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Khalifa Haftar, the Libyan Strongman Who is Hard to Ignore

Khalifa Haftar, a veteran army general and strongman in Libya has returned to his headquarters in the eastern city of Benghazi following an extended absence while being treated in a Paris hospital for a stroke. General Haftar has been part of the Libyan political scene for more than four decades, shifting from the centre to the periphery and back again as his fortunes changed after the Libyan revolution which toppled Muammar Qaddafi.

Initial reports even suggested that the 75-year-old strongman who controls most of eastern Libya and the oil crescent was seriously ill, incapacitated or even dead as reported in the Libyan National Army opening salvo during the campaign to choose his successor. But now all these rumours have been put to rest. Haftar has been consolidating his position in Libya since announcing operation dignity against Islamist extremist’s forces in 2014. His forces have both strengthened their hold on their stronghold in Cyrenaica in eastern Libya and have advanced westward into critical terrain since May 2017. People were speculating he could make it to Tripoli soon through force or even by getting him elected as the president. It’s a hard fact that a significant number of Libyans now see Haftar as the only person who can bring some form of order to their lawless and chaotic country.

General Haftar commands the Libyan National Army which is the strongest force in Libya. His forces are better equipped than any other force which includes MIG 21 fighter jets and combat helicopters. His Libyan National Army (LNA) consists of a nationalist coalition of military units, local and tribal militias, Salafi fighters and Sudanese mercenaries, particularly from the Darfuri rebel groups. The LNA currently controls the populated areas of eastern Libya, the oil crescent region, and strategic military sites in the southwest which have boosted General Haftar as a game changer in Libyan politics. He also has unlimited regional support from the UAE and Egypt, as well as international support from France and to a lesser extent from Russia. Haftar also commands a greater degree of tribal support from most of the major tribes like- Magharba, Baraasa, Hasa, Obaidat and Zintan which has most powerful tribal militia called Zintani brigades. Recently Haftar established contact with western Libyan tribes Warfalla and Tarhouna which lie, on route to Tripoli and in the future, can facilitate on his march towards the capital.

Haftar casts himself as the person who can bring stability to Libya after years of conflict and areas under his control are relatively stable and have seen far less fighting. Haftar’s popularity has grown as his military governance structures provide a semblance of stability although his rule seems to be autocratic and undemocratic. However, it delivers some form of governance which is much needed. His stock is rising especially given the growing dissatisfaction with the Government of National Accord (GNA) which rules in some parts of Tripoli, inter-militia warfare and the collapse of the Libyan dinar.

By allowing the oil to flow and providing stable security at the crucial Libyan ports, Haftar has significantly increased his political leverage and standing among Libyans, as well as the international community, strengthening his negotiating position for any fresh political bargaining. He remains an important figure in the Libyan political landscape. However, the problem with Haftar is that he believes that he is powerful enough so that he can impose his own conditions on the other parties. This is not the case. Although the balance of power is currently in his favour, this will not last forever and he cannot resolve the situation militarily to his advantage. So, to ensure long-term stability for Libya regional and international backers of Haftar should convince him to play a constructive political role and not just rely upon the military. A comprehensive political settlement that includes all Libyan parties and influential forces on the ground in any potential settlement in the only way forward for Libya. Haftar has to be engaged and contribute in order for there to be any future political solution should he be offered a greater role to play in any future arrangement.