Libya North Africa Politics & Diplomacy
MENASource May 8, 2020

The crumbling Haftar illusion: Last call for the international community?

By Karim Mezran and Dario Cristiani

The announcement that Aguila Saleh, the speaker of the Libyan House of Representatives, made, on April 30, on his political roadmap negotiated with the Russians, came as a surprise only to those who do not follow Libyan politics closely. This announcement highlights a reality that is becoming more and more obvious—the Libyan east is not and, has never been, the monolithic bloc that the propaganda of the eastern warlord General Khalifa Haftar has portrayed over the years.

Clearly, Saleh could not openly defy Haftar because the latter still controls the most powerful eastern militias and, thus, retains a dominant position in the region. Nevertheless, as Haftar’s military ambitions in western Libya are crumbling—following the recent successes of forces aligned with the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Sabratha, Surman and elsewhere—the internal differences within the eastern camp are surfacing even more clearly.

For days, it was rumored that some of the most influential tribes and powerhouses of eastern Libya were growing increasingly at odds with Haftar. For instance, Saleh is not only the speaker but a crucial political and tribal figure from Tobruk belonging to the al-Ubaidat tribe. This powerful tribe has been running security institutions in Tobruk since the times of the Ottomans and has never been side-lined—not even at the time of Italian colonization. It is significant, then, that the tribe is becoming less and less keen on Haftar, as are several other critical constituencies in the east who played an essential role in Haftar’s emergence in the Libyan theatre. The perceived failure of the rogue general’s military gamble in western Libya is, now, bringing this discontent to the surface.

The same can be said for the bloc of external actors supporting him. The reality of this foreign support is more diversified and complex than many thought. The role of Russia, for instance, has often been misunderstood. Moscow always had a more nuanced approach to the Libyan reality than that of other players, as theirs is not only linked to Haftar.

Russian mercenaries entering the battlefield last autumn initially changed the balance of power on the ground, significantly, in favor of Haftar’s so-called Libyan National Army (LNA). At the same time, Russian envoys never ceased their contacts with GNA representatives. In that period, Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj was still searching for Moscow’s help, showing that a channel of cooperation remained open. The GNA—in particular, the Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha—became more vocal against Russia only once it became clear that this was the only way to ensure that the United States support the GNA more decisively, but this did not change the overall approach to Russia.

When it became clear that Haftar was more responsive to the inputs coming from Abu Dhabi and Cairo, rather than Moscow, Russia became less active in supporting the eastern general. Indeed, Russia has also been outspoken in criticizing Haftar’s recent decision to “terminate” the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA).

On April 27, Haftar announced on the Libyan Al-Hadath TV channel that he was taking power in the name of the Libyans and unilaterally “cancelling” the LPA, which was the political and legal basis that allowed the creation of the GNA in late 2015. Moreover, three days later, Ahmed Mismari, the LNA spokesperson, declared that the LNA was accepting the international community’s demand to implement a Ramadan truce.

While Russia has been the most vocal among Haftar’s allies in criticizing his pseudo-coup d’état, Haftar’s latest moves and the conflict dynamics are likely to force a shift in the choices and the approach of his other major supporters: the UAE, Egypt, and France.

The UAE cannot accept a total defeat of Haftar’s forces. This why it is likely that Abu Dhabi will continue, if not double down on, its support for the LNA—even though signs of a dissenting strand within the Emiratis’ elite is emerging.

Egypt has a different position. Cairo needs a stable and friendly government in eastern Libya in order to guarantee stability on its western borders. This is the reason why Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi invested so much in supporting Haftar and his narrative. The Egyptian security apparatus only recently came to realize that Haftar cannot deliver what they need. In Cairo’s policy-making circles, too, there is a growing discontent toward Haftar. For both Egypt and the UAE, now, the main issue is with who they might replace Haftar with. Undoubtedly, the situation is extremely complex and delicate, yet, neither country seems to know how to proceed or toward what objective in this rapidly shifting context.

The current situation is also a product of Europe’s weakness and ambiguity in forging a clear plan of action on Libya. France’s behavior is an example of this. While formally committed to the GNA, Paris has sided with Haftar by providing him with advisors and military equipment. For instance, on May 2, French airplanes were spotted and photographed in West Libya flying over pro-GNA military installations. When confronted by the Libyan authorities, the French Foreign Ministry denied the allegations. However, a full defeat of Haftar’s forces in Tripoli might force Paris to recalibrate its policy, as well.

Haftar’s losses in western Libya highlight contradictions that have been hidden for months, if not years. His allies are, now, adjusting their policies to cope with the shifting military dynamics. The fate of Tarhouna, from this point of view, is essential; should Haftar and his local allies—the Kanyat—be defeated and lose the control of the town, the offensive in western Libya will be over. Given this volatile situation, the international community should seize the moment to do everything to stop Haftar’s dictatorial regime. It can do so by supporting those actors in the east who are increasingly unhappy with Haftar and by relaunching negotiations and national dialogue between east and west Libya factions in earnest.

Karim Mezran is a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Middle East programs.

Dario Cristiani is the IAI/GMF fellow at the German Marshall Fund. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of the German Marshall Fund.

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Image: Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar meets Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis (not pictured) at the Parliament in Athens, Greece, January 17, 2020. REUTERS/Costas Balta/File Photo