Is Khalifa Haftar Libya’s next strongman?

Is Khalifa Haftar Libya’s next strongman?

Violence in Libya has moved the country close to a failed state. With the United States determined to prevent another Islamist takeover in the region, is General Khalifa Haftar in line to become Libya’s next strongman?

With foreign expats evacuating the country and water, power, and fuel shortages, Libya has descended into violence while the world’s attention remains focused on Ukraine, Iraq, and Syria. Clashes between Islamist and secular armed factions have brought all political discourse to a halt and split Libyan society in half. This July has seen the highest levels of violence in the country to date. The United States evacuated its embassy staff through the Tunisian border as the airports have shut down due to heavy fighting.

While some US intelligence officials are concerned, others downplay the threat of extremism. “What’s going on in Tripoli is not an AQ-driven fight, but an internal turf battle between liberal and conservative sectors of what is a deeply divided Libyan society,” a US intelligence official said. The general election on June 25 had low voter turnout and a wave of insurgent attacks.

The fighting has wreaked havoc on Libya’s energy sector. Exports from the port of Ras Lanuf, expected to resume this August, will likely be disrupted. Despite an increase after the 2011 revolution, oil production has been sharply in decline.

At the head of a coalition of secular nationalists is a former general from the era of Qaddafi, Khalifa Haftar. After a falling out with the former dictator during Libya’s war with Chad, Haftar defected to the United States. He is widely regarded by the Libyan population to have ties to the CIA.

Calling his campaign “The Dignity” movement, Haftar has militias from Tripoli and Zintan under his command. He has also recently garnered the backing of the Air Force and Navy as well former elements of Qaddafi’s forces. His campaign has made the city of Benghazi its primary objective.

These forces have fought the Libya Shield alliance led by former Islamist parliamentarian and Misrata militia commander, Salah Badi, as well as the Benghazi Shura Council, which is mainly composed of Ansar al-Sharia in Libya. Haftar’s forces have also been targeting Qatari and Turkish interests in Libya due to their ties to Islamist factions.

Previously, Haftar had expressed confidence in victory. “We have broken the backbone of our enemies,” he said during an interview with tight security. Despite a rise in the number of assassinations among Islamist militia leaders in Benghazi, Haftar’s critics say that neither side has managed to gain the strategic advantage.

It is uncertain if Haftar is able to bring about a decisive victory without outside help. His forces just retreated from their base outside of Benghazi following clashes with Ansar al-Sharia. On June 4th, suicide bombers attempted to reach Haftar, but failed. Ansar al-Sharia still has a lot of popular support in the eastern region. “Almost everyone in Benghazi knows, or knows of, someone in Ansar,” explained a young Libyan with a connection to the militia.

Even if Haftar were to eventually defeat all the rival militias, it is unclear how much political support he could gain in national politics. Still, he does have potential backers. Many Libyans are weary of the ongoing insecurity. He is popular among those wishing to maintain autonomy within a federalist system. He also has backing of the former Prime Minister, Ali Zidan, who was ousted by the current governing body in Tripoli.

The current government is still composed largely of Islamist parties. The Muslim Brotherhood’s affiliate, the Justice and Construction Party (JCP) and the Salafist wield the most influence. JCP is a well-organized political movement but has struggled to gain much traction so far. The position of the JCP on the fighting is also largely unknown. To neighboring Egypt, the existence of the Islamist militias in eastern Libya is viewed through the prism of the wider geopolitical struggle in the region. There is growing speculation that Egypt could intervene militarily on behalf of Haftar.

Fears that the economy is on the brink of collapse were recently addressed by the Central Bank of Libya, which is relying on the country’s $113 billion foreign currency reserve. It is doubtful that the government can depend on this to cover salaries and subsidies for long. The sooner the UN mission in Libya (UNSMIL) can persuade the sides to reach a ceasefire, the sooner the building of Libya’s state institutions can get back on track.

Large crowds have demonstrated in Tripoli, Benghazi and other cities against the current government. The Western countries that were active in Qaddafi’s overthrow could revitalize their efforts to bring about coherent and meaningful dialogue between the sides. Western intelligences agencies should not rely on Haftar’s campaign to subdue the militias by force. Such action would only encourage long-term instability through the form of terrorism.

However, calls for international intervention will most likely fall on deaf ears. In the past, the United States has shown it is willing to use force to protect its interests in Libya, such as the raids against terror suspects and the seized Libyan oil tanker. The US intelligence community may feel that supporting Haftar’s Dignity campaign may be in their best interest. As such, Haftar may be positioning himself to eventually stage a coup could lead to a new era of authoritarianism for Libya.

About Author

Chris Solomon

Chris Solomon is a Middle East Analyst and works for a U.S. defense consultancy in the Washington DC Metro Area. He has presented at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, on the U.S. strategy to combat ISIL. Chris’ writing has also appeared on NATO's Atlantic Treaty Association, Raddington Report, Small Wars Journal, and Syria Comment. He holds an MA in International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA). You can follow Chris on Twitter @Solomon_Chris