Can Libya’s Khalifa Haftar pull back following Tripoli defeat?
Amid global economic downturn, analysts say it’s unclear if foreign supporters will continue to bankroll the strongman.
The campaign will be swift.
This was eastern-based renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar’s pledge to his supporters at home and abroad when he launched his offensive against the internationally recognised government in Tripoli in April 2019.
But more than a year into the operation, his Libyan National Army (LNA) could not be further away from its goal of overtaking the city of 2.3 million people.
On April 14, it was dealt its biggest setback yet when a counteroffensive by the United Nations-brokered Government of National Accord (GNA) resulted in the loss of seven western cities stretching from the capital all the way to the Tunisian border.
“Haftar’s loss of an area estimated at 500-square kilometres is an event of seismic magnitude both for him and his foreign supporters,” said Walid Ratima, a Turkey-based Libyan columnist.
Amid a global economic downturn caused by the new coronavirus, questions over the feasibility of Haftar’s project are unlikely to fade away from the minds of his international supporters, said Ratima.
“The cost of supporting Haftar, both financial and material, is becoming too heavy to bear for the United Arab Emirates,” he said, referring to one of the Ajdabiya native’s key backers.
“His defeats will sooner or later … force his supporters to find other solutions, other personalities, or different ways of achieving their goals.”
Little is known about Haftar’s formative years, except that he joined the Libyan military early on in life, and later partook in the 1969 military coup that brought Muammar Gaddafi to power.
The relationship between the comrades in arms ended abruptly after Haftar was captured by Chadian forces during a clandestine operation in 1987.
Gaddafi at the time refused to negotiate Haftar’s release – indeed, rejecting altogether the idea of any Libyan military presence in Chad.
It was in a Chadian prison that Haftar was approached by the CIA and where – following internal upheavals in Chad – he agreed to resettle in the United States in the early 1990s.
From his suburban home in Virginia, Haftar would spend the next 20 years working on ways to remove the self-proclaimed “brother leader”.
The dual Libyan-American citizen returned to Libya in 2011 at the height of the Arab Spring uprisings with that same goal in mind.
But his profile was obscured by that of other senior military officers who early in the uprising defected to join the ranks of the revolution.
It was only in 2014, with the security situation deteriorating further, that his claim to be able to stabilise Libya began to be taken seriously.
With backing from, among others, the UAE and Egypt, Haftar succeeded in ridding Benghazi, Libya’s second-biggest city, of several armed groups, including affiliates of al-Qaeda and the armed group ISIL (ISIS).
His April offensive, just days before UN-sponsored peace talks, was presented as an extension of his successful efforts to restore order in eastern Libya.
But beyond revealing Haftar’s own ambitions for Libya, the battle for Tripoli exposed the extent of foreign intervention in the strategically located, resource-abundant country.
The UAE ramped up its support for Haftar, carrying out with increasing frequency drone and jet attacks against his opponents.
Meanwhile, Russian mercenaries from the private Wagner group reportedly assisted his troops on the front line, giving them an edge over their rivals at several stages of the fighting.
Turkey, the GNA’s sole military benefactor, stands out as the only outside actor to have publicly assumed the role it is playing in Libya.
“Turkey is there [Libya] with a training force. There are also people from the Syrian National Army,” said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in February, confirming reports that Ankara had sent Syrian rebels to defend the Libyan capital.
By the GNA’s own admission, Turkey played a decisive role in reversing the tide, allowing through aerial support – most notably armed drones – the former’s ground forces to retake large swathes of territory.
Expanding the table
Exactly how much further into Haftar-controlled territory the GNA is willing and, indeed, able to go remains unknown.
Turkey’s ability to resupply ground forces has been complicated by a recent European Union naval mission seeking to enforce a UN arms embargo.
In contrast to Haftar’s supporters, who have used Egypt’s vast border with eastern Libya to funnel in weapons, the sea is the only available route into Tripoli for Turkey.
Erdogan in late December visited neighbouring Tunisia, in what analysts described as an effort to curry favour with Tunis and build forward bases from which to support the war effort.
Though supportive of the GNA, Tunisia’s President Kais Saied and later President Abdelmajid Tebboune of Algeria both seemed to reject Erdogan’s proposal, favouring instead the UN’s diplomatic track.
For Ali Bakeer, a Turkish political analyst, there is no question Turkey and the GNA want to breath new life into the political process.
“The GNA and Turkey have been clear from the beginning. They want a political solution in Libya that guarantees the country’s stability, security and prosperity,” Bakeer told Al Jazeera.
“Haftar and his backers thought that there is no need for a political solution as long as they can seize Libya and power by force. They obviously overplayed their hand and are now forced to review their calculation from a weaker position.”
Ratima said Haftar’s inability to capture Tripoli would have repercussions on the internal cohesion of the LNA.
Casting doubt on Haftar’s claim to commanding a modern standing army – in contrast to the hodgepodge of militias that make up the GNA’s military force – Ratima said Haftar’s Libyan supporters had grown sceptical of his campaign.
“They are increasingly having to see images of civilians, women and children being killed, a quarter of a million Libyans being displaced. This is going to harm his popularity,” said Ratima.
“When Haftar returns to the negotiating table, the political equation will have shifted. He will not represent, as France wished, the military legitimacy and the GNA the political legitimacy.”
Political negotiations would have to include actors from across Libya, Ratima said, including those who attacked Tripoli.
“Haftar cannot claim to represent eastern Libya in its entirety. And that will be the case with GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj as well.”