By Ferhat Polat
The latest territorial loss has put militia leader Khalifa Haftar in a weak position, and it is the right time for the international community to bring him to the negotiating table to help end the power struggle in Libya.
Haftar faced a surprise blow in Gharyan where his forces have held this territory south of Tripoli, since early April. Libya’s internationally recognised government have now managed to dislodge pro-Haftar militias from this strategically important town. Gharyan was the main forward base for the eastern-based Libya National Army (LNA) under Khalifa Haftar, which has been eyeing control of Tripoli.
Haftar, who controls much of the east and commands the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), has been provoking an all-out military conflict in Libya.
In April this year, he kicked off his offensive to capture Tripoli, the capital which hosts the internationally-recognised government of Libya – the Government of National Accord (GNA).
The loss of Gharyan, if it stays under GNA control, represents a significant setback for Haftar. The latter has only one town left in the west of Libya, Tarhunah, as a launching pad for their military campaign.
The situation on the ground is still fluid, but at this point, there are two possible scenarios for what could happen next in Libya.
First, losing Gharyan spoils Haftar and his backers’ strategy, who hoped to achieve a quick victory and seize the Libyan capital. This would have been game over, and Haftar could portray himself as a unifier and saviour of the country.
Haftar relies on an array of militias and tribal factions. The latter, however, were merely mercenaries and prone to changing sides.
While Haftar shrewdly used this strategy in the initial phases of the offensive against UN-backed government in Tripoli, it later showed its limitations as a protracted fight was not in the interest of these guns for hire.
With the loss of Gharyan, some critics believe that Haftar’s military failure in Tripoli could lead to his political fall in the medium run.
Second, the legitimate government of Libya will likely avoid making political concessions with Haftar because he usually offers talks, shakes hands, sits at the negotiation tables whereas, in reality, he remains a firm believer in the military solution.
Haftar should be under international sanctions because he is not only responsible for spoiling the peace process, but also because his troops have committed war crimes.
Haftar is seen by many as the principal obstacle confronting the unity of the country. International and regional powers have a responsibility to rein him in and convince him to cooperate for peace and stability in Libya.
The timing of Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli was not accidental. It came just ten days before UN Special Representative for the Secretary-General (SRSG) Ghassan Salame had scheduled a national assembly to bring Libyans together. This is further proof of Haftar’s intention to derail the political and diplomatic process.
Peaceful solutions are not on Haftar’s agenda. He behaves like a dictator and argues that Libya is not ready for democracy.
More than seven years after Gaddafi was toppled, Libya still faces severe political and social difficulties and the country is divided between rival governments and military factions creating a political deadlock.
Haftar seems to be the main obstacle to reconciliation in Libya. Even so, he continues to enjoy political and logistical support from Egypt, UAE, France, Russia and others.
It is believed that such support stems from the economic benefits that can be derived from the oil-rich Eastern Libya. It is with such international backing that Haftar has dominated the eastern part of the country and ventured recently to establish a foothold in the region of Sebha.
Haftar has consistently refused to recognise the legitimacy of the GNA. It is widely believed that Haftar wants to control Libya as a whole. He has continuously refused to abide by peace proposals and initiatives.
There is no alternative to a negotiated solution. Libya requires stable and determined leadership, empowered by the rule of law, as well as democratic institutions adhering to inclusive policies to reverse the rapid deterioration of the country.
The quicker Haftar understands this, the better it will be for all Libyans.
Ferhat Polat is a Deputy Researcher at the TRT World Research Centre. He is a PhD researcher in North African Studies at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies in Exeter with a particular focus on Turkish Foreign Policy.