Meet “Gaddafi #2” who wants Russia’s support in Libya

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March 3, 2017 – Fort Russ – 

Andrey Veselov, RIA Analytics – translated by J. Arnoldski –

Libyan Field Marshall Khalif Haftar

Libyan politicians have been frequenting Moscow. According to media reports, the Libyan Prime Minister, Fayez al-Sarraj, is supposed to hold a number of meetings in the Russian capital. The aim of the negotiations is attempting to, under the Kremlin’s mediation, regulate the conflict between the Libyan government, army, and parliament which has split the country into two. 

As the British newspaper The Times writes, the government of Italy appealed to Moscow to play the role of mediator. Rome is extremely interested in solving the migration crisis in Libya, from where a wave of refugees from North Africa goes through the Apennine Peninsula. In autumn of last year, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi even threatened to block the adoption of the EU budget if the refugee problem was not resolved.

Rome has decided to appeal to Moscow for help even despite the frustration of its NATO allies. The point is that al-Sarraj’s government does not control the entire territory of the country, and Russia wields influence among his political opponents. Al-Sarraj represents western Libya, where in Tripoli the so-called transitional government resides. In the east, power is wielded by the parliament, the House of Representatives of Libya, which is opposed to the council of ministers. The parliament’s deputies don’t recognize the ministers, and vice versa. As for the position of Supreme Commander in Chief of the army, the parliament has appointed Khalif Haftar, after which they awarded him the title of Lieutenant-General and then, after the successful capture of oil fields, Field Marshall. The name of the 74-year-old Haftar, who enjoys enormous prestige in the army, is associated with the liberation of significant swathes of Libyan territory from ISIS militants.

Recently, Field Marshall Haftar has been in Moscow at least twice. In June 2016, he met with Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Security Council Secretary Nikolay Patrushev. In November, he held talks with the head of the foreign ministry, Sergey Lavrov, alongside senior military officials and representatives of the military-industrial complex.

Haftar has allegedly even requested arms deliveries from President Putin and Defense Minister Shoigu. Yet Russia’s foreign ministry has hastened to disavow this report since the UN bans weapons supplies to Libya.

Moscow has been regularly visited by Haftar’s special envoy, Abdel Basset al-Badri, and in December 2016 the head of the House of Representatives, Akila Saleh, came and directly confirmed to journalists that the Libyan army and parliament are really counting on Russian weapons. In January 2017, Haftar demonstratively visited the Russian heavy aircraft cruiser, the Admiral Kuznetsov, when it was in the Mediterranean Sea. Haftar was arranged a video conference with Shoigu directly from the cruiser. They officially discussed the “fight against terrorism.” At the same time, however, a number of European journals citing sources in the Field Marshall’s entourage have written that from the ship Haftar had once again discussed with Russian officers the possibility of arms deliveries to the Libyan army. 

Haftar was a close, like-minded friend and ally of the leader of the Libyan Revolution, Muammar Gaddafi, and stood alongside him in the Free Officers underground socialist group. In 1969, he participated in the overthrow of King Idris I alongside Gaddafi. Subsequently, he became the direct overseer of the majority of Libya’s military operations. In those years, he repeatedly visited the USSR, studied at one Soviet military academy, and learned Russian. He has not needed a translator at the talks in Moscow.

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Gaddafi greatly appreciated Haftar, even calling him his “spiritual son”, and conferred the rank of Chief of the General Staff upon him. All of this dramatically changed, however, in 1987 during the Chadian-Libyan War. Under unclear circumstances, Haftar ended up captured. Gaddafi believed that his general did not have the right to surrender alive, and therefore publicly disowned him. Haftar saw this as betrayal.

The general soon afterwards escaped to Kenya, and in the early 1990’s moved to the United States. For 20 years, he lived quietly and peacefully in the state of Virginia, the same state where the CIA headquarters is located. There exist a number of conspiracy theories that this former friend of Gaddafi cooperated with American intelligence. Obviously, relevant US authorities could have and should have been “looking after” this pensioner with such a troubled past.

After the civil war in Libya began, his leisurely life in retirement ended, and in March 2011 Haftar arrived in Benghazi and joined the rebels. Even though he had parted ways with Gaddafi, the general had secular, military and left-socialist baggage which immediately brought him into conflict with the Islamists, who tried to assassinate him several times. Haftar’s political choice in favor of the House of Representatives is probably tied to this, since the transitional government itself is partially controlled by “moderate” Islamists. 

Contact between Moscow and Haftar have reached such an intensity by the beginning of 2017 that Europe is starting to seriously fear the construction of a Russian naval base in Benghazi. “We all know that the Russians always dreamed of having a base in the Mediterranean Sea,” Malta’s foreign minister, George Vella, said following Haftar’s visit to the Admiral Kuznetsov cruiser.

Haftar himself is called the “second Gaddafi”, a comparison which obviously flatters him. He is also called the “Libyan Bashar al-Assad” because of his pro-Moscow positions.

Yet the field marshall’s main problem is that the international community, first and foremost Washington and Brussels, recognize and support not him, but the transitional government of Sarraj. From the point of view of the formalities of the law, Haftar’s status is unclear. According to the Skhirat peace agreement signed in 2015 under the UN’s mediation, the House of Representatives was supposed to recognize the government in Tripoli, but it never did.

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The validity of Haftar’s appointment as commander of the army is also raising questions. Nevertheless, it is absolutely indisputable that in eastern Libya he has concentrated real power in his hands – real power that is really opposed to the jihadists. This is perfectly understood by Libyan Prime Minister Sarraj, the EU, and the US. 

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