Libya’s Haftar on extraordinary march in embattled country

In just three months, Haftar’s forces have conquered swaths of land around Tripoli.

April 6, 2019 22:16
3 minute read.
Libya's eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar salutes as he participates in General Security confer

Libya's eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar salutes as he participates in General Security conference, in Benghazi, Libya, October 14, 2017. (photo credit: REUTERS/ESAM OMRAN AL-FETORI)

Gen. Khalifa Haftar recently ordered his Libyan National Army (LNA) to march on Tripoli, the capital of the country. In the extraordinary move, the leader – whose power base has been in eastern Libya – is now posed to be the main leader of the North African state eight years after it sank into conflict in 2011.

In just three months, Haftar’s forces have conquered swaths of territory around Tripoli. The offensive has brought his forces control of more of Libya’s oil fields. He already controlled the “oil crescent” on the coast and then moved into the Al-Shara fields in February.

In mid-March, Haftar’s forces moved on Sirte, another strategic city, sweeping aside militias and other groups linked to the Tripoli-based government. The government in Tripoli is often called “UN-backed,” while Haftar is seen as eastern’s Libya’s main leader. However, with the march on the capital, the general is poised to become the most powerful leader in the country. By March 4, the rebel forces’ convoys of trucks – outfitted with machine guns and painted in green camouflage – had closed in to within 100 km. of the capital.

On Saturday, some reports claimed the rebels were even closer. As usual, the Tripoli government said a state of emergency has been declared, and that a plethora of “armed groups” has been sent to halt Haftar’s offensive.

The general has come a long way. Born in 1943, he was one of the soldiers who supported Muammar Gaddafi’s rise to power in 1969. However, he fell out with the Libyan dictator and fled to the US. In 2011, when the US and European countries supported the Libyan uprising against Gaddafi, Haftar hoped to return to Libya as a rebel leader. But it was not to be. He was sidelined, and younger men came to the forefront.

Libya soon disintegrated into chaos with armed factions and extremist groups vying for control. US ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens was murdered in Benghazi in September 2012. The security situation further deteriorated in the ensuing years, with ISIS arriving in Libya and beheading Christians. Armed groups fought among each other.

It was in this context that Haftar again appeared in eastern Libya. This time, in 2014, with stronger forces he launched operation Dignity to remove jihadist and other groups from eastern Libya. Critiqued for his harsh methods against the extremists, his forces nevertheless have shown the determination to regain not only the eastern part of the country, but swaths of the center, and now the western areas.

Haftar’s rise has also come as many states in the region have become divided over the post-Arab Spring period. A bloc of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates is opposed to the alliance of Qatar and Turkey. Turkey is the sole country still supporting rebels in northern Syria. While Turkey opposed the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 2013 by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who was then a general, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have since embraced Sisi.

In Libya, the two sides, Qatar and Turkey, and Egypt and the UAE, have backed different groups. We can also see this in media coverage. Al-Jazeera in Qatar calls Haftar a “renegade leader,” but coverage in Egypt, for instance in Al-Ahram, is more positive. There, Haftar is depicted as restoring order among his supporters. Others see his military background as making him “another Sisi.”

Haftar has also sought support in Russia and France. He went to Moscow in November 2018. Under President Emmanuel Macron, France has also been depicted as a supporter of Haftar, or at least more open to his role in Libya since 2017.

Nevertheless, with Haftar’s LNA at the gates of Tripoli, the US, UAE, UK and France have called for “de-escalation” and continued “UN political mediation.” This comes with the usual lip service about the country being propelled “back toward chaos,” and warning that there is no “military solution.” But after eight years of conflict in Libya, many wonder what the UN and the Western powers have achieved.

Repeatedly, as Haftar and the LNA have advanced, they have made the same claims. Now Haftar has a chance to show whether he can bring the same stability to western Libya as he has done in Benghazi. Haftar offers the authoritarian rule that has emerged from the Arab Spring. After years of civil war, many Libyans may prefer that as the lesser of two evils, over chaos and extremist groups.

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