In Libya since the fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi, years often pass without much change as political deadlock continues and the economy decays. Then a moment of opportunism triggers a chain reaction. One such chain reaction has taken place this year, begun by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s military advance into southern Libya and seizure of key oil fields. This step seems likely to result in the fulfillment of the warlord’s long-held—and increasingly internationally supported—desire to control all of Libya. But before jumping on Haftar’s bandwagon, international players should recognize that his advance is more likely to result in renewed violence than a long-sought opportunity to stabilize the country under one government.
After Haftar re-emerged from his long-term exile in suburban Virginia, political competition between Islamists, Qaddafi-loyalist technocrats, ex-regime associates, and those persecuted by the regime combined with a patchwork of local conflicts and the rise of jihadi groups to spark a second civil war in 2014. This dynamic caused the politicians to be eclipsed by their armed counterparts—notably, by Haftar himself, as his military operation left militarized administrations in its wake across eastern Libya. Five years on, the country remains torn between the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord, based in Tripoli and headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, and the Haftar-backed administration in eastern Libya. The international community has largely stood by, detached from the reality on the ground and trying to create political unity among increasingly marginalized politicians.
In 2019, the spread of Haftar’s self-declared Libyan National Army (LNA) through southern Libya has been surprisingly rapid. Under a media campaign promoting the operation as an effort to expel foreign forces and terrorists from southern Libya, the LNA (which uses foreign militias) moved quickly in February to secure Libya’s el-Sharara and el-Feel oil fields, which together produce close to 400,000 barrels per day. Just as he did when he won control of eastern Libya’s oil facilities in September 2016, Haftar subsumed strategically placed local forces (including those guarding the oil fields) into the LNA with the promise of a uniform and a salary.
Perhaps most revealing was the accompanying distribution of a parallel Libyan currency (which Russia has supplied in order to keep Haftar and eastern Libya’s parallel government liquid over the last few years) along with flour, gas, and petroleum to the long-neglected local population. Haftar’s seizure of the oil fields advertises to Libya’s general populace that he can supply what Tripoli’s feckless Government of National Accord cannot.
This recent move south was bold and significant. But this operation—slick as it was—will not be sufficient to break the status quo. Haftar has held the majority of Libya’s oil production since 2016, not to mention his de facto control of Libya’s elected legislature and its self-appointed government, which has been administering the east in opposition to the Government of National Accord in Tripoli (which was itself created by the Libyan Political Agreement).
But Haftar has failed to translate his factual control on the ground into real political currency—namely, a leadership position in the internationally recognized government. His attempt to independently sell oil in June 2018, which could have been a game changer, was met with concerted international resistance that ultimately forced him to back down. Since that blunt power grab was stifled, Haftar and his backers have made a subtler attempt at generating influence where it matters, amongst Tripoli’s de facto power holders and the international community driving Libya’s political process.
This year’s diplomatic efforts have focused on manufacturing a deal between Haftar and the Government of National Accord’s Sarraj—essentially sidelining Libya’s two legislative houses in a track aimed at formalizing Haftar’s national role. It was only once these negotiations stalled that Haftar and the LNA made good on a long-standing threat to launch the southern operation, which was toasted in the United Arab Emirates, one of Haftar’s main supporters. This was quickly followed by a fresh round of diplomacy. First the chairman of Libya’s National Oil Corporation was convinced to lift force majeure on the captured southern oil fields, essentially ceding control to Haftar in a recognition of his invasion as an “extraordinary event,” thus legitimizing Haftar’s presence there and cementing his control over Libya’s oil. In late February, Sarraj and Haftar were brought together by the United Arab Emirates and the United Nations special envoy to Libya for fresh negotiations aimed at finalizing a political deal—now with Haftar bringing even more weight to the table. But Haftar still left Abu Dhabi without anything solid, suggesting that Sarraj did what he does best, stalling negotiations in an attempt to buy time. He is, however, negotiating with an increasingly weak hand.
Haftar now realistically has two ways of exchanging his recent gains for an official seat at the table: an official deal or a military imposition of the new de facto reality.
The former is the easier, and likely preferred, option. Despite the LNA’s bluster, a full-on invasion of western Libya would be arduous and uncertain to result in any kind of victory, let alone a quick one. The move south has left Haftar stretched and made him responsible for keeping the peace in a tribal, conflict-ridden, and deprived part of the country, which is already witnessing a resurgence of criminality. He has also isolated the region’s sizable Tebu population, who feel persecuted by the new order, and he’ll inevitably have to keep spending to maintain the loyalty of other tribes and groups which he has bought over to his side.
Instead, Haftar is likely to keep negotiations open with Sarraj. A few mechanisms that could inject the LNA into the Libyan Political Agreement structure without requiring legislative approval are at the center of current negotiations. The cabinet could be reshuffled, providing Haftar the necessary political influence to be declared supreme commander of the Libyan army. Or Abdullah al-Thinni, currently prime minister of Haftar’s eastern government, would be made prime minister of a unified government while Sarraj retains an increasingly ceremonial presidential role and Haftar once again becomes supreme commander. With international pressure building to force a deal, it seems Sarraj is the likely loser in any scenario.
It appears that Haftar-supporting states have managed to convince others that Haftar should be welcomed as the sole actor capable of breaking the political deadlock. This shift has become clear from the widespread push for a Sarraj-Haftar deal, which has also gotten backing from the United States. While his weightiest backers in France and the United Arab Emirates have long argued that Haftar is the strongman to stabilize Libya’s post-revolutionary chaos, others, like Italy, were previously wary of Haftar’s volatility and of legitimizing a power grab.
But despite Haftar’s best efforts, a deal has not yet been reached. He could still be his own worst enemy. His refusal to accept anything less than a dominant position fuels Sarraj’s ability to stall and is leading to another drawn-out negotiation. The longer it goes on, the more Haftar’s momentum, derived from his territorial seizures and his image as the international community’s answer to Libya’s crisis, will begin to dissolve. If the deal is not decided before the United Nations’ “national conference” on Libya begins on April 14, he will have lost a significant opportunity. This will not only lead his supporters and media outlets to denigrate the national conference, but it may also encourage him to risk a military solution.
Worryingly, the last few months echo the era that preceded the 2014 civil war in Libya and the signing of the Libyan Political Agreement a year later. Frustration with political stagnation caused international actors to double down on unsuccessful policies in the hopes of forcing a solution. Policymakers would do well to remember the previous road to failure, instead of trying to force a square peg through a round hole. Haftar’s ascension has been driven by foreign powers whose understanding of Libya is skewed and whose interests are at odds with that of the Libyan population and many states dependent on Libya’s stability. Despite the fatigue with the country’s current politics, there remains a wide spectrum of Libyans who reject a Haftarocracy and what it could mean for Libya’s state and society. That discontent is unlikely to dissipate, regardless of which local actors are coerced onto the LNA bandwagon. If the U.N. backs a deal too soon, or transforms its long-awaited conference to contrive popular acceptance of the deal, instead of drawing an inclusive road map forward, it could lose its credibility in the country and squander a vital opportunity to reform the international approach to Libya.