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Is Haftar’s stubbornness behind his military setbacks?

Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar sits during talks with Greek Foreign Minister in Athens, on January 17, 2020 [ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images]
Libya's Khalifa Haftar in Athens, Greece on 17 January 2020 [ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images]

The Libyan National Army (LNA), headed by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, suffered a series of setbacks recently, losing three major cities in western Libya in less than a week. Starting on 13 April, the LNA lost Sabratha followed by Surman and then Al-Ajailat. Judging that it is rather useless to fight back, the self-styled army withdrew to the south-west to defend the more strategic Al-Watiya Air Base, 125km south of Tripoli. The base has been serving as a major staging point for air strikes against Tripoli while doubling as a supply route for LNA forces. Al-Watiya is now the next target of the Government of National Accord’s (GNA) coalition of militias and the drones of their Turkish allies. Losing the base would accelerate the domino effect on the LNA with more painful losses further north.

In the meantime, fighting near Tripoli has intensified over the past two weeks with indiscriminate shelling claiming more innocent lives and properties. The sound of heavy gunfire and shelling is part of our daily routine in Tripoli.

LNA field military commanders blame the heavy losses on wider Turkish military involvement, particularly the increased use of drones. Turkey is supporting the GNA with Syrian fighters, military equipment, ammunition and drones. The LNA is backed by Egypt, Russia and the United Arab Emirates, which also supplies drones. Some military cadres within the LNA have been whispering about ineffective leadership and lack of communications with Haftar’s main command centre in Benghazi, over 1,000km away. They claim that he does not listen to them and his senior officers are detached from events on the ground.

READ: Haftar and the Gulf states are leading a hypocritical, fake war against Islamism in Libya 

Whatever the reasons for the setbacks, the LNA’s year-long offensive to take Tripoli is now weaker and lacking its earlier momentum. While still holding its outposts just a few kilometres away from the centre of Tripoli, it has failed to make further gains. There is a deadlock in the same positions occupied since April last year when it first attacked the capital. Meanwhile, the GNA’s militias are, thanks to Turkey’s support, much stronger than a few months ago. The battle for Tripoli is thus going to be more difficult and prolonged, with neither side making any significant breakthrough. The LNA victory that appeared almost within his grasp last year is now unlikely, and the Field Marshal has nobody to blame but himself.

Bloody Haftar - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Bloody Haftar – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Nevertheless, Haftar still appears to be determined to take Tripoli. Failure to do so could lead to the partition of Libya as an indirect consequence of his campaign. However, he is in sole command with little room for feedback or dissent from field commanders and political advisors. Many think that his dictatorial approach is costing him dearly while providing his enemies with more propaganda to project him as a potential dictator if he ever makes it to the capital. His leadership style is increasingly eating away at whatever public support he had earlier, particularly in western Libya.

To emphasise their point, his critics point to Haftar’s foreign trips as a prime example of his dependence on his inner circle and distrust of other political and military officials. His entourage never includes any politicians from the Tobruk-based government. Indeed, the UN recognises the GNA in Tripoli as the legitimate government, and not the authority based in the eastern city, but Haftar’s own legitimacy is actually part of the interim authority and the parliament. It was the parliament, after all, which appointed Haftar on 2 March 2015 as head of the LNA.

When visiting important capitals, such as Moscow or Paris, Haftar is usually accompanied by his son, son-in-law and his top political advisor, academic-turned-politician Fadel Al-Deeb. These individuals have no official portfolio within the interim government.

READ: How not to fail as UN envoy to Libya 

In theory, Haftar is operating under the authority of both the parliament and the Libyan Interim Government headed by Abdullah Al-Thani. He is supposed to be answerable to both but that is hardly the case. He has never briefed parliamentarians on the war and those who visit his headquarters are usually kept waiting for hours. He also appoints officials in areas under LNA control; they are not placed there by the interim government or elected as they should be. Many such mayors are therefore accountable solely to him. The mayor of Al-Schwerf, east of Sirte, for example, is the man who cut the water supplies to about two million people, including some in the capital, and is a Haftar appointee.

Furthermore, Haftar is the decision maker on almost everything in areas under his control, from tackling Covid-19 to repatriating Libyans stuck in virus-affected countries. His decisions are not up for debate as they pass through military channels with little input from relevant government ministers. Failures are blamed on them, and successes are attributed to him.

Many of Haftar’s officers complain about their lack of access to him, and about his (usually poor) appointments of senior field commanders in charge of daily military operations. They point to the loss of Gharyan as an example of bad leadership and ineffective military planners on the ground.

Dropping his military campaign against the GNA now would be political and military suicide for Khalifa Haftar, as it will certainly spell his demise or divide Libya into at least two parts. Continuing the offensive, though, is pointless, so will the recent setbacks convince him to promote talks over bombs and bullets? The definitive answer is likely to lie with the foreign backers on both sides of the conflict; the war has long been fought by proxies, so the decision lies beyond Libya’s borders.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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