Haftar visits Moscow to leverage better fortunes

Sunday 11/12/2016
Haftar’s ascendency could esca­late Libyan crisis

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.