Speculation and chatter has emerged in recent weeks surrounding the health of Libyan National Army leader General Khalifa Haftar. As leader of the powerful bloc controlling much of Eastern Libya, his death or medical deterioration would represent a major blow to the fragile country. In this piece, we examine the situation and its implications for peace in Libya.


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In recent days, France’s Minister Foreign and European Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian has confirmed that one of Libya’s myriad competing leadership figures, General Khalifa Haftar, is seeking medical treatment in Paris. In recent weeks speculation has emerged surrounding the 75-year old General’s health. Despite assurances from both his Libyan National Army (LNA) administration and the French government that his condition is improving, rumours suggest otherwise and indicate that he has potentially suffered a stroke induced by a brain tumour. Some sources have suggested that he has suffered irreparable brain damage, reducing his ability to govern effectively, with other local-Libyan sources having even reported his death.

The perception of weakness amongst the LNA leadership as a result of the General’s hospitalisation is likely driving an ongoing increase in the tempo of attacks against the LNA in Eastern Libya, with a particular increase focused on their Eastern holdings in Benghazi. On the same day as Le Drian’s confirmation of the General’s presence in France, Haftar’s military chief Abdelrazeq Nathuri survived an assassination attempt in Benghazi which resulted in the death of one person and two bystander injuries. Nathuri is reported to be controlling the LNA in the General’s absence, demonstrating the vulnerability already present in the bloc.

Haftar’s opposition to the GNA has seen him largely rejected by the majority of Western powers, but his forces enjoy various levels of support from an unusual collection of allies including Russia, France, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

So far throughout the second Libyan civil war- which began in 2014 following that year’s controversial elections – Haftar’s LNA has gained control and effectively held the majority of oil-rich Eastern Libya, becoming one of the conflict’s most potent blocs. Despite this, the General has so far been unable to complete successful negotiations with the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Fayez al-Sarraj from the GNA’s enclave in Tripoli, prolonging the conflict despite the apparently stronger military position of the LNA. Haftar’s opposition to the GNA has seen him largely rejected by the majority of Western powers, but his forces enjoy various levels of support from an unusual collection of allies including Russia, France, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

Map of territorial control within Libya

Fig 1.0 – Territorial control within Libya (LNA in red, GNA in blue, and Tuareg tribal control in Pink)

Although the specifics of the situation surrounding General Haftar’s health remain unclear, further rumours and a perception of weakness amongst the LNA’s senior ranks will continue to drive volatility in the region. Although the LNA administration continues to deny the most serious allegations of health problems, should the General be revealed as unfit to rule or should his image as a competent, charismatic leader be tarnished, fragmentation among the LNA will almost certainly occur. Political infighting and a lack of cohesion has already affected the efficiency of the LNA as various Generals continue to compete for succession, however the General’s competence and character has acted as a stabilising factor on his subordinates.

A weakened LNA would likely embolden other regional actors such as Saif al Islam Gadhafi – the second son of the late dictator Colonel Muammar Gadhafi – to push for political expansion into the as-of-now effectively autonomous region, driving a deterioration in Libya’s already-fragile stability.

Nathuri and the LNA’s senior leadership will likely continue to be the target of further attacks, and in response, a more robust LNA security presence is anticipated across Eastern Libya, particularly in Benghazi. A weakened LNA would likely embolden other regional actors such as Saif al Islam Gadhafi – the second son of the late dictator Colonel Muammar Gadhafi – to push for political expansion into the as-of-now effectively autonomous region, driving a deterioration in Libya’s already-fragile stability.

Most critically, given Libya’s unfortunate familiarity with internal conflict, General Haftar’s removal from an active role in Libya’s divisive politics would undermine the already-shaky prospect of a political solution for the country. The UN is expected to continue pushing for fresh elections, although current plans for a vote by the end of the year are looking increasingly ambitious given the deterioration in national stability, combined with the inability of the main competing militarised-political factions to agree on the terms of the vote.

The lack of a stable Libyan state also provides the necessary ungoverned space for regional extremist groups to exploit in order to train, equip and coordinate operations, augmenting an already-significant problem across the Sahel and further afield in Europe.

International pressure for an end to hostilities is expected to remain ineffective, with the major powers – perhaps with the exception of Russia – hesitant to commit to any extensive involvement in the country. Libya’s instability will continue to provide a gateway for human trafficking, drug smuggling, and mass migration into Europe, and greater volatility is likely to see these issues increase. The lack of a stable Libyan state also provides the necessary ungoverned space for regional extremist groups to exploit in order to train, equip and coordinate operations, augmenting an already-significant problem across the Sahel and further afield in Europe.

While General Haftar may be yet-another militia-backed North African strongman, for better or worse he represents a stabilising factor in an unstable situation, and his death or deterioration will be a blow to a nation ill-equipped to handle the impact.

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Lewis Tallon is a former British Army Intelligence Officer with several years experience working and living in the Middle East and North Africa region and Asia Pacific in geopolitical, armed conflict risk and threat intelligence roles. Lewis currently specialises in providing MENA-region geopolitical intelligence support to the oil & gas industry, and the financial sector.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.


Photo credit: Cover image – joepyrek // Libya territorial map – Livemap

 

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