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How Haftar squandered his near secure victory, and why

Libyans gather at Martyrs Square to celebrate the liberation of Tarhuna and Bani Walid from militia of warlord Khalifa Haftar, on 5 June 2020 in Tripoli, Libya. [Hazem Turkia - Anadolu Agency]
Libyans gather at Martyrs Square to celebrate the liberation of Tarhuna and Bani Walid from militia of warlord Khalifa Haftar, on 5 June 2020 in Tripoli, Libya. [Hazem Turkia - Anadolu Agency]

In early April 2019, General Khalifa Haftar's offensive to take Tripoli by force seemed almost certain to succeed. Thirteen months later he not only lost, but was forced to retreat. By the end of last May, Haftar's own base in eastern Libya appeared threatened like never before, since appearing on the conflict's landscape in 2014. The first week of June saw Haftar's forces, the Libyan National Army (LNA) pushed back to almost the positions it held on 4 April, 2019. So, what went wrong and what is next?

On 27 June, 2019, the LNA lost control of Gharyan, 100 kilometres south of Tripoli. That was a major blow, since the town served as a staging outpost for the attack on Tripoli. It also acted as a fallback position to LNA troops in the nearby towns of Sabratha and Surman. Both towns fell to the Government of National Accord (GNA) forces in late April, raising serious doubts about any meaningful LNA presence in western Libya.

That should have been enough to trigger a different strategy to halt what appeared to be a domino effect in motion. Instead, Haftar's spokesman described the loss as "tactical" withdrawal, and business continued as usual. No questions were raised in Haftar's camp, and no one took responsibility for the defeat.  At this point, the LNA was on the defensive of its most strategic air base in western Libya — Al-Wattia air base, 125 kilometres south of the capital. The base, besides being the LNA's main supply point, dominates Libya's western airspace all the way to the Mediterranean Sea. Again, Haftar failed to reconsider his plans, only to lose the base on 18 May. The unstoppable domino effect continued, and the LNA was on the run from southern Tripoli and finally Tarhuna.

Khalifa Haftar: The former exile who wants to rule Libya 

The fall of Tarhuna without a fight, to the GNA forces on 5 June, was an inevitable peak in a series of defeats the LNA had suffered. The heavy Turkish drone attacks, along with thousands of Syrian mercenaries on the ground, made it useless for the LNA to defend the city. However, sources on the ground close to the LNA officers paint a different picture of chaos and lack of leadership. They point out that during that week of June, Haftar was in Cairo when his Russian mercenaries received the order to leave. Many believe the Wagner group fighters withdrew on orders from Moscow, who wanted to punish its difficult ally — General Haftar. The same sources claim that the Russians warned Haftar months earlier about Al-Wattia air base, but he never listened. In the meantime, Haftar asked the Russians for fighter jets, but the Russians did not honour an earlier promise made to him to deploy advanced military jets. By the time such jets were deployed, according to US AFRICOM's statement, it was too late. Still not publicly acknowledging its involvement in the war, the arrival of jets indicated that Moscow had its own plans, regardless of its support for Haftar. In the early hours of 5 June, Wagner fighters started leaving Tarhuna and heading to Bani Walid, 80 kilometres south. Despite moving during the day and in open terrain, they were not attacked by Turkish drones, nor by GNA land forces. Clearly the withdrawal was agreed between Ankara and Moscow.

Liberation of Tripoli from Haftar - [Cartoon/Arabi21]

Liberation of Tripoli from Haftar – [Cartoon/Arabi21]

At this point, Haftar was still abroad while his forces, chaotically, retreated to southern and eastern Libya. Thousands of civilians fled Tarhuna, fearing for their lives, in a long convey of cars stretching, at some points, as long as 60 kilometres. This flood of people was still in progress when the Bani Walid mayor confirmed the Russians' departure from the town by late afternoon.

Despite all this, Haftar did not see any reason to meet his withdrawing troops, nor to speak to the civilians fleeing Tarhuna after he appeared in his base near Benghazi, meeting the German ambassador to Libya.

Experienced LNA field commanders blamed Haftar for the losses. Isolated in his fortified eastern base, over 1,000 kilometres away, Haftar never visited his troops on the frontlines. He rarely met with his commanding generals, and almost always failed to provide timely responses to the shifting frontlines. Many of his supporters now acknowledge that he was not effectively leading the day-to-day events. Some think his sons make the vital decisions, without being on the frontlines either. Being in the comfort of his office, away from the frontlines, made Haftar unable to see the bigger picture of the reality of the situation.

READ: Russia's rising dawn over Libya, or is it another Syria in the making? 

Haftar, known for his stubbornness and lack of political skills, does not listen to his advisors and hardly ever meets his political supporters in eastern Libya. He seems to lack intuition and political interpretations of signs that appeared earlier on. He counted too much on his foreign backers, without listening to their advice. One source told me anonymously that: "By earlier December 2019, signs were clear that Ankara is coming with heavy force in support of the GNA." On the other hand, Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates appeared to downplay the Turkish military involvement in the conflict. This explains why Haftar's spokesperson claimed that "allies and friendly pressure" on Haftar were the reasons behind the withdrawal from Tarhuna without fighting.

It is now almost certain that the Russians and, to a lesser extent, the Egyptians, are discussing the idea of distancing Haftar from the scene. Hawks within the GNA, such as Fathi Bashaga, are unlikely to negotiate with him again, but Bashaga did not reject Egypt's recent proposal for the resumption of talks. Haftar's political allies in eastern Libya are quietly floating the idea of appointing a GNA-acceptable personality as deputy to Haftar. Another idea is to put Aguila Saleh, speaker of the eastern Libya-based parliament, in charge of any political negotiations. Moscow and Ankara appear keen to see political talks resume. While Haftar is still around, his role in any future settlement has greatly diminished.

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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