After multiple speculations at the beginning of the campaign regarding whether the Libya National Army (LNA) under Khalifa Haftar was going to be able to seize power in Tripoli ousting the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), nowadays the battlefield stands still. After a major push by the LNA forces in April, mainly capitalising on Haftar’s strategy of allying himself with several militias and tribal leaders in western Libya, who were overzealous of the GNA administration, the campaign came to a complete halt.
The turning point of this standoff and the current war of attrition has two causes. Firstly, Haftar was overconfident in his capacity to overrun Tripoli, not forecasting the fact that most militias in the city would remain united against his forces. Secondly, the lack of cohesion within his alliances in western Libya, which led to the fall of his logistic stronghold for the Tripoli campaign, the town of Gharyan. In fact, there are multiple accounts of the betrayal of several local militias in the town, who aligned themselves with the GNA offensive against the stronghold.
Since then, and mostly over the recent month, the war in and around Tripoli has shifted and is now mostly focused on airstrikes from both sides, nonetheless, the LNA and its alleged international sponsors, namely the UAE and Egypt have taken the leading role. Indeed, the LNA has conducted a series of questionable strikes leaving considerable civilian death tolls. The most notorious being the strike that killed more than 50 migrants in July as well as the latest attack against a city hall council meeting in the southern city of Murzuq. These strikes have caused an international outcry with many actors in the international arena accusing the LNA of war crimes, thus considerably jeopardising the legitimacy that Haftar has tried to portray.
If the LNA wants to turn the tables on the battlefield and garner international support or at least tolerance, he must halt the air campaign and attempt to lure influential tribes in western Libya towards his camp. In this scenario, the move that would have the biggest geopolitical impact would be to convince the neutral city of Bani Walid to join his camp. The de-facto city-state is home to the powerful Warfalla tribe, which makes up 1.5 million out of 6 million Libyans throughout the country and is a former Qadhafi stronghold that did not accept the former ruler’s ouster in 2011. The city held out against rebels for two months longer than the capital.
Indeed, Bani Walid has such an important social influence in Libya that the leaders of the city were able to broker a ceasefire between several militias fighting in Tripoli in 208 after the UN repeatedly failed to do so. With that said, the biggest challenge for Haftar, in this case, is that the city’s elders council decided to remain neutral despite the multiple financial incentives offered by the LNA, which could alleviate the dire economic situation of the locale. The decision mostly steams from the fact that Bani Walid functions in a tribal manner, with the council being the decision-makers, thus they do not want to relinquish their power in favour of someone like Haftar, who is perceived as an authoritarian.
Overall, it seems that as long as Haftar does not make significant changes to his political strategies, no considerable changes will take place in the battle for Tripoli. Conversely, if the airstrike campaign continues to target sensitive objectives, leading to additional civilian casualties, he might lose further international support, increasing his isolation and chances to succeed.