Issue 197: 2019 04 11: Haftar On The March

11 April 2019

General Haftar On The March

Crunch time for Libya.

By Neil Tidmarsh

So General Khalifa Haftar has made his move at last.  It’s been expected for the past three years (see The Land of Three Governments, Shaw Sheet issue 75, 13 October 2016).  But even after three years, the rest of the world – and Europe in particular – still doesn’t know quite what to make of him.

Khalifa Haftar commands the Libyan National Army, the armed forces of the House of Representatives (HoR), the government which controls the eastern half of the country.  Last week he launched an attack on the forces and territory of the Government of National Accord (GNA), which nominally controls the western half of the country.  Fighting continues in and around Tripoli, the capital of Libya, where the GNA is based.

Two governments, one country?  Well, until recently there were three governments in Libya, and there have been as many as four in recent years.  When Colonel Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011, a new government was elected – the General National Congress or GNC (government number one).  Following elections two years later, however, the old parliament refused to recognise the newly elected parliament, so the new parliament left Tripoli and moved to Tobruk at the other (eastern) end of the country and set up a rival government, the House of Representatives or HoR (government number two).

Meanwhile, back in Tripoli, the GNC lost its grip on the capital and was more or less replaced by Libya Dawn, a loose alliance of militias, militant Islamist groups and other factions (government number three).

For the last three years, the United Nations has been trying to bring the government in Tripoli and the government in Tobruk together to form a single national government.  The UN set up a Government of National Accord or GNA (government number four), in the hope that the two rival governments would allow themselves to be absorbed into it.  After a rough start (the situation was so volatile and violent that the GNA was initially based on a ship anchored off the coast) it has had some success in absorbing most of Libya Dawn and is now the acknowledged authority in Tripoli.  But the HoR in Tobruk has been reluctant to recognise it and continues to govern eastern Libya.  And this week’s dramatic development suggests that the HoR is now trying to overthrow the GNA and establish itself as the national government.

The reaction to General Khalifa and his campaign has generally been negative here.  After all, he has attacked an internationally-recognised and UN-backed government; the attack pre-empts and undermines an international reconciliation conference planned by the UN for Libya this weekend; he apparently agreed that elections rather than military action was the way forward when he met Faiez Serraj, prime minister of the GNA, earlier this year; he has ignored a personal appeal from the UN’s secretary general to halt his advance on Tripoli.  The Times calls him a rebel and a “rogue commander”, and qualifies his rank (field marshal) and the name of his army (the Libyan National Army) as “self-styled”.

Nevertheless, it’s perhaps worthwhile to remember that his government – the HoR – is in fact the last democratically-elected government in Libya; that it was the internationally-recognised and UN-backed government of Libya following its move from Tripoli to Tobruk and until the UN tried to impose the GNA on the country; and that the LNA is officially the HoR’s army and that Khalifa is its officially appointed commander.  In this context it’s hard to see how Khalifa can be described as a rebel and a rogue commander.  He isn’t rebelling against the GNA (how can he – it isn’t his government); the war he is fighting, on behalf of his own government, is not a rebellion but the latest act in a civil war which has divided the country for at least the last five years.

It’s also worthwhile asking what legitimacy the GNA has inside Libya, apart from the international recognition and UN-backing it has outside the country.  In fact the GNA has little authority or power outside the city of Tripoli (and the situation inside the capital has been volatile under every one of the three governments which has sat there in the last six years – the UN compound there is a heavily-fortified bunker).  Outside Tripoli, western Libya is a divided, unstable and in many places lawless region where a myriad of militias, factions and militant groups – not all of them professing even a nominal recognition of the GNA – hold sway.  It’s true that the GNA’s armed forces were successful in driving Isis out of Sirte last year, and that its coast guards are at last beginning to combat mass migration north across the Mediterranean; but these successes are largely due to the participation and support of international powers.

In eastern Libya, by contrast, the HoR government has successfully stabilised that half of the country and extended authority over it in recent years.  Its army – the Libyan National Army – successfully drove Ansar al-Shaira (the jihadist group affiliated with al-Qaeda) from Benghazi and managed to prevent incursion by Isis.  General Haftar has brought order to most of eastern Libya by doing deals with local or tribal groups in order to isolate jihadists and militant Islamists.  His Operation Swift Thunder seized key oil terminals from a group supposedly aligned with the Government of National Accord but apparently holding the terminals to ransom by blocking oil exports and demanding cash to free them up; Haftar then handed the terminals over to the National Oil Company, the only body authorised by the UN to export Libyan oil, and shipments of oil out of Libya resumed for the first time since the outbreak of the civil war.  This year he has begun to extend control into the south, the lawless deserts of the Fezzan which were previously a political vacuum exploited by the ruthless people-traffickers who have established themselves and their cruel trade there in recent years.

This contrast between effective government in the east and ineffective and dysfunctional government in the west, against the background of Libya’s terrible problems (civil war, lawlessness, militant Islamists, the export of jihadist terrorism to neighbouring states, the transformation of much of the south into a vast concentration camp run by people-traffickers) raises the question of whether Europe and the West are backing the right horse.  France broke ranks two years ago, deciding that the HoC in Tobruk is a better bet than the GNA in Tripoli for uniting the country and bringing order to the chaos which exports so many problems and dangers to the rest of the world.  French special forces have supported General Haftar’s National Liberation Army, though French officials deny that they had any prior knowledge of his latest strike and France has joined the USA, the UN and the rest of the EU and the G7 in calling for a ceasefire.

But General Haftar remains an enigma, his long-term intentions unknown.  If he succeeds in overthrowing the GNA and uniting the country by force, what then?  Would he set himself up as some sort of military dictator?  Or would he step aside and be satisfied with a role as head of the whole country’s armed forces?  Or would he step down and retire altogether (he’s 74 years old and reputedly not in the best of health)?  Would he permit democratic elections?

Some clues are offered by the nature of his other supporters, apart from France.  He’s backed by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE.  He’s known to share their hatred of the kind of political Islam represented by such groups as the Muslim Brotherhood (his opposition to peaceful merger with the rival Tripoli government is based on his distaste for a number of Muslim Brotherhood affiliated groups which have joined the GNA from Libya Dawn).  And some of his recent rhetoric suggests that he shares his backers’ attitude that all groups, militant or otherwise, which oppose him are terrorists.  And presumably he shares Saudi Arabia and Egypt’s lack of enthusiasm for the kind of liberal, secular and democratic freedoms which the UN is struggling to introduce at the other end of the country.  Significantly, Moscow has been making overtures to him recently, but perhaps surprisingly it seems that this effort by Putin’s Russia to cultivate a client in North Africa has so far come to nothing.

But victory in western Libya for General Haftar is far from certain.  The most powerful forces there – the militias based in Misrata which overthrew Gaddafi in 2011 and defeated Isis in Sirte last year – are bitterly opposed to him and are putting up a fierce defence of Tripoli.  The long civil war has resumed but it might not be over for some time yet.


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