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Op-Ed: Libyan commander Haftar may grow stronger under Trump regime

Jason Pack, the author and North Africa analyst at Risk Intelligence, also notes that there is speculation that the Trump administration will also look more favorably on Haftar and his strong supporter Abdul el-Sisi, president of Egypt. Haftar has been to Russia recently and appears to be building up stronger relationships with Russia. He already has the support of Egypt, the UAE, and Jordan.

On the ground, Haftar has captured the four main ports of the Oil Crescent from the Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG) headed by the his opponent Ibrahim Jadhran and allowed them to be operated by the National Oil Company. He has also fended off two attempted counter-attacks successfully both by the PFG and by the Defend Benghazi Brigades. At the very least, some GNA equipment was also used in the latest attacks even though there may have been no direct involvement and the GNA denies it was involved. Zintan allies of Haftar have also unblocked pipelines in the west.

As Pack remarks, Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) even threatened to liberate Tripoli from militia and Islamist control. Haftar has made such threats off and on ever since his Operation Dignity began in May of 2014. Pack claims that Haftar mobilized reinforcements at an airbase south of Zawiya, the main oil port in Western Libya. However, his allies the Zintan brigades so far have refused to move against Tripoli.

Pack notes that in early December clashes between militia broke out in the capital. However, at least some of these relate to militia loyal to the former Salvation Government who after a coup attempt still occupy the Rixos hotel complex former headquarters of the High Council of the GNA, although previously it was headquarters of the General National Congress (GNC) and the Salvation Government. Such rivalry against the GNA by groups that are anti-Haftar can only strengthen Haftar’s position.

Pack, rightly warns, that should Haftar make a move against Tripoli, his opponents could soon unify. Pack believes that Haftar’s announcement is simply to give notice to his rivals and potential allies as well as provide leverage to be included in negotiations about Libya’s future. In spite of, or perhaps because of, Haftar’s threats, the UN envoy Martin Kobler insists that Haftar must have a place in any new Government of National Accord. However, it is unclear how Kobler or anyone else will be able to incorporate Haftar as commander in chief of a national army as seems to be his desire without having the GNA implode, Many members of the Presidency Council and even more the High State Council are apposed to Haftar having any role in a new GNA.

Western countries continue to support the GNA and warn against having dealings with parallel institutions. Countries such as Russia, Egypt, and the UAE still pay lip service to the LPA but are paying no attention to warnings about dealing with parallel institutions. The head of the HoR, Ageelah Saleh, in spite of being sanctioned by the EU and U.S. has had talks with numerous leaders including in Egypt, Morocco, and Russia. Egypt even hosted a meeting aimed at finding a way to include Haftar within the existing LPA through renegotiating the agreement or providing an alternative to the LPA. However, nothing seems to have happened as a result.

Pack claims that the military governance structure in the east is giving some semblance of stability in spite of the fact that Haftar has many opponents. Pack notes: “By allowing the oil to flow and providing stable security at the ports, Haftar has significantly increased his political leverage and standing among Libyans, as well as the international community, strengthening his negotiating position for any fresh political bargaining.”

Pack suggests that Haftar was also instrumental in working out a deal between the Zintan Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG) and the National Oil Company. Pack says: As a result of Haftar’s inevitable role in future political agreements, it seems that through informal channels of contact between Haftar’s loose allies in Zintan, and factions from Misrata and Tripoli, a pipeline deal has been negotiated which seeks to benefit all these parties under any new peace process. It is not clear what the terms of this deal might be, or how fragile its existence. However, it is likely that Zintan and Haftar have agreed to reopen the pipeline and not provoke conflict in the region in exchange for granting them key positions under any new political agreement.

While Pack does not see conflict in Western Libya as in anyone’s interest it could still happen. Pack argues that Haftar’s growing domestic and international power ensures that he must be brought inside the international process. Pack claims that the Donald Trump could be just the person to do this. While Trump may have good relations with el-Sisi and Putin that could aid him in working something out, it seems that any attempt to give Haftar a more powerful role will run into strong opposition from present members of the GNA. It is not clear that Haftar is even counting on a political rather than a military solution. He may very well make demands that can only result in the breakup of the GNA and a battle with the very militia has always taken as a target of his Operation Dignity. If the GNA really wants survive it had better appoint a military chief of staff as western generals have been demanding. It needs to seek a partial lifting of the arms ban and prepare itself to do battle with Haftar. What appears to be happening is that Haftar is becoming stronger and stronger while the GNA appears unable to advance its own power but continues to suffer from instability, inability to meet basic needs of citizens, and to be unable to find any way of having the HoR and Haftar join the GNA.

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