Is Libya’s Khalifa Haftar on the way out?

Eastern-based military commander’s setbacks in Tripoli are causing his domestic support base to fragment, analysts say.

Libyan government displays destroyed air defense system used by warlord Haftar''s militias
Officials display a destroyed air defence system used by Haftar's LNA [Anadolu]

Tripoli, Libya – For an entire year, it seemed like renegade commander Khalifa Haftar was hell-bent on taking the Libyan capital, Tripoli, by force. 

His self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) had made considerable strides towards capturing the city of some 2.3 million people.

Support from the likes of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Russia – in the form of drone and fighter jet sorties, and an army of mercenaries – appeared to make his victory all the more likely.

But that never happened.

Instead, the United Nations-brokered Government of National Accord (GNA), which Turkey backs, launched a counteroffensive that has, in record time, seen it retake several key towns and a strategic airbase southwest of Tripoli. 

Suddenly, Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones shifted from a defensive to offensive posture, destroying a handful of Russian Pantsir aerial defence systems and targeting LNA positions as far away as the Jufra military base in central Libya. 

The defeat, which LNA spokesman Ahmed Mismari sought to justify as a “tactical withdrawal”, has put the eastern-based Haftar in a difficult position, with his ability to keep his support base mobilised increasingly being questioned. 

Issa Tuwegiar, a former planning minister, told Al Jazeera that it is Haftar’s fear of seeing his camp fragment that motivated his decision in late April to withdraw from a landmark power-sharing agreement and pledge to create a new government of his own. 

“Haftar has failed in his mission to take over and guarantee the eastern tribes rent and favourable status in his new dictatorial regime,” said Tuwegiar.   

The termination of the deal, announced in a televised address, raised concerns as to the fate of the country’s internationally recognised parliament to which Haftar had putatively pledged allegiance, the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR).

Shortly after Haftar’s speech, footage emerged on social media showing HoR Speaker Aguila Saleh expressing his disdain for the 76-year-old’s plan and announcing a political initiative of his own amid the battlefield setbacks.  

Seizing Tripoli

Haftar has long prided himself on commanding a modern standing army, contrasting it with the myriad militias that came into existence during the 2011 NATO-backed uprising against longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi and that nominally fall under the GNA’s authority. 

Images posted on the LNA’s official media channels, showing troops in tightly packed formations, added to the sense of professionalism that seemed lacking among GNA-aligned forces. 

In fact, in launching his assault on Tripoli in April 2019, Haftar said he would restore order and free the country from a government beholden to militias. 

That pitch earned him the trust of several foreign actors, which in addition to the UAE and Russia, include Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and, to a lesser extent, France. 

In the short term, that meant Haftar could advance with relative ease and capture much of the country’s vast uninhibited terrain, particularly in the south. 

Haftar’s narrative of having the will and, indeed, the ability to stabilise Libya became a self-fulfilling prophecy in what Libyan researcher Tarek Megerisi described as a “Ponzi scheme”. 

“As long as he kept going, expanding his power, he was all right. But now that he’s suffered setbacks, all the others are running against him,” Megerisi recently said. 

And, sure enough, it did not take long for territories that previously fell under the LNA’s control to issue statements denouncing Haftar’s “coup” and pledging their allegiance to the Tripoli-based administration of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. 

“The southern regions were handed over to Haftar by some local tribes,” said Tuwegiar, the former planning minister. 

“This was used to demonstrate to his external supporters the ease with which he could sweep through Libya, and Tripoli in particular.”

Question of survival

For Mahmoud al-Futasy, a former minister of industry, Saleh’s political roadmap is a clear indication of his lack of trust in Haftar. 

“I think it is a matter of survival for Saleh. He realises that if he continues with Haftar, he will be out of the political game as Haftar is losing the battle,” al-Futasy said. 

“Plus, he has the support of his tribe, which is very influential in eastern Libya, as well as that of the Russians and Egyptians.” 

In the leaked video of his meeting with tribal elders, Saleh said his plan, which includes the resumption of peace talks and formation of a new unity government, had the backing of Moscow and Cairo, key Haftar supporters. 

That account seems to be corroborated by recent reports suggesting Haftar’s backers in the UAE and Egypt were looking for a replacement.

Meanwhile, Moscow and Ankara stepped up a gear in their diplomatic efforts to find a solution to the Libyan crisis.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu in a telephone call on Thursday agreed on the need for an immediate ceasefire and a resumption of the political process.

The move came just hours after Libyan Minister of Interior Fathi Bashagha announced that several Russian fighter jets had arrived in eastern Libya from an undisclosed location in Syria, in what has been interpreted by some observers as a signal that Moscow will not be backing out from Libya any time soon.

It remains to be seen whether Russia will continue banking on Haftar – and if that is the case – the GNA’s reaction to a proposal that would include the Ajdabiya native.

One thing is certain for Colonel Rida Issa, who heads the GNA’s naval operations: Haftar cannot be part of the new process.

“We will not negotiate with Haftar. The killing of civilians, displacement of hundreds of thousands, and the destruction of homes and infrastructure is his responsibility,” Issa told Al Jazeera.

“After we win this battle, we must sit at the table and come up with a political solution. But eastern Libya must bring forth other individuals that we can negotiate with.”

Source: Al Jazeera