By: Kevin Truitte, Columnist
Photo by: The Guardian
Rogue general Khalifa Haftar has emerged as the preeminent military and political leader in eastern Libya. Since declaring his goal of defeating Islamist groups and “liberating” the country in 2014, Haftar has built a political-military coalition of forces in eastern Libya, including the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA)—an umbrella of nationalist militias fighting under his command. Today, General Haftar has gone from merely a rogue actor in a fractured state full of them to a powerful political player, courted by regional and Western governments. However, despite prevailing views in the West, Haftar’s coalition is one of diverse actors and interests, with often diverging priorities and personalities. While Haftar provides a center of gravity, the eastern Libyan coalition is a complex collection of different elements that further complicate efforts to bring a political solution to the country.
A former Qaddafi ally turned dissident, Haftar returned to Libya during the 2011 uprising. His rise to political prominence began in February 2014, when he announced he would “save” Libya from the Islamist groups—including al-Qaeda affiliate Ansar al-Sharia—that dominated the then-legitimate democratic legislature, the General National Congress.[i] After the very same Islamist militias ousted the House of Representatives from Tripoli following Libya’s 2014 parliamentary elections, Haftar launched “Operation Dignity” to liberate the city of Benghazi and defeat “terrorists and extremists” across the country. [ii];[iii] Nearly four years later, General Haftar’s Libyan National Army has “liberated” Benghazi from al-Qaeda, Islamic State, and Islamist-linked forces, secured oil ports in Libya’s oil crescent, and claims to control the majority of the country’s territory—including gains by allied forces in the west and south. [iv];[v];[vi];[vii];[viii]
While the LNA’s military successes have solidified Haftar’s influence in Libya, this so-called “army” has really been built on a coalition of allied groups, and not without internal divisions. Groups such as the religious Madkhali Salafist militias have fought under the banner of the LNA, but have also sought to impose strict religious and social restrictions on areas under their control, regardless of local tradition.[ix] Other LNA outfits, such as the “Avengers of Blood” Battalion, have been accused of carrying out revenge attacks and executions.[x] The LNA’s al-Saiqa “Special Forces,” in particular, have recently been a headache for Haftar’s military leadership. In February 2018, LNA leadership arrested Mahmoud al-Werfalli, a commander in the Saiqa forces, on behalf of the International Criminal Court, where he is wanted for the war crime of publicly executing prisoners. Al-Werfalli was released the next day, after the militia’s fighters protested and clashed with Benghazi authorities.[xi] The following week, General Haftar demanded that 150 al-Saiqa members be surrendered for precipitating the riots.[xii] Haftar also transferred the top commander of al-Saiqa, Wanis Bukhamada, and two of his militia’s battalions to Derna.[xiii] The move of the popular LNA leader, ostensibly for an upcoming offensive against Islamists in the coastal city, in reality appears more likely to eliminate the potential political challenge Bukhamada poses.
Tribal forces in the LNA have also proven unwieldy, particularly in Benghazi. Mahdi al-Barghathi, a member of the Awaqir Tribe and commander of the LNA 204 Tank Battalion militia with a strained relationship with General Haftar, took the position of Defense Minister in the rival UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli.[xiv] Rivalries between the Awaqir and Haftar further escalated when the GNA appointed former head of the LNA “Special Tasks Force” militia, Faraj al-Gaem, as Deputy Minister of Interior at the request of the tribe.[xv] While Haftar rejected the appointment and issued a proclamation banning al-Gaem from eastern Libya, other LNA-aligned leaders, including Benghazi military intelligence officer Salah Bulgheib, pledged to work with the GNA deputy minister.[xvi] Al-Saiqa commander Bukhamada was also rumored to be sympathetic to al-Gaem, another explanatory factor for why he was transferred away from Benghazi.[xvii] Rising tensions between component militia and tribal interests against those of General Haftar and LNA central leadership have begun to erode the unity of the military force.
The political institutions of the eastern Libyan coalition have also shown a willingness to pursue their own interests. In March 2015, the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR) proclaimed Haftar as a Field Marshal and chief of the army.[xviii] HoR speaker and Haftar ally Aguila Saleh Issa has obstructed international efforts to bring the country to a peace agreement and is currently under United States Treasury Department sanctions.[xix] Saleh has in recent months also worked to derail Haftar’s attempts to promote a national presidential election, driving a wedge in their relationship.[xx] The HoR’s unrecognized Bayda-based “interim” government, led by Abdullah Al-Thinni, continues to maintain its strong support for General Haftar’s military operations, but has refused to acknowledge the possibility of a political solution to the country’s divisions.[xxi] Moreover, political figures in these bodies stand to lose from a national accord, as their positions would be eliminated. It is in their self-interest to reject peace efforts, regardless of Haftar’s intentions.
Today, Middle Eastern and western diplomats have courted General Haftar as a main conduit through which to bring about a political solution. The French government has openly acknowledged the “military legitimacy” of the LNA and indicated diplomatic preference for Haftar’s camp.[xxii] Italian officials have further encouraged the strongman to contribute to the stability of Libya.[xxiii] Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt have provided weapons and political backing to Haftar as part of their broader anti-Islamist strategy, as has the Russian Federation for its own geopolitical reasons. [xxiv];[xxv] These states have all sought to bring Haftar to the table with the UN-backed, western Libya-based Government of National Accord. However, their efforts to bring about a political solution presume Haftar’s ability to reach and enforce such an agreement; even if he does obtain a deal with other political forces in Libya, peace prospects depend on the LNA and eastern political leadership maintaining their loyalty to Haftar. As recent cracks in eastern Libya’s security and political facade show, this unity may prove fleeting. The United States and other countries interested in ending the Libyan conflict should acknowledge that they are dealing with a complex array of actors. International peace brokers must engage with these different local interests, while working with General Haftar, in order to obtain a consensus-based, lasting peace in Libya.
