The Shifting Strategic Context in Libya and the ‘Haftar Dilemma’

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 17 Issue: 7



On January 13, the Libyan National Army (LNA), led by General Khalifa Haftar, made its way through southern Libya, entering Sabha and consolidating its position in the Fezzan region. As a result, Haftar also seized control of Libya’s biggest oil field, Sharara. Now controlling the fields and terminals of the entire Sirte Basin, the so-called Libyan oil crescent, Haftar’s grip on Sharara has further boosted his power. In late February, the Head of the Presidential Council of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), Fayez al-Sarraj, met with Haftar in the UAE—under the auspices of the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General and Head of Mission of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), Ghassan Salamé—both agreeing on the necessity to end the transition through general elections, safeguarding stability, and unifying the country’s institutions (Jeune Afrique, February 28). In mid-March, Salamé announced the UN-backed National Conference would take place in the city of Ghadames on April 14-16 (The Libya Observer, April 2). This conference will take place in a shifting political environment, as these developments have changed the strategic context in Libya. Haftar’s position has visibly strengthened, and the launch of a military offensive in western Libya on the night of April 3 is a result of this shift. On April 4, LNA spokesperson General Ahmed al-Mesmari announced that LNA forces entered the city of Gharyan and were “happily welcomed by the people” (, April 4). A few hours before, Masmari announced that the LNA was ready to start a military offensive to “cleanse the west” eliminating “terrorists and mercenaries” (Jeune Afrique, April 4). Local sources denied some of these accounts, stating that LNA forces were a few kilometers away but then, speaking to Reuters, the commander in charge of the LNA operation, Abdelsalam al-Hassi, said that LNA troops seized “control of Gharyan” as he was allegedly speaking driving through the town (Reuters, April 4; Al Ra’ed Media Network, April 4). This military operation is a further bid from Haftar to have his greater political centrality and his dominance over Libya formally recognized.

However, this dynamic will not be smooth and will trigger resistance from several actors across Libya, deepening further conflict and volatility. Astonishingly, this military escalation started as the Secretary General of the UN, António Guterres, is in Libya. Guterres has expressed his concern by the military movement taking place in Libya, highlighting the increasing risks of confrontation while reiterating the UN position that “there is no military solution” to the Libyan conflict (, April 4). In the wake of these developments, Al-Sarraj’s remarks at the Arab League Summit held in Tunis are telling. On March 31, 2019, the Head of the Presidential Council said that his government will always work for a peaceful settlement in Libya and “won’t allow the return of a totalitarian or military rule in the county” (The Libya Observer, March 31).

Haftar’s Southern Bid

Haftar’s consolidation in the south has changed the Libyan strategic environment and will bear a number of consequences for the entire political landscape and the balance of power in the Tripolitania region. Haftar’s bid to strengthen his position in the south is not new. Already in 2017, it was clear that Haftar perceived the consolidation of his presence in the south as an essential condition to reach Tripoli. The Brak al-Shatti massacre of May 2017 halted this dynamic, representing a severe setback and forcing the LNA troops to withdraw to the east. This goal was not abandoned, but merely postponed. Over the past two years, the security situation in the south did not improve, and the GNA did very little to strengthen its position there. The return of Haftar in the south was much more successful this time as the military strategy was supported by the local population. The LNA provided various services and goods to the local population, who, feeling abandoned by the GNA, decided to side with Haftar.

The apparent military weakness and lack of action by the GNA was not the only variable in making Haftar’s moves possible. The significant external support he continues to enjoy was also a major factor. In the Libyan battlefield, a remarkable rhetorical contradiction exists between the narratives and the actions of the plethora of sub-state actors involved in the conflict(s) across the country. While everyone rejects foreign influence on paper, routinely accusing enemies of representing outside interests, in reality, access to external financial and military support remains a crucial element for all the Libyan actors. In several cases, external support remains an intervening factor in determining a shift in political and military balances.

Haftar’s recent gains in the south are no exception, as they were the consequence of robust support from some of his historical supporters—the UAE, France, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Russia. For instance, Haftar’s advance was facilitated by French military operations targeting Tebu forces and Chadian rebels located in southern Libya (Alwihda Info, February 3; Orient XXI, March 13). To add to this picture, external countries such as Italy and Algeria were wary of, or at least, at odds with Haftar having moderated their positions. Steady military support and a more favorable diplomatic contest strengthened the general’s confidence, facilitating his takeover in the south.

