Khalifa Haftar’s Latest Declarations

Commentary: The rational way to solve the Libyan proxy war would be to determine the birth of a Libyan federal state, with areas controlled by local players in stable coordination with their international contacts and counterparts. But the possibility of a new unitary state in Libya, like Gaddafi’s, is becoming increasingly remote.

Libyan Gen. Khalifa Haftar. Photo: Reuters

On April 27, General Khalifa Haftar, the military and political leader of Cyrenaica and especially of the Libyan National Army (LNA) announced that he "accepted the popular mandate to deal with the country's issues, despite the burden of responsibilities and obligations, as well as the vast extent of responsibilities that lie on the shoulders of the Army". He said so in a television speech on the evening of April 27, besides other statements on military tensions.

The General of Cyrenaica also added that the Army commanders would "be available to the people and work to the best of their abilities to alleviate the suffering of the people". Gaddafi-style tones were used by a political-military leader who, as early as 2016, had his Cyrenaica’s banknotes printed in Russia with the Sirte Colonel’s profile.

We should not be ironic about these matters. The Libyan national sentiment, forged by the anti-colonialist struggle against the Italians at first and the Brits later, is by no means secondary to the widespread sentiment of loyalty to one's own tribe.

Since 2016 Russia has already spent at least 10 billion dinars in Libya for aid to the population and, directly, to Khalifa Haftar’s Forces.

Furthermore, all the Libyan coastal areas from which migrants leave belong to the Forces linked in some way to the leader of Tripolitania, al-Sarraj. The same holds true for the detention centres.

Without this money flow the Misrata Forces, led by Zahwia and linked to the Warshafana tribe, would have no certainties in the distribution of salaries and payments for weapons and supplies.

In al-Sarraj’s Tripolitania the cycle of central-periphery funding is often uncertain.

On this Tripoli’s coast there is also Sebha, as well as Surman, used as migrant detention areas and military support to Tripoli, not to mention even Tripoli’s internal security militias, as well as the Nawasi and Tajouri, and the RADA forces that are Salafists linked to Abdel Raouf Kara and are now permanently deployed in the airport of Mitiga. Finally, there is still the Tripoli Revolutionary Brigade, led by Tajouri, that controls all the branches of banks in Tripoli.

The Nawasi own all the branches of the Libyana company, which deals with post and telecommunications - and we can imagine with what level of security. Here there is the issue of the clash - not yet ended - for gaining control of the currency black market between the Nawasi and the Ghazewy Brigade that still controls the old city.

In May 2017 the Nawasi Brigade also attacked the Foreign Ministry, whose Minister, Mohammed Taher al Sayala, had even been accused of having "covert" relations with Haftar, probably because of his frequent meetings with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov.

In August 2017, the Nawasi brigade - as rich as and often even more than the government of Tripoli - also attacked the Coast Guard’s Head of security. Currently, however, nothing has changed.

The Tripoli polyarchy - while the Benghazi group shows greater unity - is the main enemy of its own stay in power.

This is the Libya that currently Italy has totally abandoned to its own devices, believing that the fate of Tripoli’s and Cyrenaica’s coasts is not interesting for it. Obviously except for paying lip service to the U.N., the E.U., as well as the Kantian Perpetual Peace and some other universalist nonsense carefully devoid of any idea of national interest.

A fatal mistake for which we will pay a terrible price, not only for the future arrival of a huge number of migrants in the midst of a very harsh economic and financial coronavirus crisis.

Shortly before Haftar's TV message on April 27, some members of the Benghazi Parliament issued press releases in which they stated they entrusted the country’s leadership to Khalifa Haftar.

Internal rebalancing that hides Haftar’s residual ability to control his political team and supporters better than al-Sarraj.

Without external support, however, neither side, i.e. Tripoli’s GNA and Cyrenaica’s LNA, have the possibility of going on the offensive - hence a stable and effective war of movement.

In my opinion everything began in early April 2019, when Haftar announced his plan to take Tripoli and even to free - as he said - al-Sarraj’s government itself from the grip of the Islamists, who held the region and the local politicians on a string.

Haftar's plan was a real lightning war, with Tripoli quickly encircled and commando groups that would later enter the city, with a view to eliminating the pockets of resistance of al-Sarraj’s GNA and its "brigades", well-known for their scarce political and military reliability and often autonomous forms of financing.

