Haftar’s Secession Must Not Stand

The leader of Libya’s so-called Libyan National Army, General Khalifa Haftar, has declared his authority over areas he controls in the east and south of the country. Announcing his “acceptance of the people’s will and mandate and the end of the Skhirat Agreement,” the general decided to do away with the 2015 deal, negotiated under the auspices of the United Nations, which created a structure and mechanism for power sharing between Libya’s many factions. The Government of National Accord (GNA) that the agreement created in the capital, Tripoli, declared his move “a coup” and called on all parties to negotiate a peaceful compromise that could pave the way for a political solution via the ballot box.

Haftar’s illegal declaration appears to be an act of desperation after a string of humiliating military defeats at the hands of GNA-affiliated forces, which are heavily supported by Turkish arms and advisors. In essence, it is a first step on the way to Libya’s dismemberment. Haftar’s defeats have caused his loss of strategic areas to the west of Tripoli and damage to a coveted image of invincibility that he nurtured with close political and military relations with Egypt, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates. In fact, Haftar’s battlefield losses may have made the announcement a fait accompli since he may have realized that his scheme to conquer the entire country has failed, concluding that his best hope lies in a rump state where his forces reign supreme. Like the leaders of Yemen’s Southern Transitional Council, Haftar’s move shows that he prefers to satisfy his personal whims and desires at the expense of the unity and future of his country’s people.

Haftar’s Move Was Expected

Looking at events in Libya since 2014, when General Haftar first launched his “Operation Dignity” purportedly to rid the country of Islamist forces dubbed “terrorists,” the latest declaration was expected—except among those who either did not understand the danger he represents or who simply trusted his motivations. Reinforcing this conclusion is the record of support the renegade general has received from his domestic supporters, especially the Tobruk-based House of Representatives that was a party to Skhirat and approved it. The same may be said of regional and international backers who, incidentally, continue to extol the virtues of the Skhirat Agreement.

While outside supporters apparently knew that a good power-sharing agreement among Libya’s factions is in everyone’s interest, they still sought to stroke Haftar’s ego and strengthen his forces as if he were the country’s sole salvation.

In other words, while outside supporters apparently knew that a good power-sharing agreement among Libya’s factions is in everyone’s interest, they still sought to stroke Haftar’s ego and strengthen his forces as if he were the country’s sole salvation. When he launched his latest campaign in April 2019 against Tripoli, the seat of the GNA he previously recognized, Russia and the UAE continued to supply him with mercenaries and weapons. As Haftar bombarded civilian areas of Tripoli, Egypt gave him cover and recruited the League of Arab States to condemn what it called “foreign interference” in Libya’s affairs—in reference to Turkey’s decision to help the GNA in resisting his assault.

To be sure, all three—the UAE, Russia, and Egypt—are equally responsible for Haftar’s lawlessness. After he made his secession announcement, UAE officials led by National Security Advisor Tahnoun bin Zayed visited Sudan looking for recruits and assistance for the general in his fight against the GNA. On May 1, the UAE foreign ministry ignored Haftar’s move––despite the threat it poses to Libya’s unity––and condemned Turkey’s military intervention in the country. Russia was opposed to the general’s announcement, according to Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, but Moscow is implicated by the military and political support it has advanced him. As for Egypt, it has always thought of Haftar as its man in Libya; President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi received the general as if he were Libya’s head of state only ten days after the latter launched his campaign against the GNA in Tripoli. Such support of the vainglorious Haftar was only going to convince him of his legitimacy and to contribute to his belief that he truly should be Libya’s leader.

An Absent International Community

The international community’s near silence about Haftar’s declaration is both telling and inexcusable. While Russia was supposedly “surprised” by his move, the United States expressed disappointment that he would jeopardize Libya’s political arrangement. France issued what can be considered a tongue-in-cheek statement about necessary dialogue and the inadvisability of “unilateral decisions.” No clear response has been discerned from Italy, Libya’s former colonial power and a one-time active participant in resolving the country’s conflict. Neither has there been a position by the United Kingdom, although the GNA considers London a friend and supporter.

While the international community may claim it is consumed by fighting the coronavirus pandemic and the resultant economic troubles, it cannot let Haftar get away with his unilateral usurpation of power in parts of Libya.

While the international community may claim it is consumed by fighting the coronavirus pandemic and the resultant economic troubles, it cannot let Haftar get away with his unilateral usurpation of power in parts of Libya. On the one hand, the de facto declaration threatens to become long term, paving the way for a full breakup of the country. Such a possibility will increase instability and lawlessness on the southern shore of the Mediterranean to the detriment of Europe’s strategic interests. On the other hand, the GNA is unlikely to allow his secession to stand because it remains the only internationally recognized political entity representing a unified Libya and will most assuredly pursue a military campaign to reconquer areas under his control. In fact, the GNA may have no other choice but to resort to a military solution to reverse Haftar’s secession since he controls the bulk of Libya’s oil reserves.

Haftar’s Secession Must Not Stand

Since his appearance on the Libyan scene after the ouster of Muammar Qadhafi in 2011, the 76-year old Haftar has often spoken about restoring peace and stability to his civil war-ravaged country. His actions, however, belie his claims. His latest gambit of declaring himself the legitimate leader of the country promises to be a step on the road to breaking up Libya. His rump state in Libya’s east and south will only serve his personal interest in becoming another potentate in an autocratic Arab world and will aid outside actors seeking a foothold in the southern Mediterranean. And just as the Arab world and the international community should condemn and abort Yemen’s Southern Transitional Council’s declaration of self-rule, they also would do well to undo Haftar’s coming dismemberment of Libya.

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Imad and read his previous publications click here