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Libya’s New Civil War

And What the United States Can Do About It

Fighters aligned with the GNA clash with Haftar's forces on the outskirts of Libya, May 2019 Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

On April 4, Khalifa Haftar, the militia leader who controls eastern Libya, launched a large-scale offensive to capture the capital, Tripoli. The attack marked the collapse of negotiations to form an interim government between Haftar and key leaders in western Libya and triggered Libya’s third civil war since 2011.

Haftar evidently hoped to rapidly gain a foothold in Tripoli, finally establishing himself as the unrivaled ruler of Libya. What happened instead was that armed groups across western Libya mobilized to counter his power grab. For the past month, Haftar’s forces—a coalition of regular military units and militias calling themselves the Libyan National Army—have been stuck on Tripoli’s outskirts, slowly losing terrain to militias nominally allied with Libya’s internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA). More than 500 people have been killed in the fighting and more than 80,000 have been displaced.

International actors, paralyzed by disunity, have made halfhearted calls for a cease-fire and a return to the political process. But Haftar’s offensive has fatally damaged that process. Without a credible new framework for negotiations and a more robust international approach to resolving the conflict, a cease-fire will simply give Haftar and his opponents the opportunity to rearm and regroup. Western powers—especially the United States—should use diplomatic and economic tools to prevent regional powers from fueling the conflict and hasten the emergence of a harmful stalemate between the rival factions in Libya. Doing so will compel Libyans to return to a political process under new terms.

HAFTAR'S GAMBLE

Earlier this year, Haftar seemed close to reaching a deal with Fayez al-Serraj, the prime minister of the GNA. In February, the two met in Abu Dhabi and reached a tentative agreement that would have made Haftar the key power broker in a new transitional government. Yet the talks stalled—chiefly because Haftar, as Western and UN diplomats who mediated between the parties told us at the time, was clearly unwilling to accept that he would need to share power.

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