For Haftar that was a way of forcing also the countries that supported all the various warring parties - which currently prefer to side with al-Sarraj in negotiations - to sit at the table with him who was finally the dealer giving the cards.

But the blackmail of the LNA leader was even simpler: either you pay heed to me or I put the great migration routes back in action and close the oil supplies.

Most of the weapons related to Haftar’s LNA are still those in the stores of Gaddafi’s old Libyan army that was not bad at all logistically.

The logistical support and the military upgrade are still prerogative of the Emirates and Egypt, while a large part of liquidity is provided by Saudi Arabia and France has supremacy in the field of intelligence. Russia has a friendly wait-and-see attitude, with indirect support of mercenaries and weapons, to avoid frictions with Turkey, al-Sarraj's primary partner, and to avoid an entanglement in the Maghreb region which, according to the Russian equation, would have been an excessive investment liable to weaken Russia's operations in other regions it still considers of primary interest.

However, significant support has been lent to Haftar by the abovementioned Russian mercenaries of Wagner, who currently amount to 2,400 units approximately. Wagner is a subsidiary of Evgeny Prigozhin, a businessman very close to Vladimir Putin.

Wagner's Russians have their base at Al-Jufra, in the fully safe area for Haftar, but they also directly command the LNA Brigade No. 106, the best elite unit of Haftar’s army.

The Tobruk Brigades that are part of Cyrenaica’s LNA are the following, for a total number of 25.000 soldiers: the 9th Brigade of Tarhouna, the city that was also the birthplace of a recent director of the Italian intelligence service AISE; the Zintan Forces, led by Idris Mathi and Mukhtar Fernana; the militants of the Bani Walid tribe; the al-Wadi Battalion of Sabratah; the Anti-Crime Force of Zawiyah; the 12th Brigade of Brak-al-Shati, 7 Battalions and two Brigades, and finally the 106th Brigade of Benghazi, the Special Forces, four additional line brigades.

At tactical level, despite the Wagner strong support, currently the war against Haftar’s Tripoli has stopped in the Tripoli Southern districts.

In this case, it is said that some European intelligence services, especially from Southern Europe, have provided strong support to al-Sarraj in view of blocking the LNA’s initiative and prepare, in time, the best groups currently supporting Tripoli’s government.

Last June, however, two specific new situations changed the tactical equation in favour of al-Sarraj.

The first was the long chain of logistical links between the front lines and Haftar’s Commands, which was slowly breaking down and making the links between the various LNA forces on the ground and between them and the central Command increasingly difficult.

Moreover, precisely for the above stated reasons, the offensive positions south of Tripoli shifted slowly from Haftar’s forces – which were also subject to slow disintegration, as always happened in those areas - to al-Sarraj’s best units, where the penetration of Haftar’s LNA agents, probably for specifically financial reasons, was not successful. That was an eminently political factor

Haftar, however, had planned to stay around Tripoli only a few days, or two weeks at the most. On the contrary, the situation reached a stalemate that greatly favoured the forces linked to al-Sarraj.

It was precisely Ghayan, the starting point of Haftar’s attack, which was conquered, a few days after the LNA’s attack, by al-Sarraj’s best forces, "well directed" by some European Intelligence Services - as we would say about the first four Caliphs after the Prophet.

After over four months of stalemate, al-Sarraj trapped Haftar’s first lines that, at the time had either escaped or were without food and ammunition.

Another immediate change of scenario: after a network of support to Haftar’s LNA lines, above all by the French Intelligence Services and the Russian Wagner group, the attack potential of Cyrenaica’s LNA changed. It reached Tripoli and was encircled, above all, by the Zintan Forces, immediately south-west of Tripoli.

However, the new supply and command lines - rapidly rebuilt by Russia and France - meant that Haftar could again bomb the headquarters of the Tripoli military academy in Hadhba in early 2020, precisely on January 5, with a toll of 30 dead and about 500 wounded people.

Immediately afterwards, the real partners of the two Libyan warring groups, in Tripoli and Benghazi, namely Russia and Turkey, pushed - with the methods we can imagine - their representatives on the ground into a truce, at least temporary, but capable of making the two countries put forward a new independent and autonomous Libyan project, right at the beginning of the Berlin Conference, planned and then held as from January 19 of that year onwards.

