The international community has called for calm and restraint in Libya as forces loyal to General Haftar (pictured) moved steadily closer to the capital Tripoli.
On Thursday, Haftar's forces took over Gharyan, a town 100km south of Tripoli. By 3pm local time on Friday, his self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) had seized Azizia and Souq Khamis about 40 km from the capital and were engaged in fighting with Tripoli militias from Qasr Ben Ghasir, 20 km south of Tripoli.
The moves, supported by aggressive statements from official LNA sources that Haftar had personally given military orders for his troops to enter the city and instructed its 1.2 million inhabitants to put up white flags in their homes if they wished to stay safe, prompted widespread alarm and condemnation.
A joint statement issued by the governments of France, Italy, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the United Kingdom, and the United States urged all parties to immediately de-escalate tensions, “which are hindering prospects for UN political mediation”.
“At this sensitive moment in Libya's transition, military posturing and threats of unilateral action only risk propelling Libya back toward chaos.” The strongly-worded statement read: “We strongly believe that there is no military solution to the Libya conflict. Our governments oppose any military action in Libya and will hold accountable any Libyan faction that precipitates further civil conflict.”
Analysts were quick to point out online that the UAE, who had been understood to be supporting General Haftar’s LNA, in particular in its attempts to defeat Islamic extremism in the east and south of Libya, signed the statement and that Egypt, which has also supported the LNA, was not a signatory.
“The most interesting thing about this statement is not what it says but that it is co-signed by the UAE and not by Egypt,” said Tim Eaton, a Libya analyst at Chatham House in London.
The European Union issued its own statement calling on “decision makers" to “act responsibly and finally put the national interest first” in a coded reference to both General Haftar and to Tripoli militia commanders. “We urge all parties to immediately de-escalate tensions and cease all acts of provocation. There can be no military solution to the Libyan crisis,” the statement concluded.
The statement came on Thursday after the Tripoli Protection Force, backed by Zawya’s Farouq Battalion, fought back against the LNA to regain control over Checkpoint-27 and capturing 100 LNA troops. Armed groups from Misrata and Zintan started moving to cut off LNA supply lines, raising the prospect of escalation into a full-blown civil war.
The last time civil war gripped Libya saw the rise of Islamic State in the chaos.
Both statements echoed earlier words from United Nations General Secretary António Guterres that: "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.”
Portuguese national Guterres tweeted his statement from Tripoli, where he has been personally making final preparations for the UN-supported National Conference aimed at finding a solution to the political impasse in Libya.
The fate of the conference, a comprehensive reconciliation process due to be implemented in Ghadames this month, remained uncertain with the LNA declaring that the army was ready to secure the conference and prepare a “suitable environment for success”.
Libya-watchers said that Haftar’s military manoeuvres might backfire politically. "Should Haftar's military strategy fail, it may actually weaken his hand in future negotiations over a political deal should the National Conference proceed later this month. It might also have the unintended consequence of uniting his opponents in opposition against him,” Eaton said in an emailed statement.
Residents of Tripoli, inured to the ups and downs of the conflicts and rivalries which have ravaged the country since the 2011 Arab Spring, when long-term ruler Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was ousted with the help of NATO airpower, were clearly rattled by Haftar’s LNA advances.
While some continued to go to work, traffic flows were notably reduced as people stayed at home. However, there were no signs of white flags being hung from windows and public scorn was directed at a number of ministers in the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) fleeing the capital from Mitiga airport after a VIP flight list was circulated on social media.
GNA Prime Minister PM Fayez Sarraj issued three directives ordering GNA Military Region Commanders to raise alert levels, re-centralise their units and use force and airstrikes to defend civilians and critical facilities against “terrorists, criminals and those outside the legitimacy”.
However, one GNA source said that lack of leadership by the GNA as well as the growing influence of Moscow were key components of the crisis. “Haftar is responding in his way to the lack of political power in Tripoli and he is being egged on by Russian political-military advisers, who would like to strike a blow against NATO by reversing the Arab Spring uprising and re-installing Gaddafi-era leaders.”
Russian influence in Libya has become a matter of increasing concern to the West in recent months with media reports of Russian special forces mercenaries working with the LNA and of the Kremlin seeking a greater say in Libya’s future, raising fears of a proxy conflict between great powers.
“Russia was a key enabler of the Gaddafi regime and is now seeking strategic control over Libya’s energy supplies and migration flows to southern Europe to use against us as part of its broader war on the West,” said one Western security source on condition of anonymity.
Britain and America both recently announced changes to their Ambassadors. President Trump on Tuesday nominated career diplomat Richard Norland to be the next ambassador to Libya, seeking to fill a key State Department posting in a country still reeling from the aftermath of the Arab Spring.
At the same time, Martin Reynolds CMG was appointed Her Majesty’s Ambassador to Libya having previously served as Principal Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs in London.
The UK has requested an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council on the Libyan crisis, which promoted an LNA spokesman to accuse Britain of supporting terrorism in Libya.