The Haftar Dilemma and the (Almost) Inevitable Outcome: More Conflict

The southern consolidation, consistent support from his traditional allies, and increasing acceptance of his centrality by some of his former external foes should be translated into a political formula that would recognize these gains. However—and this is one of the many paradoxes of the Libyan strategic context of the past years—Haftar’s benefits have not always translated into greater political recognition and tangible influence. In some cases, his ambitions have been frustrated. Not even the complete control over the so-called oil crescent—the crucial Sirte basin—gave him the capacity to dominate the system. To do so, Haftar needs to strengthen his presence in Tripoli and the surrounding areas, which will prove to be particularly difficult. In the current Libyan balance of power, any attempt to formally recognize Haftar’s greater centrality would trigger resistance from a widespread and diversified coalition of actors, mostly based in the west of the country.  Their interests might not necessarily converge—they are often strategically divergent—but all of them are, for one reason or another, wary of Haftar potentially dominating the system. This recognition would inevitably lead to an exacerbation of the conflict.

However, it is likely that the same outcome would occur if Haftar’s centrality is not recognized through a formal political agreement. In this case, it would be Haftar pushing a full-fleged military solution in order to have this centrality finally recognized in Tripoli. Against this backdrop, it is important to highlight a crucial element—a military operation led by Haftar in western Libya neither means that his LNA would enter Tripoli smoothly and quickly, nor does it imply that the LNA has the resources and capacity to actually carry out such an operation to the scale needed to achieve quick success. There are several diplomatic, logistic, and military impediments to an army takeover of western Libya. The events of the past few years have shown that the capabilities of the LNA’s military force must always be put in context. Also, in those areas where the LNA enjoyed an unmatched dominance, it still needed years to eradicate local enemies, for instance in Benghazi and Derna. LNA military capacities remain significantly dependent on external support, as demonstrated on several occasions, for example when the LNA temporarily lost control of oil terminals in the Sirte Basin.

In western Libya, where LNA troops have an even weaker territorial knowledge, control of supply lines, and local proxies, a military offensive without massive external support would be challenging. Yet, this future military support would be politically unfeasible. In the east and the south, Haftar could claim that he was going after Islamists, terrorists, and mercenaries. In the West, despite LNA sources using the same rhetoric to justify their actions in Gharyan, a military operation would inevitably be perceived as being a direct action against the GNA and al-Sarraj. Despite his apparent weakness, al-Sarraj also remains formally supported by those same external actors who are backing Haftar. As such, external military support for Haftar, while it is unlikely to cease in general, cannot be particularly significant or too visible in this specific context, unless the al-Sarraj government collapses on its own and groups perceived as a more extensive regional threat—for instance, the Islamic State (IS) or al-Qaeda elements—boost their presence in western Libya. That being said, Haftar’s strengthening position also gives him greater leverage with his external partners, and this might reduce their capacity of influencing his choices.

For Haftar, moving into western Libya would inevitably mean loosening its grasp on the east and the south as the LNA might not have the human and logistical resources to guarantee the same levels of control. This would be a typical case of overstretching and will likely push some of the forces defeated or marginalized in the east and the south to reorganize, particularly if the situation in the west deteriorates. They could result in attacks on LNA troops in the south and the east, opening new fronts, thus helping anti-Haftar groups in the west, who could later claim territorial control, material benefits, and political recognition if their role proved to be essential in undermining Haftar’s ambitions.

The Haftar Temptation and the Shifting Alliances in the West

The military threat remains a negotiating card for Haftar, and the Gharyan attack must be seen in this context. Observing his rise since 2014, he has often been able to go beyond what many observers and Libyans believed he could achieve. From this perspective, while objective conditions make a full military operation in western Libya complicated, this cannot be entirely excluded and the events in Gharyan suggest that this process is already well in the making. Haftar wants to show that, despite the obvious impediments, he still has the capacity of launching a military operation. The timing, from this point of view, is very relevant. He does so as the National Conference is approaching. This should intimidate internal enemies and external powers and make all these actors more willing to recognize Haftar’s dominance formally.

