When Khalifa Haftar took it upon himself to control the city of Tripoli as a strategic military objective, he took the first steps on an irreversible journey. He must now take over the Libyan capital or die; it’s a dilemma with no other way out.
Haftar confirmed this to me and a colleague in a private meeting in Tripoli in late December 2013. We had asked to meet him as a controversial figure in Libya. He was travelling around the city with a few hundred veterans and some equipment. It was noticeable that he was a source of concern and discomfort for many, causing chaos and disarray wherever he went, although this did not alarm the government at the time.
Our relationship with Haftar dates back to 1987, when he was captured in Chad and chose to join the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, which we belonged to, as an opponent of the Gaddafi regime. During our 2013 meeting I was very curious to know about Haftar’s intentions and plans so that I might give him advice that would serve the February Revolution.
He suggested that the government was no longer able to govern the country, and that the Libyan National Conference had failed to carry out its duties. He stressed that the army was on his side and that large numbers of people would line up alongside him. Many “revolutionaries” and some Islamic elements — except for the Muslim Brotherhood and extremists — also supported him. He added that he would form a council of notables from the tribes to serve as a parliament.
The former general also announced his intention to announce a project aimed at uniting the army and countering terrorist militias, as he called them. At the start of 2014 he appeared on Saudi Arabia’s Al-Arabiya TV speaking from Dubai and made his coup statement in which he announced a freeze on the work of the government, along with the General National Congress (parliament) and the constitutional declaration. In response, the government said that it did not recognise Khalifa Haftar and would seek to arrest him and bring him to trial.
At the time, Haftar was not thinking about Operation Dignity, which did not see the light of day until months after our meeting. Nor was he considering the “Libyan National Army” or his “parliament”, which was not elected until May 2014.
Haftar was nothing more than someone who promised supporters numbered in the hundreds with no real base to start from; his was just one militia of the many deployed in various parts of the country. He tried to attack several Libyan cities and tribes, beginning with Tarhuna to the south-east of Tripoli, from which Haftar’s own Al-Furjan tribe originates, but he failed. He continued to shuttle through Libya until he settled in Benghazi. Nobody took him seriously, including Ali Zidan’s government, which ridiculed him and his statements.
Our meeting with him preceded the battles of Benghazi and Derna, when it was not expected that he would march on the capital in April last year. Haftar would not have been able to commit so many crimes in Benghazi and Derna, and latterly in Tripoli, without support from the UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other countries.
So who is Khalifa Haftar? He was a general and is now a self-promoted Field Marshal who does not recognise the Government of National Accord (GNA) or its legitimacy. In his opinion, those who govern Tripoli are militias and terrorists. Haftar only believes in a military solution and is not convinced to give up the war. Hence, he does not recognise the peace process, a political solution or, indeed, any political process. His main goal is to occupy Tripoli and “liberate” it, overthrowing the internationally-recognised GNA and all political and civil institutions therein, before establishing his own military government which will control all of Libya.
If Haftar continues with his war, he is facing defeat; it is a suicide mission because he does not have the power to take Tripoli. That is the trap into which he has fallen, and from which he is unable to escape because of the inherent contradiction in his military strategy, not to mention politics. Even a ceasefire would mean a defeat for him.
There is no political entity or organisation behind him, and what were known as the political or cultural elites in Benghazi have been almost completely eliminated or expelled from Libya. Operation Dignity includes the remnants of the Gaddafi army that has not had a real presence since the early eighties, opportunistic tribal groups, and militias that are linked by personal interests and greed for money and influence. This is the “Libyan National Army”.
Haftar is a Trojan horse for the UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and others to enter Libya. Time and time again, he has demonstrated his incompetence in such a role. He has failed to achieve the aspirations of his supporters and the military and geopolitical plans that regional and international powers are pinning their hopes on.
These aspirations entail the elimination of what is left of the Arab Spring, and working to establish dictatorships across the Arab world in order to restore the pre-2011 status quo no matter at what cost to Arab and Muslim lives, money, time, energy and capabilities. The regional leaders in this are the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia (“the axis of Arab evil”), as well as outsiders such as France and Russia. Among the targeted countries are Libya, Tunisia, Sudan, Algeria and Lebanon.
The leader of the GNA in Tripoli, Fayez Al-Sarraj, has had several meetings with Haftar since 2015. Last year, Al-Sarraj was finally convinced that Haftar does not respect covenants and treaties. Indeed, the “Field Marshal” and his aides have stated on more than one occasion that they are not looking for a political solution and will not agree a peace agreement with the government. This was a blatant challenge to the international community, which is paralysed over Libya.
Indeed, many analysts and observers are concerned about the international community and its weak and contradictory stances towards the North African country. Some interpret the situation as a long-term plan to exhaust the military forces loyal to the GNA and enable Haftar to enter Tripoli and seize power. Despite his recklessness in rejecting peaceful solutions and denying the political process, he is getting stronger by the day and receives more political, military and logistical support. This can only be explained by the idea of “creating a new Muammar Gaddafi” to whom Libya can be handed over.
There is no doubt that Turkey’s intervention in late 2019 has confused the other international powers and brought some balance back to the region. The Europeans, who are not happy with Turkey’s emergence on the scene, rushed to Berlin on 19 and 20 January to take over the earlier Turkey-Russia initiative to bring peace to Libya. The ceasefire brokered by Ankara and Moscow was rejected by Haftar and his allies, who insisted that the solution lay through the barrel of a gun, and that their attendance at international meetings was to listen only.
Is there a solution?
Now that Haftar’s forces have reached the outskirts of Tripoli and Misrata with air and ground support from his allies, what can the legitimate Libyan authorities do? It is clear that he is determined to fight to the last to get his tanks into the capital, whatever the price.
Forces in the west of Libya have the power and will to defend Tripoli and other cities, but not without the supplies and military expertise provided by Turkey. Such support will be decisive.
The Government of National Accord should rise to the responsibilities of the role entrusted to it by leading and unifying the parties confronting Haftar. It must reconsider its handling of the battle, as it is a “war government” which requires a military administration to tackle events and developments on the battlefield. The GNA needs a qualified defence minister and military personnel with experience and expertise to unite its forces under one army umbrella.
We can learn from what happened in the eastern region, where Haftar was fighting for almost four years before his opponents’ guns fell silent. Today, he is controlling them through terror, intimidation and an iron fist. If he manages to enter Tripoli, he will govern it, as Gaddafi did, in the same way, with no consideration for the oppressed people of Libya.
The author is a veteran Libyan writer and political activist.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.