The results are now well known.

Just free words and unfiltered thoughts, but we had already talked about it at the time. Later a clear and inevitable stalemate between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica was reached, and it would not even be difficult to imagine why, given the typically Western idea - that currently everyone must necessarily follow, without even wondering why - of the Perpetual Peace projects that would have made even Kant, a careful reader of Machiavelli, smile.

France and Great Britain broke Gaddafi’s treasure box to avoid the Colonel’s often “salvific” financial support for Italy, precisely in the phase in which the Euro was being designed as a model of "austerity", i.e. a stable stop to Italy’s development in favour of others.

ENI was obviously the primary object of desire and the Maghreb region’s closure to the presence of a non-homogeneous partner, such as Italy, not in line with the British and French oil interests did the rest.

In 2011, at the time of the great financial spread in Italy, Great Britain punished the Colonel who, upon direct choice of the Italian Intelligence Services, staged the coup against King Idriss, a British-made King as no one ever before, while the Cyrenaica King who boasted of "never having visited Tripoli" was "undergoing hydrotherapy treatments" in Turkey.

Gaddafi’s was punished because he sent the Brits away, also successfully seizing their bank accounts, and immediately opened the way to the Italians of ENI.

The ENI team had played some role in the coup staged by the pro-Nasserian "free officers" supported by the Italian Intelligence Service SID.

Later they warned, twice, of British targeted insurgencies, attacks and attempted assassinations against the "Colonel".

A third time Gaddafi was put on alert by the Italian Intelligence Services in relation to a U.S. attack against the Colonel’s usual tent inside his base of residence.

There was enough to be severely punished. In the intelligence world nothing is forgotten, and the day of reckoning comes sooner or later.

France, however, still wants ENI or in any case a hegemonic Libyan area for its reference oil company, Total.

Since early this year, however, Haftar has been controlling almost all the oil wells, such as Sarara and Al Fil, as well as the entire Sirte area and the coastal terminals to transport this oil.

The oil issue by which Haftar sets great store started in 2016, when the U.N. Security Council extended a motion enabling only the Tripoli government to manage exports through NOC, the Libyan State-owned oil company.

As we will see later on, this is the real and strong link between France and Khalifa Haftar’s LNA.

As already said, no result was reached at the Berlin Conference, but a factor materialized that was to clarify the future strategies of the two Libyan partners. Al-Sarraj’s GNA was then strongly and explicitly supported by Turkey, which wanted to play a role of Mediterranean - and later global - protection and expansion of the Muslim Brotherhood networks - hence above all of the Tripoli government - while Russia certified its lateral role, but always well connected with Haftar, for indirect oil interests and, above all, for reaching the strategic goal of a military base on Cyrenaica’s coast, a real game changer in the relations between the Russian Federation and NATO.

Both al-Serraj and Haftar, however, share only one assessment: the structural inefficiency of the U.N. mandate for the region and the irrelevant role played by Ghassan Salamè as U.N. Envoy.

Nevertheless, one of the current factors underlying the radicalization of the conflict between Tripoli and Cyrenaica lies also in the current Covid-19 pandemic.

Haftar heavily bombed Tripoli, hoping to make military use of the efforts that, however, al-Sarraj is making to curb the contagion.

The civilian population has thus become a primary war target.

As many as 2.4 million people were left without drinking water in Tripoli because, on April 10 last, Haftar’ Sherif Brigade cut off water supplies.

The Turkish support, with drones and advanced weapons, is still very important for the GNA in Tripoli.

The first target of Tripoli’s forces was the air base of Al Watiya, the area enabling to hit the capital of al-Sarraj’s government with the drones supplied by Saudi Arabia.

The Benghazi LNA militias responded with an offensive along the coast, which enabled Haftar’s GNA to secure the city of Zuwara until the conquest of Ras Jedir, a position on the border with Tunisia.

To the east of the coast, the two Libyan governments are still fighting for taking control of Abugrein, from which supplies leave for Misrata, which is the real military cover both for al-Sarraj’s government and for the city of Tripoli.

The third bone of contention in the current clash is the city of Sirte.

Cleared from the Islamic State, above all by the Misrata forces, linked to the GNA, Sirte is currently in Haftar’s hands after a jihadist Salafist unit defected to the Benghazi LNA.