[ii] Chris Stephen, “War in Libya – the Guardian briefing,” The Guardian, August 29, 2014. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/aug/29/-sp-briefing-war-in-libya.
[iii] Camille Tawil, “Operation Dignity: General Haftar’s Latest Battle May Decide Libya’s Future,” Terrorism Monitor, Vol. 12, Issue 11, Jamestown Foundation, May 30, 2014. https://jamestown.org/program/operation-dignity-general-haftars-latest-battle-may-decide-libyas-future/.
[v]Ahmad Ghaddar and Aidan Lewis, “Oil major Total expands in Libya, buys Marathon’s Waha stake for $450 mln,” Reuters, March 2, 2018. https://af.reuters.com/article/africaTech/idAFKCN1GE0YP-OZABS/.
[vi]“Hafter claims LNA now controls most of Libya,” Libya Herald, October 15, 2017. https://www.libyaherald.com/2017/10/15/hafter-says-lna-now-controls-most-of-libya/.
[vii] Rhiannon Smith and Lachlan Wilson, “Libya: A stalled UN roadmap and the coming battle for Tripoli,” Middle East Eye, October 25, 2017. http://www.middleeasteye.net/columns/salame-s-roadmap-stalls-leaving-tripoli-crosshairs-687709593.
[viii] “East Libyan forces take desert air base as they push west.” Reuters, June 3, 2017. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-libya-security/east-libyan-forces-take-desert-air-base-as-they-push-west-idUSKBN18U0MA.
[ix]Ahmed Salah Ali, “Haftar and Salafism: A Dangerous Game,” Atlantic Council, June 6, 2017. http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/haftar-and-salafism-a-dangerous-game.
[xi] Sami Zaptia, “Armed demonstrations in Benghazi protesting Warfali arrest,” Libya Herald, February 7, 2018. https://www.libyaherald.com/2018/02/08/armed-demonstrations-in-benghazi-protesting-warfali-arrest/.
[xiii] “Bukhamada still Special Forces chief but relocated to Derna,” Libya Herald, February 18, 2018. https://www.libyaherald.com/2018/02/19/bukhamada-still-special-forces-chief-but-relocated-to-derna/.
[xiv]Alex Thurston, “Libya: Mahdi al-Barghathi Is the Man to Watch,” Sahel Blog, July 20, 2016, hosted at WordPress. https://sahelblog.wordpress.com/2016/07/20/libya-mahdi-al-barghathi-is-the-man-to-watch/.
[xv]Abdullah Ben Ibrahim, “Rift widens between Awaqir tribe and Dignity Operation chief,” Libya Observer, August 29, 2017. https://www.libyaobserver.ly/news/rift-widens-between-awaqir-tribe-and-dignity-operation-chief.
[xvi] Abdullah Ben Ibrahim, “Khalifa Haftar to bar Presidential Council ministers from east Libya,” Libya Observer, September 2, 2017. https://www.libyaobserver.ly/news/khalifa-haftar-bar-presidential-council-ministers-east-libya
[xvii]Bukhamada still Special Forces chief but relocated to Derna.”
[xviii]Ayman al-Warfalli, “Libya’s Haftar appointed army chief for recognised government,” Reuters, March 2, 2015. https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-libya-security-army/libyas-haftar-appointed-army-chief-for-recognised-government-idUKKBN0LY19N20150302.
[xix]U.S. Department of the Treasury, Press Center, Treasury Designates Additional Libyan Political Obstructionist, Press Release, May 13, 2016. https://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/jl0454.aspx.
[xx]“Salah Issah tries to sink Khalifa Haftar’s election hopes,” Maghred Confidential, Africa Intelligence, February 15, 2018. https://www.africaintelligence.com/mce/power-brokers/2018/02/15/salah-issah-tries-to-sink-khalifa-haftar-s-election-hopes,108294323-brc.
[xxi]Hadi Fornaji, “Thinni spurns calls for political dialogue, says “military solution” is only answer to Libya crisis,” Libya Herald, April 8, 2017. https://www.libyaherald.com/2017/04/08/thinni-spurns-calls-for-political-dialogue-says-military-solution-is-only-answer-to-libya-crisis/.
[xxii]Jalel Harchaoui, “How France Is Making Libya Worse,” Foreign Affairs, September 21, 2017. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/france/2017-09-21/how-france-making-libya-worse.
[xxiii]“Italian Defence Minister receives Haftar in Rome to help stabilize Libya,” Libyan Express, September 27, 2017. http://www.libyanexpress.com/italian-defence-minister-receives-haftar-in-rome-to-help-stabilize-libya/
[xxiv]Kevin Truitte, “The New Major Middle East Divide: How Intra-Sunni Power Competition is Reshaping the Region,” Georgetown Security Studies Review, February 18, 2018. http://georgetownsecuritystudiesreview.org/2018/02/18/the-new-major-middle-east-divide-how-intra-sunni-power-competition-is-reshaping-the-region/.
[xxv]Lincoln Pigman and Kyle Orton, “Inside Putin’s Libyan Power Play,” Foreign Policy, September 14, 2017. http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/09/14/inside-putins-libyan-power-play/.