Weakened but not entirely vanquished – this is the position that Libyan renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar currently finds himself in.
After launching a military campaign to wrest control of the capital in April last year, the 76-year-old was dealt a series of setbacks over the past two months that resulted in the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli bringing most of western Libya back under its control.
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Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) has since withdrawn to the coastal city of Sirte, some 450km (280 miles) east of Tripoli, and al-Jufra airbase in central Libya.
Buoyed by their recent military victories in western Libya, GNA forces have launched an offensive to capture Sirte, with fighting so far concentrated on the city’s western and southern outskirts.
Known for being the birthplace of former longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi, Sirte holds significant symbolic value as it is located roughly halfway between Tripoli and Haftar’s bastion of Benghazi in the east.
“Libya will not be completed without its east,” GNA Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha said on Sunday.
But symbolism aside, some analysts warned the GNA’s decision to continue pursuing Haftar eastwards was counterintuitive and risked jeopardizing the gains it has achieved so far.
“I don’t see a strategic rationale for the GNA-aligned militias’ continued push eastward,” said Jason Pack, a fellow at the Middle East Institute and founder of risk consultancy Libya Analysis LLC, in reference to Sirte.
Pack said the decision was all the more surprising in light of recent reports suggesting that Turkey and Russia – which support the GNA and LNA, respectively – appeared to have previously reached an agreement on spheres of influence.
“If Jufra and Sirte are supposed to reside in the Russian / LNA sphere of influence, this new offensive might reengage Russia, the Emiratis and Egyptians to support, not necessarily Haftar, but the LNA.”
“Whereas if the GNA, had let sleeping dogs lie, they could have proclaimed total victory in their quest to recapture Tripolitania and worked with their Turkish allies on how to consolidate this victory at the international level.”
Phasing Haftar out
Internal dynamics go some way towards explaining the GNA’s inclination to opt for a military solution that would see Haftar further marginalized.
A number of GNA officials, including Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, have repeatedly refused to hold talks with Haftar, citing the LNA’s past violations of ceasefire agreements and attacks on civilian infrastructure, including residential neighborhoods and hospitals.
Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Maiteeq recently met scorn upon his return from talks in Russia after informing his hierarchy that Moscow had declared Sirte a red line.
“The red lines are drawn by the blood of our martyrs. Only the weak and servile opportunists succumb to foreign pressure,” retorted Interior Minister Bashagha in a tweet on Sunday.
Meanwhile, events in the Egyptian capital over the weekend may have acted as an incentive for the GNA to pursue its offensive amid suggestions that Haftar’s foreign backers were looking to phase him out.
During a news conference in Cairo on Saturday, Haftar appeared alongside Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, as well as Aguila Saleh, speaker of the eastern-based House of Representatives.
Dressed in a suit – as opposed to his usual military fatigues – Haftar declared his backing for Egypt’s unilateral ceasefire proposal, after announcing for months the imminent takeover of the capital.
Emadeddin Badi, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and Libya analyst, said the presence of Saleh in Cairo was an indication of the diminishing patience by Haftar’s foreign supporters.
“There’s no other figure that anyone can engage with in the east besides him (Saleh), so it’s the easiest way of having some form of tribal representatives of the eastern bloc but also a political one,” said Badi.
According to Badi, the LNA’s unravelling in western Libya is also causing schisms to emerge among Haftar’s foreign backers, with the United Arab Emirates and France investing in Haftar as a person and Russia and Egypt betting on his faction as a whole.
Further limiting Haftar’s scope of manoeuvre moving forward is the covert nature of the foreign military backing he has enjoyed.
“At this juncture, the Emiratis can’t back him anymore, at least not enough for him to regain everything he has lost without them compromising their plausible deniability about their involvement in the conflict,” Badi said.
“The French can’t do that either, you’re left with the Russians and Egyptians whose primary focus, I do not think it is to support Haftar. Their involvement in Libya is not existential.”
Turkey, in this respect, stands as an outlier, having come open about its role in Libya.
This affords Ankara considerable leverage in the way it supports the GNA, according to Badi, and may well see it increase its investment in the GNA.