In Libya, the “Benghazi Championship” is again in full swing. The British—with bitter irony—gave that nickname to the exhausting back-and-forth battle for North Africa in the 1940s, an endless series of unexpected advances and sudden retreats. Inside and outside the borders of the former Italian colony, a realignment of Libyan interests is taking shape, which will ultimately decide into which zones of influence the fractured country will be divided. However, this will take time: none of the sparring factions has come out on top in this North African spring.
One thing is certain: the US and Russia are both unwilling to agree to some awkward ceasefire at the UN, which could deal a fatal blow to General Khalifa Haftar’s campaign and give a leg up to the Islamists in Tripoli and Misurata.
The general, with whom Trump recently spoke on the phone, praising him as a champion of the “fight against terrorism,” and who is also a plausible candidate to join an “Arab NATO” with el-Sisi, will have to be particularly careful to defend his rear in Cyrenaica, as well as the oil-rich areas that he has conquered in Fezzan. Furthermore, he cannot export this oil—except clandestinely—because of the current embargo. There is a saying that a general without money is only half as strong.
His allies, Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, along with Russia and France, have invested a lot in him, but they are perhaps not entirely convinced of his abilities, or don’t want him to acquire too much power. We are still at the stage where a Libya divided between the conflicting interests of regional and international actors is easier to manage than a united Libya.
Another well-established fact is that Prime Minister Fayyez al-Sarraj’s days are numbered, despite the statements of support from US Secretary of State Pompeo and French Foreign Minister Le Drian, as well as from the acting US Defense Secretary, Pat Shanahan. Al-Sarraj is merely a figurehead controlled by other interests, who is also prone to making delusional statements like his recent ones on the supposed tidal wave of refugees that might arrive in Italy if it were not for his government. Our government seized on these statements, together with the usual scaremongering about terrorists—and in the process put its own internal divisions in even starker relief. Libya is much like a funhouse mirror, reflecting distorted images of our own politicians. There is a lot of rhetoric and little substance on both sides of the Mediterranean.
If al-Sarraj is still holding on for now, this is only because the Islamist militias in Misrata, the real military force fighting for the Tripoli government, have him entirely under their control, in the knowledge that his other sponsors—the UN, Italy, Turkey and Qatar—don’t have any better option at the moment. However, the US and Russia have had enough of al-Sarraj and the Islamist militias supporting him, and they’re seeing him as little more than a fig leaf.
This new attitude was immediately obvious when the US Marines quickly took off in their hovercrafts from the Tripoli shores, leaving nothing in their wake but a trail of foam and a clear field for Haftar to make his move. On April 9, Trump welcomed Egyptian president el-Sisi at the White House, and the general seems to have persuaded him that the time had come to support Haftar’s coup. (He is also, among other things, a US citizen.) Later, on April 14, Haftar met with el-Sisi in Cairo, at a time when his offensive had already lost the element of surprise and its initial momentum. Given the facts on the ground, even Cairo might be thinking of playing both sides: perhaps it would be better to keep Haftar in charge of Cyrenaica than to push for the difficult task of subduing Libya as a whole.
On the other hand, Moscow, after welcoming the Libyan general on at least three occasions, can’t wait to see him victorious, although even the Russians are entertaining some doubts about his military prowess. Russia has its own boots on the ground, like many other international and regional powers, but Haftar’s situation is not comparable to that of Assad in Syria. Libya is a place that is much less predictable and much more difficult to control.
However, all these machinations do nothing to change the underlying issues. A broad international front is coalescing around the plan of taking out the Islamists in Tripoli. Only a few still want Fayez al-Sarraj to stay in power. The Libyans themselves, while offering their unwavering support when it comes to mere words, wavered until the last moment to join the fight against general Haftar, who has been slowly gaining ground for at least a couple of months. There was plenty of time to prepare defenses, had they been so inclined. The Misrata militias have made al-Sarraj accept Ahmed Maiteeq as vice-prime minister, who is related to the militia chiefs and the most powerful families in the city. It is clear that those fighting alongside al-Sarraj are not so much defending him as fighting for the interests of their clans and their cities.
Still, Haftar’s main error was to believe that Tripoli would be delivered into his hands on a silver platter. He overestimated his own strength. Now, he has to fight a kind of war that the Libyans—whose preferred mode of combat is quick raids—are not fans of. It’s unclear whether Haftar will eventually succeed in this blitzkrieg-turned-stalemate, or whether he’ll try some other avenue to get his hands on the capital, accompanied by entreaties to convince some of the factions to join him. In other words, the draft for the “Benghazi Championship” has officially begun. All of this is taking place in Italy’s strategic backyard. However, we are reduced to the role of spectators watching from afar.