Al-Sarraj arrived also at Sabratha and Sorman to control the line from the Tunisian border to Misrata, i.e. the key to Tripoli.

Hence currently the battle is mainly in the area of Tarhouna, Haftar’s most important base towards Tripolitania. Tarhouna is controlled by the 7th Brigade, an elite brigade of the Benghazi LNA led by the Al Khani brothers.

It is said, however, that Tripoli's forces - strongly supported by the Turkish militias - are about to enter that city, which is crucial to hit and control coastal Tripolitania.

The Turkish drones are essential to provide cover and information to the GNA forces towards Tarhouna that, if lost by Haftar, would no longer allow the supply chain from Benghazi to West Tripoli, and would therefore permanently block Khalifa Haftar’s LNA at the borders of Tripolitania.

After conquering Tarhouna, Tripoli’s GNA is expected to head for Al Jufra, the key city for the cross-control of Fezzan, Tripolitania and Cyrenaica.

As everybody knows, the Libyan war is a proxy war, which only the Westerners’ strategic carelessness does not allow to solve in a rational way.

This rational way would finally be to determine the birth of a Libyan Federal State, with areas controlled by local players in stable coordination with their international contacts and counterparts.

By now the possibility of a new unitary State in Libya, like Gaddafi’s, is increasingly remote.

We all know it is a bad thing, but now the "Arab Spring" disaster has taken place also in Libya, and above all against Italy, and it is no use crying over spilt milk.

Milk that we, too, spilt, obtorto collo and probably, without being fully aware of what the loss of Libya meant for Italy.

It should be recalled that al-Sarraj still has the U.N. support, as well as that of Great Britain, responsible for the regime change against Colonel Gaddafi, immediately after France. He also has the less decisive Italian support, as well as the support of Tripoli’s real backers, namely Qatar and Turkey.

But why does Turkey support al-Sarraj?

Firstly, because the government in Tripoli is supported by the United Nations, i.e. an international legal space that is vital to protect Turkey in its operations in Central Asia and the Mediterranean.

Secondly because this loyalty to the United Nations envisages a legalistic role for Turkey, like "we side with the lawful and legitimate State, while others support an illegal warlord".

Then there is a much more substantial issue, i.e. the agreement between Turkey and Libya on the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) between the two countries, which enables Turkey to balance its weight between the East and the West of the Mediterranean. Finally, Turkey does not want another refugee crisis, even in the Maghreb region, which could spill over onto its shores, considering that Turkey is already the Mediterranean-Asian country with the highest concentration of refugees.

With the future control of its oil and gas exploration EEZ off the coast of Tripoli, Turkey is building its absolute role as the sole mediator between the Middle East oil and gas and its European and Western consumers.

This Turkish strategy is directly against Greek and above all Italian interests, but this is probably not even known to the Italian government, which now believes that foreign policy is always a version of Lenin’s "gala dinner".

On Haftar's side, albeit in various degrees, there are still the following countries: France, which is still the axis of LNA’s intelligence; clearly the Russian Federation, as we have already seen; Egypt, which does not want in any way an "infection" and a contagion of the Muslim Brotherhood from al-Sarraj's Libya through Tunisia, which is now also a Turkish platform, up to its borders, given that it was Al Sisi who staged a coup against the Muslim Brotherhood in power in Egypt.

Again on the side of Haftar, there is Saudi Arabia, the rich supplier of capital and weapons, and finally the Emirates.

It is good to note that on one Libyan side there is Qatar, while the Emirates are on the other side.

Qatar is the world's largest producer of natural gas, while the other Emirates extract oil, and the two markets are different and often opposed.

The core of the issue is that France supports Haftar because it believes that he is the only credible military force to control the passage of soldiers and weapons into the Sahel, where since 2014 France has been maintaining its Operation Barkhane.

Obviously the fact that a man linked to France holds most of the Libyan oil fields enables it to take the lion's share in Total, especially against ENI interests.

But Russia, too, has significant oil interests, with Tatneft and Gazprom operating in Libya since Gaddafi's time.

Russia, however, also intervened directly in favour of the Chad troops operating in the Sahel that are clearly opposing those of Haftar’s GNA that Russia supports in Libya.

