Weakened but not entirely vanquished – this is the position that Libyan renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar currently finds himself in.
After launching a military campaign to wrest control of the capital in April last year, the 76-year-old was dealt a series of setbacks over the past two months that resulted in the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli bringing most of western Libya back under its control.
Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) has since withdrawn to the coastal city of Sirte, some 450km (280 miles) east of Tripoli, and al-Jufra airbase in central Libya.
Buoyed by their recent military victories in western Libya, GNA forces have launched an offensive to capture Sirte, with fighting so far concentrated on the city’s western and southern outskirts.
Known for being the birthplace of former longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi, Sirte holds significant symbolic value as it is located roughly halfway between Tripoli and Haftar’s bastion of Benghazi in the east.
“Libya will not be completed without its east,” GNA Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha said on Sunday.
But symbolism aside, some analysts warned the GNA’s decision to continue pursuing Haftar eastwards was counterintuitive and risked jeopardising the gains it has achieved so far.
“I don’t see a strategic rationale for the GNA-aligned militias’ continued push eastward,” said Jason Pack, a fellow at the Middle East Institute and founder of risk consultancy Libya Analysis LLC, in reference to Sirte.
Pack said the decision was all the more surprising in light of recent reports suggesting that Turkey and Russia – which support the GNA and LNA, respectively – appeared to have previously reached an agreement on spheres of influence.
“If Jufra and Sirte are supposed to reside in the Russian/LNA sphere of influence, this new offensive might reengage Russia, the Emiratis and Egyptians to support, not necessarily Haftar, but the LNA.”
“Whereas if the GNA, had let sleeping dogs lie, they could have proclaimed total victory in their quest to recapture Tripolitania and worked with their Turkish allies on how to consolidate this victory at the international level.”
Phasing Haftar out
Internal dynamics go some way towards explaining the GNA’s inclination to opt for a military solution that would see Haftar further marginalised.
A number of GNA officials, including Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, have repeatedly refused to hold talks with Haftar, citing the LNA’s past violations of ceasefire agreements and attacks on civilian infrastructure, including residential neighbourhoods and hospitals.
Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Maiteeq recently met scorn upon his return from talks in Russia after informing his hierarchy that Moscow had declared Sirte a red line.
“The red lines are drawn by the blood of our martyrs. Only the weak and servile opportunists succumb to foreign pressure,” retorted Interior Minister Bashagha in a tweet on Sunday.
Meanwhile, events in the Egyptian capital over the weekend may have acted as an incentive for the GNA to pursue its offensive amid suggestions that Haftar’s foreign backers were looking to phase him…
Read More News: What’s behind GNA’s decision to launch offensive to seize Sirte?