Haftar visits Moscow to leverage better fortunes
Tunis - Libyan military leader Khalifa Haftar visited Russia in June, seeking weapons and training for his army, with the aim of preparing for the fight against Islamists. One day later, an official from the rival camp arrived in Moscow, trying to offset Haftar’s push for Russia’s help as it reasserts its power in the Arab world.
On a visit to Moscow at the end of November, Haftar entered the Foreign Ministry donning a Russian hat. This time, there was no counter move from his rivals.
The symbolism depicts the reality that between June and Haftar’s visit on November 29th, Haftar, who was elevated from army general to field marshal in September, amassed significant leverage to bolster his role in Libya.
During the recent Moscow visit, Haftar, 73, talked with top Russian officials, including Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
“Our relations are crucial. Our goal today is to give life to these relations,” Russia’s TASS news agency quoted Haftar as saying ahead of his meeting with Lavrov.
“We hope we will eliminate terrorism with your help in the nearest future,” Haftar said of the Russians.
Haftar’s ascendency could escalate the Libyan crisis as his rivals seek to cancel his gains, including his sweep to wrest the control of the main oil export facilities in Libya’s hydrocarbon basin in the east.
Libya splintered into rival political and armed groups after a Western-backed uprising ousted Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.
Haftar commands the rump of Qaddafi’s Libyan National Army. He is aligned with the eastern government in Tobruk and the internationally recognised House of Representatives.
He opposes the UN-brokered Government of National Accord (GNA), assailing it is an umbrella for Islamist parties and their militias.
Haftar’s soldiers have been locked in a two-year campaign against extremist Islamists and other opponents in Benghazi and other areas in eastern Libya.
Haftar’s Soviet-era training and broad military background, as well as his four-decade army experience could make him a likely ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, despite Haftar’s ties with the CIA-backed movements that opposed Qaddafi for decades.
Haftar shares the Russian view that there is no democracy with the participation of Islamists. His allies have previously nurtured ties with Russia.
Haftar’s November visit to Moscow occurred after his army, backed by leaders of main tribes in the east, seized oil terminals in September from rival militias led by Ibrahim Jadhran.
The oil move made Haftar more popular in the east and turned him into a more acceptable figure in any future arrangements negotiated among various local groups and their supporters in the Arab region and the West.
Egypt is believed to be among regional powers supporting Haftar and France is reportedly embedding troops within his forces.
Since Haftar’s takeover of the oil facilities, the country’s crucial oil exports have been increasing, giving hopes to many Libyans that their economic misery will end but also igniting anger among his opponents.
“They told us that emissaries of world powers had given us guarantees that Haftar is outside the power game. That did not happen as they describe him now as the military chief who fights terrorism,” said Sadok Gueriani, the spiritual leader of radical Islamists in Libya.
Haftar’s spokesman, Ahmed al- Mismari, said in a statement that “columns” of militiamen had attempted to take control of the oil facilities from the army on December 7th but were repelled.
Mismari blamed forces aligned with the GNA’s government in Tripoli despite its denial
Analysts argue that Haftar is likely to gain strength but also attract more animosity if he were to preserve his gains in the east. The lack of progress by the GNA in restoring security and unity is pushing powers in the West and in the region to give Haftar a role to broaden domestic support of the GNA.
Such developments could cause Islamist extremists to unify their forces, possibly generating a new jihadist movement. However, this could make Haftar an even more indispensable ally for Russia and staunch anti-Islamist states in the region as well as for African states in the Sahel while liberals and other anti-Islamists in Libya increasingly view him as their leader.