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  • Rory O'Keeffe

The St Valentine’s Day Charade: Khalifa Haftar, the cause of and main actor in, Libya’s second civil

In April this year, Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar declared that he would ‘push the (Libyan government) out of Tripoli’. Since then, he has killed 1,000 people and injured at least 5,000, as well as twice attacking refugee camps, the second time at Tajoura on 2 July, killing 53 people who live there.

Today (16 July), the Libyan government publicly demanded to know why Haftar’s troops are carrying French weapons.

This piece is a guide to Libya’s second civil war, which is now in its sixth year, and to Khalifa Haftar, who called it, and is continuing to attack Libyan and other men, women and children in the state.

A note: the first five of the six italicised quotes are advice issued in April and repeated in May, June and now July, by the Libyan government, to the citizens of Tripoli, about how to avoid injury in their homes while they are being attacked by missile fire. The sixth, as noted, is a comment from a friend of the author, in Libya.

Please all people from "#Tripoli", share these tips to reduce the dangers of mortar shells and rocket bombing 💔🙏🏻’

On Valentines Day, 14 February 2014, a former Libyan general took to the airwaves to announce a coup against the country’s sitting government.

No-one in Libya took very much notice.

After all, Khalifa Haftar, a man described by Libyan historian Fathi al Fatdhali as ‘the worst military leader Libya has known’, had in recent years become notorious solely for being such an embarrassment – not to mention such a dissembler – that the leaders of the khetibas fighting Ghaddafi in 2011 had taken time out of their struggle to overthrow the state’s ruler to make clear that in spite of his claims, Haftar was not in fact leading the revolt, that he was not an active member of any khetiba, and that none of them recognised him as a General.

In his Valentine’s Day announcement, Haftar demanded that he must be allowed to take over the nation’s political structures and that the government must be suspended. He also claimed to have taken command of the Libyan national army.

Ali Zeidan, who led the Libyan government at that time, replied that: ‘Libya is stable. The army is in its headquarters, and Khalifa Haftar has no authority.’

Within months, however, Haftar had led the shelling of the government in Tripoli, organised airstrikes (carried out by Egypt) on the capital city, caused both of Libya’s largest cities to be overrun by illegal militias and created a stalemate in which two Libyan ‘governments’ were forced to watch from either end of the country as chaos, violence and death returned. In short, he began Libya’s second civil war, which has so far lasted more than five years.

You can't avoid (mortar shells) until they explode, and the best way to reduce the risk of injury is not to be in a exposed place, most of the victims fall in the markets and streets from the fragments, and if there is no place to shelter and hide, lying on the earth reduces the risk of shrapnel.

Haftar was a 20 year-old soldier when he helped Muammar Ghaddafi take power in place of the state’s king, Idris I. Their relationship was destroyed, however, when in 1987, he was captured and jailed by the Chadian US-backed rebel leader and war criminal, later Chad’s president, Hissene Habre – the occurrence about which al Fatdhali was talking when he described Haftar as the worst military leader in Libyan history, saying: ‘The war (in Chad) was a scandal. Haftar is the worst military leader Libya has known. He didn’t have a plan – even a withdrawal plan’.

The reasons why Libya was fighting in Chad were varied, and included the fact that Libyan scientists had identified (seemingly before Chad itself, or its French former colonial rulers) that the state was likely to have significant amounts of oil. As in so many situations internationally, however, (including South Africa and Somalia) Ghaddafi’s self-interest also led to him being on the ‘right’ side (inasmuch as such a thing exists in war), in this case opposing Habre who, the international criminal court in Senegal concluded, committed crimes against humanity war crimes, sexual violence and rape – in many cases against entire Chadian villages.

Sadly for Ghaddafi, for Libya, possibly for Chad and certainly for Haftar, the latter contrived (helped strongly by the immense amounts of military hardware and other assistance the US provided to Habre) to lose every single battle he fought in Chad in 1987, and was in fact chased to Maaten as-Sarra, a southern Libyan airport, where he and his soldiers were routed. By the end of this battle, every Libyan soldier who had been deployed in Chad had been repelled or captured.

