Weakened but not entirely defeated – this is the position of the renegade Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar now.
After launching a military campaign to take control of the capital in April last year, the 76-year-old has suffered a series of setbacks in the past two months that have resulted in government recognition Internationally Recognized (GNA) of Tripoli from western Libya under his control.
The self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA) of Haftar has since withdrawn to the coastal city of Sirte, some 450 km (280 miles) east of Tripoli, and to al-Jufra air base in central Libya.
Armed with their recent military victories in western Libya, GNA forces have launched an offensive to capture Sirte, with fighting so far concentrated in the western and southern outskirts of the city.
Known to be the birthplace of longtime former leader Muammar Gaddafi, Sirte holds significant symbolic value as it is located roughly halfway between Tripoli and Benghazi stronghold in Haftar to the east.
“Libya will not be finished without its east,” GNA Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha said on Sunday.
But symbolism aside, some analysts warned that the GNA’s decision to continue chasing Haftar east was counter-intuitive and could jeopardize the gains it has made so far.
“I see no strategic rationale for the continued push of the GNA-aligned militias eastward,” said Jason Pack, member of the Middle East Institute and founder of the risk consulting firm Libya Analysis LLC, referring to Sirte .
Pack said the move was all the more surprising in light of recent reports suggesting that Turkey and Russia – which support the GNA and LNA respectively – appear to have previously entered into a spheres of influence agreement.
“If Jufra and Sirte are supposed to reside in the Russian sphere of influence / LNA, this new offensive could re-engage Russia, the Emirates and the Egyptians to support, not necessarily Haftar, but the ANL. ”
“Whereas if the GNA had allowed the sleeping dogs to lie, it could have proclaimed total victory in its quest to retake Tripolitania and worked with its Turkish allies on how to consolidate this victory at the international level. “
Gradually eliminate Haftar
The internal dynamics partly explain the tendency of the GNA to opt for a military solution which would see Haftar even more marginalized.
A number of GNA officials, including Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, repeatedly refused to interview Haftar, citing ANL’s past violations of ceasefire agreements and attacks on civil infrastructure, including residential areas and hospitals.
Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Maiteeq recently met with contempt upon his return from talks in Russia after informing his hierarchy that Moscow had declared Sirte red line.
“The red lines are drawn by the blood of our martyrs. Only weak and servile opportunists succumb to foreign pressure, “Interior Minister Bashagha said on Sunday.
Meanwhile, events in the Egyptian capital over the weekend may have prompted the GNA to continue its offensive as Haftar’s foreign donors sought to eliminate it.
At a press conference in Cairo on Saturday, Haftar appeared alongside Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, as well as Aguila Saleh, president of the House of Representatives based in the east.
Dressed in a suit – unlike his usual military fatigue – Haftar has declared his support for Egypt’s unilateral ceasefire proposal after announcing for months the imminent takeover of the capital.
Emadeddin Badi, senior member of the Atlantic Council and analyst in Libya, said that Saleh’s presence in Cairo was an indication of the diminishing patience of foreign supporters of Haftar.
“There is no other character with anyone except him (Saleh), so this is the easiest way to have some form of tribal representatives from the bloc.” It is also political, “said Badi.
According to Badi, the collapse of the ANL in western Libya also causes schisms to emerge among the foreign donors of Haftar, the United Arab Emirates and France investing in Haftar as a person and Russia and the Bets on his faction as a whole.
The secret nature of the foreign military support he has received further limits Haftar’s scope for maneuver.
“At this point, the Emiratis can no longer support him, at least not enough to recover all that he has lost without compromising their plausible denial of their involvement in the conflict,” said Badi.
“The French can’t do that either, you end up with the Russians and the Egyptians whose main goal, I don’t think is to support Haftar. Their involvement in Libya is not existential. ”
In this regard, Turkey presents itself as an outlier, having come forward about its role in Libya.
According to Badi, this gives Ankara considerable leverage over the way it supports the GNA and may well see it increase its investments in the GNA.