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khalifa haftar
Khalifa Haftar

General Khalifa Haftar has a key role in the troubled post-Gaddafi history of Libya. There will be no future political settlement without his consent. One could object whether it is fair to grant a single individual with such a power, however in present day Libya political influence is directly proportional to military strength. And Haftar has the most.

The general has never hidden his ambition, he wants to become Libya's next leader. Given his past role in the coup that brought Muammar Gaddafi to power in 1969, we can't rule out an undemocratic rise. He is favored by a military approach to Libyan affairs, the fragmentation of his country, the presence of armed groups and militias, the threat posed by the ISIS and, until now, the lack of a central authority capable of ruling over the country.

Although strongly opposed to an international peace mission under the UN because it would put an end to the influence of his army, Haftar still meets a number of criteria that happen to please the West: he is against militant islamism, he is a US citizen and is a man of order. In a country lacking a democratic culture, a strong man in command could be seen as the solution to reunite the country. And he could accomplish this by following in the footsteps of his predecessor.

The options on the table

Khalifa Haftar is faced with a couple of options to take over power:

the first one is to defeat the ISIS and the other Islamic militias roaming around the country, as the ones in Derna, and embody the man of destiny, the one and only capable of restoring order and unity to Libya. To defeat the Islamic State in Sirte – which also happens to be the same area where his tribe come from – would mean extending his influence beyond the Cyrenaica. In other words, the so-called National Army would become the legitimate army of a reunited Libya. Those who oppose him, as the militias in Misrata for instance, would either be defeated or would have to succumb;

in case there was no space for a reconciliation with the rest of the country and, specifically, with the groups in Tripolitania, the second option would be to consolidate his grip over the Cyrenaica and to push for a federal asset of Libya. Seen as an alternative by several international observers, this option is already being put into practice. Benghazi has recently tried to hire a Russian company to print 7 billion dinars – until recently the local currency was printed by a British firm – and attempted to sell oil on its own to the Distya Ameya tanker despite the March 2016 UN Resolution. Benghazi has established its own “independent” branch of the Libyan Central Bank and of the NOC (National Oil Company).

Khalifa Haftar would probably prefer the first option, although he is well aware that a negotiated solution will still depend on his military successes. One way or the other, his final objective remains the top post in government.

abdel fatah al sisi
Abdel Fattah al Sisi

The general and his friends

Haftar can rely on the international support of Egypt – that neighbors Cyrenaica and can thus easily channel its aid to its Libyan ally – Saudi Arabia and the Emirates – that provide both finances and weapons – and, although not openly, of France.

Paris's role is quite ambiguous. If, on one side, it supports the UN's role, on the other it goes by Haftar's wishes. France has economic interests in Egypt – as the recent deals signed by president François Hollande for the sale of the Rafale air fighters show – and probably thinks that if Haftar were actually to become president, Paris could claim a privileged relationship with Libya and its oil. The fact that the French are playing on two tables is confirmed by the presence of their Special Forces in the Benima airport. And, more recently, by the flight over Libyan airspace of one of their aerial refueling planes that carried out its mission – probably to refuel Egyptian Rafales – and then flew back to France.

By supporting Khalifa Haftar, Egypt also secures its western border from Islamic terrorism and can thus concentrate its fight in the Sinai peninsula. Furthermore, Libya is a huge country with enormous resources, but is scarcely populated. Ever since the Gaddafi era, around two million Egyptians found employment in Libya. Instead, the hostility against the Muslim Brothers, based in Misrata and Tripoli, is what pushes the Saudis and the Emirates to support Haftar. The relationship between Abdel Fattah al Sisi and the Saudi King Salman is another factor. The latter funds Egyptian forces fighting in Yemen.

