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STRONG­MAN STILL LOOMS OVER LIBYA PEACE PROCESS

Khal­ifa Haf­tar has enough fire power and po­lit­i­cal sway to stay in the game.

- By Ai­dan Lewis Military · European Politics · Middle East News · Politics · Warfare and Conflicts · World Politics · Libya · Khalifa Haftar · Muammar al-Gaddafi · United States of America · United Arab Emirates · Egypt · Egypt national football team · Russia · Russian Empire · France · Tripoli · Turkey · European Union · United Nations · Morocco · Government of National Accord · Palm Beach County Park Airport · Aguila, AZ

His as­sault on Libya’s cap­i­tal has col­lapsed. For­eign pow­ers have tried to side­line him. But mil­i­tary com­man­der Khal­ifa Haf­tar still sits astride oil ter­mi­nals, with enough fire power and po­lit­i­cal sway to thwart any plans for peace. Hav­ing failed in his bid for na­tional rule, Gen Haf­tar, 76, is now se­verely di­min­ished. His troops have been driven out of west­ern Libya, while in his east­ern strong­hold for­eign pow­ers that backed him are mak­ing over­tures to ri­vals. But his role in par­tially lift­ing an oil block­ade over the past week shows that he re­mains a linch­pin in east­ern Libya, where he has built up a se­cu­rity ap­pa­ra­tus over the past six years.

For­eign coun­tries are now pro­mot­ing talks to push war­ring fac­tions to­wards a unity gov­ern­ment. But diplo­mats say Haf­tar’s role be­dev­ils ne­go­ti­a­tions, as it has done for years. “That’s the big miss­ing piece of the puz­zle — what to do with Haf­tar and how to en­gage him,” said one West­ern diplo­mat.

Libya has been with­out strong cen­tral rule since Muam­mar Gaddafi was top­pled in 2011, and ri­val camps have set up par­al­lel ad­min­is­tra­tions based in the east and west since 2014. Gen Haf­tar, a Gaddafi-era mil­i­tary com­man­der who spent two decades in the United States, grad­u­ally took con­trol of the east.

Af­ter gain­ing sup­port from the United Arab Emi­rates, Egypt, Rus­sia and France, he launched an as­sault to cap­ture Tripoli last year. But the ad­vance col­lapsed in June this year af­ter his en­emy Turkey re­in­forced the Tripoli-based Gov­ern­ment of Na­tional Ac­cord (GNA). Gen Haf­tar’s Libyan Na­tional Army (LNA) with­drew to a front line run­ning south from the city of Sirte, in the cen­tre of Libya’s Mediter­ranean coast­line.

Both of Libya’s ri­val ad­min­is­tra­tions are funded by oil ex­ports, and both have been crip­pled since Gen Haf­tar’s LNA and its al­lies im­posed a block­ade that shut the main east­ern oil ter­mi­nals eight months ago. Since Sept 19, oil has grad­u­ally re­sumed flow­ing, demon­strat­ing Gen Haf­tar’s last­ing rel­e­vance.

But both the oil restart and the halt to fight­ing are on shaky ground. Gen Haf­tar said the block­ade would ini­tially be lifted for just one month. His deal with a deputy prime min­is­ter of the Tripoli gov­ern­ment pro­voked a back­lash in west­ern Libya, where many fear it will give the LNA more con­trol over rev­enues.

The mil­i­tary truce, mean­while, has yet to be con­verted into a for­mal cease­fire, and is hold­ing partly be­cause of the risks of a re­gional con­fla­gra­tion, with Turkey look­ing to con­sol­i­date gains and Gen Haf­tar’s for­eign back­ers de­ter­mined to con­tain it.

Pub­licly, the LNA says it is com­mit­ted to a uni­lat­eral cease­fire it an­nounced in June, but won’t with­draw from Sirte. “In the pres­ence of Syr­ian and Turk­ish mer­ce­nar­ies and threats of an at­tack on Sirte, of course the Libyan army won’t leave,” said Khaled Al-Mahjoub, an LNA spokesman.

West­ern coun­tries have pro­posed a demil­i­tarised zone around Sirte. The LNA’s will­ing­ness to ac­cept that could de­pend on de­ci­sions by for­eign back­ers and Rus­sian mil­i­tary con­trac­tors de­ployed along­side it, an­a­lysts say.

Since fight­ing eased in June, in­ter­nal di­vi­sions have emerged on both sides, with pro­test­ers in both the east and west demon­strat­ing against cor­rup­tion and fail­ing pub­lic ser­vices. In Tripoli, a dispute burst into the open within the GNA be­tween the prime min­is­ter, Fayez al-Sar­raj, and the in­te­rior min­is­ter, Fathi Bashagha, both key con­tacts for the gov­ern­ment’s Turk­ish back­ers. Mr Sar­raj says he plans to step down next month, but ma­noeu­vring by fac­tions that have gained power un­der his watch makes it tricky to find a suc­ces­sor.

In the east, in­ter­na­tional pow­ers look­ing be­yond Gen Haf­tar have res­ur­rected Aguila Saleh, the head of a rump par­lia­ment who was pre­vi­ously sanc­tioned by the EU and United States. In Sirte, the LNA’s con­trol has stirred re­sis­tance along tribal lines, prompt­ing Gen Haf­tar’s forces to make ar­rests.

But Gen Haf­tar re­tains mil­i­tary and fi­nan­cial power, and may use it to try to re­assert him­self po­lit­i­cally, said Mo­hamed El­jarh, an ex­pert on pol­i­tics in the east. “I think Haf­tar is not happy, this is why I think there is the pos­si­bil­ity of him try­ing to do what he does best — sab­o­tage th­ese at­tempts at po­lit­i­cal talk through mil­i­tary ac­tion,” he said. UN-led talks, run­ning in awk­ward par­al­lel to talks be­tween Turkey and Rus­sia as well as talks in Morocco this month be­tween mem­bers of ri­val Libyan par­lia­ments, aim to re­place the GNA and plan a roadmap for elec­tions.

Some West­ern states want Gen Haf­tar con­fined to mil­i­tary talks. But France is still push­ing for him to have a po­lit­i­cal role. There are no signs the UAE, Gen Haf­tar’s most com­mit­ted backer, is with­draw­ing sup­port, two West­ern diplo­mats said.

 ??  ?? PLENTY OF GRUNT: Mem­bers of Libyan Na­tional Army com­manded by Khal­ifa Haf­tar get ready be­fore head­ing out of Beng­hazi to re­in­force troops ad­vanc­ing to Tripoli on April 13 last year.
PLENTY OF GRUNT: Mem­bers of Libyan Na­tional Army com­manded by Khal­ifa Haf­tar get ready be­fore head­ing out of Beng­hazi to re­in­force troops ad­vanc­ing to Tripoli on April 13 last year.

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