A man holds a poster of eastern Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar during a rally in Benghazi, Libya, December 17, 2017. REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori

April 11, 2018

Libya Update: Exit the General?

Libya’s would-be strongman suffered a stroke and was transported to Paris for medical treatment on April 10. Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar is a potential presidential candidate and the commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) militia coalition, the dominant armed group in eastern Libya. Haftar’s incapacitation or death would create a power vacuum and ignite a struggle for control of eastern Libya that could change the balance of power in the country.  It could also disrupt U.S. efforts to prevent ISIS from staging a comeback in Libya or al Qaeda from re-establishing itself in the country.

Haftar’s condition is unconfirmed. French papers reported that Haftar suffered a stroke. Family members and LNA officials have denied the reports and attempted to divert media attention to the LNA’s military efforts. Some Libyan sources report that Haftar is in a coma, while others have claimed that he has passed through the most dangerous stage of his illness.

Haftar’s removal from the political scene, whether now or later, would destabilize Libya’s already fractious east and could derail fragile progress toward national political reconciliation. Here are key possible effects within Libya:

  • Haftar’s incapacitation would produce a leadership vacuum and could cause the LNA to fracture: Rumors indicate that Haftar’s rivals in the east may have already mobilized to challenge his family and supporters. Haftar has no clear successor or deputy to assume his vacated position. Haftar’s power has already begun to erode, furthermore, making the transition of power to even an experienced subordinate difficult. A leadership vacuum provides an opportunity for aggrieved parties under the LNA umbrella to push for power. Members of the Awaqir tribe, which has increasingly tense relations with LNA leadership, attacked the LNA headquarters at al Rajmah on April 11, according to unconfirmed reports. Empowered Salafi militias have also challenged Haftar’s command in Benghazi, eastern Libya’s largest city, in recent months.
  • Haftar’s opponents would challenge a leaderless LNA with force: The LNA’s weakening invites rivals who have suffered losses to the LNA to attempt to recapture key sites, like the oil terminals  in the lucrative oil crescent region or key military positions in the southwest. ISIS may also leverage the chaos to accelerate attacks intended to degrade security and disrupt oil exports in north-central Libya.
  • Chaos caused by Haftar’s illness or death would derail tenuous negotiations: Haftar’s departure from the political sphere would incite a power competition rather than facilitate negotiations, even though Haftar has consistently spoiled political progress in Libya. Haftar’s incapacitation would give armed actors the opportunity to renegotiate Libya’s power dynamics by force, derailing the limited progress made by Egyptian-led efforts to unify Libya’s armed forces. Haftar’s incapacitation would also be insufficient to eliminate the strident anti-Islamist wing that has hindered political reconciliation between Libya’s eastern and western legislatures.
  • Instability caused by Haftar’s incapacitation would hasten the return of ISIS and al Qaeda to northeastern Libya: The LNA ousted ISIS fighters and al Qaeda-linked militants from Benghazi in a multi-year campaign. A power vacuum or internecine struggle in the east would allow Salafi-jihadi militants to return to eastern cities and towns. The LNA is accused of humanitarian abuses that risk strengthening Salafi-jihadi groups in the long term. Haftar’s incapacitation would do little to stem these abuses, however, and would accelerate a return of Salafi-jihadi attacks that has already begun.

Several indicators will foreshadow the LNA’s trajectory if Haftar’s incapacitation or death is confirmed. These include the negative reaction of restive elements in eastern Libya—like the Awaqir tribe and select Salafi militias in Benghazi—to decisions made by LNA senior leadership. The redeployment of LNA forces to northeastern cities, other than the active front in Derna, would also indicate instability. The movement of anti-LNA forces toward previously contested fronts, like military positions in the southwestern Fezzan region or oil terminals in the Sirte basin, would signal intent to capitalize on the LNA’s distraction.

In the most likely case, LNA leadership will contain the fallout from Haftar’s incapacitation and maintain overall control over the coalition with intermittent challenges by dissatisfied factions. A political resolution is no more or less likely without Haftar in this circumstance. Libya will remain beholden to the shifting allegiances of its militias and on a razor’s edge between reconciliation and renewed conflict.

In the most dangerous case, Haftar’s incapacitation will spark a return to active conflict both within the LNA and between the LNA and its opponents, derailing the initial steps of reconciliation and returning the country to chaos. Renewed conflict will further harm the Libyan people and reap greater benefits for the criminals, gangs, and traffickers already exploiting the crisis. The potential turmoil could also allow ISIS and al Qaeda to recover from their losses in Libya, undermining U.S., Libyan, and allied efforts to defeat them.

Wiam Aimade contributed research to this report.