Will Hifter escape the trap he set himself since the early days
By Ashur Shamis
Since Hifter took upon himself the goal to invade and control the city of Tripoli as a strategic military objective, Hifter has taken the first steps on an irreversible path. Either invading the capital or death. Heftir fell into a dilemma, a trap, with no exit strategy.
Hifter confirmed this to me and another colleague in late December 2013 in a private meeting in Tripoli. We had been trying to meet with him because he had become a controversial in Libya. He was roaming the country with a few hundred old soldiers and some equipment. It was noticeable at the time that he was a ‘spoiler’, a factor of liability and discomfort for many; wherever he camped his little bandits, he would provoke tension and chaos. He was, at least, an embarrassment, and did not even draw the government’s attention at the time.
We had known Khalifa Hifter back to 1987, when he was captured as a prisoner of war by the Chadians. At his hosts’ request he chose to join the leading Libyan opposition group, the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, which we belonged to, as an opponent of the Gaddafi regime. And like many in 2013, we were greatly curious to know what Heftir had in terms of intentions and plans. We were also keen to provide ideas or advice to serve the February revolution.
Heftir indicated that the government was no longer able to govern the country, and that the General Congress had failed to carry out its duties. He stressed that officers in the “army” were on his side and that large numbers of people were supporting him. So do many “revolutionaries”, and some Islamic elements – except for the “Muslim Brotherhood” and the extremists – also support him. He added that he would form a national council of notables from the tribes to serve as parliament.
Hifter expressed his intention to announce soon a military project aimed at uniting the army and countering terrorist militias – as he described them. He was focused, he said, on a major work that would be announced early in 2014. This was what actually happened with him appearing on the Saudi Arabian TV channel from Dubai, Al-Arabiya, in February 2014. He revealed his intention to seize power and to freeze up all the machinery of government in Tripoli, the General National Congress (the Parliament) and the Constitutional Declaration.
In response to that statement, the government had announced that it did not recognise Khalifa Hifter and would seek to arrest him and bring him to trial.
At the time, Heftir had nothing called “dignity”, which saw the light only months after that meeting. He had no army known as the “Libyan National Army,” or an institution called “Parliament”, which was not elected until May 2014.
Heftir at that time was nothing but a force that made up of hundreds, mostly retired former members of Gaddafi’ defunct army. He had no military or political base from which to start. Rather, had a militia like all the other militias deployed in various parts of the country. He tried to attract several Libyan cities and tribes, led by Tarhuna – southeast of Tripoli – which was the land of the Al-Furjan tribe to which Hifter belongs, but he failed.
Nevertheless, Heftir continued his shuttle journey through Libya until he settled in Benghazi. But during that period no one took him seriously, including the government of Ali Zidan who ridiculed him and his ‘coup’, and no one paid much attention to him.
Our meeting with him preceded the battles of Benghazi and Derna and it was not expected that he would march on the capital in April 2019. Heftir would not have carried out any of the crimes in Benghazi, Derna, the south, and currently in Tripoli, had it not been for the support he received from the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other countries promoting his adventures.
What is Khalifa Heftir all about?
• Heftir does not recognize the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, nor does he recognize its legitimacy, bestowed upon it by the United Nations and the world community. In his view, those who rule Tripoli are militias and terrorists, allied to ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
• He only sees a military solution and is not convinced to give up the fighting.
• He does not recognize a peace process, nor does he recognize a political solution or a political process.
• In his view, those who rule Tripoli are the militias, terrorists, and ISIS elements, and there is no legitimate government in Tripoli.
• His first objective is to seize Tripoli militarily, ‘liberate’ it from terrorists and militias, overthrow the government and all political and civil institutions therein, and establish a military rule that fully controls the country.
Is this what they call military ignorance?
War or peace
• If Heftir accepts peace, then this means stopping the war, but war is the first and only goal in the strategy of Heftir, because it will enable him to occupy Tripoli; and if he continues in the war, he is heading toward defeat. A suicide mission, a huge blunder. This is the core of the impasse in which Heftir has fallen and which is unavoidable in the pursuit of it, because of the inherent dual contradiction in his military strategy, not to mention his politics.
• He does not accept peace because that does not achieve his first and primary goal, which is the occupation of Tripoli, and he cannot take over Tripoli because he does not have the power or the mandate to do so.
• If he accepts the cease-fire, this means stopping the war, and if the war stops, that meas a peaceful solution which to him is defeat. A classic catch-22.
Heftir does not have any political entity or organization. What was known as political or cultural elites in Benghazi have been silenced and because of targeted assassination and persecution, coerced out the country, mostly into neighbouring Egypt. What he called ‘Dignity’ is a hoch-puch of the remnants of retired and spent-out Gaddafi army, that has been comatose since the early nineteen-eighties. It included opportunistic tribal groups, some militias, and self-interested elements motivated by private interests and greed for money and influence. This is what he called ‘the Libyan National Army’.
