Less than five months ago, Hifter had the upper hand with a fighting array that included mercenaries and defense systems from Russia and drones from the United Arab Emirates.
He controlled eastern and southern Libya, as well as most of the country’s oil facilities. His forces — groups of militias operating under the name Libyan Arab Armed Forces — were pushing forward on several Tripoli front lines, and they had seized the strategic Mediterranean city of Sirte in January.
By then, the Tripoli government, known as the Government of National Accord (GNA), had signed agreements with Turkey, allowing it access to Mediterranean Sea gas fields. In exchange, Ankara increased military support, dispatching drones, Syrian mercenaries, military trainers and armored vehicles, among other weaponry.
Last month, militias aligned with the GNA pushed back against their rivals, seizing towns along the coast west of Tripoli. But their most significant capture in months was the al-Watiya air base, roughly 80 miles south of the capital, that Hifter had held since 2014.
That bolstered the morale of the GNA forces, who paraded a seized Russian Pantsir air defense system on the streets of Tripoli. The capture and destruction of several other Pantsirs by Turkish drones embarrassed Moscow and Hifter’s other military partners.
On Saturday, GNA forces were advancing on the city of Tarhouna, Hifter’s last western stronghold.
Now, the war’s trajectory hinges on the response of Hifter’s foreign backers, especially Moscow and the UAE, and their efforts to “check Turkish ascendancy,” wrote Tarek Megerisi, a Libya analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, this week in a commentary.
On Thursday, the chief of Hifter’s air force vowed in a statement to unleash “the largest aerial campaign in Libyan history” including against Turkish targets.
He spoke as Fathi Bashagha, the GNA’s interior minister, told Bloomberg News that at least six Russian Mikoyan MiG-29 fighter jets and two Sukhoi Su-24 aircraft had flown into Hifter’s eastern stronghold from Syria.
Security experts and analysts described them as a warning to Turkey. The Washington Post could not independently verify the presence of the Russian warplanes.
But if Moscow did send the MiGs, it would represent a significant escalation. As of now, Russia’s most significant role has been through hundreds of Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a shadowy firm linked to the Kremlin, which helped Hifter gain ground.
Moscow has not responded to reports of the warplanes’ arrival. But it did join Ankara last week in backing calls for a cease-fire and a U.N.-led political peace process, in an apparent effort to avoid confrontation.
Both powers also tried in January to reach a cease-fire, but Hifter abruptly walked out of the process, embarrassing Russian President Vladimir Putin.
European powers and the United States also tried in January to find a political solution to end Libya’s war. But the talks in Berlin did little to prevent the UAE from expanding its military support to Hifter, triggering Turkey to become more aggressive.
Hifter’s losses in the west have caused fractures within his camp, analysts said. So has his recent annulment of a political agreement and his declaration of full control of eastern Libya, which has alienated many of his political allies and influential tribes.
“Hifter’s call for a return to military rule wasn’t popular,” Gomati said. “His political allies in eastern Libya don’t trust him and smell blood and are in exploratory talks with the GNA as a result. His international backers want to support him but find him militarily ineffective and politically erratic. He is fighting too many internal and external battles.”
Russia, a key ally, could be looking for alternatives to Hifter. Moscow has backed a new political initiative by Aguila Saleh, the speaker of the parliament for a rival government in the east.
“Europe’s window of opportunity is closing,” Megerisi said.
“It needs to move fast if it is to forcefully protect its interests and its role as a barrier against Russian encroachment into the country,” he added, “while preventing the development of another Syria-style conflict in its neighborhood.”