Is the EU getting ready to back General Haftar in Libya?

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Published: Updated:

There are two centers of power in Libya: the UN-backed Government of National Accord in the west in Tripoli, which has little power and not much in the way of resources for the long-haul; and the Tobruk-based Libyan National Army led by General Khalifa Haftar in the east. In between them, there are smaller factions, the most notable of which is the ISIS offshoot around Sirte.

Locally, Haftar is in the stronger position. He commands considerable military power, controls the majority of the country’s oil-producing regions and has financial independence, and also has the international backing of Egypt, the UAE and Russia. These international connections have been critical in helping build parallel state institutions in Tobruk such as the Russia-backed Central Bank in the East, establish trade routes for the export of oil and so on. But they are also the fundamental constraint to Haftar’s ability to take over the rest of Libya and rebuild a unitary state.

Haftar is seen as, and not without justification, as a Russian client. Russia thinks of Haftar as the next Libya strong man who will continue the relation with Russia as it was with Qaddafi. This, combined with the fact that he does not have the international legitimacy of the Western-aligned ‘official’ government in Tripoli, means that although his parallel state infrastructure would have the capacity to take over the running of the whole country, whereas the Tripoli-led government does not, political calculations will stand in the way of the West conceding Libya to Haftar. They would, after all, also concede Libya to Russia.


This leaves us to the current stalemate. Tripoli does not have the fundamentals to challenge Haftar, but it can survive for a very long time in its heartlands because it has the backing of the West and of the UN. Haftar does not have the capacity and standing to challenge the Tripoli government while the former maintains the backing of the West. The situation remains fluid, and the inability of either side to assert sovereignty leaves the country as a failed state, and as a fertile ground for ISIS expansion as they are retreating from Syria.

Reconciliation between the two governments remains very unlikely. For it to happen, Haftar would have to accept some dilution of his position, and subservience of the military to the civilian government. After all that has happened in this conflict, Haftar is unlikely to yield. Not to mention that he is under no immediate pressure to do so. He continues to have the upper hand.

The problem is that if Europe were to move to Haftar’s side and Haftar were to prevail and unite Libya, Haftar would still remain a Russian, rather than a European client.

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

On the other hand, if the Tripoli based government were to accept the power of the military in general, and of Haftar in particular, and try to work the civilian government structure around it, they would find themselves taken over by a military coup sooner rather than later. To concede to Haftar’s current status and demands, would be to forfeit the ideal of civilian government.

And yet, the situation may be heading towards resolution. The fundamental pillar of power for the Tripoli government is the backing of the West. And while the US and the UK will continue to back them, there are signs that the Europeans are shifting on the issue. The EU is desperate to resolve the Libyan Civil War so it can stem the flow of migrants coming into Europe through the country. In a world where the Atlantic alliance is suffering from the constant indiscretions of Britain and President Trump, the Europeans have fewer and fewer reasons to tie themselves to the mast of Tripoli. If Haftar can help solve their migration concerns, shifting their backing may well be worth the political costs for the Europeans.

Now, this is not a done deal. The problem is that if Europe were to move to Haftar’s side and Haftar were to prevail and unite Libya, Haftar would still remain a Russian, rather than a European client. And Russia has no reason to want the tide of migration towards Europe stemmed. Quite the contrary: much of the reason the Syrian conflict is still alive is because Russia can prolong it at relatively little cost to itself, and a huge cost to European unity, as migrants continue to pour westwards and strain Europe’s political and administrative infrastructure. This may well be the reason why Europe has not already switched sides. But with the proper assurances, Haftar could see the civil war going his way sooner than we might all be expecting.

Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.