Libyan fighters loyal to the Government of National Accord take cover during clashes with forces loyal to strongman Khalifa Haftar south of Tripoli on April 10, 2019. Photo: AFP / Mahmud Turkia

Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and his self-styled Libyan National Army continued on its offensive toward Libya’s capital on Thursday, co-opting militia along the way and threatening the future of the United Nations-backed government in Tripoli.

A onetime ally of Muammar Gaddafi turned foe in exile, Haftar returned to the oil and gas-rich country during the 2011 uprising. His LNA forces currently dominate swathes of territory in the east, including the second city Benghazi, seized in 2017 after a years-long battle.

Haftar’s latest offensive toward Tripoli has forced a tacit green light from key allies which cultivated his rise, namely Paris, Abu Dhabi, and Cairo.

“Even though he launched this military operation allegedly without informing most governments that are partners with him — now they’re between a rock and a hard place because they can’t afford to see him fail,” said Emadeddin Badi, a non-resident scholar at the Washington-based Middle East Institute. 

“Disciplining him would mean he withdraws or fails, and that means destabilization in eastern Libya,” he added.

The implications for Tripoli and its fledgling government are considerable. Speaking to Asia Times, Badi said, “It is definitely a big threat to the internationally-recognized government, because this is essentially an attempt to overthrow it.”

The start of the offensive came as UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres was visiting Tripoli to lay the groundwork for a planned Libyan National Conference, whose goal was to bring together disparate factions and produce an electoral roadmap.

The offensive derailed the purpose of the visit, and soon Guterres was on a plane to Benghazi in an attempt to convince Haftar to call a halt to his advance on the capital. The field marshal was not swayed. On Monday, Haftar’s forces carried out an airstrike on the only functional airport serving the capital.

The next day, the UN’s special representative for Libya, Ghassan Salamé, announced the postponement of the National Conference, lamenting that just “a few days ago, many Libyans were looking forward to join the path for peace in their country”.

The Godfather

Even as world governments expressed dismay at the field marshal’s brash power play, analysts say it was the logical conclusion of years of arms transfers and diplomatic support for Haftar.

“The French on the surface have been declaring support for the internationally recognized government in Tripoli, along with the UAE, but they’ve also been cultivating Haftar so he can launch this offensive,” said Anas El Gomati, director the Tripoli-based think tank the Sadeq Institute. 

UAE base in Al Khadim provides air support, including the use of Chinese drones, according to Gomati.

And in the west of Libya, in Al Watiyah, “Haftar’s air force has been launching attacks on Tripoli in the presence of the French, for the last two years”, the analyst said. 

Haftar first advertised his intentions in February 2014, appearing on Libyan television in uniform to declare invalid the General National Congress, the two-year-old body elected after the fall of Gaddafi, and demanding a transfer of power to a caretaker government.

The next month, gunmen loyal to Haftar stormed the parliament in Tripoli, while his forces marched on Benghazi, vowing to cleanse it of Islamist militants.

“There’s been a local power struggle in almost every city in Libya since fall of regime,” said Gomati. “Haftar claims he was fighting ISIS in Benghazi but it took him four years because he’s fighting every other armed group that won’t give him power.” 

The field marshal and his self-styled Libyan National Army is composed of loyalists and groups he has picked up along the way.

“It’s not a conventional army he moves from east to west. His strategy has been to co-opt armed groups,” said Gomati. “He makes you an offer you can’t refuse. I’ll make you the politically dominant tribe and you can do what you want with your opponents and you’ll have international backing.” 

Many of the groups, he explains, are Salafists belonging to the Madkhali movement, promoted by Saudi Arabia for its adherence to the concept that any Muslim ruler, even unjust, must be preserved for the sake and continuity of the Muslim nation.

The leader of the Madkhali movement, Saudi Sheikh Rabi al-Madkhali, previously employed by Gaddafi to counter political and militant Islamists, in 2016 issued a fatwa declaring Haftar the legitimate leader.

