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article imageOp-Ed: Libya's Marshall Haftar may use politics in addition to force

By Ken Hanly     May 16, 2017 in World
Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar commander in chief of the Libyan National Army associated with the House of Representatives(HoR) government appears to have given in to pressure to join in a political process to form a unified government.
The HoR government based in Tobruk is a rival to the UN-backed Government of National Accord ( GNA). Serraj Faiez is the head of the nine member Presidential Council(PC) of the GNA. According to the terms of the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) signed in Skhirat Morocco in 2015, the HoR must vote confidence in the GNA before its term starts as well as amend the Constitutional Declaration of 2011 to include the GNA. The HoR has twice voted a lack of confidence in the GNA, most recently on August 22nd, 2016.
On the second of May, Serraj held a meeting with Haftar in Abu Dhabi. There was no joint statement issued after the meeting and there was no deal signed. Nevertheless, many commentators were optimistic the meetings represented a breakthrough toward solving the political impasse of having two separate governments. I expressed skepticism about the meetings in two Digital Journal articles here and here.
Mattia Toaldo Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations has a long interesting article on recent developments following the meeting, in the Middle East Eye. Toaldo says of the meeting: Unsurprisingly, optimism soared among diplomats and policymakers when news came out of an Emirati-brokered meeting on 2 May held in Abu Dhabi between Fayez Serraj, head of the UN-backed and Tripoli-based Presidency Council, and Khalifa Haftar, the “field-marshall” who heads a rival administration in the country’s east. This is somewhat of an amazing description of Haftar. As a matter of fact it is Ageela Saleh who is head of the HoR administration not Haftar. Haftar was appointed commander in chief of the HoR armed forces as depicted in the appended photo. No doubt Haftar has control over the HoR and that is why you have the anomaly of one head of government not negotiating with another head but the commander of its armed forces. Toaldo notes that just hours after the meeting contents of a supposed deal that he claims included some of the following elements were posted on some pro-Haftar Arab media sites: A new, smaller Presidency Council of three (down from the current nine members) including Serraj, Haftar and his political arm, the speaker of the House of Representatives, Aghila Saleh. Haftar’s acceptance of civilian oversight by this body in exchange for him remaining as head of the army. A quick path towards new presidential and parliamentary elections to be held early in 2018.
Supposedly Serraj and Hafter agreed to finalize the deal last week with the blessing of Egyptian president el-Sisi. This did not happen. The elements of the deal quoted by Toaldo were simply the negotiating position of the Haftar side. Serraj`s statement issued some while after the conference mentions only an agreement to a ceasefire in the south and a peaceful transfer of power.
However, the Foreign Affairs Minister of the GNA, Mohammed Siyala, issued a statement in which he said that Khalifa Haftar was the commander in chief of the Libyan Armed Forces under the new government but that he accepted civilian oversight --apparently including himself as part of the new PC. There were protests with the ministry building being surrounded and demands made that he resign.
The key parts of the agreement as seen by the Haftar group which includes Haftar being kept as commander in chief and as part of the PC are non-starters. Most of the PC and the State High Council would absolutely reject any such government. Nevertheless Toaldo suggest: In most Western and regional capitals, there was talk of a “breakthrough” and of the need to accelerate the political process to include Haftar in the LPA and hold elections in a few months. A new emerging consensus focuses on accelerating the political process through a meeting of delegations from the House of Representative and the Tripoli-based High Council of State and a roadmap for parliamentary and presidential elections. The plan could then be endorsed by the UN at its highest levels. If the demands of Haftar being met are preconditions to an agreement then there is almost no chance of any actual agreement. However, if they are not met then the meetings will have been in vain.
Toaldo notes that Serraj really does not have the power to make a deal that Haftar would accept. Most Tripoli and Misrata militia have distanced themselves from the deal. As he notes there could be further tensions and even clashes between militia supporting Serraj and those opposed. Toalda notes that militia associated with the former Salvation Government may also gain power as they oppose Serraj. Haftar may actually have seen that his political actions would cause divisions among his opponents.
Toaldo notes that the meeting does appear to signal a change of strategy for Haftar since before the meeting he claimed that it was pointless to negotiate with Serraj since he sees his support as coming from militia and radicals his Operation Dignity intends to defeat. No doubt Haftar has been under considerable pressure from his backers in Egypt, the UAE and Russia to engage in political dialogue. Haftar could not afford to alienate his key backers. Toaldo describes his new strategy: Haftar’s new strategy is to abide by a reformed LPA with solid guarantees on his role as both military and civilian leader while pushing to have presidential elections early in 2018. The anti-Islamist former general would run in those elections as his moves to recruit campaigners throughout the country indicateToaldo thinks that he would win elections and then ask for help crushing his opponents and entering Tripoli.
However, Toaldo notes the numerous difficulties in carrying out this plan. Perhaps, it is not his plan at all. Haftar has always taken the view that their is a military solution the crisis. He may be going along with a plan pushed by his supporters and other in the international community which he knows will never be implemented because it will be rejected by his opponents inside and outside the GNA. When it fails because the other side will not negotiate an acceptable role for him in government he can ask the international community for military support to complete his Dignity Operation.
Toaldo himself notes: Ultimately, Haftar’s plan is not to abandon war to enter politics, but rather to use politics to strengthen his hand in a military battle that he knows he can’t win under current circumstances. For him, war is not the continuation of politics by other means, but rather the other way around: politics is a way to expand his support base and continue fighting. Toaldo warns that Europeans and Americans should think twice before supporting these negotiations that could lead to more war and help empower Haftar to take on well-armed militias in western Libya. Toaldo suggests that a better plan would be to concentrate on stabilizing the GNA government and making it more functional. This sounds sensible but seems unlikely to happen as most in the international community seem bound and determined to continue trying to give Haftar a prominent role in any unity government. It should have been evident some time ago this is not possible because so many are opposed to it.
Haftar has cleverly through his political move taken advantage of this opposition to create conflict among his opponents. A recent article reports that on the 8th and 9th of May militias opposed to the GNA mobilized south of Tripoli and deployed forces in the area in preparation for what they call `Libya Honor`. The group is led by Salah Badi a prominent Misrata militia commander and prominent in the Libya Dawn operation of 2014. The stage is being set for clashes among Haftar;s opponents. Haftar can wait until they are sufficiently weakened by internal fighting to carry out his vow in this tweet:
Khalifa Haftar: We will not leave our capital #Tripoli to become a haven for terrorists. #Libya
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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