Updated: 04/03/2019

Libyan rebel commander Khalifa Haftar launched an offensive in early April to seize control of Libya’s capital Tripoli, where the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) of his political rival, Fayez al-Sarraj, is based. Since then, the United Nations Security Council has struggled to maintain a fragile ceasefire in the country, which descended into chaos after the overthrow of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

A little more than two months into the campaign, Haftar’s self-described Libyan National Army (LNA) was defeated in the city of Gharyan just southwest of Tripoli on June 26, leaving the country at a stalemate. Meanwhile, the country’s rival leaders have both accused each other of accepting foreign military support.

Born in 1943, Haftar served as an officer in the Libyan army for nearly two decades, during which time he trained in the former Soviet Union. After falling afoul of Gaddafi in the late 1980s, he left the military and moved to the United States, where he lived in exile for many years. He returned to Libya in 2011, settling in the eastern city of Benghazi. He has since sought to cast himself as the only leader able to eliminate the threat posed by Islamists, touting his success at fending off militants in the country’s east and south. His actions in Libya have not gone unnoticed abroad: France, Russia, Egypt and, more recently, the United States have all voiced their support for Haftar.

Al-Sarraj, meanwhile, has the backing of Qatar and Turkey as well as the United Nations.

Original text (in French): Marc Daou, FRANCE 24
Translator: Rachel Holman
Photos: AFP - Reuters
Copy editors: Cassandre Toussaint, Ratiba Hamzaoui (French)
Design, graphics and development: Studio graphique, France Médias Monde
Editor-in-chief: Ghassan Basile
Senior Producers: Nabil Aouadi, Vanessa Burggraf

All rights reserved © July 2019
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Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, French President Emmanuel Macron and Libyan commander Haftar at La Celle Saint-Cloud outside of Paris on July 25, 2017. AFP



Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy spearheaded the 2011 international military intervention that led to the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi and France has been omnipresent in the country ever since. Officially, current President Emmanuel Macron has called for a ceasefire and supports the UN’s diplomatic efforts to broker peace between the two rival Libyan factions. Paris has even gone so far as to position itself as a mediator in the conflict by organising a meeting between Haftar and al-Sarraj in July 2017 and then again in May 2018. Yet the talks collapsed, not least because al-Sarraj’s GNA accused French authorities of playing both sides and secretly supporting Haftar’s LNA. As if to illustrate this point, Haftar received medical care in France in April 2018.

The French government has acknowledged providing intelligence to Haftar, whom it considers an important ally in the fight against terrorism. A January offensive by his LNA forced militants opposed to Chad’s President Idriss Deby out of southern Libya. Deby is a key ally of France’s anti-Islamist Operation Barkhane in the Sahel region. However, Paris has denied giving the LNA any military support in its offensive against Tripoli. Macron’s sincerity was called into question, however, after his government admitted that “unused” missiles uncovered on an LNA base close to Tripoli belonged to France but he denied having provided them.

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Haftar met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi in Cairo on April 14, 2019. AFP



Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi is one of Haftar’s main allies. Haftar has even been nicknamed “the Libyan Sissi” because of his apparent authoritarian tendencies. Both men share an aversion to the Muslim Brotherhood, the Libyan branch of which has allied itself with the GNA. During one of Haftar’s many recent trips to Cairo, where he studied as a young man, Sissi said he backed the Libyan leader in the fight “against terrorists and extremists groups”. Egypt, which has hailed the Libyan National Army’s “role in creating an environment conducive to political solutions”, sees Haftar as a symbol of stability in the east of a country with which it shares a 1,100-kilometre-long border.

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Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, and Haftar in Abu Dhabi on July 8, 2017. AFP



The United Arab Emirates, along with Egypt, make up Haftar’s main support. The three share a staunch opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood, whereas the GNA has been accused of aligning itself with some Islamist militants and political factions with links to the Brotherhood. Even though the UAE recently called for “all parties to de-escalate tensions in Libya and to re-engage in the UN political process”, the GNA has frequently accused the Emirates of funneling weapons to Haftar’s forces in direct violation of a 2011 UN arms embargo on Libya.

