests rather than ideology. Though he opposes the Muslim Brothers and their ilk, he has made common cause with the Madkhalis, an ultra-conservative sect backed by Saudi Arabia. They have sought to impose their puritanical views in the east. He may have hoped Tripoli’s Madkhali faction, now aligned with the GNA, would help him take the capital. The general met King Salman of Saudi Arabia in March, and may have won his support.
By rushing the bulk of his forces west, the general has left a vacuum in the territory he already holds. Jihadists are trying to exploit it: IS attacked the central town of Fuqaha on April 9th. Unrest in the south and east would jeopardise the oil exports that provide 90% of government revenue. Output has recently increased, with Libya pumping some 1m barrels a day since the summer. The fighting may reduce global supplies already squeezed by sanctions on Iran and turmoil in Venezuela. On April 5th the price of Brent crude topped $70 a barrel, its highest level since November.
Both sides claim to be winning. But the LNA may have overreached. It is stretched thin and will struggle to maintain supply lines across unfriendly territory. It captured, then lost, the defunct international airport on the edge of Tripoli. The GNA bombed an airfield its rival has used to launch air raids. An LNA retreat seems unlikely. It would be out of character, and humiliating, for General Haftar. But a long battle could spell final ruin for Libya.