What are Haftar's real intentions in Libya?

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7 min read
29 December, 2022
Analysis: Amid speculation that Khalifa Haftar was going to announce the secession of eastern Libya, the military leader is now reassessing his play for power.

The 24th of December marked Libya's independence day, which was widely celebrated by Libyans and prominent political figures with joy and positivity.

However, the day also has another significance; it was the postponed date for Libya's long-awaited elections in 2021.

Since then, Libya has seen several political crises and armed confrontations, along with the formation of a parallel government.

There have also been surprising moves by different political actors and unexpected alliances of dissenters, which have complicated Libya's already chaotic and gloomy political atmosphere.

"Haftar's insistence on the territorial integrity and unity of the country suggests that the diplomatic scramble to avert any serious move towards partition has succeeded for the time being"

There were reports in December, for example, that Khalid Al Mishri, Head of the Libyan High Council of State (HCS), was due to meet the speaker of the pro-Haftar, eastern-based House of Representatives (HoR), Aguila Saleh, to finalise the constitutional basis for elections.

That meeting, however, was postponed, with the UN working to identify a new date and location.

Mishri then ceased communications with Saleh and called to annul a law establishing a Supreme Constitutional Court in Benghazi, which he said would violate agreements between the HCS and the HoR.

The UN special envoy for Libya, Abdoulaye Bathily, said earlier in December that disagreements between the heads of Libya's two legislative bodies are holding an “entire country hostage”.

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Following this development, rumours and reports emerged from eastern Libya that Libyan National Army (LNA) leader Khalifa Haftar would announce the secession of eastern and southern Libya as autonomous regions run by him and his armed militias during a speech to mark the country's 71st independence anniversary on 24 December.

Since Haftar has previously said that he still wants to run for Libyan president and opposes any constitutional basis that prevents him and military figures from participating in elections, it would not have been an unexpected announcement.

Ahead of Haftar’s speech, it was reported that the HoR speaker had decided to abandon establishing the Supreme Constitutional Court in Benghazi, and that talks between Al Mishri and Saleh would continue.

Amid rapidly developing events, there was heightened anticipation ahead of Haftar's Benghazi speech on Saturday. However, he instead called Libya's unity a 'red line', saying that he would not allow a scenario of partition to occur.

What are Haftar's real intentions in Libya?
Supporters of Libya's eastern strongman Khalifa Haftar attend a rally marking the 71st anniversary of the country's independence from Italy in the eastern city of Benghazi on 24 December 2022. [Getty]

"The General Command (of LNA) announces a final opportunity through which it will draw a road map and hold elections," Haftar was quoted by the al-Hadath TV as saying, according to Reuters.

Sources close to him following the speech said the decision to resume talks between the HCS and HoR had dissuaded Haftar from announcing secession and self-governance.

But what are the ramifications of Haftar’s speech, and what does it reveal about his potential plans for Libya’s future?

Speaking to The New Arab, Abdulkader Assad, a Libyan journalist and political analyst, said that Haftar's speech was intended to send a message to his foreign backers to prove that he is still relevant.

"Haftar and his allies are gambling that Turkey's aversion to war at the moment is such that they are willing to make significant concessions"

"Haftar's camp on social media intentionally spread the secession rumours to give Haftar and his son Saddam some political strength amid the rising importance and critical role of the House of Representatives Speaker Aguila Saleh,” Assad said.

“So now, the only war Haftar can wage is one of buying loyalties in east Libya in order to make sure Saleh and others cannot get the upper hand,” he added.

Considering the matter from a different angle, Sami Hamdi, the editor-in-chief of The National Interest, a global risk and intelligence company, says Haftar wants to take advantage of political divisions in western Libya.

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"The political track was brought about solely by Turkey's intervention which established a military equilibrium," Hamdi tells TNA.

"However, there is a view among Haftar and his allies that Turkey does not have an appetite for war at the moment, and that Ankara is struggling to manage and shepherd the competing factions in Tripoli into an effective unified bloc."

According to Hamdi, Haftar and his allies are taking advantage of what they perceive to be an increasingly apparent weakness on the part of Turkey to force a change in the political dynamics in their favour.

All about relevancy?

Commenting on what Haftar's speech would mean for 'others', Assad says the military leader wanted to "appear as an actor driving Libya toward elections, just like Dbeibah, Mishri, Saleh and Bashagha," while Hamdi said that Haftar's speech was markedly different from previous statements which had implied that he was considering a partition of the country.

Haftar's insistence on the territorial integrity and unity of the country suggests that the diplomatic scramble to avert any serious move towards partition has succeeded for the time being, which raises the question as to what might have been offered to Haftar in exchange for altering his language on partition.

What are Haftar's real intentions in Libya?
Libya's eastern military chief Khalifa Haftar waves after a speech at a rally marking the 71st anniversary of the country's independence on 24 December. [Getty]

"Turkey is the only international player capable of offering anything to avert partition. This suggests that promises may have been made to extract concessions from Tripoli. However, it is not clear yet what those concessions are at the moment," Hamdi tells TNA.

Commenting on Haftar's current position, Hamdi believes that the warlord still remains as relevant as ever.

"His threat to secede from Tripoli was serious enough to force a diplomatic scramble. However, Haftar and his allies are gambling that Turkey's aversion to war at the moment is such that they are willing to make significant concessions in order to prevent war," he says.

"Yet Haftar's gamble has the potential to backfire spectacularly. In forcing a war, Haftar could create a situation in which the divided factions in the west unite, and more importantly, where the US decides to give the 'green light' to Turkey-backed groups this time instead of giving it to Haftar as it did in 2019."

"[Saddam Haftar] wants to be the new strongman and warlord"

The rise of Saddam Haftar

Amid all these developments, there are rumours that Khalifa Haftar, who is about to turn eighty, is ill. In the past few years, his son, Saddam Haftar, has also risen to prominence in eastern Libya, where his father's armed militias are powerful.

Recent images from Benghazi show streets decorated with his picture, with many arguing that Saddam is one of the core parts of Khalifa Haftar's agenda in Libya.

Last week, Amnesty International released a report detailing war crimes committed by the Tariq Ben Zeyad armed group, led by Saddam, "with the aim of crushing any challenge to Haftar's so-called Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF)".

The report mentioned the routine targeting of the opposition and the terrorisation of civilians in areas controlled by the LAAF, which had inflicted "a catalogue of horrors, including unlawful killings, torture and other ill-treatment, enforced disappearance, rape and other sexual violence, and forced displacement - with no fear of consequences".

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According to Libyan journalist Assad, Saddam is consolidating his position as a military man.

"He wants to be the new strongman and warlord. His old and ill father knows that Saddam is his successor. To that end, he has given him almost all top military roles, including being the commander of the notorious Tariq Ben Zeyad militia, through which he is settling scores with his opponents and bossing the finances of the eastern region," he told TNA.

Assad also thinks that given Haftar's failed attack against Tripoli in 2019, he has recognised that he must share power with the western region's leaders.

"Deals on the tables of politics could eventually see him or/and his son Saddam gain a government position (Defence Minister-Chief of General Staff); of course, as long as no general elections are held, because then, he and his son could reassess their position and lead foreign-backed campaigns to win the vote," he added.

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