By Emadeddin Zahri Muntasser
Khalifa Haftar could be the next Assad if the U.S. and EU don’t act fast.
Six years after the revolution that drove former dictator Muammar Gaddafi from power, Libya remains deeply divided. Now, Russia is fueling another military strongman who threatens to make the situation far worse for Western powers and Libyans in what would be a major blow to the democratic hopes that sparked the 2011 Arab Spring uprising. How the international community responds ― especially on the heels of a U.S. strike against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government ― could be critical for the future of Libya and the surrounding region.
The toppling of Gaddafi, not unlike the civil war that followed Syria’s own uprising, has left a dangerous power vacuum in the embattled nation. In the western sections of the country, the U.N.-sponsored Government of National Accord, or GNA, has been unable to assume office due to the refusal or inability of the House of Representatives, or HoR, to offer its required endorsement, rendering the country effectively without a legitimate government. Elsewhere, competing warlords continue to shift sides and prolong the suffering of the average Libyan due to deteriorating security, power and water shortages and lack of liquidity at banks. And there are reports that the so-called Islamic State is regrouping here as well, paving the way for what some say could be a “powder keg” situation.
Amidst this chaos, Khalifa Haftar, a U.S. citizen and ex-Libyan military officer who once served and later turned on Gaddafi, has emerged as a key influencer in the country. If he plays his cards right, Haftar may have the fate of a nation in his hands.
Back in 2011, in the midst of the revolution, Haftar was often described as “the CIA’s man in Libya” and had vocal support from a variety of international leaders. To close observers of the populist revolution that deposed Gaddafi, Haftar began to engage a campaign of deliberate sabotage of the democratic processes fairly early on in post-revolution politics.
As early as 2014, he called for the overthrow of the Libyan General National Congress and for the arrest of all the elected officials. And in a tactic used worldwide to delegitimize political opposition, he labeled his internal opponents “terrorists,” and even launched a military assault on the Libyan parliament building in Tripoli in an attempt to topple the elected government there.
Gradually, Haftar was cut loose by Western allies and turned to Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, which have provided him with a potent drone capability. But his continued refusal to even talk to the GNA, including his refusal to meet at a highly publicized meeting in Cairo recently, may have convinced the Egyptians and others to recalculate ― and this week’s meeting between the Egyptian and American presidents may complicate that divide.
Running out of options, Haftar has now turned to the Russians for help fighting off Islamists preventing him from solidifying control. Recent reports indicate that Russia, which benefitted from having an authoritarian leader like Gaddafi in Libya, may be providing Haftar with military assistance in the form of both arms and surveillance equipment. And there are already reports of Russian forces massing near or in Libya, with Russian denials and state media accusing the West of exaggerating the Russian influence.
Is Libya The Next Syria?
Russian support for Haftar does not bode well for Libya or the larger international community, with some suggesting the situation could even parallel in part that of Syria. While Assad and Haftar are not interchangeable, the concern is that the Russians will replicate the model they have used in Syria in Libya as well, with Haftar assuming an Assad-like role in the form of an authoritarian claiming to weed out the terrorists.
The Syria model includes Russian bases on the footsteps of Western Europe, massive bombings and a dictatorship heavily supported by Russian leadership. Having already been run by a dictator for years, the installation of another one is the last thing many Libyans would want, especially with the presence of Islamist groups and armed factions creating further violent instability in the country. But they may be on the verge of just that.
Haftar is already putting the Russian aid to good use. In early March, he suffered a humiliating defeat and was pushed out of Libya’s largest oil export facilities. But with the support of Moscow, Haftar has been able to recapture most of the ground he recently lost, raising the prospect that he could emerge in an even better position.
Given his history with the West and previous opposition, an emboldened Haftar is likely to show even more intransigence towards the U.N.-sponsored Libyan political agreements. If he was an obstacle to reconciliation governments before, a stronger Haftar could render them moot or, worse, play rival governments as pawns to maintain a continued power vacuum.
