A year after he launched his offensive on the Libyan capital Tripoli, the warlord and self-styled ‘Field Marshal’ showed his desperation by declaring himself ruler of the North African state.
In his latest move, Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar has unilaterally scrapped a UN-sponsored 2015 agreement to bring to an end the conflict in Libya and declared himself ruler of the oil-rich North African country.
The move announced in a video message on Tuesday comes as Haftar’s militants suffer setback after setback in their attempts to capture the capital, Tripoli.
Libyan troops under the jurisdiction of the legitimate and UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) have captured several key cities surrounding the capital, effectively halting the campaign Haftar launched in April 2019 to capture the city.
Faced with these military defeats and the threat of further losses, Haftar has pleaded for support from previously allied tribes but the response has not been receptive, with some, such as those in Zintan, outright rejecting any further help.
A 2015 deal signed in the Moroccan city of Skhirat, between the UN-recognised Tripoli government and a rival one based in the eastern city of Tobruk agreed upon the establishment of a ‘Government of National Accord’, which Haftar rejected, instead insisting upon continued armed conflict until he attained absolute power.
Though nominally under the jurisdiction of the eastern-based legislature, Haftar proceeded with his own agenda regardless, immediately imperilling the treaty and endangering the lives of tens of thousands of Libyans, who have lived under war and instability since the fall and death of former leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
His move to therefore reject the authority of his eastern-based allies, reveals Haftar’s desperation and makes clear his intentions to disregard any pretence of respect for civilian authority, instead preferring to rule as an autocrat.
"Haftar has once more exposed his authoritarian intentions to the world," GNA advisor, Mohammed Ali Abdallah, said responding to the warlord’s announcement, adding: “His statement tonight is the final, desperate act of a defeated man."
In declaring himself ruler, Haftar not only isolates any allies he may have had remaining who are loyal to the Tobruk faction, but also appears to have taken potential international allies off guard.
“Haftar’s announcement that his organization is now formally taking over power makes no sense, especially as his forces are on the defensive,” said Libya analyst Wolfram Lacher on Twitter.
“He gains little, and he loses the facade of civil institutions he used since 2014. He risks pushing some allies into his enemies’ arms,” he added.
On the international front, the warlord’s announcements have caught both major powers and Haftar’s allies by surprise.
"Any attempt to push forward a unilateral solution, even more by force, will never provide a sustainable solution for the country. Such attempts can't be accepted," said the EU’s spokesman for Foreign Affairs, Peter Stano.
The US embassy in Tripoli said it regretted the “unilateral decision”, while Haftar’s allies in Moscow said they did not agree with the move.
UAE and Egyptian support
Haftar made little attempt to disguise the inspiration for his latest coup, as is evident in the language he chose to use.
The warlord’s justification for the usurpation of power was that he had a ‘tafweed’ from the Libyan people. Loosely translated the word means ‘entrustment’ or more practically a ‘mandate’. What is important though, is not its definition but its prior use.
In the summer of 2013, Egyptian autocrat Abdel Fattah el Sisi, used the exact same word after overthrowing his country’s first and only democratically elected president, the late Mohamed Morsi.
Sisi requested ‘tafweed’ from his supporters to effectively give him carte blanche in dealing with pro-democracy protesters who had staged sit-ins and protests demanding the restoration of the president and democracy.
What followed was the massacre and mass imprisonment of those protesters and other opposition members.
Both Egypt and the UAE have been Haftar’s strongest supporters in his campaign to overthrow the legitimate Tripoli government and for years their military and financial support had helped the warlord capture swathes of territory from the Libyan government.
One of the main factors preventing the complete collapse of the GNA at the hands of Haftar has been the support given by Turkey.
‘Turning the tide’
When Haftar launched his April 2019 campaign to capture Tripoli, he framed it as a mere formality, the final act in his campaign to seize full control of Libya.
So confident he was that the war would end soon that he dubbed the offensive a ‘victorious march’.
Yet a year after his campaign began, the warlord has made no progress within the capital and has lost several key cities surrounding Tripoli.
The decisive factor in his failure has been Turkey’s commitment to the GNA and the legitimate governing order within Libya.
Early this year, the Turkish parliament approved the deployment of soldiers to Libya to back the UN-recognised government but there has been no mass movement of troops.
Instead, Ankara has balanced the power dynamic by training GNA soldiers and the deployment to great effect, as in northern Syria, of armed drones.
Turkish air power has been critical in targeting Haftar’s supply lines, and in providing cover for GNA ground forces.
In a recent report by Al Jazeera, Libyan political researcher Mohamed Buisier, said the Turkish intervention had turned the tide in favour of the GNA.
“It is becoming clear that Haftar's advance on Tripoli has failed. He is now politically and militarily trying to maintain his position in eastern Libya,” he told the outlet.
Regardless of what Haftar decides to call himself, the renewed military prowess at the GNA’s disposal is a force he still has to reckon with.