by Wayne White
Ex-Qadhafi General Khalifa Haftar looms ever larger in Libyan politics. The prospects for meaningful talks between Libya’s two rival governments had become more promising leading up to a session planned for today. Nonetheless, ongoing strife has disrupted the process. Moreover, flush with personal ambition and additional political clout, Haftar threatens to upset one side’s consistent participation while making the other side considerably warier.
A key round of Libyan peace talks led by UN Special Libyan Envoy Bernardino Leon is set to open today in Skhirat, Morocco, with both sides facing each other for the first time in full strength instead of partial delegations minus major holdouts. All along Leon has set lofty goals despite Libya’s disarray: a lasting ceasefire, a single national unity government drawn from two rival Libyan governments, and a resumption of Libya’s long derailed post-Qadhafi democratic transition.
Over the past week, however, this round of talks has been thrown into jeopardy. The internationally recognized government, the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HOR) that was elected in June 2014 but by less than 20% of the electorate, asked last week to “reinforce” its negotiating “team by adding new members and new advisors. The Tripoli-based rival “government” includes the Islamist members of the former legislature, the General National Congress (GNC), backed by the Islamist “Libya Dawn” (LD) militia drawn mostly from Libya’s third largest city of Misrata. It too has raised an issue with the negotiations. Tripoli has asked Leon and the UN for a “UN position on the appointment of a war criminal as commander of the Libyan Army.”
The Haftar Phenomenon
The alleged “war criminal” is 72-year-old General Khalifa Haftar. Tripoli is wary in part because he was a senior officer in Qadhafi’s army with subsequent ties to the CIA. Captured with many of his troops by Chadian forces largely because of Qadhafi’s military bungling, Haftar declared his opposition to the Libyan leader in 1987. After briefly cooperating with the CIA against Qadhafi and elsewhere in Africa, he and 300 military supporters were accorded residence in the US as refugees in 1990. There he stayed until returning to Libya in 2011, rallying old army allies there along with supporters from his eastern tribal base into a militia as part of the anti-Qadhafi revolt.
Early last year, Haftar declared “Operation Dignity.” He sought to use his self-declared “Libyan National Army” to rid Libya of terrorist elements like the al-Qaeda-associated Ansar al-Sharia in Libya (ASL) that dominated Libya’s second largest city, Benghazi. During its first six months, Haftar’s anti-terrorism campaign experienced as many reverses as gains, even though he secured the loyalty of the Libyan Special Forces, the Air Force, and other units from Libya’s small regular military.
Then, beginning last November, Haftar’s forces scored major successes against ASL. By December, Haftar had secured over 90% of Benghazi, vowing on March 17 to complete its conquest in a month. The isolated, weak HOR then declared Haftar’s forces as acting under its aegis. Likewise, the Egyptian government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (along with the UAE), viewing Haftar as a kindred spirit, provided ramped-up military assistance to the Libyan general. This included munitions, training, and occasional air strikes in support of Haftar’s forces.
With victories, Haftar’s star rose dramatically. In January, he was re-commissioned as a Libyan Army general; dozens of his cadres were made Libyan officers. A late February demonstration in Benghazi called on the HOR to form a military council headed by Haftar. And Haftar has not shied away from urgings that he assume a greater role. Recently, he told The New Yorker that many had asked him to be their “savior.” He was happy to oblige, Haftar said: with “the approval of the people, I will act.“ Apparently to keep Hafter within the HOR tent amid the general’s gains on the ground, HOR Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni named Haftar the HOR’s “top military commander” on March 2.
Haftar vs. the Peace Process
Haftar’s promotion, however, comes at a price. His hostile view of the Islamist GNC/LD combination based in Tripoli has now become a major issue. By contrast, many members of the HOR once worked closely with Islamists in the GNC until last June and see matters in terms less black and white.
Also, despite their Islamist bent and a few militants among their supporters, the GNC/LD publicly rejects Muslim extremism. On February 18 the GNC reiterated its rejection of terrorism in all forms. Libya Dawn denounced the ASL months earlier. And serious UN-brokered talks almost certainly would smoke out whether GNC/LD anti-terrorism assertions are genuine.
Meanwhile, fighting by the GNC/LD against jihadists has given Tripoli a real stake in cooperating against extremism. A Libyan Islamic State (ISIS or IS) affiliate carried out a bloody attack on the Corinthian Hotel in the GNC/LD’s Tripoli front yard in late January. The Corinthian is also the residence of GNC Prime Minister Omar al-Hassi.
This month, LD has been involved in heavy fighting with IS fighters for control of the central Libyan city of Sirte (where a notorious Tunisian jihadist died in battle on March 17). Earlier this week, IS took 20 Sirte hospital workers hostage, then released them, but forced them to remain in IS-controlled areas of Sirte. Retaliating for the LD’s Sirte offensive, IS claimed responsibility for a bombing in Tripoli on March 15. A bombing in Misrata that same day targeting Libya Dawn was probably also related to IS.
Nevertheless, probably in agreement with his sweepingly anti-Islamist friends in Egypt, Haftar told The New Yorker that he would retake Tripoli from Libya Dawn militarily. Regarding dialogue with the GNC/LD, Haftar declared: “There will be no dialogue with terrorism,” asserting that Libya had to be “purified.”
HOR elements aligned with Haftar have yet to make an appearance at the talks. The new “members” and “advisors” being sent to join the HOR negotiating team might come from Haftar’s camp, perhaps with the mission of disrupting dialogue between Tobruk and Tripoli. Making matters worse, HOR jets bombed Tripoli airport this morning. The government in Tobruk declared, “The strike is part of a war against terrorism that will continue until Libya is freed of terrorism”—a line that could have been lifted directly from Haftar’s standard script.
Where Does Libya Go from Here?
Despite Haftar’s inflated ambitions, the HOR/Haftar combination is roughly on par militarily with the rival GNC/LD combo. So, if a political settlement cannot be reached, military conflict for domination between the two sides would be long and costly.
Aside from battling extremists, both sides also need oil revenue (as Libya burns through its cash reserves). Oil production recently rose to 480,000 barrels per day (a high not seen in many months, but still only one-third of normal). Unfortunately, Libya’s biggest oilfields and export terminals lie roughly along the contested border between the two sides. Last month, IS elements tried to advance against these big terminals; early this month, they torched an inland field and took nine foreign hostages there. Meanwhile, revenue from exports supposedly under the HOR has been disrupted by GNC/LD interference and black-marketeering. These exports need to be regularized and fed into one national fund.
The UN, the US, and the European governments closest to the Libyan crisis probably will need to find ways of moving Haftar and the HOR’s Islamist rivals in Tripoli toward compromise. Egypt and the UAE may do the opposite, encouraging Haftar to stand his ground. Only vigorous engagement at the highest levels—still largely absent from this crisis—will help break the deadlock.
Photo: Bernardino Leon