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Libya in Crisis as General Khalifa Haftar Invades Capital City, Proxy War Looms

Khalifa Haftar, a former general of Muammar Gaddafi, has ignited a crisis in Libya after his surprise military invasion of the city of Tripoli on April 4, 2019.
Khalifa Haftar, a former general of Muammar Gaddafi, has ignited a crisis in Libya after his surprise military invasion of the city of Tripoli on April 4, 2019. (Photo: YouTube Screenshot)

“In 2015, the general (Khalifa Haftar) boasted to me while we were at his command headquarters in Marj that he would win the post-2014 civil war by killing all the Islamists in Libya, not by simply becoming president.”

Khalifa Haftar, a former general of Muammar Gaddafi, has ignited a crisis in Libya after his surprise military invasion of the city of Tripoli on April 4, 2019.

The U.N.-recognized government in Tripoli is the official legal authority of Libya, but it lacks real control over the country, as Haftar’s Libyan National Army has been rapidly consolidating power over the country’s oil fields and Eastern region.

According to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), at least 4,500 individuals have been displaced since the clashes erupted six days ago, and more than 500,000 children are deemed to be at “immediate threat.” At least 120 people have been killed so far.

Experts fear the conflict could intensify into a full-blown civil war that would unleash a refugee crisis, spike oil prices and leave a vacuum for jihadist groups to entrench power.

Anarchy in Libya

After the NATO-backed ouster of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, the country descended into violent anarchy. Since then, militias loyal to U.N.-backed prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj have been locked in a chaotic power struggle with Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s forces and radical groups like the Islamic State. Militia groups frequently shift alliances, and four decades of authoritarian rule have left the population without the institutions necessary for democratic government.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama has said the worst mistake of his presidency was the failure to prepare for the aftermath of Col. Gaddafi’s overthrow.

Who is Khalifa Haftar?

Gen. Khalifa Haftar has been involved in Libyan politics for four decades. He originally fought alongside Muammar Gaddafi to seize power from King Idris in 1969. Gaddafi made Haftar the leader of Libyan forces engaged in conflict with French-backed Chad in the 1980s, but after Haftar was defeated and captured, Gaddafi abandoned him.

Khalifa Haftar then spent two decades in exile in Virginia, near Langley’s CIA compound (the CIA backed several attempts to assassinate Gaddafi). When the uprising against Gaddafi began, Haftar returned to Libya and has grown his influence as a military commander in the years since.

Haftar was in Saudi Arabia the week before the invasion and spent last weekend in Egypt, consolidating his partnerships with the region’s authoritarian leaders. Haftar brands himself as a staunch foe against terrorism, but critics say the general is an authoritarian who wants to be the “Sisi” of Libya: a military dictator vehemently opposed to Islamist groups.

Jonathan Winer, the former U.S. special envoy to Libya, told Foreign Policy that Gen. Haftar wants to gain power through force, not democracy: “During a meeting with Haftar in 2016, the general told me Libya’s politicians were worthless and the country wasn’t ready for self-government. It became clear to me that his strategy was to do just enough military conquest to create a stampede where all alternatives to him and his Libyan National Army collapse.”

A journalist who has interviewed Haftar multiple times spoke with Foreign Policy about the general and corroborated Mr. Winer’s claim, saying, “In 2015, the general boasted to me while we were at his command headquarters in Marj that he would win the post-2014 civil war by killing all the Islamists in Libya, not by simply becoming president.”

Saudi Arabia and the UAE see political Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood as archenemies. They fear their authoritarian monarchies could be delegitimized if a Democratic Arab state that successfully integrates Islamist parties is established. In Tunisia, the Arab region’s struggling yet resilient Democratic state, the UAE has allegedly worked to undermine the Islamist Ennahda party and its coalition government. This could explain their motivation to back Haftar’s offensive, as they believe they could benefit from another allied dictatorship in the region.

Libya, Another Proxy War

While the Saudi-UAE-Egypt coalition supports Gen. Haftar, their chief competitors, Qatar and Turkey, support Islamist militias, making Libya a regional proxy war.

The U.N., United States, European Union and G7 bloc have called for a ceasefire, a return to the U.N. peace plan, and an end to Haftar’s push. Despite these calls, many perceive the diverse objectives of foreign actors in the country to be worsening the situation.

“Haftar’s belligerence is due in no small part to the silence of the international community during his previous operations, including his expansion into south Libya,” said Tarek Megerisi, a Libya analyst with the European Council on Foreign Relations.

France and Russia are permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, which backs the U.N.-installed government in Tripoli that Khalifa Haftar is striving to conquer. But according to the Middle East Eye, French consultants are present in the city of Garyan, about 46 miles away from Tripoli, where they are advising the general’s forces. France has around 4,500 troops located around Libya, and Macron sees Haftar as Libya’s best bet at regional stability. Meanwhile, Russia has been a supporter of Haftar for years, seeking to obtain influence and leverage as a mediator in the eventual political solution.

French President Emmanuel Macron, who was the first European leader to host the rogue Libyan general, has drawn criticism from Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini. Italy has been the primary destination of Libyan refugees since Gaddafi’s ouster in 2011, polarizing the country and motivating Salvini’s firm support for the U.N.-recognized government in Tripoli. Salvini’s hardline anti-immigration stance is at the center of his political ideology, and he has claimed no matter what happens in Libya he will not allow refugees into Italy’s ports.

Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj expressed his fears about Haftar’s aggression to the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, saying, “We are facing a war of aggression that will spread its cancer throughout the Mediterranean, Italy and Europe. We need to be united and firm in blocking the war of aggression of Haftar, a man who has betrayed Libya and the international community.”

If the foreign powers competing for influence in Libya cannot work together to impose sanctions on Gen. Khalifa Haftar and reinforce a political peace process, the conflict could develop into the world’s next major civil war.

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Peter Castagno

Peter Castagno is a freelance writer with a Master’s degree in International Conflict Resolution. He has traveled throughout the Middle East and Latin America to gain firsthand insight in some of the world’s most troubled areas, and he plans on publishing his first book in 2019.

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