But with so many foreign powers now entrenched in the contest to dominate Libya, analysts said, the collapse of Hifter’s Tripoli offensive was more likely to mark a new turning point in the conflict rather than a de-escalation.
Hifter’s foreign backers, principally from Russia and the United Arab Emirates, have pulled back from the former front lines around Tripoli. But none have so far shown any sign of withdrawing their forces or weaponry from Libya, and the US Department of Defence last week accused Russia of sending 14 fighter jets to support the Russian mercenaries on the ground.
“The war is not over,” said Emadeddin Badi, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, whose research focuses on Libya and the Sahel “There is clearly more conflict still to come, but everybody — domestically and externally — is going to recalculate their position.”
Libya has been in a state of perpetual turmoil since the ouster of Moammar Gadhafi during an Arab Spring revolt in 2011.
Hifter first vowed in 2014 that he would take power as a new military ruler, and by the time he began his attack on Tripoli he had established at least nominal control over the less-populous but oil-rich Eastern region of the country as well as much of its southern desert.
Tripoli, however, remained the seat of a weak United Nations-sponsored provisional government protected by local and regional militias based in the Western region around the city.
A surprise attack last spring brought Hifter’s forces to the outskirts of the city, but his offensive then stalled in the face of newly galvanised opposition from the militias around the city.
The battle lines remained almost unchanged until Hifter’s forces suffered a string of losses over the previous three weeks. Those losses culminated with retreat from the wreckage of the former Tripoli International Airport and with the pullout from the southern suburbs on Thursday, Libya time.
Forces allied with the UN-supported government said they had regained control of all of Tripoli’s entrance and exit points after taking back the airport, claiming that the siege to capture the capital for over a year has effectively ended.
Residents said Hifter’s forces had fallen back to the town of Tarhuna, south-east of Tripoli. The leaders of the tribe based there had conducted their own long-running feud with the coalition of militias that dominate Tripoli even before they struck up an alliance with Hifter at the start of his attack on the capital.
With the militias that had defended Tripoli now pursuing his retreating forces, some analysts said they feared it could become the site of a prolonged battle or bloody reprisals.
“You would hope there is disciplined leadership, but in the fielded forces the emotions run high, and there are always concerns,” said Frederic Wehrey, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace who has been a frequent visitor to the front lines of the fighting.
As his Tripoli offensive was foundering, Hifter had already been facing challenges to his power from within his own territory in eastern Libya, centred around the city of Benghazi.
In April, a prominent eastern Libyan politician who had been a close ally, Aguila Saleh, publicly proposed the creation of a new ruling council as an alternative to Hifter, prompting him to reprise his previous announcement that he was seizing direct control as a new military ruler.
“There were already cracks in his alliance,” Wehrey said.
The New York Times