Haftar’s strengthening position in the south and the looming threat of a military operation in the west could trigger a further development—a potential shift in alliances in Tripoli and in the broader Tripolitania region. Against this backdrop, Haftar can represent a tempting option for a number of groups, either for those willing to challenge the current order in Tripoli and surrounding areas or those who want to consolidate power and control, and preserve their material and financial interests, perceiving an alignment with Haftar as the best way to do so. As for the latter, this might be the case for groups such as the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade (TRB) of Haitem al-Tajouri (See MLM, December 10, 2018). In December 2018, the major militias operating in Tripoli—the TRB, the Nawasi Brigade (Qaddur family), the Rada-Special Deterrence Forces (led by Abdel Rauf Kara) and the Abu Salim Central Security (led by Abdul-Ghani ‘Ghneiwa’ Al-Kikli) merged into a unitary structure denominated by Tripoli Protection Forces (TPF)  (Libya Herald, December 18, 2018). However, this merger does not imply that these four groups have also amalgamated their views. More than an alliance, the Tripoli militia bloc is a coalition of mostly material interests linked to actual territorial control, and their political and ideological views remain different. For instance, unlike the Nawasi and Rada militias, al-Tajouri is not fiercely anti-Haftar. In the past, rumors surfaced of him getting closer to Haftar. Al-Tajouri is also the least ideological, most pragmatic, and business-focused among the Tripoli militia leaders. He has demonstrated his willingness to shift alliances if it serves the consolidation of his interests, as he did when he started supporting al-Sarraj after weeks of hesitation (Il Foglio {Rome}, February 10, 2017). Additionally, he seems to be the closest of Tripoli’s militia leaders to the UAE, Haftar’s most crucial external sponsor (Akhbar Libya 24 {Benghazi}, October 20, 2018).

The recent rumors concerning talks between Haftar and the Seventh Brigade from Tarhouna points at another possible development (Middle East Eye, March 31). Also known as the Kanyat or the Kani Brigade, led by the al-Kani family, the eldest of the four brothers, Mohammed al-Kani, is the Seventh Brigade’s formal leader (see MLM, October 4, 2018). Despite being formally associated with the GNA since 2017, the Seventh Brigade was one of the militias marginalized following the consolidation of Tripoli by four militias over the past two years. Kanyat clashes with TRB and Nawasi forces, justifying its action as being driven by the ambition of freeing Tripoli and its people from gangs looting public money (Al-Arabiya, September 3, 2018).

Against this backdrop, Misratan forces will also play a crucial role. While Misrata, as a town, was a more or less coherent force during the initial outbreak of the Libyan revolution in 2011, over the past years its groups have significantly diversified. Crucial elements of the GNA, such as the Interior Minister Fathi Bashaga and the al-Sarraj’s deputy, Ahmed Maitig, are from Misrata. Other Misratan forces, such as those linked to Salah Badi and Khalifa Ghwell, never made a mystery of their aversion for Sarraj, the GNA and the Tripoli militias that lodged them out of the capital but also remain sternly anti-Haftar. As such, an eventual consolidation of Haftar in the west—either through diplomatic means or, less likely, through a direct military engagement—might even trigger unexpected, tactical alliances between a number of very different actors who all fear Haftar’s rise for one reason or another.

Against this backdrop, it is important to underline how, in Libya, there is a psychological factor that informs the views of all the actors involved in the conflict—the fear of structural marginalization. Under the 42-year-long rule of Muammar Qadhafi, many of the groups currently active in Libya were openly marginalized in a system that excluded a significant number of social, political and tribal actors from power and the redistribution of wealth. This factor is fundamental in understanding how the Libyan transition collapsed following the initial optimism triggered by the elections of July 2012. Since Haftar is clearly bidding to be recognized as the ultimate kingmaker of Libya—some say “strongman,” some others more bluntly say “dictator”—rival groups fear that an eventual victory by the LNA might translate into further decades of marginalization. From this point of view, this factor can push even bitter enemies to work together since they perceive Haftar’s potential final victory as the ultimate threat.


Haftar’s consolidation of territory and resources in the south has created the conditions for a shift in the Libyan strategic context. While this consolidation has not translated, at least yet, into a formal recognition of his centrality, it has inevitably given Haftar a greater ability to influence events. This development has reduced the amount of options for a peaceful settlement. Formal, diplomatic recognition of Haftar’s role would trigger the reaction of a broad coalition of actors—from Tripoli’s militias to Misratan groups—that perceive Haftar as an existential threat. Meanwhile, a lack of formal recognition might instead reignite Haftar’s ambitions to conquer Tripoli by force. While the conditions for a military operation in western Libya are objectively complex, the simple threat of force might tempt revisionist actors or groups looking to consolidate their interests to align with Haftar. In either case, the likely outcome is the intensification of the conflict.