A year ago Khalifa Haftar, once a friend of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, seemed on the verge of overthrowing the recognized government of Libya and setting himself up as his country’s leader. His fighting force, the Libyan National Army (the LNA), seemed to be within days of capturing the capital, Tripoli. That never happened. Why did the wind go out of his sails, and can he recover the momentum that carried him to within an inch of success?
Gaddafi, Libya’s president for some 40 years, was deposed in 2011. There was no recovery plan, and almost immediately the country became a hotbed of disparate Islamist groups battling against each other. In 2015 the UN brokered the establishment of an interim Government of National Accord (GNA), endorsed by the Security Council as the sole legitimate executive authority in Libya. It was a lame duck, totally ineffective in getting a grip on the situation. The mayhem spiralled out of control. Chaos ruled in Libya until the fall of 2019.
Then, in October, Turkey came forward with an offer of assistance. Under the terms of an agreement signed on 27 November 2019, Turkey undertook to provide security and military cooperation to the GNA. Ever since, boosted by Turkey’s state-of-the-art military technology, the GNA has chalked up a series of successes against Haftar’s LNA.
An impressive list of national governments believed that Haftar was the one politico-military figure in today’s Libya able to regain control of the situation and bring an end to the state of anarchy. He appeared to have the power and leadership qualities that Libya needs.
As a young army officer in 1969. Khalifa Haftar helped Gaddafi seize power from King Idris, but in the 1980s, following a failed campaign to annex part of Chad, he had a major falling out with the Libyan dictator. Haftar fled to the US, from where he spent twenty years planning Gaddafi’s overthrow.
The BBC finds it significant that Haftar took up residence in the state of Virginia. “His proximity to the CIA’s headquarters in Langley,” remarks the BBC on-line, “hinted at a close relationship with US intelligence services, who gave their backing to several attempts to assassinate Gaddafi.”
When the final uprising against Gaddafi began in 2011, Haftar returned to a disintegrating Libya and re-established his control of the LNA. In the following years jihadists of various hues viewed Libya as a happy hunting ground. By February 2014 Islamist groups, notably the al-Qaeda affiliate Ansar al-Sharia, had taken over Libya’s second city, Benghazi, as well as other towns in the east, and the country was rocked by a succession of assassinations and bombings.
In May 2014 Haftar launched what he termed “Operation Dignity”, a military effort directed against them. It took nearly two years of intensive effort, but by February 2016 the LNA had pushed the jihadists out of much of Benghazi, and by mid-April they had been dislodged from their strongholds surrounding the city.
In three more years of military effort the LNA achieved significant progress against militant extremists who had embedded themselves in areas across the country. It was these successes, allied to the international backing he received, that may have encouraged Haftar to seek control of the whole country.
In April 2019 he announced his intention to seize the capital, Tripoli. He gathered his forces and began a march on the city. The GNA mobilized various militias and launched air attacks against him. The UK arranged for an emergency Security Council meeting, which called on Haftar to “halt all military advances” – a call he ignored.
However the task of actually capturing the capital proved a great deal more difficult than he had envisaged. While the continuing conflict claimed some 1000 Libyan lives, the GNA managed to hold Haftar and his LNA at bay month after month. Then came the strengthening of government forces under the agreement with Turkey. Finally on May 18, 2020, after weeks of fighting, GNA forces recaptured the al-Watiya airbase south of the capital – a strategic stronghold that had been under Haftar’s control since 2014. Two days later Haftar’s forces were chased out of two towns near the Tunisian border, Bader and Tiji
The loss of the al-Watiya airbase, one of Haftar’s main fortresses in western Libya, is a significant blow to his effort to seize the capital, and shifts the balance of power in favor of the Turkey-supported GNA. Haftar had been using the base as a launching pad for attacks on government forces across western Libya, and was now deprived of that strategic asset.
But Haftar has powerful friends. During the years of conflict that led to what now seems a bid for supreme power, he received backing and military support from a variety of international sources including France. Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Most important, perhaps, was Russia, which sent some 1200 mercenaries from what the BBC describes as its “shadowy Wagner Group” to embed themselves in Haftar’s LNA.
The GNA’s recent Turkey-backed successes seem to have spurred Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, reluctant to lose the valuable foothold he has gained in North Africa, into reciprocal action. On May 26 the US military accused Russia of sending fighter jets to Libya to support Haftar’s LNA and the Russian mercenaries under his command. “Russian military aircraft are likely to provide close air support and offensive fire,” it declared.
In short, whatever their motivations, a significant group of nations regard Haftar not as Libya’s problem, but its solution. Their confidence in him may have been shaken by recent events, but as long as Russia continues to back him, his great gamble has not failed.