Haftar’s prospects are getting cold over waning support

  • General Khalifa Haftar’s base of support is waning since the failed offensive against Tripoli last year
  • A unity government has been accepted by all sides of the Civil War
  • A failure to hold elections on December will open the opportunity window for Haftar to re-position himself as a key player
General Khalifa Haftar
General Khalifa Haftar

Why is Haftar’s temperature cold?

Answer: Haftar has been steadily losing public support while the international community pushes for elections in 2021.

On June 23, the (second) UN-sponsored international conference on Libya took place in Berlin. The conference renewed the commitment to hold Libyan elections on December 24th, 2021; and stressed the need for foreign fighters and mercenaries to withdraw from the country. 

The country plunged into chaos and violence after Muammar Qaddafi was ousted (and killed) during the 2011 uprising. The uprising against Qaddafi was backed by NATO, but toppling a tyranny does not automatically open doors to a democratic government. The country has hardly experienced anything but turmoil and polarization since. During the Libyan Civil War that followed, two main rival powers emerged. In Western Libya, in the capital, Tripoli, the Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj is recognized by the United Nations; in Eastern Libya, General Khalifa Haftar commands the Libyan National Army (LNA). Each side is backed by different armed groups and foreign powers.

In April 2019, Haftar’s eastern-based LNA launched an offensive to capture Tripoli. In response, the internationally recognized GNA called upon the international community for assistance and formed an alliance with Turkey that sent hundreds of troops and thousands of Syrian mercenaries. The GNA-Turkish forces managed to ‘push back’ Haftar’s aspirations for a victorious end of the civil war. A ceasefire was achieved in October 2020.

The ceasefire deal led to the formulation of a transitional government. Libya’s rival factions—as members of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum—agreed to form a new transitional government that would lead the country to elections on December 24. On March 10, Abdulhamid al-Dabaiba won the vote of confidence in the House of Representatives. All sides publicly accepted the unity government and the upcoming elections.

The Government of National Unity (GNU), with Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, took office in February of 2021. The GNU will run and prepare the country for elections in December. The new Prime Minister promised to unify state institutions and security forces. Leaders from Tripolitania (west), Cyrenaica (east) and Fezzan (south) are part of the new government, representing the three major Libyan regions. After a decade of conflict, Libya experiences a period of relative stability; however, whether this will last is very questionable. 

What is changing Haftar’s temperature?

Answer: Haftar has been losing his base of support.

After Haftar’s assault on Tripoli collapsed last summer, the moves toward a political solution in the Libyan Civil War accelerated. UN-backed conferences and talks are paving the way for the country’s reunification. Even if this goal is too optimistic to be materialized, this course of action was praised in last month’s conference by Haftar’s major allies (i.e., Egypt, UAE, France). With the European appetite to coordinate on the Libyan agenda being apparent, France is expected to distance itself from General Khalifa Haftar and abandon its unilateral approach.

In addition, since the failed offensive against Tripoli, Haftar’s power has been shrinking. An outbreak of violence in eastern Libya in early 2021 demonstrates the lack of control that Haftar now has on the militias active in the region. It is highly questionable whether he has a say on the foreign forces active in eastern Libya.

Concerning the local tribes, Haftar has relied on tribal alliances to form and establish the LNA. However, the tribes’ trust toward Haftar has waned and the dynamics among the tribes have changed. For instance, ethnic Tuareg and Toubou brigades renewed their allegiance to the GNA following the LNA’s defeats in 2020. Tribal leaders claim that Haftar involved them in a war from which they counted nothing more than lost lives.

Having his internal and external allies currently distancing themselves from the LNA, Haftar’s resources are drying up. His plan for military dominance in western Libya belongs to the past, foreign fighters and mercenaries—who have offered him the utmost support—are forced to leave the country. PM Abdelhamid al-Dabaiba is paving the way for the country’s reunification backed by the UN and foreign powers. Haftar is observing the landscape and his temperature rapidly changing.

Moreover, the UN investigations for evidence for war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated by Haftar’s LNA or affiliated militias in Tarhuna create a challenging situation for General Khalifa Haftar to handle.