The landing in Benghazi of a Saudi ship filled with military supplies right before Haftar began his offensive against the ISIS shows how far this international support goes. He intends to reap the benefits of his military successes during the talks. Yet, the operation targeting Sirte and Tripolitania is met with suspicion in Tripoli. Some have speculated that Khalifa Haftar wants to defeat the ISIS and take over the oilfields in the area. This would imply a clash with another powerful force: the Petroleum Facilities Guards led by Ibrahim Jadhran and that control the extraction plants. There is a personal animosity between Haftar and Jadhran that dates back to when the general was a Gaddafi loyalist and the latter a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.

Apart from the Libyan branch of the Islamic State, Haftar continues to fight Islamic terrorism in all its forms. His “Karame”, dignity, operation targeted the militias in Benghazi and Derna, where he managed to oust the Shura Council that had been capable of kicking al Baghdadi's men out of town.

A divisive figure

Khalifa Haftar does not meet the criteria needed in this chaotic phase of Libyan affairs. He is a divisive figure; you are either his friend, or his foe. The militias in Tripoli and Misrata are wary of his past alongside Gaddafi. The general became an opponent of the regime after the troops he led in Chad were defeated and later abandoned by the regime. It was a choice dictated by circumstances. Another element that is met with suspicion by the Islamists is his proximity to the CIA, who recruited Haftar to try to topple Gaddafi and is probably still in good terms with him. Finally, Khalifa Haftar played no role in Gaddafi's demise, but only resurfaced in 2011 after the dictator had already been disposed of.

The tribal element also plays a role in whether you are pro or against Haftar. His tribe, the Firjan, comes from Sirte, where Gaddafi's Qadadfa also comes from. This enhances the support he may obtain from the former regime's loyalists, who see a chance of taking back some of their long lost prestige.

Fayed al Sarraj
Fayed al Sarraj

The man of destiny

Until establishing a unified Libyan government was attempted, the country was ruled by three entities: the one in Tobruk (the sole internationally recognized and one which is controlled by Haftar), the one in Tripoli (linked to a number of Islamic factions) and the alleged national unity government led by Fayed al Sarraj.

Until now, all of Khalifa Haftar's military adventures were sanctioned by the government in Tobruk and were thus legitimate. As Sarraj tried to establish his power, Haftar refused to relinquish the command of his troops to a Minister of Defense appointed by the new Prime Minister despite Mahdi al Barghouti being a former mechanized infantry brigade commander in Benghazi. At least in theory, any action taken by Haftar from now on will be illegal. That is when and if the Tobruk government decides to recognized Sarraj's role. Russia recently underlined this formal detail as they hope to find an ally in Khalifa Haftar after he participated in a series of military courses in Moscow.

Such diplomatic trivial objections don't worry our man, nor can the current state of chaos pose any limits. Not even the countries that support the UN have stigmatized the general's actions. The same indulgence was not used with the president of the parliament in Tobruk or the prime minister in Tripoli. This shows that the international community is aware of Haftar's role. The Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Paolo Gentiloni, has stated that Khalifa Haftar “must” have a role in the future of Libya.

Chances are Haftar will continue in the pursuit of his objectives. He will use the troops under his command to discourage his opponents, will depict himself as a hero in the fight against terrorism (and already is one in Benghazi), will crush the Islamists and anyone opposing him and, from time to time, will reach a compromise with the international community. One way or the other, he will rise to power. He even turned down a recent proposal to establish a unified command for the fight against the ISIS. And, just like his mentor turned foe Gaddafi, Haftar is using the Italian colonial past to fuel nationalism. He recently named his operation against the Islamic State “Al Qurdabiya 2”, the place of a battle against the Italians.

After all, Khalifa Haftar is not in a hurry. He knows that the bigger the chaos, the more important his role will become. The bigger the threat from the ISIS, the larger his influence at the negotiating table. Since PM Sarraj was appointed on the 30th of March 2016 and moved to the Abu Sittah base in Tripoli nothing has changed. Despite the efforts of international diplomacy, no steps forward have been taken. Libya still has three governments and various independent militias. Reuniting the country appears a distant, unreachable objective. And if the political talk will not produce any tangible results, the man of force will take over. And this is exactly what Khalifa Haftar is waiting for.

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