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The Libyan flag
Khalifa Haftar, a veteran general and strongman in Libya, has returned to his stronghold and headquarter in the eastern city of Benghazi following an extended absence because of his treatment in a Paris hospital for a stroke. General Haftar has been part of the Libyan political scene for more than four decades, shifting from the center to the periphery and back again as his fortunes changed.
Initial reports even suggested that the 75-year-old strongman who controls most of eastern Libya and oil crescent was seriously ill, incapacitated or even dead and in his Libyan National Army opening salvo in a battle to succeed him has started. But now all these rumors have been put to rest. Haftar has been consolidating his position in Libya since announcing Operation Dignity against Islamist extremist’s forces in 2014. His forces have both strengthened their hold on their stronghold in Cyrenaica in eastern Libya and advanced westward into critical terrain since May 2017.
People were speculating he could make it to Tripoli soon may be through force or even by getting him elected as the president. It’s a hard fact that a significant number of Libyans now see Haftar as the only person who can bring some form of order in there lawless and chaotic country.
General Haftar commands the Libyan National Army (LNA), which is the strongest force in Libya as of now. His forces are better equipped than any other force and Haftar even possesses his own air force, which includes MIG 21 fighter jets and combat helicopters. He carefully formed his LNA after taking into account the social dynamics of Libyan society. LNA consists of a nationalist coalition of military units, local and tribal militias, Salafi fighters and Sudanese mercenaries, particularly from the Darfuri rebel groups. The LNA currently controls the populated areas of eastern Libya, the oil crescent region and strategic military sites in the southwest, which has boosted the role of Haftar as a game changer in Libyan politics.
The general also enjoyed unlimited regional support from the UAE and Egypt, as well as international support from France and to a lesser extent Russia. In addition, Haftar commands a greater degree of tribal support from most of the major tribes like- Magharba, Baraasa, Hasa, Obaidat and Zintan, which has a very powerful tribal militia called the Zintani brigades. Recently, Haftar established contact with western Libyan tribes Warfalla and Tarhouna, which lie on route to capital Tripoli and in future can facilitate him on his march towards the capital.
Haftar casts himself as the person who can bring stability to Libya after years of conflict, and areas under his control are relatively stable and have seen far less fighting. Haftar’s popularity has grown as his military governance structures provide a semblance of stability, although his way of rule seems to be autocratic and undemocratic, it delivers to the people some form of governance, which is much needed. His stock is rising especially given the growing dissatisfaction with the Government of National Accord (GNA), which merely rule in some parts of Tripoli, inter-militia warfare and the collapse of the Libyan dinar.
By allowing the oil to flow and providing stable security at the crucial Libyan 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. Haftar remains an important figure in the Libyan political landscape. However, the problem with Haftar is that he believes he has a very strong position and thus can impose his own conditions on the other parties, which is not the case.
Although the balance of power is currently in his favor, this will not last forever, and he cannot resolve the situation militarily to his advantage. So, to ensure a long-term stability for Libya, regional and international backers of Haftar should convince him to play a constructive political role and not just rely on military means. A comprehensive political settlement that includes all Libyan parties and influential forces on the ground in any potential settlement is the only way forward for Libya. Haftar has to be engaged heavily to contribute his part for any future political solution and he should be offered a greater role to play in any future arrangement.