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World General Haftar’s greatest gamble in Libya is going against him

Libyan Strongman Khalifa Haftar attends a military parade in the eastern city of Benghazi on May 7, 2018, during which he announced a military offensive to take from "terrorists" the city of Derna, the only part of eastern Libya outside his forces' control.

ABDULLAH DOMA/AFP/Getty Images

At 76, Khalifa Haftar is full of fight and making the biggest military and geopolitical move of his life. And it’s not going well.

The aging general – actually field marshal, the highest army ranking, typically given in honour of battle victories – launched his attack on Tripoli on April 4, after his cakewalk through the south of Libya from his power base in the eastern half of the country. The assault on the capital was his strongman effort to bring all of Libya under his control and vanquish the country’s “terrorist” gangs.

“Everything is coded in terrorism rhetoric – he wants to purge Tripoli of ‘terrorists,’” says Jacob Mundy, the author of a book on Libya and a Fulbright professor who is now teaching in Tunis. “His view is that [the United Nations-recognized Tripoli government] is an enabler of terrorism.”

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U.S. President Donald Trump last week endorsed Gen. Haftar, even if the U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, warned Gen. Haftar to halt “immediately” his offensive against Tripoli. In a statement, the White House said Mr. Trump “recognized Field Marshal Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources.” Citing unidentified sources, Bloomberg has since reported that Mr. Trump told Gen. Haftar in a phone call that he supported Gen. Haftar’s attack on Tripoli.

Barbarian at the Tripoli gate: Libya is on the verge of another civil war

Libyan leaders warn civil war could cause prison breaks and the freeing of terrorists

While Gen. Haftar has defeated Islamic State forces in Benghazi, his opponents note that he has forged alliances with the ultra-conservative Islamist Salafi forces, called Madkhalists, which at one point he had intended to eradicate. The opponents say that instead of uniting Libya, he is splintering it even further by ignoring the UN peace process, which, in spite of several false starts, held out the best prospects for bringing the country together without bloodshed.

Since dictator Moammar Gadhafi was hauled out of a culvert during the Libyan revolution in 2011 and killed, the country has been a tangle of warring militias – a failed state, the dark side of the Arab Spring that had begun next door in little Tunisia. Gen. Haftar would restore order, or so his propaganda machine, now backed by Mr. Trump, as well as Egypt and France, to a certain degree, had declared.

The attack on Tripoli was both audacious and cynical. It came exactly when UN Secretary-General António Guterres was in the city to prepare for a peace conference that would set a timetable to unite the country, rewrite the constitution and hold democratic elections. Instead, Gen. Haftar handed Libya a fresh civil war, and the body count is rising.

Equipped with regular and irregular troops – the latter being a ragtag collection of militias of varying degrees of fighting ability, brutality, allegiance and religious fanaticism – the general’s invasion of Tripoli was supposed to be swift and relatively bloodless.

He apparently thought that the militias defending Tripoli and the city of Misrata, about 200 kilometres to the east, would roll over and join the inevitable winning team – his self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA). “He does see himself as the Libyan leader,” says Prof. Mundy. “It seems he launched the attack to interrupt the peace process and take over.”

The attack didn’t go to plan. The militias supporting the regime in Tripoli – the Government of National Accord (GNA), led by its Prime Minister, Fayez al-Sarraj – accused Gen. Haftar of launching a coup attempt. (“He stabbed us in the back,” Mr. Sarraj said.) The GNA fought back and even managed to recruit some factions from the powerful Misrata militias to join the defence of Tripoli.

Today, three weeks after the start of his Tripoli campaign, Gen. Haftar’s LNA is bogged down on the outskirts of the city, perhaps 20 or 25 kilometres from the centre. In recent days, he has even lost some ground, according to diplomatic sources and various media reports. By Tuesday, the death toll on both sides had risen to 264, the UN’s World Health Organization reported. Almost 1,300 have been injured and many thousands have been displaced from their homes in the southern suburbs of Tripoli (population almost three million).

Libyan warlord to intensify

Tripoli offensive

Eastern Libyan forces loyal to rebel warlord

Khalifa Haftar are planning to intensify an assault

on the capital Tripoli, seat of the country’s

internationally recognized government

Areas of control (as of April 23, 2019)

UN-backed Government of National Accord

(GNA) and aligned militia groups

Eastern-based government backed by

Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA)

Mitiga Airport

TRIPOLI

Med. Sea

Zawiya

Ain Zara

main area

of clashes

GNA

attacks

Swani

Al Zahra

Qasr bin Ghashir

International Airport

Area of detail

Azizyia

LIBYA

Al Hira

LNA

supply

routes

10km

Gharyan

Khalifa Haftar: LNA calling in reservists to open

new fronts, using artillery and infantry, after its

offensive failed to breach southern defences of

city. Haftar has reportedly received aid from

Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Russia and France.

