CAIRO — With renegade eastern commander Khalifa Hifter at the gates of the Libyan capital, the United Nations and Western and Arab governments have called for a halt to the fighting — to no avail.
By Tuesday, the urgency for a cease-fire grew: Dozens have been killed, thousands have fled their homes or remain trapped by fighting, and Tripoli’s only functioning airport was hit by an airstrike, shutting it down and dimming hopes for a U.N. peace conference scheduled for this weekend. Reports also surfaced Tuesday that the Islamic State, seemingly taking advantage of the turmoil caused by Hifter’s moves, staged an attack that killed two officials in southern Libya.
Yet a handful of influential governments including France, Russia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have not condemned Hifter. France and Russia are permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, which ostensibly backs the U.N.-installed government in Tripoli that Hifter is seeking to oust.
All of these countries have abetted Hifter despite his authoritarian leanings because they view him as the best option for stability in a country that has been ravaged for years by civil war and chaos. These countries are key to understanding how the forces of the 75-year-old commander — a U.S. citizen who lived for years in Northern Virginia — managed to swiftly and surprisingly seize control over much of Libya and are now battling pro-government militias outside Tripoli.
“All of a sudden you have all of his political ambitions galvanized by all the red carpets, all the recognition in foreign capitals, including Paris,” said Jalel Harchaoui, who closely tracks Libya as a research fellow at the Clingendael Institute in The Hague. “It explains the hubris. It explains the impatience on his part. Now he really wants to be the person who rules all of Libya.”
The assistance from outside governments has been extensive.
The UAE and Egypt have armed Hifter’s forces with attack helicopters, armored personnel carriers and other weaponry in apparent violation of a U.N. arms embargo, according to U.N. investigators and analysts. Some arms shipments have traveled on Saudi-registered ships and through Saudi ports.
Russia printed billions of Libyan dinars that allegedly allowed Hifter to finance his war, purchase more weaponry and pay his fighters’ salaries, according to analysts and local media reports that cited officials of eastern Libya’s parallel central bank.
France publicly acknowledged that its special forces were operating in Hifter’s theater after a French military helicopter crashed near the eastern city of Benghazi in July 2016, killing three French soldiers.
More significant, though, France elevated Hifter’s stature diplomatically and politically, legitimizing him inside and outside Libya. Paris launched a peace process in competition with the peace talks being guided by the United Nations and Italy, and Hifter was invited often to share the same stage as Fayez Serraj, the head of the government in Tripoli.
Russian officials have publicly denied backing Hifter’s offensive, and French officials have publicly said they were blindsided by Hifter’s push on Tripoli. The UAE added its name to a statement from the United States, France, Italy and Britain calling for all sides to show restraint. Egypt and Saudi Arabia did not join, but both later urged all parties to stop fighting.
Hifter was a top general in Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi’s army before defecting in the late 1980s and joining a U.S.-backed Libyan opposition group. He lived in Langley, Va., until he briefly returned to Libya during the 2011 Arab Spring uprising and subsequent NATO intervention that ousted Gaddafi, who was later executed by rebels.
In 2014, after Hifter announced a military coup through a video address, his forces fought rival militias for control of Tripoli and the eastern city of Benghazi. He failed to take the capital but eventually seized Benghazi after battles that destroyed the city.
By then, Hifter was backed by Egypt and the UAE. Egypt, which shares a 750-mile border with eastern Libya, was concerned about instability and Islamist militants spilling into its territory. And its own authoritarian leader, President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, a former military general, saw Hifter as a kindred soul.
For the UAE and Saudi Arabia, Hifter is a vehicle for them to extend their influence in North Africa. They and Egypt also see him as a bulwark against the rise of political Islam, especially the Muslim Brotherhood. The trio’s main regional competitors, Qatar and Turkey, supported Islamist militias fighting Hifter.
France courted Hifter, attracted largely by his vocal stance against terrorism and concerns over an exodus of Libyans fleeing by boat to Europe. At the time, the Islamic State had seized the coastal city of Sirte, and al-Qaeda and other militant groups had moved into eastern Libya. Russia’s support of Hifter is part of a wide-scale effort to extend the Kremlin’s reach and influence in the Middle East and Africa.
It was no surprise that they all kept silent as Hifter’s forces this year swept from his eastern stronghold, seizing oil fields and large swaths of the south. The Islamic State had been ousted from Sirte, oil production had been restored, and far fewer migrants were heading to Europe from Libya.
“Hifter’s belligerence is due in no small part to the silence of the international community during his previous operations, including his expansion into south Libya,” Tarek Megerisi, a Libya analyst with the European Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a paper last week. “Most European governments, led by France, have long believed that a new political process can be built around the fickle field marshal.”
The United States, too, kept silent. It publicly supports the U.N.-backed Tripoli government that it helped install, but it has also hedged its bets with Hifter. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, the head of the U.S. Africa Command, told reporters in Munich in February that the United States had “lines of communications” open with Hifter and other Libyan groups.
On Sunday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo demanded that Hifter halt his offensive and return to “status quo ante positions.” But most observers say the Trump administration, which has significantly lessened its engagement in Libya, has little clout with Hifter.
“U.S. position hardening, while France and Russia still protect [Hifter] in the UNSC,” Wolfram Lacher, a Libya expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said in a tweet. “But statements as such will not make much of an impact. Besides, a return to status quo ante positions will not satisfy [Hifter’s] adversaries at this stage.”
By Tuesday, pro-government militias flooded into Tripoli from other cities where Hifter is despised to block his advance. Before the escalation, the government in Tripoli had been widely seen by Libyans as weak, incapable of paying salaries or providing security. Hifter’s progress has given it new life, analysts said.
“Now that you have war, you have a polarization,” said the Clingendael Institute’s Harchaoui. “The people who are against Hifter are now very enthusiastically committed to protecting a government they hated a few weeks ago. They need to cling onto something that is not Hifter.”