Ever since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libya has become a hotbed of disparate Islamist groups battling against each other in a never-ending series of local conflicts. The UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) has been totally ineffective in its attempts to get a grip on the situation. On the contrary, it has allowed the chaos to spiral out of control.
The one politico-military figure in today’s Libya possibly able to regain mastery of the situation and bring an end to the state of anarchy is Khalifa Haftar, leader of the Libyan National Army (LNA). That does not mean that he is a particularly admirable or attractive character, merely that he appears to have the power and leadership qualities that Libya seems to require at the present time.
On April 4, 2019 Haftar announced in an on-line audio recording that he was launching a military campaign aimed at taking over the capital, Tripoli. In response, the UN-recognized GNA, which is based in Tripoli, mobilized various militias and launched air attacks against Haftar's forces.
The next day the United Kingdom arranged for an emergency Security Council meeting, which called on Haftar to "halt all military advances" – a call he is likely to ignore. For Haftar is not an isolated figure. In the months – indeed years – of conflict that have led to what now seems a bid for supreme power, he has been receiving backing and military support from a variety of international sources. These include Russia and France, both of which urged the Security Council to exert minimal pressure on Haftar and his LNA. Other states underwriting Haftar include Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
In short, it is clear that a significant group of nations regard Haftar not as Libya’s problem, but as its solution.
As a young army officer in 1969. Khalifa Haftar helped Muammar Gaddafi seize power from King Idris, but in the 1980s he had a major falling out with the Libyan dictator, following the failed campaign to annex part of Chad. 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 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 Islamist militants in Benghazi and the east. 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. Hence his recent assault on Tripoli.
Haftar’s march on the capital happened to coincided with the arrival in the country of Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary-general, who was hoping to arrange a peace conference, the result of months of UN diplomacy. Major players in Libya, including Haftar, were meant to meet in the border town of Ghadames on April 14 to 16 to hammer out a deal paving the way to nationwide elections later this year. The conference has been postponed until further notice.
"We cannot ask people to take part in the conference during gunfire and air strikes," said Ghassan Salame, the UN envoy to Libya.
Haftar is hoping to capitalize on the increasing discontent among the civilian population. The situation inside Tripoli, as in other Libyan cities, has been steadily deteriorating. The capital is divided between different militias, and the GNA is itself weak and corrupt.. Crime, insecurity and corruption have been on the rise, while living conditions have markedly worsened. Social and health services have nearly collapsed.
Inevitably nostalgia for the Gaddafi era has crept in, and Haftar has been capitalizing on that, projecting himself as a military strongman capable of uniting the country and restoring stability and order. A massive promotional campaign, largely backed by the UAE, has been portraying Haftar as Libya's saviour.
The LNA has taken up positions some 11km south of the centre of Tripoli, but the capital is protected by an array of militias and other groups loyal to the government, and they have recently been augmented by battle-hardened forces from the city of Misrata. The fighting looks like being long and bitter. Haftar’s bid for power is far from assured.