Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar’s advance on Tripoli has shocked the international community and sparked a UN call for a military halt. But is it too little too late to contain the self-aggrandising military man’s ambitions?
On Thursday, April 4, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was in a heavily fortified UN compound in Tripoli when Khalifa Haftar ordered his fighters to move on the Libyan capital with the bravado of an ancient warrior king launching a military conquest.
“Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim,” began Haftar in an audio statement released online, invoking the Islamic “In the name of God, the most gracious, the most merciful” incantation. “Today we are responding to the call of our people in our precious capital.”
Guterres however was in the capital to respond to an internationally-backed call for peace, to help organise a planned national reconciliation conference and the chutzpah of Haftar’s timing stunned the international community.
“Declaring an operation to move on Tripoli the same day that Guterres arrived hoping to give impetus to the forthcoming peace conference was really audacious,” said Mary Fitzgerald, a researcher specialising on Libya. “Haftar has tried to undermine the UN process at every step. He wants to create facts on the ground ahead of that UN conference planned for mid-April.”
But Haftar’s designs didn’t go quite as planned. The strongman’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) was repulsed late Thursday by anti-Haftar forces at the Checkpoint 27 – also called “Gate 27” – a strategic checkpoint on the coastal road between Tripoli and Zawiya, a city located around 45 kilometres west of the Libyan capital.
In another blow to Haftar, more than 120 LNA fighters were taken prisoners in Zawiya late Thursday.
“It’s a major setback for Haftar and a reminder that this operation [to take Tripoli] is not going to be as easy as he believed,” said Fitzgerald.
By late Friday, forces loyal to Haftar and those opposed to him were making claims and counterclaims about battlefield gains in and around Tripoli. But with fighting increasing, Haftar’s assault on Tripoli looked set to turn brutal, bloody and contested.
For Libyans opposed to Haftar, the commander’s setbacks were particularly sweet and resonant with a history that is often lost on outsiders. The operation by western Libyan troops to counter Haftar’s attack on Tripoli is called “Wadi Doum 2” after the crushing 1986 Wadi Doum battle [Ouadi Doum in French] during the Libyan-Chad war when Haftar — who was then a commander in Muammar Gaddafi’s army — was captured and taken prisoner by Chad.
It underscores a warning that many Libyans and analysts have raised, but have fallen on deaf ears in key Arab and European capitals due to geostrategic reasons that do not always overlap.
The disregard has raised fears of bloodshed in the heart of the Libyan capital and risks plunging the oil-rich North African nation into its worst civil war since Gaddafi was ousted.
‘Stability’ via a military ‘Ponzi scheme’
The 75-year-old Haftar, who has switched sides and loyalties in the course of a military career spanning half-a-century, has portrayed himself as the only man who can bring stability to Libya and crush the Islamists in the North African nation.
It’s a pitch that has won Haftar audiences with leaders in Paris, Rome, Moscow, Cairo, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. But analysts warn that the self-aggrandising military man is unlikely or unable to deliver on both fronts.
Libya today is divided between two rival governments: one in the eastern city of Tobruk backed by Haftar and an internationally-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli. But the competing administrations are not the only ones vying for power. In the vast, sparsely populated south, tribal rivalries spar for control of lucrative cross-border smuggling and human trafficking routes.
Haftar’s recent advances in southern Libya have been achieved by what Fitzgerald calls “a strategy of outreach” by buying out or forging shaky alliances with various tribal militias.
“Haftar’s expansions to-date have relied on co-opting new local forces into the LNA franchise in what appears to be the military equivalent of a Ponzi scheme. Keeping the LNA functional requires continuous expansion and income that is driven towards the operation’s core and leadership. At this point, his forces are overextended, his finances stretched, and if he’s forced to fight, he may be more fragile than many realize,” noted Tarek Megerisi, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, in a paper published Friday.
But while the Ponzi scheme strategy worked in southern Libya, there are pockets of fierce opposition to his bid to take the capital, particularly among the Zintan militias southwest of Tripoli and in Misrata, a city ferociously opposed to Haftar.
“If Haftar’s latest military advances gain momentum, some of the groups opposing him may fall behind him. But powerful forces such as the armed groups from Misrata will attempt to counter him,” said Fitzgerald.
But even if Haftar succeeds in making military gains in or around Tripoli, Megerisi notes that, “it is unlikely that any rule he concocts will be stable for long after his expansion ceases.”
