Libya’s civil war: Haftar the strongman?

Since the downfall of Colonel Qadhafi in 2011, stability has been elusive in Libya. Khalifa Haftar – a Field Marshal now being backed by Russia – has become an increasingly prominent figure in the country, but who is he? And how might he influence what happens in Libya in the months ahead?

Backdrop

The country is divided between two main institutions: the UN-backed Presidency Council, based in Tripoli, which set up a Government of National Accord (GNA); and the House of Representatives, elected in 2014 but which moved to Tobruk in the east after a political crisis that ignited civil war. There is a third institution, also based in Tripoli, called the National Salvation Government, but, although it retains some support, it is a relatively peripheral actor today.

In 2015, a UN-sponsored deal called the Libyan Political Agreement was reached which aimed to resolve end the civil war by establishing an inclusive GNA.   The House of Representatives has however so far refused to approve the version of the GNA that was established in May 2016. Meanwhile, fighting has continued unabated. There are a myriad of Libyan armed groups whose allegiance is fluid. Several Western powers are believed to have special forces in the country.  They have been preoccupied above all with destroying ISIS/Daesh in Libya, which was retreat by the end of 2016. In December it lost control over Sirte. These powers have backed the GNA but continue to support efforts to bring the House of Representatives onside.

Enter Russia

In recent months, the complex and volatile cast of local and foreign actors has been supplemented by growing Russian involvement in Libya. Russia is supporting Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who leads a coalition of eastern-based forces allied to the House of Representatives that calls itself the Libyan National Army (LNA).  The House of Representatives has said that it will not support the GNA unless Haftar becomes commander of all Libya’s armed forces. The GNA has opposed this idea.

Who is Khalifa Haftar?

Haftar was a senior military figure during the Qadhafi era who fell out with his leader in the late-1980s. He went into exile in the US, where he developed close links with the CIA. He returned to Libya in 2011 but only really came to the fore in 2014 as Islamist militants made significant gains across the country. He claims that there are 50,000 men under his command, but this cannot be independently verified.

The main attraction for his external backers appears to be that Haftar might be the ‘strongman’ who can end Libya’s civil war. Haftar has claimed in the past that he is not interested in high political office.  Not everybody believes him.

Who is backing him? And why?

Haftar has had strong backing from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, with neighbouring countries like Algeria and Tunisia also sympathetic to his cause. In recent weeks, Egypt has been trying to bring Haftar and the GNA’s prime minister, Fayez Al-Serraj, together for direct talks. Al-Serraj travelled to Cairo for talks last month, but Haftar did not show up.

The emergence of Russia as a backer, first signalled by Haftar’s visit to Moscow in December 2016, has strengthened his hand considerably. Emboldened by its apparent success in Syria, Russia is said to view backing Haftar as a way of re-establishing influence in North Africa.  However, Russia has indicated that it is not seeking the overthrow of the GNA and wants to see talks between it and Haftar.

Russia is reportedly supplying arms and training to the LNA via Algeria, thereby getting around the UN arms embargo that has been in force since 2011. Earlier this month it was reported that armed Russian ‘security contractors’ have been seen in the east of the country. Officially there to help Haftar’s forces with mine clearance operations, some observers say that this means that Russian special forces are also now on the ground.

Amongst the Western powers, France has given Haftar some support. Italy, which has close ties with militias based in the city state of Misrata, is hostile to him. While backing the GNA, the UK has also sought to maintain relations with the Misratan militias and Haftar.

There was speculation that the new US Administration might be persuaded to ‘change sides’ and give its wholehearted support to Haftar. But this has not happened. Suspicion of Haftar reportedly runs high in the State Department and Pentagon, both of which know him well. And it is not clear whether the US will ever accept that Russia has a legitimate role to play in Libya.

 A tug of war

Haftar’s credentials took a hit in recent weeks with the loss of Libya’s main oil ports to an eastern-based militia hostile to him called the Benghazi Defence Brigade (BDB).  Control of these ports brings political leverage, as well as the proceeds of any oil sales. The LNA seized control of them from a pro-GNA armed group in September 2016. Until this set-back, much of the talk was about whether Haftar would advance on Tripoli next. For now at least, such talk has ended.

The BDB handed the oil installations it had captured back to the GNA. However, over the last few days, the LNA has been fighting back. On Wednesday it announced it had retaken the ports. But there is no guarantee that this will be the end of the ‘tug of war’ over them.

What about the Government of National Accord?

The current version of the GNA has little authority on the ground. In October 2016, opponents of the GNA unsuccessfully attempted a coup in Tripoli. Last month, GNA prime minister Al-Serraj survived an assassination attempt.

Tripoli is in practice under the control of four local Islamist-leaning militias, collectively known as Libya Dawn, but often at loggerheads with each other. In recent days, fighting has flared up between some of them in the capital. It has been claimed that the GNA is tolerated by them as long as it remains a useful conduit for funds – mostly coming from international donors.

Even its supporters acknowledge that, as it stands, the GNA is unlikely to be the basis for a durable political settlement in Libya.

Will Haftar be brought on board?

An end to Libya’s civil war still looks a long way off. Amidst such instability, there must remain a risk that the fortunes of ISIS/Daesh could revive.

Is Haftar now an unavoidable ‘part of the solution’? A growing number appear to think so. Tom Stevenson in the London Review of Books claims that for a long time Western diplomats considered Haftar to be “a strongman who just isn’t strong enough”. From their vantage point, it might be problematic if this assessment changed as a consequence of Russian backing for him.

More on the UK’s role

The Government supports the GNA but believes that there can be no military solution and is calling for an “inclusive political deal” – one which brings in some way brings Haftar on board – within the framework of the December 2015 agreement. It is suspicious of Russian involvement in Libya.

In addition to (probably) having special forces on the ground, the UK continues to contribute two Royal navy vessels and has a small specialist training team working with the Libyan Coastguard under the EU’s Operation Sophia, which is combatting human trafficking in the Mediterranean, training the Libyan Navy and Coastguard to help them prevent human smuggling and illegal arms trafficking in and around Libya, and contributing to enforcement of the UN arms embargo.

Background reading

Tom Stevenson, “Flip-flops and Kalashnikovs”, London Review of Books, 2 March 2017

International Crisis Group, “New Libyan Militia’s Oil Strike Risks Wider Conflagration”, 10 March 2017

Squaring the triangle”, Africa Confidential, 17 March 2017