With political progress stuck in the sand and a continually deteriorating standard of living in the country, Haftar is poised to position himself as a strongman who can offer stability and security in the face of terrorism ― an appealing prospect for Western oil companies eager to resume one-stop shopping for oil exploration and production, as well as desperate Libyans who simply want to stop the fighting and economic uncertainty.
And it’s also an idea U.S. President Donald Trump may latch onto as well if he sees it as useful to stemming the rise of ISIS in Libya after potential fails in Raqqa and Mosul.
But the reality is, the stronger Haftar gets, the more likely it becomes that Libya will linger in its current state of chaos. As the war has gone on, the country has amassed a formidable force of hardcore revolutionaries who will fight Haftar forces to the absolute end. These armed battalions and militia forces under diverse commands and names are experienced and dogmatic in their opposition to Haftar.
Many already worry about and feel provoked by Haftar’s fondness with Russia, particularly since Haftar and his forces took Benghazi in a 2014 operation known as Operation Dignity.
The operation, supposedly aimed at eliminating terror groups in the country, also allegedly displaced large numbers of civilians and earned Haftar many enemies in the country. And while the opposition may make things more difficult for Haftar domestically, his positioning against many of the factions in the war-torn country, some with alleged Islamist tendencies, may serve him well in gaining international support.
That is, if the global community sees Haftar as the counterbalance to Islamists, which thus far Russia and the European Union appear to be at loggerheads on.
The American actions in Syria this week meanwhile have created an interesting dynamic for Hafar, who once saw U.S. President Donald Trump ― a fellow strongman seemingly willing to work with Moscow to fight terror ― as having goals that aligned well with his. With the strike against Assad, and a finger pointed at Russia, his backing is not so certain. So far Trump has yet to give a clear indication of where he stands on Libya.
If he signals new allegiance with Russia in Libya, it could dramatically embolden and strengthen Haftar. But if Trump chooses to heed the European Union’s warnings and continue to engage in the Middle East based on his Syria policy shift, Haftar will have likely lost a needed supporter.
Libya’s Next Dictator?
But even with Putin as his ally, Hafar’s rise is not guaranteed.
The biggest unknown factor is whether the Benghazi Defense Brigade, or BDB, succeeds in recapturing Benghazi from Haftar’s forces after losing ground during his anti-Islamist Operation Dignity. As of now, it seems that this outcome will be determined by whether Libyan forces in the west will decide to participate even in this late stage of the conflict.
The relatively well-organized military resources in the west, especially in and around Misrata, could be decisive in ending Haftar’s role if they engage. Absent extensive air support of other outside intervention, they are in a position to trap and doom Haftar and his forces.
Defeating Haftar would have profound implications for the ongoing war in Libya and outside its borders. The largest impact could be that the U.N.-supported GNA government may finally move forward. Or, even better, with Haftar out of the political process, new leadership and a new political map could take shape. An ousted Haftar would also be a major win for his former champions in the West who continue to insist that the U.N.-sponsored agreement is the only way forward for Libya ― assuming the U.S., through Trump, continues to stand behind the U.N. approach.
But a loss for Haftar would also be a loss for those who most recently stood with him, namely Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and, of course, Russia and leave the question of who emerges as the next leader of Libya once again up in the air, something likely on the minds of those wondering who would end up in charge in Syria if Assad is toppled.
With so much hanging on what happens with Haftar in and around Benghazi, it’s also impossible to ignore the reality that a second Libyan revolutionary eruption may be imminent. With intense clashes in Tripoli becoming a regular occurrence, shifting alliances, an increasingly unpredictable U.S. and an emboldened Russia do not bode well for a future democracy.
Those who have long sought freedom and democracy in Libya have an increasingly shrinking window of opportunity to set the country on a bright path. To maximize it, they must consolidate their forces, devise a comprehensive strategy and move with determination and speed to put down the man who has been nothing but an impediment to this country. Ultimately though, that outcome will be largely determined by what others do. Without foreign support, Haftar is nothing more than a paper tiger. With it, he may turn out to be something else altogether.
Emadeddin Zahri Muntasser, Contributor Founding Member, Libyan American Public Affairs Council