An ‘anti-Islamist’ using Salafists
A popular joke in anti-Haftar circles is that his self-styled Libyan National Army is neither Libyan (since he has Sudanese and Chadian fighters), nor national, nor indeed is it an army.
While Haftar’s military prowess may be the butt of dinner table jokes, the contradictions and hypocrisies of his second international selling point is no laughing matter for many Libyans.
Over the past few years, Haftar has gained powerful supporters in the West with his vitriolic tirades against “takfiri terrorists and Kharijites,” terms dating back to Islam’s early history that the military man employs to burnish his anti-Islamist credentials.
But Haftar has forged close ties with a branch of Salafists, called Madkhalists, using their fighters and incorporating their conservative ideology in LNA-controlled parts of eastern Libya, including a ban on women travelling without a male guardian.
Madkhalism is a strain of Salafism based on the teachings of Saudi cleric, Rabi al-Madkhali, who has written fatwas supporting Haftar. A fundamental tenet of the movement is to obey any prevailing Muslim leadership with unquestioning loyalty regardless of its track record, a doctrine particularly suited for Saudi Arabia’s ruling House of Saud.
The Madkhalists do not participate in elections or democratic institutions, putting them at odds with the Muslim Brotherhood, fellow Islamists who endorse participatory democracy.
Both Haftar and the Madkhalists are fiercely opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood, also known as the “Ikhwan” in Arabic.
“Haftar has recruited Madkhalists partly due to their animus towards political Islamists like the Brotherhood,” explained Fitzgerald.
In a complicated twist of competing Islamisms, Haftar’s Muslim Brotherhood aversion mirrors those of the rulers of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, countries that staunchly support the Libyan strongman.
Haftar’s use of the hardline Madkhalists “challenges his narrative, which is very seductive in France, that he’s a strongman against Islamists,” said Fitzgerald.
France hedges its bets
France’s focus on containing the jihadist threat in the region is particularly critical since Paris fears a contagion spreading across Libya’s western borders to former French colonies, Tunisia and Algeria. To the south, Libya’s borders with Niger and Chad are of particular strategic interest to Paris since Niger has critical uranium deposits and the Chadian capital, N’Djamena, is home to the headquarters of Operation Barkhane, France’s anti-insurgent operation in the Sahel region.
On the diplomatic front, France backs the UN-sponsored peace process between Libya’s main competing leaders, including the GNA’s Tripoli-based Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and Haftar.
Libya’s bitter rivals: Khalifa Haftar and Fayez al-Sarraj
But France has been accused of providing military backing for Haftar, raising eyebrows in international circles and condemnation from the GNA.
In July 2016, a French military helicopter crash near the eastern city of Benghazi killed three French soldiers and forced Paris to confirm, for the first time, that its special forces were operating in Libya.
Libya’s UN-backed government responded by saying that their presence was a “violation” of the nation’s sovereignty. It said in a statement that it was “displeased with the French government’s announcement”.
Khalifa at that point was making significant gains in his assault on Benghazi, the birthplace of the 2011 anti-Gaddafi uprising, and military analysts suspected it was largely due to logistical support from French special forces operating in Libya. A year later, when Haftar’s forces took Benghazi, Paris welcomed the advance.
“Frances’s shift towards supporting Haftar has been mainly championed by the foreign minister in the new [Emmanuel] Macron government, Jean-Yves Le Drian, who also served as minister of defence from 2012 to 2017 in the government of previous president Francois Hollande,” noted Libyan academicGuma El-Gamaty in a Middle East Eye column published last year.
French President Macron has held two much-heralded rounds of Libya peace talks, where rival Libyan leaders were invited to the table.
“France — like Egypt, the UAE and Russia – are all paying lip service to the GNA while hedging their bets in Libya,” explained Fitzgerald.
But France’s – and by extension, Europe’s – tacit support for Haftar’s belligerence has helped the military commander undermine UN-backed peace negotiations by territorial expansionism.
“Europeans need to re-evaluate their approach to Haftar given recent events,” noted Megerisi. “Their immediate priority should be to facilitate a ceasefire and a peaceful National Conference process that can produce a political roadmap for building stability in Libya. Such a roadmap would offer Haftar a negotiated route to participation in the Libyan government rather than allowing him to dictate terms.”
A failure to do that, Megerisi warned, would make a renewal of violence “inevitable. This would set Libya’s transition back by years and create a new body of destabilising threats to the region and across the Mediterranean.”
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