Ghaddafi’s problem was that he had previously pretended that – at the demand of the US and France – he had withdrawn all troops from Chad. Faced with Haftar’s arrest, Ghaddafi refused to negotiate for his release, claiming that Haftar had ‘disobeyed orders’ in order to save Libya and himself (Ghaddafi) from retribution by the two western states.

Haftar was, as a result, left in jail in Chad, until the CIA negotiated his release in 1990, and brought him to Langley, Virginia, where he is reported to have received extensive military training.

He remained in the US for 21 years, visiting Libya just once, in 1993, when he attempted to lead the CIA-backed National Salvation Front for Libya in a coup against his former ally, also telling Maghreb media that he was working ‘with the US government’ to build a force which would ‘eliminate Ghaddafi’.

He returned to Libya only once the state’s first civil war was well underway, and his position within it was far from clear: he was described by one khetiba member as the ‘commander of the military’ but this claim was immediately denied by the National Transitional Council.

choose one room at your home to which you and your family will go as soon as you hear the mortar shells. This #room must be hidden from the street outside, within the house and with no windows to the public, and preferably above it another floor. Maybe the space under the stairs inside the house is suitable for hiding during the bombing.

Haftar effectively disappeared from ‘public life’ in the wake of the civil war and Ghaddafi’s death. But Libya’s political ‘progress’ did not run smoothly or quickly. The international community helped almost not at all – keeping Libyan funds in international banks out of the reach of a state desperately trying to repair its smashed cities and ruined infrastructure.

It also demanded – as Libya demanded of itself – that a new functioning democracy must be created, but unlike in Tunisia, where UK and other political experts trained members of all parties, as well as civil servants, in the roles of representatives and employees in a democratic system, Libya was left, in its own ruins, to attempt to construct a robust, successful democracy in a country which had experienced 42 years of dictatorship, preceded by hundreds of years of monarchical rule, colonial dominance and tribal systems.

Instead, the system, to the extent it ever really managed to start moving, effectively ground to a halt. In the state’s first ever elections, held in August 2012, the National Forces Alliance ‘liberals’ who campaigned on a message of protections and tolerance, with a commitment to a form of Sharia law, took 48 per cent of the vote, winning 39 of the 80 seats available to ‘parties’ and 25 of the 120 so-called ‘independents’ seats. They were, however, widely and correctly regarded at that point as being slightly disorganised and considerably diverse in attitude and outlook.

The far more organised Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated party ‘Justice and Construction’ was the largest opposition group, taking ten per cent of the vote and 17 of the ‘party’ seats and 17 ‘independents’ in the GNC.

Like the Tunisian Brotherhood party, Ennahda, and Egypt’s Freedom and Justice party, Justice and Construction’s strong structure was built on years of being the major (though in Libya not the only) opposition to the dictator which ruled their state.

Unlike Ennahda, which actually gave up power and took part in a temporary ‘technocratic coalition’ to ensure the Tunisian constitution could be completed, and Freedom and Justice which attempted to form coalitions with liberal parties (all refused) before being shot from power by Abdel Fattah al Sisi, in a coup in which 1,000 people were killed, 4,000 injured and 19,000 Brotherhood members jailed, followed by every leading member of Egypt’s Liberal and political youth movements also being imprisoned, Justice and Construction used its organisation more to disrupt, than to facilitate the creation of the new Libyan state.

Against a backdrop of largely low-competence liberal leadership (Abdullah al-Thinni, whose time as ‘interim’ Prime Minister came in the final days of the Libyan government, perhaps had the capability to lead a united government, but was far from capable of effectively rescuing the state from its gathering catastrophes), the Libyan state staggered into 2014.

On 7 February, with the state’s government too weak to force the khetibas whose war was supposed to have ended with the killing of Ghaddafi in October 2011 to disarm and re-enter civilian society, the deadline for the completion by the GNC of the Libyan constitution – the single target the GNC had been set - passed without the document being produced.

The GNC did not do nothing, however. Instead, it voted to keep itself in power until December 2014.