On May 7, the UN launched an investigation into the UAE’s suspected military involvement in Libya after a Chinese-made Blue Arrow air-to-surface missile was launched in April using Chinese drones belonging to the UAE military.

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Haftar with King Salman of Saudi Arabia in the Saudi capital Riyadh on March 27, 2019. Reuters



The Gulf oil monarchies – above all, Saudi Arabia – view the kind of political Islam practiced by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood movement, which is backed by regional arch-rival Qatar, as a threat. And Riyadh has found a champion in Haftar, who has presented himself as the only line of defense in Libya against Islamists, whom the Gulf countries accuse of sowing chaos during the Arab Spring uprisings that began in 2011. Earlier this year, Saudi King Salman met with Haftar in person, although Riyadh remains focused on the war in Yemen, leaving its Emirati ally to deal with Libya’s Islamist problem.

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Haftar exiting the Russia’s foreign ministry in Moscow on November 29, 2016. AFP



Partly trained in the former Soviet Union, Haftar has visited Moscow on several occasions over the years. He was symbolically backed by Russia in January 2017 during a tour of the Kuznetsov, a Russian aircraft carrier. Although the Kremlin, like the rest of the international community, officially recognises the GNA’s authority, it blocked a UN resolution on April 7 ordering Haftar to halt his advance on the Libyan capital. Russia argued that “all sides” should be called on to demonstrate restraint in order to avoid “a bloodbath”.

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US President Donald Trump speaks with Haftar by phone on April 19, 2019. AFP



The United States – which was, until recently, neutral – threw its support behind Haftar after an April 19 telephone call between President Donald Trump and the Libyan commander, who lived in exile in the US for many years. The two men discussed their “shared vision for Libya” during the conversation, according to a White House statement. Washington also recognised “Field Marshal Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources”. In early July, the US diplomatic support was on full display after it voted to block the UN Security Council from condemning a deadly airstrike on a migrant detention centre in Libya that al-Sarraj and his GNA blamed on Haftar’s forces.

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Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte (left) and Hafter in Palermo on November 12, 2018. Reuters



Although Italy relinquished all claims to former colony Libya in the aftermath of World War II, the two countries are still closely linked – especially through Italian oil company ENI. The Italian government backs al-Sarraj’s GNA but has called for a political solution to the conflict.

Rome has also challenged France’s role as a mediator, fearful that French oil giant Total will supplant ENI as the dominant petrol firm in Libya. Italy has been careful in its dealings with Haftar, who controls the majority of oil fields in the east of the country. It has described him as a “key interlocutor” in the Libyan situation.

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Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım (left) and al-Sarraj during an official ceremony in Ankara on February 8, 2017. AFP



Turkey, an advocate of political Islam, has waded into the Libyan conflict by backing al-Sarraj. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has even acknowledged funneling weapons, drones, vehicles and planes to the GNA in direct violation of the UN arms embargo on Libya. Turkey’s political and military support has played an essential role in leveling the playing field with the LNA as it marched on Tripoli: Haftar’s forces were stopped in their tracks on June 26 at Gharyan, less than 100 kilometres southwest of the Libyan capital. The LNA later accused Turkey of intervening “in the battle directly, with soldiers, planes and sea vessels” and even threatened to attack Turkish interests in Libya.

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Qatari Prince Tamim bIn Hamad al-Thani on December 5, 2017. AFP



Qatar – which, alongside NATO, contributed militarily to Gaddafi’s overthrow in 2011 – is a major backer of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist factions in Libya, where it hopes to remain influential. Its support for the Brotherhood’s brand of political Islam, which was rejected by Libyan voters in the country’s 2014 legislative elections, is in direct opposition to Haftar, who has also accused Qatar of supplying arms to his rival. Doha, meanwhile, has frequently admonished Haftar’s LNA for undermining UN attempts to negotiate peace, saying, “The actions of the militia under Haftar’s command in Libya are an obstacle to international efforts to establish a national Libyan dialogue.” By supporting the GNA, Doha has taken on Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies – which imposed an embargo on Qatar in June 2017 – as well as Haftar’s other international partners.