The confirmation of Khalifa Haftar, a former ally of Muammar Gaddafi who later joined the revolution against the Libyan dictator, as army chief may deepen divisons in the increasingly lawless and fractured country and further complicate United Nations efforts to broker peace between the country’s two rival governments.
The previously-retired general has been leading a movement called Operation Dignity, whose professed aim is to wrest control of Libya’s major cities from “Islamists”. Haftar’s new position has been conferred on him by Libya’s internationally-recognised parliament, based in the eastern city of Tobruk.
Yet the Tobruk authorities do not control the country’s capital, Tripoli, or the major city of Misrata. The militias of the Libya Dawn movement are in control there. They despise Haftar – something that, with Haftar’s new appointment, does not bode well for international efforts to bring about some sort of negotiated settlement to the conflict.
“It will create more tension … [Tobruk-based] parliament felt threatened by the talks, and felt that they weren’t being consulted on the composition of the unity government,” said Layal Elhusuni, a Libyan activist from Benghazi.
“It is a calculated move to spite the UN before the second round of talks.”
Those first round of talks did not include Haftar or militias from Misrata, perhaps the most powerful bloc within Libya Dawn.
Western countries have been trying to bring the stakeholders to the table, but they appear to be having difficulty convincing the pro-Haftar camp to compromise on dealing with members of Libya Dawn.
Those countries believe Haftar is “putting moderate Islamists and extremist ones in the same bag”, a Western diplomat told AFP.
Libya Dawn are also unlikely to accept Haftar as part of any unity government – especially following air raids that attacked airports controlled by Libya Dawn on Monday.
While Haftar receives backing in this from people in areas run by Libya Dawn, especially in Tripoli, there is also opposition to him. His appointment will therefore not help to resolve the conflict, Elhusuni said.
“An army is a national army, but who will this army represent? … It will not represent the militias in Misrata, for example.”
One organisation is taking advantage of the vacuum created by the conflict between Dawn and Dignity – the Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) group.
Their presence in Libya took on international significance when they released a video last month showing the beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts on a Libyan beach. The group has a presence in major towns such as Derna and Sirte, and appears to be growing.
Their presence has given the opportunity for Haftar to present his fight against Libya Dawn as part of the fight against IS, pointing to links between some Dawn militias and the al-Qaeda affiliated Ansar al-Sharia, as well as the downplaying of the IS threat by Libya Dawn. Yet IS have already declared that they consider Libya Dawn and the Tripoli-based government apostates, and have said that they will fight them.
“Both the Haftar side and the Misrata militias need to recognise that they have a common enemy: IS,” Elhusuni said.
By Abubakr al-Shamahi.