Libya is caught between a military strongman who sells himself as the only force who can drive out terrorists and a U.N.-backed government that has failed to earn widespread support.
And the White House isn't helping. In a call last week, President Trump appeared to go against his administration’s previous position, and backed the country’s strongman: Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.
On April 4, Haftar launched an assault on the slice of Libya he doesn’t control, centered around Tripoli. Some 278 people are believed to have been killed in the fighting and 30,000 more displaced, according to the U.N. Reports have described shells falling on residential neighborhoods overnight. The city’s forces — a loose smattering of militias, really — have managed to press Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) back. But last week, the LNA warned they’re only getting started.
By making an offensive on Tripoli, Haftar and the LNA are branding themselves in the image of a dictator who ruled the country for 42 years: Muammar Gaddafi. The infamous Libyan strongman seized power 50 years ago with an offensive on Tripoli, and oversaw a brutal and corrupt regime until he was overthrown during the 2011 Arab Spring, and killed while on the run.
But Gaddafi’s downfall left a power vacuum at the top of government, one which continues to plague the country today.
In steps, Haftar. Once a commander under Gaddafi, he represents a government based in the eastern city of Tobruk, which is backed by the UAE, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. He’s been accused of war crimes, and has touted victories against pockets of ISIS fighters that have taken advantage of instability to plunder oil. That may be what makes Haftar so attractive to regional superpowers. And to President Trump.
On the other hand, Tripoli’s government is backed by the European Union — which has paid its government millions to patrol its ports and intercept migrants who may be heading across the Mediterranean. Its Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, a government bureaucrat, was appointed by the U.N. And Haftar’s assault seemed timed to send the agency a message; the U.N. had been planning a conference to address a non-military solution to the divide, when the LNA surprised the city. Those peace talks have been postponed.
“Our country should be prepared and ready for democracy,” Haftar told VICE News in 2016. But it should also have “an organized army and police force.”
Right now, Haftar runs the country’s only organized army, which is now making an assault — just as Gaddafi did 50 years ago — on a city backed by the U.N.
This segment originally aired April 19, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.