What is driving Haftar?

Answer: Haftar is driven by his desire to stay in power and not being sidelined by the GNU. 

General Khalifa Haftar has been described as ‘Libya’s most potent warlord’. He has both served in the Libyan army under Muammar Qaddafi and has held a senior position in the armed forces which overthrew Gaddafi in 2011. During his long military experience, he “has fought with and against nearly every significant faction in the country’s conflicts”.

The decade of violence that followed the 2011 toppling and killing of Muammar Qaddafi, offered the opportunity to General Haftar to emerge as a key player in the Libyan Civil Wars. He tried to fill the power vacuum. He aspired to become Libya’s next (authoritarian) leader and in 2014 he called on Libyans to rise against the elected parliament, the General National Congress (GNC). His calling resonated with the public sentiment in Benghazi, where the GNC had failed to tackle groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda. 

Haftar launched both of Libya’s civil wars in the name of ‘purging Islamists’.  This was the pretext to overthrow Libya’s first democratically elected parliament in 2014 and the GNA in April 2019. He positioned himself as the leader defending the civilian population from ‘terrorists’. Of course, the term terrorism was weaponised and eventually included opponents and ordinary citizens.

During these years, Haftar has created several allies in the international arena. From Egypt to Russia and the UAE, he has gathered the (financial, material, military) support of strong foreign powers who got involved in Libya’s domestic affairs for their own interests. The UAE and Egypt back Haftar who shares their strong opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood. This is one of the drivers that bring these countries at odds with Erdogan’s Turkey. Erdogan, who is sympathetic towards the Muslim Brotherhood—which is influential in the GNA—backed Haftar’s rival power GNA. On the domestic level, Haftar surrounded himself with several influential tribes of eastern Libya.

Nevertheless, Haftar has realized that, after his latest defeat in Tripoli, he has more to gain from a political process than from military confrontation. So, opportunistically acting, he has kept a low profile during the last month’s conference.

What does this mean for you?

Answer: Libya’s future is highly volatile at the moment, and so is the future of its neighbouring countries.

Even though the two rival factions of Libya gave their consent for the formulation of the GNU and the long-anticipated (by the Libyan population) democratic elections, whether the relative stability will continue is highly debatable. The interim PM is facing several challenges. Maybe the greatest obstacle for the elections to occur is the presence of the (estimated 20.000) foreign fighters and mercenaries on Libyan soil.

The biggest impediment to any political resolution of the Libyan Civil War rests on the fact that it has turned into an international struggle for influence by external actors. Foreign powers are so mixed up in the conflict that Libya’s future is determined by outside powers pushing their agendas.

Russian presence in Libya, facilitated by Haftar’s LNA, has not been welcomed by the US and the EU who observe Russia’s revisionist power expanding. If Russia is described as “the most immediate threat to the common security” for NATO, then Haftar is increasingly seen as a threat too. Nevertheless, Haftar is backed by the UAE who sees him as an ally against the spread of the Muslim Brotherhood. On the other side of the spectrum, Turkish presence in alliance with the GNA, although legitimate, constitutes an impediment in the withdrawal of foreign fighters from Libya. 

Nevertheless, the EU and the UN are re-entering the picture through the UN-sponsored talks. The EU aims to hamper the destabilizing consequences of an internationalized conflict in its immediate backyard. For instance, Italy sees Libya as a major partner in impeding a new surge of refugees to its shores. The string of alliances and their implications are infinite; however, in this proxy war, Haftar is a major player being sidelined. What if elections are postponed due to the challenges involved? How will he react?

If polls are postponed beyond December, Haftar will most likely use this to charge the transitional government as illegitimate and consider a return to armed conflict. Even though his alliances are waning, a ‘failure’ of the (so far celebrated as successful) peace talks to lead the country to elections could be used to his advantage. Russia, Egypt and the UAE are eager to continue their involvement in Libya’s domestic affairs. Nevertheless, even though General Haftar could regain some of his lost prestige towards his external allies, the tribal support is most likely lost for good. The situation is very fragile. Unrest could emerge at any time in Benghazi against the ‘cold’ leader.