In the tumultuous landscape of Libyan politics, one name that has gained significant prominence in recent years is Khalifa Haftar.
Known for his role as the commander of the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA), Haftar has emerged as a significant player in the country’s power dynamics. However, his rise to prominence has been marked by controversy and opposition from various factions within Libya.
Haftar’s journey into the realm of Libyan politics began in the aftermath of Muammar Gaddafi’s fall from power in 2011. With the country engulfed in chaos and armed militias vying for control, Haftar sought to establish himself as a key player in the Libyan political landscape. His base of operations was in eastern Libya, where he enjoyed support from the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR).
The HoR, refusing to recognize the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) and instead claiming legitimacy as a rival government, had its own parallel Central Bank and National Oil Company (NOC). Haftar’s army aligned itself with the HoR, further intensifying the existing political divisions within the country. But even within this camp, Haftar faced opposition from other factions, notably Ibrahim Jedran and his movement for the autonomy of eastern Libya.
What sets Haftar apart from other political figures in Libya is his independent nature. Unlike many who are often seen as puppets of their respective factions, Haftar has maintained his autonomy. This has allowed him to pursue his vision of a united Libya, with himself at the helm. His aspirations for leadership have been evident throughout his career, with his preference for being seen as a ruler, rather than merely a military commander.
Notably, Haftar’s relations with the NOC in Tripoli have been more favourable compared to its counterpart in Benghazi. This further highlights his desire for a unified country, in which all factions work together towards common goals. Haftar has also been open to accepting support from Madhkali Salafi fighters, provided that they abide by military law and refrain from engaging in religious preaching while in the army.
Despite his ambitions and the support he enjoys from certain quarters, Haftar’s path to power has not been without obstacles. Fractured political alliances, internal divisions within his own ranks, and opposition from rival factions have hindered his ascent to a consolidated position of authority. Furthermore, his unilateral military actions, such as the offensive on Tripoli in 2019, have been met with international condemnation and accusations of power-grabbing.
As Haftar continues to navigate the complex web of Libyan politics, his fate remains uncertain. While he has succeeded in consolidating power to some extent in eastern Libya, his ultimate goal of ruling over a united country remains elusive. With the Libyan conflict showing no signs of abating, it is unclear how Haftar’s ambitions will shape the future of the nation.
When the Libyan National Army took over the oil crescent in 2016, the Tripoli NOC saw an opportunity to work with Haftar and gain control over oil operations in the country. This resulted in a significant increase in exports and foreign currency flowing into the Central Bank in Tripoli. However, despite these benefits, the LNA did not receive its payments from the Bank of Libya in Tripoli but from the Benghazi-based Bank of Libya.
In September 2016, Ibrahim Jedran, aligned with Tripoli, attempted to seize control of eastern Libya’s ‘oil crescent’. Haftar opposed this move and successfully removed him from power. A similar situation occurred in 2018 when Haftar once again defeated Jedran and handed control of the eastern terminals to the Benghazi-based NOC. Unfortunately, this gesture proved impractical as they lacked the necessary personnel and management to handle oil exports.
Additionally, international traders were hesitant to engage with a company controlled by an unrecognised regime. Haftar eventually realised this and used his control over the oil terminals as leverage to prompt an audit by Serraj’s government in Tripoli and establish proper oversight of how funds were managed by the Central Bank.
In April 2019, General Haftar launched a military offensive in an attempt to seize control of Tripoli. With the support of countries such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, Haftar’s army made significant advances towards the capital. These nations viewed Haftar as a strong ally against extremist groups and saw an opportunity to protect their own interests, including oil resources.
On the other hand, European governments aligned themselves with the government led by Sarraj in Tripoli. In order to secure their national interests, they entered into agreements with the Government of National Accord (GNA), including controlling migration and ensuring the position of Italian oil company ENI as Libya’s largest foreign oil producer.
Among all foreign supporters, Turkey emerged as one of the most involved. President Erdogan not only disagreed with the policies of UAE and Egypt but also had economic motivations. In November 2019, Turkey and Tripoli signed a maritime boundary agreement that granted Turkey access to vast gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean. This further solidified Erdogan’s backing for Sarraj’s government.
These international alliances have shaped both sides of the conflict in Libya and have been driven by a mix of political and economic considerations.
In the initial stages of the conflict, Haftar’s forces made significant advancements, bringing them dangerously close to capturing Tripoli. By the end of April, they were vigorously battling for control of the airport. Despite their progress, Haftar’s troops were unable to penetrate the city itself.
In a subsequent turn of events, in June, the GNA successfully expelled Haftar’s forces from Gharyan, demonstrating their resilience. However, it is worth noting that the LNA managed to seize Sirte in January 2020.