GRAPHIC NEWS, Sources: AP; Reuters; Stratfor;

LiveUA Map

Libyan warlord to intensify Tripoli offensive

Eastern Libyan forces loyal to rebel warlord Khalifa Haftar

are planning to intensify an assault on the capital Tripoli,

seat of the country’s internationally recognized government

Areas of control (as of April 23, 2019)

UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA)

and aligned militia groups

Eastern-based government backed by Haftar’s

Libyan National Army (LNA)

Mitiga Airport

TRIPOLI

Med. Sea

Zawiya

Ain Zara

main area

of clashes

GNA

attacks

Swani

Al Zahra

Qasr bin Ghashir

International Airport

Area of detail

Azizyia

LIBYA

Al Hira

LNA

supply

routes

10km

Gharyan

Khalifa Haftar: LNA calling in reservists to open new

fronts, using artillery and infantry, after its offensive failed

to breach southern defences of city. Haftar has reportedly

received aid from Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Russia

and France.

GRAPHIC NEWS, Sources: AP; Reuters; Stratfor;

LiveUA Map

Libyan warlord to intensify Tripoli offensive

Eastern Libyan forces loyal to rebel warlord Khalifa Haftar are planning

to intensify an assault on the capital Tripoli, seat of the country’s

internationally recognized government

Area of detail

Areas of control (as of April 23, 2019)

UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA)

and aligned militia groups

Eastern-based government backed by Haftar’s

Libyan National Army (LNA)

LIBYA

Mitiga Airport

TRIPOLI

Mediterranean

Sea

Zawiya

Ain Zara

main area

of clashes

Swani

GNA attacks

Al Zahra

Qasr bin Ghashir

International Airport

Tarhuna

Azizyia

Al Hira

LNA

supply

routes

10km

Gharyan

Khalifa Haftar: LNA calling in reservists to open new fronts, using artillery and

infantry, after its offensive failed to breach southern defences of city. Haftar has

reportedly received aid from Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Russia and France.

GRAPHIC NEWS, Sources: AP; Reuters, Stratfor; LiveUA Map

Gen. Haftar’s strongman image has taken a blow, but this is not the first time he has been humbled. While he has scored some compelling victories in his long military career, he has also taken a few devastating losses.

Gen. Haftar is an enigma. He rarely gives interviews, and there are big gaps in his curriculum vitae, where his activities and sources of income are merely guesses. But his convictions and strength of personality are famous, or infamous, in North Africa.

Frederic Wehrey, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment and author of The Burning Shores: Inside the Battle for the New Libya, interviewed Gen. Haftar in 2014, when he had formed the LNA and launched Operation Dignity, his ultimately successful campaign against the Islamic militias that controlled Benghazi. “He’s supremely self-confident and convinced of his mandate,” Dr. Wehrey says. “He’s an old-school, dyed-in-the-wool military man, an authoritarian by temperament. He has a deep lust for power and has been masterful at exploiting the disenchantment with the [2011] revolution.”

Gen. Haftar was born in the eastern district of Ajdabiya, near Benghazi, in 1943, when another field marshal, Erwin Rommel, the “Desert Fox” of Hitler’s North African campaign, was making his last stands against the Allies in Libya and Tunisia. A military man from the beginning of his career, he was one of the officers who joined Colonel Gadhafi in the coup d’état that overthrew Libya’s King Idris in 1969.

Gen. Haftar earned the trust of Col. Gadhafi, who thrust him into the military’s upper ranks and sent him on a disastrous adventure. In 1986, Gen. Haftar led the Libyan incursion into French-backed Chad, on Libya’s southeast flank, where he and hundreds of men were captured and imprisoned. At that point, he was in effect disowned by Col. Gadhafi, and Gen. Haftar would seek revenge. It was the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency that ultimately came to his rescue and eventually delivered him to the United States, where he obtained U.S. citizenship and aligned himself with the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, an anti-Gadhafi group that made several coup attempts against the dictator, who by then was an international pariah.

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For 20 years, Gen. Haftar lived an evidently comfortable life in Virginia amid rumours that he was on the CIA payroll, though there is no proof he was an American intelligence asset. Still, there is no doubt that his insider knowledge of Col. Gadhafi’s regime, Libya’s military strength and its oil-production potential – Libya has Africa’s biggest proven oil reserves – would have been of great interest to the Americans.

He returned to Libya in 2011, when Col. Gadhafi was on the run as rebel forces swept across the country, but did not appear to have played a big role in the dictator’s downfall. His rise to prominence came when he rid Benghazi of the Islamist militias. Inspired by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the Egyptian President, he promoted himself as the man who would save Libya from terrorist mayhem. It is widely believed he has received financial support, and weapons, from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, and possibly Saudi Arabia.

While Gen. Haftar may not, on his own, be able to unite Libya under his rule – he appears to have little interest in democratic elections – a united Libya is unimaginable without his support; he is too powerful to be ignored, and the country’s oil-rich east is under his control.

But today, as his army is stuck on the outskirts of Tripoli, Gen. Haftar’s greatest ambition stands a good chance of failure. The GNA and its Tripoli militias did not hand him his cherished easy win. The would-be saviour of Libya seems, so far, merely to have inflicted more wounds on a once-prosperous country that has seen no peace for eight years.

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