Haftar's move did not occur in a vacuum
Libyan Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s push to Tripoli can only be interpreted as a development intimately connected to the structural change in international stances towards the crisis in Libya.
Targeting the Libyan capital, headquarters of the internationally recognised Libyan government headed by Fayez al-Sarraj, cannot be analysed by just referring to local realities.
The situation must be understood within the context of international tendencies that favour the creation of realities that would end the incomprehensible chaos in Libya, chaos that has become a burden for all world capitals concerned with Libyan affairs and security in the Mediterranean Basin.
However, the imposition of a fait accompli does not necessarily mean that it would be achieved through Haftar’s military tools only. Some countries -- the United States, Italy, the United Arab Emirates, France and Britain -- quickly reacted to Haftar’s move by declaring that the solution in Libya must remain political.
This indicates that the goal of the military operation in Tripoli was not intended to undermine the UN-organised national conference, which had been scheduled for this month in Ghadames. Its intent was -- and still is -- to push this kind of conference, whenever one takes place, to adopt resolutions that would end the conflict in Libya by considering recent military developments in the area of Tripoli.
Someday, it may be discovered that Haftar’s move was a necessity for the United Nations’ political initiatives, even if it wasn’t planned that way.
To understand developments in Libya, there needs to be an examination of the international changes that created the new circumstances and gave Haftar the green light to advance on Tripoli.
All external efforts have been unable to produce a breakthrough in the Libyan impasse. The Skhirat Agreement in Morocco failed. The French effort to work out a rapprochement between Sarraj and Haftar led nowhere. Rome wanted to counter French efforts in Libya under the pretext that the latter is part of Italy’s strategic space but the unprecedented tension between Paris and Rome produced no change on the Libyan chessboard.
Similarly, efforts by neighbouring countries, although with multiple agendas and carried out according to strict diplomatic rules, failed to have any effect on the internal balance of power or budge the absurd status quo of a divided country with a recognised government in Tripoli in the west and a legitimate parliament in Tobruk in the east.
While Libyans and the rest of the world have a pretty good idea of the identity, rhetoric and agenda of Haftar’s forces, it is a futile exercise trying to figure the same about anti-Haftar forces. It’s a smorgasbord of regional militias, government militias, Muslim Brotherhood militias and militias connected with al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and other jihadist groups.
Regardless of the outcome of the hit-and-run operations in Tripoli and subsequent changes in the map of influence there, there has been a new development in the general balance of power in Libya. Haftar's relations with Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, as well as his recent visit to Riyadh, reveal international and regional trends that support him. Turkey and Qatar are also not hiding their direct support for Libyan groups affiliated with political Islamist currents.
Thus, Haftar’s military moves may be implicitly related to the conflict in the region between the Arab Quartet -- Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain -- and Qatar since June 2017 and the subsequent pro-Doha Turkish position.
Libya is no longer an urgent priority for Algeria, which is itself in an unprecedented protest movement. Before the current protests, Algeria had hinted that it rejects Haftar’s growing role in Libya and would oppose his extending his influence westward.
Libya is no longer a primary concern for Sudan, either. There, too, the regime is struggling with popular protests demanding the departure of President Omar al-Bashir and his regime. Khartoum has been accused of smuggling weapons of Qatari and Turkish origin into Libya.
Haftar’s move came a few days after local elections in Turkey that suggested a weakness in the influence of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party. Ankara will have to reconsider its foreign policy options and that would include its choices in connection with the Libyan crisis.
However, Haftar's assessment of the realities of the regional countries involved in the Libyan conflict may not be far from the same assessment made by the United States, Europe, Russia and other international players. Those players no longer feel obliged to live with the eternal chaotic conditions in Libya and would like to push for a change in the rules of the game there.
Haftar’s move can only make sense in the context of a new reality that is encouraging him to take steps that could lead to international statements that do not outright support them but will not condemn them, either. As suggested by the Guardian newspaper in Britain, Europe no longer sees Libya except through the prism of Tripoli's role in halting immigration, fighting terrorism and producing oil.
In this regard, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres' willingness to meet with Haftar to discuss Libya’s future indicates the international community’s readiness to treat Haftar as a real component of the solution in Libya.
The world is intervening to deal with the anomalous situation in Libya and it is precisely this convergence of outside interests that may impose a solution in Libya in which Haftar would be a partner who imposes his conditions. He might do so, this time, from Tripoli.
Mohamad Kawas is a Lebanese writer.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.