This decision was made all the worse by the fact that, two days previously, the GNC had voted to ‘update’ Ghaddafi’s Penal Code 195. This had outlawed criticism of the Libyan state, the Libyan flag, the Great Fateh revolution in which Ghaddafi had come to power, and Ghaddafi himself. The sentence was set at three to 15 years in jail.

Rather than abolishing the Penal Code, however, the GNC simply altered it so that it would from then be illegal to criticise the 17 February uprising, the Libyan judiciary, the Libyan President and the GNC itself.

In response, the Zintan khetiba – the country’s second-largest, after the Misrata organisation – re-mobilised in Libya’s west, while public demonstrations were held in Tripoli and Benghazi: the first since Ghaddafi’s removal.

The GNC did at least pay attention to this, announcing elections would be held on 25 June, rather than the December date it had previously set. Even so, the GNC had already outlived its mandated period of ‘power’, and had not even begun the constitution, which was the only thing it was supposed to have produced.

It was in the wake of this announcement that Haftar announced his ‘coup’, claiming (incorrectly) that he had taken over the Libyan army, and announcing the he must be able to take over all of Libya’s political apparatus and organisations.

Many citizens in their homes are injured by flying glass, whether directly or from the severity of the bombing, you can reduce the risk of "glass flying" by putting a duct-tape ‘x’ on your windows and keeping away from them to be safe. The house’s weakest sites can be reinforced with sand bags.

Now, at this point, it is worth noting that Libya was effectively an already failed state. We can each point fingers at who is to blame for this, but for every person who says ‘Ghaddafi should never have been killed’ another can argue that he televised executions and one in five Libyan adults were employed by the state’s secret police.

The author would, however, point out that whatever the justification for the West (effectively France, the US and the UK) becoming the ‘air force’ for the uprising against Ghaddafi (this was certainly not legal), their decision to simply pull out and leave Libya to ‘sink or swim’ is one of the most reckless, inhumane, callous and irresponsible of the last 25 years.

Haftar is the reason why Libya is in the awful situation it is in, but that decision contributed directly to – and indeed fed from the start – the conditions necessary for him to be able to launch his career as a murderous warlord.

In Benghazi, Ansar al-Sharia, a fundamentalist Islamic militia, was in effective, day-to-day control, while elsewhere across the state, the khetibas which had led the ground war against Ghaddafi had refused to lay down their weapons (or, as in the case of the Zintan militia, had re-armed) against the demands of the GNC, and in one disgusting incident the Misrata khetiba had, on 15 November 2014, killed 43 people and injured 460 who had been protesting against the khetiba’s presence in Tripoli. Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan told the media that the Libyan police and armed forces were under orders not to engage the khetiba because ‘they are weaker than it’.

Under such circumstances, social and civil unrest was understandable, but Haftar’s planned coup seemed so unlikely to solve Libya’s problems that it was hard to believe that he was as interested in solving them as in seizing power for himself.

This suspicion was largely confirmed when he resurfaced, on 16 May 2014, when a force he (and nobody else) referred to as the ‘Libyan National Army’, in fact his own personal militia, launched an attack on the Ansar al Sharia HQ in Benghazi. Two days later, the Zintan khetiba, which Haftar had allied with, fired missiles into the Libyan parliamentary building, before ransacking the national parliament.

The two attacks killed 80 people and injured 160 more.

They were undertaken just 40 days before the date set for the national elections, in which the ‘liberals’, who Haftar has often claimed to support, were predicted to win a landslide victory with more than 70 per cent of the vote – again, suggesting that he has less interest in ‘the liberals’ or in fact any government in which he is not guaranteed a leading position.

And the decision made little sense tactically. Not only was it undertaken less than two months before elections, he also chose to open a war on two fronts – in Benghazi, where Ansar al Sharia looked (and indeed proved) extremely powerful and difficult to shift – and simultaneously in Tripoli against a dysfunctional but democratically-elected government, which was set to be removed by the electorate AND which was supported, in any case, by the Misrata khetiba, by far the strongest of the militia organisations in Libya, and far stronger than the Zintani brigades he allied with.

