When the United States, France, the UK and a number of other governments sent forces into Libya, the people were to have security and democracy. Seven years later, all that they have had is chaos, death and destruction.
When General Khalifa Haftar boarded the Russian aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov in January 2017, Putin announced that the Libyan general had a powerful friend, but Vladimir Putin is not General Haftar’s first important friend. Once, he was one of Muammar Qaddafi’s favorites and was given the honor in 1986 of leading an invasion of neighboring Chad. The venture failed and Qaddafi denounced him as a rogue and abandoned him. He would have remained a prisoner of the Chadians if the CIA hadn’t rescued him and moved him to the United States to organize the National Front for the Salvation of Libya in preparation to depose the Libyan dictator.
He languished in a state of comfortable limbo for the next twenty-four years and even acquired American citizenship. Not until Qatar, France, and the UK found themselves involved in a war in 2011 that they were ill equipped to fight did they invite Barak Obama to join them; and the general was returned to a country that scarcely remembered him.
As soon as Qaddafi was overthrown, the general was abandoned by his American benefactors while Libya fell into a state of chaos. Since his fall, disorder has spread throughout the region and has resulted in the death of thousands of people who the former advocates of the UN policy of Responsibility to Protect are no longer interested in protecting.
Egypt, Algeria, and Tunisia are particularly concerned that the Islamic State and the Al-Qaeda movements will radicalize people across their borders. Without another option, they have turned to Russia and Russia has turned to its only current choice, General Haftar.
The once orphaned general has gathered an impressive collection of supporters. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, France, Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, the UK, and of course, Russia are involved in one way or another. U.S. Special Forces have been operating in various locations independently from Haftar’s National Libyan Army. According to an article in the June 20 Intercept, the U.S. has conducted more than 550 air strikes against the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda across Libya since 2011.
On the other side, Haftar is facing the Turkey and the Qatar supported rival Muslim Brotherhood movement and the United Nations established National Unity government in Tripoli that has few supporters inside of Libya. There are also the Al-Qaeda forces and the Islamic State as well as a large number of local militias.
What the general concluded is that controlling Benghazi is the key to controlling all of Libya. It was there that the general started his Operation Dignity after his appearance on television in February 2014. His successes against the Salafists prompted The Tobruk Parliament that administers Eastern Libya, to name him in March, 2015 the commander-in-chief of the National Libyan Army.
He is pledging to destroy the Salafist groups that includes the Muslim Brotherhood February 17th Martyrs Brigade. The brigade is financed by the Emir of Qatar. The brigade along with French Special Forces was instrumental in pulling down the Qaddafi administration, but failed to replace the former regime with a Muslim Brotherhood government.
After over more than four years of stiff opposition, Haftar has established control over much of Eastern Libya. By July 2017, he was ready to move onto Tripoli to confront the Fayez Al-Sarraj UN Government of National Accord, GNA, but lacked the military resources. His appeals to the Russians to provide the needed weapons were unanswered. Algeria receives ninety percent of its arms from Russia and is managing to slip essential materials across the frontier. The UAE is using American aircraft unlawfully without a protest from Washington and is financing Egyptian air operations to support Haftar’s campaign against the Brotherhood and other Salafists. Russian contract advisors are reported to be operating out of military bases near Benghazi. None of the assistance is enough to enable the LNA to seize Tripoli.
Without the forces earlier in 2017 to confront his primary enemy, the only other course open to Haftar was to talk to his rival. They met for the first time in May in Abu Dhabi with no results. A second meeting hosted by France in Paris in July did lead to a cease fire and the raising of Haftar’s international standing. The Russians took the relationship further by having the Tobruk Parliament and the Tripoli government establish offices in Moscow where Putin is seeking to mediate an arrangement between Tobruk and Tripoli.
The matter became more confused earlier this year when a stay in a Paris hospital by the seventy-five-year-old general prompted stories that he had suffered from a debilitating stroke or had terminal cancer. His return on April 28th reaffirmed his command of the Libyan National Army which has begun to advance towards Tripoli. At the end of June, the NLA seized control of the Oil Crescent, but his victory cost Haftar the support of most of his foreign supporters. He had to return the oil facilities on July 10 to the National Oil Company that is the internationally recognized authority to manage the sale of the oil. In order to preserve his stature as a powerful figure, he demanded and received the replacement of Libyan Central Bank Governor Sadiq al-Kabir by Mohamed al-Shukri. Another demand to have an international managed audit of the revenue and distribution of funds was agreed to.
The involvement of France and Italy into the chaotic mix is adding to the likelihood that no solution will be found in the near future. France supports Haftar who has the strongest military force in Libya. Italy supports the powerless Fayez Serja United Nations GNA in Tripoli. France is concerned with preventing the spread of radicalism into the former colonial territories while Italy is seeking to assure the continued flow of natural gas and oil from the Tripoli based National Oil Company.
As the war in Syria winds down, Putin is turning his attention to Libya from where Russia was driven out in 2011. The Russians lost $10 billion dollars in contracts and investments as well as $4 billion in military equipment orders. Putting Haftar or someone else friendly to Moscow in control of the entire country will give Russia access to the large oil and gas reserves, a strategic position in the Mediterranean and a customer for arms sales. He can expect the Chinese to return as well to reclaim their lost $20 billion dollars in investments.
The Russians are not in a hurry. There is no rival force able to crush Haftar and any election will be scarcely more than a bloody charade. By waiting, the Russians have enabled the extremist religious movement to gain influence inside the regime. Three quarters of the general’s forces behave like organized thugs. Mahmoud al-Warfully who commands a group allied with Haftar is the subject of an International Criminal Court warrant for the murder of thirty-three prisoners. An extremist form of Islam is being imposed over areas secured by Haftar’s forces. He is replacing regional officials with military officers in what is looking increasingly like the establishment of a new dictatorship with a powerful religious ideology. A more extreme version of Qaddafi is back. Seven years of destruction and chaos is encouraging people to welcome it.