Hence, considering that the possible lines of connection between Benghazi and the area of clashes with Tripoli’s GNA are now in the hands of the Turkish militiamen and of some other GNA’s "militias", in this phase the only rational choice for Haftar and his points of reference could be that of creating a large political-media operation in view of achieving - with the maximum political and military clout - an international negotiation ensuring a decisive role to the LNA in the future partition of Libya and, above all, a further strong and credible role in the sharing out of oil revenues.

But what does Haftar really want? First and foremost, the General of Cyrenaica wants to maintain the unity of Libya which, despite many "federalist" and non-historical speeches by Western analysts, is a widespread feeling among the population.

Furthermore, the Algerian and Egyptian support to the LNA is still decisive, but it is also essential for the two States.

Without Haftar’s backing, the feeble balance between the "sword jihad", Islamic radicalism - not yet violent - traditional secularism, border and internal security, in Algeria and Egypt, would be completely undermined.

A role that neither al-Sarraj nor the protectors of Tripolitania can take up on their own or credibly guarantee in Algeria and Egypt.

Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, apart from Qatar, do not even want to hear about the Muslim Brotherhood, that is decisive in al-Sarraj's government, but strongly present also in Benghazi, for old reasons of internal stability, but they do not want, above all, the oil and political crisis of the second largest oil producer in Africa.

The mediation between Russia and Haftar is still in the hands of the Algerian Intelligence Services. The Russian arms pass through Algiers and are then assigned to Haftar.

Moreover, Russia has no interest in letting Haftar alone definitively win since it does not entirely trust him. It supports Benghazi’s LNA to have a preferential access to the Libyan oil resources, as well as for the already mentioned future possibility of building a large base in the Mediterranean.

Russia also wants a real and definitive negotiation between Benghazi and Tripoli, but largely managed by Russia alone, above all pending the great post-war contracts (such as the Benghazi-Sirte railway, which is worth 2 billion US dollars). Russia’s interests in Libya, however, are mainly focused on a rapid de-escalation of the conflict - an operation directly connected to the strategic agreement between Turkey and Russia, which is of primary importance for Syria and Turkish Stream compared to the other peripheral scenarios. These scenarios also include the Libyan ones in which Russia has entered only because the Western naivety has enabled it to do so. Certainly, Bashar el Assad backs Haftar also materially, while strange rumours are rife of non-occasional relations between Iran and Cyrenaica’s LNA.

The best idea would be, therefore, that of "sanitizing" the Libyan issue, putting the new players outside the European area out of play, as well as allowing an agreement between the EU, the United States and Russia to end the war operations in Libya and creating Zones of Regional Interest inside the old Gaddafi’s area, thus turning the war economy of the countless gangs - that is self-sustaining and allows the arrival of all the external players who want to do so - into the economy of reconstruction, possibly managed by the same gangs that are currently fighting one another.

As said above, it is federal plan but within a national Libyan framework, establishing the traditional identity of the Libyan people and allowing the country’s transition from a war economy to the great reconstruction.

Moreover, on January 20 last, Italy and Great Britain submitted a joint declaration condemning the closure of the oil wells in south-east Libya, ordered by Khalifa Haftar himself.

France obviously blocked it within the EU. There was also a basic U.S. consensus on this declaration, which came after an explicit and direct request from the Tripoli government.

The underlying idea was to condemn the fact that "NOC (the Libyan State-owned company) was forced to suspend operations in critical installations throughout Libya" and hence urge the immediate reopening of all facilities.

France, however, asked that the two countries present with their diplomacy in Libya, namely Cyprus and Greece, joined the operation. This means that while Turkey takes Tripoli and a minimal part of the Eastern Mediterranean area, France acquires two reference countries in the region, namely Greece and Cyprus.

And probably also the old Lebanon, now undergoing a financial crisis and sufficiently far away from Saudi Arabia.

On the other side, the Turkish jihadist and pro-Turkish militiamen gathered in Idlib, Syria, by the Turkish MIT, are already fighting for Tripoli, with 2,000 dollars a month on average, as well as 50,000 U.S. dollars going to families in case of death and 35,000 dollars in case of severe disability.

Turkey has also announced the sending of a ship for oil prospections off the Somali coast. The Libyan circle widens and this creates ongoing and uncontrollable instability.

Troubles for the Emirates or nuisance operations for the United States and China off Aden.

 

Professor Valori is President of the International World Group

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