The strength of those he opposes is not necessarily a reason not to fight them (though there was absolutely NO justification to fight against the government), but the lack of tactical commonsense indicates rather a shortfall in Haftar’s abilities.

In the event, predictably, this shortfall has inspired a slide into chaos, which continues to this day.

Gas bottles and oil containers should be removed and covered appropriately to avoid injury from shrapnel. Any heat source or fire must be extinguished if food is cooking. Keep a supply of materials to deal quickly with any initial lesions in case of injury caused by explosions, and God be with you.’

We will be brief about the five years which since Haftar declared his war.

The liberals won the election on 25 June, but just 18 per cent of registered voters turned out, due in part to the people’s lack of belief that anything would change but mainly because of Haftar’s ongoing war in Benghazi and Tripoli.

In its aftermath, the liberals refused to attend the Tripoli parliament to take power, saying that it was too dangerous for them to do so. The Muslim Brotherhood countered that it was dangerous only because militias purporting to support the liberals were attacking parliament (though by now the Misrata khetiba’s retaliation was also well underway) and that if the liberals didn’t take their seats then it – the Brotherhood (which had done better than its expected annihilation in the elections thanks in part to Haftar’s war against them which prevented and discouraged many voters from voting at all) – would ‘legally’ retain power.

The liberals fled to Tobruk, in the far east of Libya, where they formed a ‘government’ named the ‘House of Representatives’ (HoR). The Brotherhood and others resumed its sitting at Tripoli, under the name ‘the National Salvation Government’ (NSG). In the meantime, Haftar and the Zintani khetiba – which claimed to ‘support’ the HoR, but did not take orders from it – and the Misrata khetiba, which claimed to ‘support’ the NSG, but did not take orders from it, continued to fight.

On 17 and 23 August, the first airstrikes were launched against Libyan cities since the end of the state’s first civil war in October 2011. Haftar claimed responsibility for the strikes, which killed six people and injured 30 more, but the US government confirmed that the aircraft and pilots had been sent to Haftar by Egypt, whose leader Fatah al Sisi, having taken over the latter country by shooting the Muslim Brotherhood – Egypt’s only democratically-elected government – out of power, was engaged in an international campaign to have the Brotherhood labelled ‘terrorist’. That campaign has failed, but was the major driving factor in Egypt joining the (ongoing) trade boycott of Qatar by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Sisi, still President of Egypt, has since overseen the death by poisoning of the Egypt Brotherhood’s leader and still the country’s sole democratically-elected president, Mohammed Morsi, who died in jail in June this year.

In the predictable (and predicted) chaos of the second civil war, IS entered Libya (as is/was its standard practice), taking the cities of Sirte and Derna. Forces affiliated with al Qaeda removed IS from Derna, while the Misrata khetiba, along with the Petroleum Facilities Guard (which had previously attempted to lead a breakaway of Eastern Libya including Benghazi, from the West), eventually defeated IS in Sirte. It should be noted that at no stage did Haftar fight against IS in Libya.

During the IS occupation of Sirte, late in 2015, the UN held a forum, in Rome, about Libya’s future. No Libyan was invited, but the forum was in any case derailed by an angry outburst from then US Secretary of State John Kerry who shouted ‘Will no-one give us a government we can work with in Libya!’

In response, the UN created and installed a third ‘government’, the ‘Government of National Accord’ (GNA), perhaps most notable for the fact that it was not by any usual definition a government, Libya was at that point arguably not a nation, and there was absolutely no accord, perhaps particularly about the new ‘government’.

In 2016, there were therefore three ‘governments’ in Libya, none with any power, two of which were ‘backed’ by armed forces over which neither had any control, as well as IS occupying a city in the centre of the country’s north coast.

Gradually, however, the GNA managed to increase its influence among the civilian population, first by convincing the local authorities of each city outside Haftar’s ‘sphere of influence’ (effectively, every region West of Benghazi) to accept it, then by convincing the Brotherhood and other members of the GNS to give up their claim to power, instead offering a reduced number of its members a chance to join the GNA, and simultaneously – and sadly this, more than the other two factors, was probably decisive – persuading the Misrata khetiba that if the GNS would no longer exist, it should declare allegiance to the GNA instead.

