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Libya’s Haftar and the assault on Tripoli
Backed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, France and Russia, military strongman Khalifa Haftar decided to take control of Libya’s capital city in April, shunning negotiations with the country’s internationally recognised government in Tripoli.
On 5 April, support for Libyan warlord and head of the country’s self-proclaimed eastern parliament, Khalifa Haftar, could be heard on the airwaves of the pro-Haftar television station Al-Hadath: “We support the advancement of the national armed forces in order to cleanse Tripoli and its western zone from militias and terrorist groups,” says one militant.
Dignitaries, municipal representatives, ordinary citizens, all repeat the same message seen on the screen: the offensive on northwestern Libya by Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) is not an attack, but rather the liberation of Tripoli, which has been held hostage by Islamist militias and traffickers of all kinds.
- The TV presenter, with the images flashing up behind him, lists the cities – Sebha, Tobruk, Benghazi, Koufra – that back the military operation launched by Haftar the previous night, as multiple groups pledge allegiance to Haftar.
Did Paris give the nod?
The move to capture Tripoli and the western part of Libya from the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) came as little surprise. Haftar had promised it on countless occasions. “He was already planning it in December 2017,” reveals Michel Scarbonchi, a consultant who helped put the military strongman in contact with French authorities.
“It was the French Minister of Europe and Foreign Affairs, Jean-Yves Le Drian, who was sent by President Emmanuel Macron and who convinced Haftar that it was preferable to opt for elections than resort to weapons. The Libyan military leader and the Minister have enjoyed a close friendship ever since,” Scarbonchi explains.
- This had led to the inevitable questions on France’s involvement in the Tripoli offensive, especially since the two men met on March 19 at the Rajmah base, 30km from Benghazi. France has however denied any involvement in the assault.
“Before attacking the capital, and to avoid being caught on the other side, Haftar needed to secure the southern and western borders, which he did in two or three months,” Scarbonchi adds. “The takeover of Fezzan in January-March was a rather successful hybrid operation with promises, money, mediation, even though the armed forces were sometimes violent” says Jalel Harchaoui, a researcher at the Hague’s Clingendael Institute.
- “Haftar has taken over the territory with the consent of local leaders. This is not a military conquest in the full sense of the word. The offensive from the south was intended to bypass Sirte, where his troops would have avoided,” according to a knowledgeable source.
But the decision to push for the capital remains shrouded in mystery. “Without minimising the responsibility of the states that supported Haftar, their role was exaggerated in the decision to attack Tripoli. It was a series of slips that led to the April 4 escalation,” according to Harchaoui.
However, everything started off well with the operation in Fezzan, which gave Haftar national and international recognition. “When Haftar’s LNA forces move to the west, even if it’s the southwest, a psychological barrier falls,” explains the researcher. “Several decision-makers suddenly see the risks of partition reduced.
Abu Dhabi’s plan
At that point United Arab Emirates capitalised on the situation, almost without trying. At the end of February, as Haftar’s troops captured the strategic Sharara oil field in Fezzan, the CEO of the National Oil Corporation, Mustafa Sanala, refused to reopen the pumps.
- Sanala and Haftar were summoned to Abu Dhabi for a meeting, with Ghassan Salamé, UN envoy to Libya and GNA head Fayez al-Serraj, present. “It was de facto summit,” says Harchaoui. The situation worked well for the self-styled General Haftar, who enjoys the support of Emirati leader Mohammed Ben Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi.
The discussion revolved around a revision of the GNA’s Presidential Council, which would be limited to three members, one per region, including two pro-Haftar members representing Fezzan and Cyrenaica.
“Sarraj has been kept onboard to represent Tripoli, mainly due to its political weakness, and Haftar remains the supreme leader of the armed forces,” says Harchaoui. Scarbonchi concurs: “Haftar’s primary concern is to remain leader of the Libyan army in order to ensure the country’s security. For that, he doesn’t need to be president. First of all, you can only reunify Libya with a Chief of Staff who plays a central role”.
- The Abu Dhabi plan requires that all ministries pledge allegiance to Haftar and rumours were rife on a 26 March announcement of the government’s project.
But in less than a month the whole project fell apart and Haftar was welcomed in Saudi Arabia like a Head of state the following day, meeting with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
- Analysts say Riyadh gave Haftar the go ahead to attack Tripoli, even encouraging it. With the support of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, France and Russia, Haftar showed little interest in engaging in negotiations with the GNA.
Tripoli joins forces
According to Harchaoui, incidents with the Toubous prompted some Haftar forces to gradually leave Fezzan during the month of March and regroup simultaneously in Jufra, from where the assault on Tripoli was meant to begin. He supports the idea that it was an offensive that was initially intended to be limited to Gharyan, 90km south of Tripoli.
- But in continuing towards the capital, Haftar’s allies have provoked a united reaction from several armed forces in Tripoli, including militias that had declared themselves ‘Haftar-compatible’: “Some were upset with the alarming overtaking of Gharyan. The militia leaders felt attacked and formed a somewhat effective barrier which was completely above what Haftar had expected,” says Harchaoui.
That being said, Hafter can still rely on forces from Tarhounah, Gharyan and Zintan that allowed him to march on Tripoli. And as fighting continues to rage in the Libyan capital, predictions differ: “If Haftar doesn’t take over Tripoli in the coming days, he will have lost the game and even if he succeeds, he will not be able to stay in the capital,” says another knowledgeable source, referring to challenges Haftar has in his own fiefdom of Benghazi.
“Donor states are obliged to support him, willingly or unwillingly,” says Harchaoui, “and it is possible that the United Arab Emirates or Egypti could provide air support in case of difficulties in or around Tripoli”.
This article was first published in Jeune Afrique