By Martin Jay
The French president placed himself in the middle of the Libya situation by tacitly backing former military strongman Khalifa Hafta, but that could now be backfiring.
It was almost two years ago when both of Libya’s tough men visited Paris and Moscow, which left a positive feeling among pundits who believed that Libya could not only avoid civil war but that a democratic process could magically airbrush away much of the country’s woes.
However, there were warnings there for those who wished to look. Khalifa Haftar, a malevolent military figure cut from the same cloth as former dictator Muammar Gadaffi, who he served under before his ugly demise immortalised by YouTube, was seen as a soldier who didn’t have much time for democracy.
Indeed, at the time in 2017 a diplomat, shocked by Haftar’s insidious disregard for a UN arms embargo at its own peace talks (which he participated in, armed to the teeth) was quoted as saying: “He accepts elections as an acceptable way [to run], provided he will be the winner.”
Given Haftar’s failings on the battlefield in recent days in Northern Libya, in particular around the capital which is protected by his nemesis, Fayez al Sarraj, Prime Minister of the Government of National Accord (GNA), Haftar might have to resort to the ballot box, as Macron’s gamble to back the man in green who also has the support of Egypt, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Russia and supposedly the US, is floundering.
The GNA, which many sheepishly refer to as a ‘government’, successfully reclaimed previously captured territory from Haftar’s self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA) on June 27, retaking the town of Gharyan, which Haftar had seized on April 4.
Gharyan, experts believe, could be a tipping point for Haftar as he is poised now to crank up the level of fighting, exploiting his effective control of groups, which were previously called Al Qaeda by some analysts, and the numerous tribes and militias aligned to him.
In fact, he has already retaliated with a series of attacks on GNA military targets in Tripoli. The conflict, therefore, looks set to take a more dangerous turn, unless stronger international peacekeeping efforts take place. However, this seems unlikely given the lack of interest in, despite the focus of Haftar’s attacks targeting a government which has the backing of the UN itself and controls the streets, and more importantly, the banks in Tripoli.
The narrative from Haftar to wipe out these groups, which includes Muslim Brotherhood officials hiding among the intricate chequered colours of the armed groups, is weak though.
Furthermore, an intensified onslaught on the capital, targeting the GNA’s military units, although unlikely to spurn a humanitarian outcry, might well reinforce the UN’s support for al Sarraj and form the basis for support from the Elysee Palace to back away from Haftar.
While the UAE continues to support Haftar with regular media exposes showing US-made weapons, sold initially to the Emirates, shipped to Libya, the tipping point now in Libya will place enormous pressure on French President Emmanuel Macron. He will want to avoid repeating history and being part of a Western-led strategy which, like in 2011 and the infamous UN vote by the West to hit Libya through airstrikes, will only create another bloodbath in Tripoli.
As Haftar turns up the heat on Tripoli, Macron must be asking himself how he will survive the international condemnation for the victims on the receiving end – in particular from within the EU itself which stands divided on Libya.
The recent airstrike, carried out by Haftar’s own air force, which bombed 600 refugees, may well also be a red line for the UN, which is already calling for a full investigation and a US-led arms sales ban on the UAE.
Italy’s prime minister was also quick to dish out the opprobrium, with Macron in his sights.
Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini criticised across Europe for his refusal to allow migrant ships from Libya to dock in Italy, spelt it out quite clearly with an angry tweet.
“Haftar is responsible for a criminal attack … I hope there is no one left, and I do not mention the French, who for economic and commercial reasons support an attack on civilian targets,” he is quoted as writing by the Guardian.
Italy has repeatedly accused France of covertly helping Haftar, and his dubious claim to be leading a fight against Islamists and terror.
Haftar became a dominant figure in Libya’s internal affairs after his return to the vast North African country which borders Algeria on one side and Egypt on the other, to fight against Gaddafi in the 2011 Libyan revolution.
But if the decision in 2011 to bomb Libya under a UN mandate was wrong, then equally rushed elections in 2014 were an even more significant blunder which has created a comical, yet complicated, set up of a parliament in exile in Tabrouk – driven out of Tripoli by the Muslim Brotherhood, which receives the support from both Qatar and Turkey and which acknowledges the presence of, but no longer respects, al Sarraj’s administration as a legitimate government.
The UN, it would seem, is unable to admit that the fake goods that it paid over the top for, don’t work in any fashion. Keeping the ‘government’ in power by supporting its legitimacy might be the heart of the problem.
But for France and its Arab partners to throw their weight behind “war crimes” assaults like the airstrike is also not a solution.
Macron now has to decide to reign in Haftar, if that is at all possible given that the backing of such a figure will have imminently morass consequences in a country that is already such a catastrophic failure of Western intervention, with African sex slavery, arms sales and now air strikes placing Libya on our TV screens each night.
Tripoli, interestingly, is so chaotic and dysfunctional that there are even people there who believe that such a strongman back in power might be better than the present abyss of insecurity, food shortages, electricity blackouts, inflation and ubiquitous lines outside banks.
The strongman approach will not work well with Macron’s plans to be the EU’s stealth leader, just days after he managed to install all the critical players needed in Brussels to support his grandiose vision of a new European Union.
A genocide which he supports in Libya might be considered a tad awkward to deal with. But for Macron to cut and run now, seems like choosing between the oil in the pan, or the inferno below it.
If Haftar is left to become a new Gaddafi, even without Macron, the West will do a full circle and be left with the same troubled oil-rich state, run by a madman, who is quite comfortable being a pariah.
It is likely the UAE, and Egypt would be quite happy with that as quite apart from them getting their own man in – and the Muslim Brotherhood out – it would also be a new crisis for Washington, Paris and London, placing more importance on Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Abdel Fattah el Sisi as mediators. It might be a good time for Macron to attempt to draw both al Sarraj and Haftar back to Paris to talk elections, change and interim governments, while he still has the time.
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