The Libyan warlord has consistently upped the ante, but only has a losing hand to show for it.

It has not been a good year for Khalifa Haftar. The Libyan warlord has made a career of costly failures, but even by his standards, the gamble to capture Libya’s capital Tripoli and cement his place as the country’s generalissimo has proven costly.

Haftar, and his so-called Libyan National Arab Army, long reaped the benefits of two perfect storms – the incompetence of their rivals in the aftermath of the 2011 revolt, and the willingness of foreign sponsors to foot the bill for the ageing warlord’s ambitions in the name of stability. 

With the year-long Arab Army assault on Tripoli and its environs having badly stalled, however, Haftar increasingly appears the biggest barrier to stability in the country.

A barrier to conflict – or a source?

Inside Libya, Haftar benefited enormously in his early years from the incompetence, inflexibility, and fragmentation of his opposition. 

In the years immediately following the successful 2011 revolt against Muammar Gaddafi’s Jamahiriya regime, the winning coalition split. 

Among the resultant problems were regional differences, dangerous maximalism employed by many winning rebels, and – with the dismantlement of former military and security forces – a perilous reliance on fragmented militias. This contributed to rising insecurity, especially in eastern Libya: the September 2012 attack on the American embassy at Benghazi was simply the most infamous example.

The rebels’ triumphalism was epitomised in a sweeping 2013 law that disqualified former officials from holding office; like the notorious “de-Baathification” law in Iraq a decade earlier. The law starved Libya of much-needed professional technocrats and officers, many of whom had had no attachment to the Jamahiriya dictatorship. 

Many jilted officers rallied to Haftar when he began his march toward power in 2014. So too did actual ideological and political loyalists of the Jamahiriya regime, whose lingering presence in parts of the country had only fed the paranoia of the 2011 war’s winners.

In the instability that resulted, Haftar played up his conceit as a military strongman and thus a harbinger of stability and order. It is no coincidence that his rise to power came in eastern Libya, whose self-proclaimed government was based in Tobruk. 

Not only did this region border Egypt, whose caudillo, Abdel Fattah El Sisi, Haftar purported to emulate and who returned his Libyan imitator’s affections, but this region had had an especially toxic cocktail of regionalism and overreach by militants, including extremists. 

Haftar drew heavily among clans and former regime officials alienated in the 2011-14 period and portrayed his campaign as that of a centralised, disciplined, and competent army against ragtag fanatics and terrorists.

In actuality, this proved a mirage. 

Apart from a small core of professional officers increasingly overshadowed by his sons, Haftar’s Arab Army is reliant on its self-serving militias – including violently sectarian followers of Haftar’s Saudi cheerleader Rabiah Madkhali. 

No less than militias affiliated with Tripoli, they also include self-serving fronts who change sides as suits their immediate convenience. 

And if the 2011-14 period featured rebels who justified their violence with an “us-versus-regime” polarisation, Haftar has always defended his violence with an “us-versus-terrorists” polarisation. He has overplayed this card so often that even foreign observers have begun to see him as the boy who cries wolf.

One result has been that many of the Libyan commanders who backed Haftar expecting stability in 2014 have since switched to Sarraj’s side. These include, most prominently, Tripoli’s army ministers Mahdi Barghathi, from the eastern Benghazi region, and Osama Juwaili, a strongman in the western mountains; the latter has been leading the defence of Tripoli for the past year. 

Mustafa Sharkasi, the leader of the Benghazi Defense Brigades, and Muftah Hamza, are other officers from the east who soon became disillusioned with Arab Army misrule. 

In an indication of Tripoli’s ability to learn from former errors, Sarraj managed to win over former Jamahiriya commander Ali Kanna, who now leads the opposition to Haftar in southern Libya. 

Increasingly, then, with his polarising rhetoric and his determination to violently crush any potential opposition, Haftar is beginning as much to appear a source of instability and violence as the alleged “terrorists” against whom his takeover in 2014 was first launched. This is risky not only for his prospects in Libya but also on the international stage.

Foreign support: Generous but not endless

While no side in the Libyan war is short on foreign backers, none have been patronised quite as charitably on the international stage as Haftar. 

Neighbouring Egypt has been the most direct backer. As important are the United Arab Emirates, whose fanatically anti-Islamist government funded Sisi’s 2013 coup in Cairo shortly before supporting Haftar in Libya. 

Meanwhile, Russian patronage has gone so far as deploying mercenary brigades in the Arab Army’s favour. 

France, whose war in the Sahel mirrors Haftar’s self-proclaimed war on terrorism in Libya, has been especially energetic in promoting Haftar’s campaigns in Europe. 

Other governments, including Washington and European governments, have been more coy, but this has more to do with the international recognition enjoyed by Haftar’s opponents in Tripoli than it does with any necessary opposition to his agenda.

In this respect, Haftar is the latest in a long line of military adventurers that France, in particular, and other countries in the Global North have pushed to further their interests in the region. 

The security of the Mediterranean, especially in terms of migrants and militancy, is paramount in the concerns of these governments. Haftar might remember that former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s short-lived rapprochement with the West in the 2000s was based partly on his positioning himself as a buffer, but he would do well to remember how quickly that rapprochement ended as well. 

But even more so, his career resembles the trajectory of another ruthless warlord formerly backed and then discarded by France – the Chadian adventurer Hissein Habbre, whom Paris and Washington had backed as their bulwark against Gaddafi in the 1980s. 

Ironically, it was Habbre who had captured Haftar in battle before the Libyan general defected, beginning his links with US intelligence that have persisted since. But Habbre, too, was ruthlessly ditched when his lieutenant Idriss Deby turned on him and has ruled Chad since. His career provides a cautionary tale that Haftar would do well to heed.

As of now, Haftar will feel he still has time. Shielded by distance and convenient geopolitics, Abu Dhabi, in particular, is willing to spend vast resources in backing a would-be dictator for Libya. Neighbouring Egypt has no such luxury, however. 

France, Russia, and other European countries may well lose patience in their investment. Haftar’s conquest of Tripoli was meant to be a quick fait accompli, to guarantee the return of stability to Libya on their terms. 

Thanks to the resilience of a Tripoli government stiffened by Turkey, quite the opposite has happened; last month, the Arab Army lost the western port Sabratha, leaving only Tarhouna from western towns under their control. Meanwhile, the southern Mediterranean is as unstable as ever. 

It remains to be seen how long his patrons’ patience will last before the widening cracks in Haftar’s eastern fiefdom reach the point of no return.

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