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Warlord 2.0: Will Saddam Haftar be his father's successor?

Warlord 2.0: Will Saddam Haftar be his father's successor?
5 min read
30 January, 2023
Analysis: Khalifa Haftar is reportedly planning to hand over authority to his son Saddam, but any succession could be contested by both local power brokers and international backers.

In the past few weeks, there have been several new developments in Libya's long-lasting political crisis following a series of high-profile visits to the country.

In mid-January, CIA Director William Burns made a rare trip to Libya, meeting with Prime Minister of the Government of National Unity (GNU) Abdulhamid Dbeibah and Libyan National Army (LNA) commander Khalifa Haftar.

The meetings were followed by Turkish Intelligence Chief Hakan Fidan's visit a few days later. Most recently, Italy's newly elected Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, visited over the weekend, and a deal on $8 billion in gas production was signed between the two countries.

These visits have taken place amid a rift between the head of the High Council of the State, Khalid Al-Mishri, and the speaker of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives parliament, Aguila Saleh, on organising elections.

Despite agreeing on specific rules to hold the vote, al-Mishri and Saleh have failed to reach a common understanding regarding the presidential candidacies of dual nationals. 

Since disqualifying dual nationals would prevent Saleh's long-term ally, warlord Khalifa Haftar, from running for Libya's presidency, the HoR's speaker is in no mood to compromise.

Saleh also announced on 21 January that he had submitted a new proposal to the UN's Libya Envoy Abdoulaye Bathily to establish a new, single government instead of a dual governmental system.

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According to media reports, during his visit CIA director Burns reportedly asked Dbeibah and Haftar to form a joint military force from Haftar's so-called Libyan National Army, which would be under the warlord's command to secure the country's oil facilities.

In the midst of these developments, media reports, mainly from Russian outlets, have claimed that Khalifa Haftar is considering handing over power to one of his sons.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta, a Russian daily, reported that Haftar, who is about to turn 80, is ready to transfer power to his son Saddam to command his militias. Furthermore, according to other reports, Khalifa Haftar also asked his followers, such as Aguila Saleh, and the head of Libya's Presidential Council, Mohammed Menfi, to support Saddam in any future Libyan presidential elections.  

According to an Amnesty International report in December 2022, Saddam has committed war crimes as leader of the Tariq Ben Zeyad (TBZ) armed group with the aim of “crushing any challenge” to his father’s self-styled army.

Media reports have claimed that Khalifa Haftar is considering handing over power to his son. [Getty]

While Saddam’s succession is uncertain, it could have serious repercussions for Libya’s political scene.

Jalel Harchaoui, who is a Libya specialist and associate research fellow at the Royal United Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI), says Khalifa Haftar is undoubtedly trying to adjust the distribution of political power across eastern Libya in a bid to facilitate things for Saddam.

"But this by no means indicates that a smooth succession will take place in case the field marshal passes away. In fact, the default assumption of any observer should be that the succession will not be smooth. Saddam's brothers Belqacem, Khaled, Sadiq, et al. aren't particularly aligned with him," Harchaoui told The New Arab.

"But much more importantly, there is no evidence that local leaders across Cyrenaica [eastern Libya] feel beholden to Saddam in the same way they are now to Khalifa," he adds.

Sami Hamdi, the editor-in-chief of The National Interest, a global risk and intelligence company, says the signs are clear that Saddam might play a key role in Khalifa Haftar's future plans.

"Given reports of Saddam's activities over the past two years relating to military activity, including an alleged visit to Israel and an alleged deal with Dbeibah that saw the once untouchable Mustafa Sanallah, who led the National Oil Corporation for eight years, there are clear signs that he does have significant power and influence that he draws on from his father's position," Hamdi told TNA.

According to him, "the power of sons in the region tends to dissipate with the death or fall of the father" unless "it is entrenched by consensus or via an institution", Hamdi said.

"As of yet, it appears Haftar has not yet managed to convince all the tribes to back Saddam in an official capacity in the event of his death, with recent reports suggesting fierce opposition in some quarters," he added.

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Supporting Hamdi's views, Harchaoui also says, "If the transmission of power from Khalifa to Saddam proves difficult, Saddam will not necessarily be able to fix things using violence as a deterrent. Moreover, Cyrenaica [eastern Libya] is a very tribal society; if a few opponents are killed for some reason or other, the contestation problems may spread even farther."

Commenting on potential options, Hamdi argues that if Haftar's health does deteriorate there could be a reorganisation of military units, with Saddam appointed as a chief commander.

"This is probably the only way Haftar can ensure Saddam can challenge any opposition to his inheritance," Hamdi tells TNA.

Questions remain though about what would happen if the succession fell through, and how Haftar’s international backers would react to any potential takeover by Saddam.

"Of course, as always, foreign states prefer a one-stop-shopping configuration with a unique interlocutor for all Cyrenaica and parts of the Fezzan [southwestern Libya],” Harchaoui said.

“But […] foreign states will have no option but to improvise and adapt after the fact. Right now, not a single meddler - not even Egypt - is certain how things will work in Cyrenaica the day after Khalifa's death."

Ufuk Necat Tasci is a political analyst, journalist, and PhD Candidate in International Relations at Istanbul Medeniyet University. His research focuses on Libya, proxy wars, surrogate warfare, and new forms of conflict.

Follow him on Twitter: @UfukNecat