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Libya: Is Haftar losing control of his forces in Benghazi?

By Sarah Vernhes
Posted on Tuesday, 6 April 2021 15:45

Khalifa Haftar in a video released on 28 April 2020. LNA War Information Division/AFP

The explosion of violence in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi marks Khalifa Haftar's loss of control over the Libyan National Army (LNA). Made up of tribal alliances and militias, the LNA is falling apart while its boss continues to lose power.

Atrocities, assassinations, kidnappings… Benghazi, the capital of Cyrenaica, has been plagued by an upsurge in violence since mid-March.

On 18 March, 12 bullet-riddled bodies were found in the city. Six days later, Mahmoud al-Werfalli, a senior commander in Khalifa Haftar’s LNA, was murdered in his car alongside his cousin. On 25 March, Hanine al-Abdali – daughter of Hanane al-Barassi, the lawyer and women’s rights activist who was murdered on a street in Benghazi in November – was kidnapped.

Barassi had been accused by Colonel Ali Madi, head of the Benghazi military prosecutor’s office linked to the LNA, of being involved in the murder of Werfalli alongside Mohamed Abdeljalil Saad.

The crumbling of the LNA

This outbreak of violence in eastern Libya is beyond the control of the new Government of National Unity (GNU) as well as that of Haftar, who is in charge of the region’s security. However, the marshal has seen his authority crumble ever since his failed offensive against Tripoli in June 2020.

Some of his foreign allies, have redefined their support while others, such as Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi have opted for a political way out. Despite the images of military manoeuvres led by the Infantry Brigade 106 that were broadcast on 29 March, Haftar’s LNA – which is made up of former military and militia – seems to be falling apart.

Although his own sons, Colonel Saddam Haftar and Khaled Haftar, have become increasingly active leaders of the LNA command, Haftar and his clan have become more isolated as the political roadmap has taken precedence over the military path.

The marshal’s authority has been undermined by several people in recent months. Werfalli is just one example. A member of the Warfalla tribe, the lieutenant in the special forces of the Al-Saiqa Brigade was slowly breaking free from the general’s control to operate independently. Werfalli was also accused of war crimes by the International Criminal Court and was issued with two arrest warrants in 2017 and 2018.

According to Jalel Harchaoui, a researcher at the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime, “although not an enemy per se, Werfalli was challenging the Haftar system in Benghazi. But he was hardly alone, far from it.”

Werfalli’s assassination on 24 March may well have been the catalyst to a hardening of tensions between the Warfalla and their rival tribe, the Awaqir. The latter have gained influence in Benghazi. The Warfalla are the largest Libyan tribe from the west, but remain in the minority in the east.

This is a potentially explosive cocktail for Haftar. A member of the Ferjani tribe, he relied on tribal dynamics to establish his authority and form the LNA. In 2014, he led Operation Dignity to retake Benghazi by relying on the Awaqir’s support. The Barassa, Hassa and Obeidat tribes had also rallied to Haftar’s side. This tribal alliance was important to Haftar as it allowed him to successfully conquer the oil crescent in the north in 2016. But these alliances remain unstable and dependent on shifting relationships.

Internal divisions within the LNA could become problematic for Haftar. According to Harchaoui: “The Haftar family will now be tempted to resort to frontal attacks and liquidations to eliminate the various figures that stand in its way in Benghazi. These divisions, which before June 2020 [when the LNA forces were defeated in Tripolitania] were still manageable thanks to a logic of co-optation, are now more dangerous. Haftar’s finances have dried up and his hopes for territorial expansion in the west are blocked. The likelihood of conflict in Benghazi is high.”

What about the head of the reunified army?

While Abdelhamid al-Dabaiba’s government is paving the way for the country’s reunification, the question of who will take control of the army remains unresolved. The prime minister, who is also the minister of defence, is avoiding the issue for the moment, focusing on confirming the state budget.

For his part, Haftar must succeed in retaining his position as head of the army in the east in order to have a legitimate claim to the position.

Furthermore, negotiations on army reunification — conducted under the auspices of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) and the 5+5 Joint Military Commission (JMC)  — are moving at a snail’s pace. The conditions being imposed include reopening the coastal route to Sirte, disbanding the militias and withdrawing foreign mercenaries.

The population in the east is feeling under pressure as the payment of salaries has been blocked for a long time due to the cash-flow disruption from the Central Bank of Libya in Tripoli to the banks in the east.

Unblocking cash payments to commercial banks in the east on 29 March led to violence. The very next day, the Al Wahda bank in Benghazi was attacked by gunmen; likely in an effort to economically strangle  Haftar, who was using the region’s banks to finance the war effort.

Faced with this increased violence in Benghazi, Salem al-Hassi, the former head of the intelligence services from 2012 to 2015, says he is very worried. According to him: “This increase in violence could cause unexpected changes on the ground, leading to the creation of a security vacuum. This could lead to more violence, a cycle of revenge and the explosion of Cyrenaica.”

Hassi adds that “the new government should keep an open channel for discussions and increase its presence in the east.” For him, “it is urgent that the government decentralises its power in the regions.” But for the moment, Benghazi has only received a visit on 30 March from foreign affairs minister Najla Mangouch, herself a native of the city.

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