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Op-Ed: Interview with Libyan commander Haftar reveals his policies

The HoR government, based in Tobruk, is a rival to the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli. Haftar refuses to recognize the GNA government and no doubt helped ensure that the GNA has never been able to win a vote of confidence in the HoR as required by the Libya Political Agreement (LPA). The term of the GNA is supposed to start after the vote and the HoR would become the legislature of the GNA.

The HoR has twice rejected the GNA the last time being on August 22. The Presidency Council (PC) of the GNA is to present a new list of eight ministers to the HoR to vote and also to amend the constitutional declaration to incorporate the GNA in the constitution. However, although a recent joint statement of many nations reiterated the need for the vote, there is no sign yet of the list or any date set for a vote, more than a month later. Meanwhile, Haftar has taken over four key oil ports from his rival Ibrahim Jodran, who heads, or did head, the Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG). It appears that lip service is still being paid to the long-standing policy of having the HoR vote confidence in the GNA and thus join the GNA as its legislature. At the same time, Haftar is gaining more power and more external support from countries such as Egypt, Russia, Jordan and the UAE. He has advanced to within about 50 kilometers of Sirte, taking over former Islamic State territory to the east that had been captured by the PFG. The UN envoy to Libya Martin Kobler, and the PM of the GNA Faiez Serraj appear desperate to negotiate a deal with Haftar to join the GNA. However, Haftar gives no sign of even wanting to negotiate. Certainly, he will not join a GNA in which the PC rather than he serve the role of commander in chief.

Haftar’s tactics are simply to continue with his Operation Dignity which aims to clear Libya of Islamists or at least those who oppose him including militias who at present are allied with the GNA. In his interview, Haftar claims that the country would be better served by a leader with a high-level of military experience. No doubt Haftar has himself in mind for the role. As the problems of the GNA multiply and it is unable to extend its power in the east and other parts of the country, Haftar is seen increasingly as a strong leader able to defeat terrorists and restore order and stability to Libya. This would enable foreign powers to have safe access to Libyan oil resources and profitably develop them. Egypt’s president Abdel el-Sisi is highly regarded by Haftar and the feeling is mutual with el-SIsi strongly supporting Haftar, in spite of pledging along with other countries to recognize and support only the GNA.

In his interview, Haftar specifically cites Egypt as a success: “Military people who were elected to lead their country achieved remarkable success.” Actually Egypt is still plagued by terrorist violence, has a horrible human rights record, and its economy needed to be bailed out not just by rich Arab neighbors but by the IMF. Haftar would not say whether or not he would seek the highest office in Libya. He said Libya first needed security with political and social stability.

Haftar blames Libya’s problems on the Muslim Brotherhood and claims that Tripoli has been hijacked by armed gangs whose expansion has created rogue militias and Islamist factions. Certainly, the Brotherhood does have some influence in the GNA. The militias are a problem, and so far the GNA has not developed its own separate armed forces to provide security and control them. However, militias loyal to Haftar also cause havoc and are involved in clashes.

Haftar also lashed out at UN envoy Martin Kobler whom he accuses of meddling in Libyan affairs. Kobler allegedly tried to set up a meeting between Haftar and Serraj to discuss the makeup of the Libyan army. At first, when Haftar seized the four oil terminals at Ras Lanuf, Es Sidra, Zuwetina, and Brega a number of nations including the U.S., France, Italy, Germany, the U.K. and Spain demanded Haftar withdraw. After Haftar announced the ports would be handed over to the National Oil Company (NOC) and oil exports resumed, there were no more demands to withdraw.

Haftar has no plans to withdraw from the area and said: “The Libyan National Army’s priorities are to protect the oil fields and ports of export.” Haftar also called for the UN to lift the arms embargo on Libya. The UN has agreed to partially lift it but only to provide arms to groups vetted by the GNA not to the LNA which is not under GNA control.

There is considerable evidence that during some periods Haftar was helped by the CIA to flee to the U.S. where he became commander of the armed wing of the Libyan National Salvation Front. In the 1990’s he claimed that he was building an armed force with U.S. help to topple Gadaffi. Haftar claimed in his interview that he has never worked with the CIA: “If I was working for U.S. intelligence they would be my first supporters with weapons and money.” Up until now the U.S. has been a strong backer of the GNA so it is quite possible that he is getting no money from the CIA. If he does, it is probably through the UAE or other supporters. Perhaps the CIA may decide it should compete with Russia to curry Haftar’s favor, especially if they think he will eventually win out over the GNA. A recent tweet provides a warning for the west to perhaps notice that it should support the military horse Haftar rather than that plodding technocratic horse Serraj: “Khalifa Haftar has requested #Russia to end its arms embargo on #Libya, begin supplying weapons & military equipment”.

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