The GNS enjoys widespread international support – even though many observers have expressed some concerns about how it was created – and to date it has acquitted itself reasonably well. Haftar, meanwhile, has the support of the ‘Saudi bloc’ (those currently boycotting Qatar, including Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt) and, inexplicably, France.

France has supported Haftar since he began his war in 2014, and while it could quite realistically have claimed to have made a mistake at that point (even though Italy, in a similar position, refused to back the warlord) and changed its position as the situation, and Haftar’s behaviour, deteriorated it has extremely little justification for continuing to do so now.

In case anyone is under any misapprehension about the extent and level of France’s support, Macron has become the second French president in succession to hold official meetings with Haftar, and just today, 16 July 2019, the GNA, which is still under attack by Haftar, publicly requested that France should explain why Haftar’s forces are using French weaponry to wage their war.

Russia, which had openly supported Haftar, publicly stated it did not support his attack on Tripoli, though it also vetoed a UN Security Council statement asking him to withdraw his forces, while US President Donald Trump appeared close to endorsing the warlord in April, but despite his self-professed liking for ‘strongmen’ and Haftar’s own close connections to the US, Trump later publicly backed away from the endorsement at which he had hinted, but not made.

Even so, the GNA does not yet ‘rule’ Libya, whether it ever should (to be clear: the author absolutely confirms that Haftar has no legitimacy, and that whatever claim to power might have been held by the HoR, if such a claim ever truly existed and/or was no wiped out by many of its members’ continued association with and promises of high-ranking posts to Haftar {on 2 May, however, 51 HoR members made a public statement against Haftar’s offensive against Tripoli, and called for him to be removed as head of the ‘army’/militia force he commands}, has long since expired. But this should not automatically hand ‘legitimacy’ or a ‘right to govern’ to the GNA either. There are strong arguments that it has little more active legitimacy in any of Libya, but particularly in the areas of Eastern Libya, where it has little influence or official ties to elected representatives).

Haftar’s war has left huge areas of Libya effectively ungoverned, with several locations, including shelters for refugees from other states and people displaced from their homes within Libya, effectively owned and definitively run, by smaller warlords and/or criminal organisations. The EU knows this (not least because the author of this piece wrote a briefing signed by 72 humanitarian organisations explaining the situation, in 2017), which makes its policy of paying the Libyan coastguard to force innocent men, women and children back to Libya even less humane or justifiable than it first appears.

It was like hell! People are scared, we have witnessed many wars, but this one is the worst. It is indiscriminate bombing! He wants to take over the capital even if it costs the killing of everyone!

Tripoli resident and friend of the author, early May 2019

Meanwhile, Haftar’s war continues, and in April this year he claimed he would ‘remove the GNS from Tripoli’.

That he would make such an open statement of his intent to topple a government is no more surprising that despite a series of air strikes, he has so far completely failed.

But in the course of his renewed attack, he has also opened fire on refugee detention centres, including Qasr bin Ghashir, 20km south of Tripoli city centre, where on 23 April his militias opened fire on refugees, killing at least four, when they refused to hand over their phones. On 2 July at Tajoura, Haftar ordered airstrikes which killed 53 refugees, and injured 130 more. The UN has argued that both attacks should be regarded as war crimes, though we should note that any and all attacks on civilians are in fact crimes under international law.

Libya’s situation is the result of a series of separate decisions and activities, arguably stretching back at least as far as the colonial era, but certainly including not only the West’s decision to act as the airforce for the khetibas aiming to overthrow Muammar Ghaddafi, but also its decision once the war was over, to withdraw and offer absolutely no assistance to the state.

Even so, at present, Libya’s greatest single – and most immediate – problem is its ongoing second civil war, now in its sixth year, and the man who declared it, is driving it, and is continuing to kill men, women and children in pursuit of whatever it is he actually wants: Khalifa Haftar.

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