Heftir became a ‘Trojan horse’ for the UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other countries. Time and time again, he demonstrated his incompetence or ability to play this role. It is a failed instrument to achieve the aspirations of its supporters and the plans that regional and international powers are planning behind it, including programs, aspirations, and military and geopolitical arrangements in the region.
These ambitions and arrangements are summarized in eliminating any traces of what has been known since 2010 as the ‘Arab Spring’. Instead, efforts must be made and resources have to put together to re-establish and support ‘dictatorships’ – military or non-military – in most of the Arab world, in order to preserve the status quo anti 2010. That is the ‘natural’ and ‘suitable’ habitat for the Arab people whatever the cost in human lives, Muslim and Arab, or funds and resources. Among the countries that had cherished that goal are the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Saudi Arabia (known as the axis of Arab evil), and from outside the region, France and Russia. At the forefront of the targeted countries were Libya, Tunisia, the Sudan, Algeria and Lebanon.
Heftir has undoubtedly proved incompetent and not ready to engage in a political process in Libya. In fact, Fayez al-Sarraj, the leader of the internationally recognized Government of National Accord in Tripoli, after repeated attempts of more than seven meetings with Heftir since 2015, was forced in early 2019 to come to the conclusion that Heftir was prepared to sabotage any peace initiatives is willing to betray agreements of any kind.
Heftir and his aides have stated more than once that they continue to prosecute the war and are not looking for a political solutions. There is to be no peaceful or political settlement with the government in Tripoli. This was a blatant challenge to the international community, as it is paralyzed and unable to produce peaceful solutions.
Many analysts and observers wonder about the so-called ‘international community’, fueling the war in Libya, and displaying contradictory stances towards the situation. In a Leader recently, the Financial Times called on “foreign states” to “end their hypocrisy in Libya”. This hypocrisy of “meddling the country, which cynically promise one thing while doing the opposite.”
There are those who interpret this as a long-term cynical plan to exhaust the military forces in the western region and enable Heftir to enter Tripoli and seize power in it. Despite his blatant and reckless audacity to reject, again and again, peaceful solutions and deny the political process, he is getting stronger day by day, and receiving more political, military and logistical support. This, which can only be explained by the adage “creating a new Muammar Gaddafi” in Libya.
There is no doubt that Turkey’s intervention in late 2019 has taken other interested parties by surprise and tipped the scales of power in the region. The Europeans – who fear the rise of Turkish power in the world, and whose strategies cannot bear the movement of Turkey outside its borders – rushed to Berlin (January 19, 2020) to take the wind off the wings of the Turkey-Russia initiative (January 13, 2020) to bring peace to Libya. Heftir and his allies were furious and deepened the chasm, raising the level of aggression against Tripoli, and sinking further into the trap of its invasion, by refusing to accept the cease-fire. The Heftir camp confirmed that the solution is in the gun, and that their attendance at the various international gatherings is for listening only, and not in search of political solutions. Thus, the Heftir strategic project to invade Tripoli continues.
Where is the solution?
Now that Heftir’s forces have reached the out skirts of Tripoli and Misrata, and after ensuring the arrival of air and ground supplies from his loyal allies, what can the authority in Tripoli, Misrata and the western region do?
• It is clear that Heftir is determined to continue the war to the last Janjaweed militia mercenary to achieve his only ambition, and his tanks reach the heart of the capital, sooner or later, whatever the price.
• Forces in the western region have the combat power and strong will defend Tripoli and other cities, but not without supplies, support and additional ongoing military expertise. Here, the Turkish contribution – according to the memorandum recently signed by the two parties – will have its decisive role in the conflict.
• The GNA should assume the role entrusted to it, and rise to the level of its responsibility, by leading and unifying the camp that faces Heftir forces. It must reconsider its handling and management of the conflict. It is a ” war government”, and that means it needs a military administration that interacts with events and developments in the battlefields. It is required to have a qualified and trained Minister of Defense and military personnel with experience and expertise. It has to have a team of ministers who are professional and capable of uniting ranks, gathering energies, and bringing together armed groups in the western region under one military umbrella that is supervised and coordinated by the army.
Perhaps we should take lesson from what happened in the eastern region. Heftir had been fighting for nearly four years before his opponents’ guns fell silent. Today, it is dominated by terror and intimidation, by iron and fire. And if he is able to enter Tripoli, he will rule it – as Gaddafi used to rule it before – by force and coercion, despite the dignity and integrity of its inhabitants who will be defeated.
For, the ultimate solution of the Libya crisis will, as the FT put it, ultimately “be up to the rival Libyan factions to act in the interests of their long-suffering population”. But the outside meddling, and the pouring of illegal supply of arms, mercenaries, and sophisticated war equipment have also got to stop. Otherwise, “as long as foreign powers stoke the flames, the ouside world would also be culpable for the carnage”.
Ashur Shamis is a distinguished Libyan writer and long-time political activist. He is the Editor-in-Chief for Libya Tribune.