Other militias are tribal-based or drawn from criminal networks, according to the analyst. 

“Haftar goes to every existing militia, finds the one he can work best with and (..) like the Godfather, he makes you an offer you can’t refuse. He says, ‘I’ll make you the politically dominant tribe and you can do what you want with your opponents and you’ll have international backing,’” Gomati said.

Natural gas

In late 2017, LNA Brigade 106, commanded by Haftar’s son Saddam, took control of the Benghazi branch of the Central Bank of Libya, seizing 639,975,000 Libyan dinars; 159,700,000 Euros, and $1,900,000, moving the money to an unknown location, according to a United Nations Panel of Experts on Libya report. Even so, Haftar’s parallel government is in serious debt. It sold $23 billion worth of bonds to pay salaries in the east, “creating a potential financial black hole”, Reuters reported in March, .

The UN Panel of Experts has also reported extensively on violations of summary executions, illegal prisons, and the flaunting of an arms embargo by Haftar’s LNA. But the field marshal has nevertheless garnered key international backing by presenting himself as a bulwark against political Islamists, namely the Muslim Brotherhood, and a strongman who can deliver security.

French Foreign Minister (and former defense minister) Jean Yves Le Drian paid a personal visit to Haftar in Benghazi last month, a testament to the legitimacy granted to the parallel government. When asked by Haftar why he hadn’t visited in such a long time, Le Drian replied that he had been, “waiting for your victories”.

Haftar’s anti-Brotherhood message has meanwhile resonated with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, whose country shares a border with Libya, and UAE de factor leader Mohammed bin Zayed, whose country has vowed to fight its own battles against Islamists on the ground.

For Cairo, the support for the field marshal is mainly geographic. The stated purpose of Haftar’s Operation Dignity to seize Benghazi in 2014 was aimed at purging Islamists and political Islam, an objective that greatly appealed to President Abdel Fattah El Sisi, who sees the Muslim Brotherhood as an existential threat to his rule. Haftar also wanted to seize Derna, which was causing a “headache” for Sisi in the Sinai Peninsula, according to Badi.

For the UAE, the motivation was not only a crackdown on political Islam, but increasingly an economic dimension. “Ideally they’d like to see Libya become a client state, giving them access to lucrative reconstruction contracts, ports, and big gas reserves at a time when the oil market is declining whereas gas is booming. That would be a lucrative market to diversify now,” Badi said. 

Analysts are however skeptical that Haftar can deliver lasting gains.

“What Heftar can deliver is stability that can last maybe two or three years before dying,” said Badi. The 75-year-old field marshal is reportedly suffering from a brain tumor. When Haftar is gone, the researcher said, his movement has no capable heir. 

“The LNA is structured around him as an individual. He’s the anchor of stability. He has children who he tried to prop up as potential people to take over as a dynasty but it wouldn’t stick because they don’t have his charisma nor the same influence he has,” Badi said. 

Gomati warned it would be difficult for the field marshal, or any warlord, to seize control of the capital.

“There will be a lot of shifting of sides and symbolic locations. Haftar said he’d take Benghazi in a week and it was four years,” he said, adding that the country with a long Mediterranean coast could see a new migration wave. 

“This could really push people over especially as it’s migration season. It could really turbocharge the migration crisis,” Gomati said. 

Haftar now appears to be forcing his allies to help him establish new facts on the ground in Tripoli, before his time has passed.

The best-case scenario that Haftar can bring is an iron fist in Tripoli, said Badi. “The ideal model that we’d see is something that would be very security-oriented; a police state that focuses on centralizing everything with [a] big focus on [the] military or his family’s control over everything,” he said. 

One week into the clashes, the United Nations said thousands of people had fled their homes near the front lines, moving to safer areas of Tripoli, while migrant detention centers holding 1,400 individuals were at risk.

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