Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar, who has conquered well over half the country despite the international community formally recognizing an entirely different government as legitimate, was a guest of Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz in Riyadh on Wednesday. Details of their conversation are scarce, but Haftar’s first visit to Saudi Arabia seems like a significant event.
Saudi Arabia’s state-run SPA press agency reported that the king “affirmed Saudi Arabia’s desire to promote Libya’s security and stability and its wish to see the Libyan people enjoy progress and prosperity.”
Salman and Haftar “reviewed the latest developments in the Libyan arena,” but few further details of the discussion were offered. Haftar shares the Saudis’ disdain for Qatar, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Turkey, so he and the king had plenty to talk about.
AFP noted the Arab League is scheduled to hold a summit next week at which Libya will be a top agenda item. The United Nations is also seeking to put together a Libya conference in April, its latest attempt to reconcile competing (and sometimes openly warring) factions and set up orderly national elections. An election tentatively scheduled for the end of 2018 did not happen, but Haftar is reportedly amenable to holding one in 2019.
A large delegation of European Union (EU) ambassadors met with Haftar in Benghazi on Tuesday to emphasize EU support for the U.N. peace plan and urge him to participate. The EU delegation expressed concerns about human rights violations across the country, although it appears to have come up short of directly accusing Haftar of perpetrating any of them.
The EU prefers to think of the past seven years of bloody chaos in Libya as a “transitional phase” that will soon end with a stable nationwide government. At this point, nearly every outside party seems to be making peace with the idea that Haftar will be part of it. Haftar does not seem interested in making peace with the idea that he will not be running it.
The U.N.-backed government in Tripoli protested Haftar’s conquest of southern Libya in February, accusing him of using counter-terrorist activity as an excuse to grab key territory with his so-called “Libyan National Army (LNA)” and conduct an ethnic cleansing campaign against minorities opposed to his rule.
The Tripoli government, and for that matter its supporters at the United Nations, were reportedly stunned by the speed of Haftar’s advance through the south. Protesters in Tripoli are rallying against military dictatorship and expressing support for elected Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj while Haftar is moving troops into position for a final assault on Tripoli, a move the warlord will not rule out making if he doesn’t end up with the position of power he desires. Militia units in Tripoli are rumored to be ready to defect to Haftar if he moves against the city and offers them the right price.
Haftar enjoys significant support from eastern Libyans who see him as an effective leader and strong military commander who can enforce peace upon Libya’s warring tribes, gangs, and terrorist cells.
Haftar’s power play also enjoys support from powerful outside interests, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia’s allies in the United Arab Emirates, and Russia, which British analysts say has provided the Libyan strongman with hundreds of mercenaries plus munitions, tanks, and drones. The Russians anticipate a Haftar-led Libyan government will secure their access to deep-water Libyan ports and oil.
Haftar has also enjoyed crucial diplomatic, and even military, support from France to the dismay of its fellow U.N., EU, and NATO members. The French see Haftar and his LNA as an effective force against terrorist breeding grounds in post-Qaddafi Libya and are willing to overlook his rough edges if he can stabilize the country.
The Saudis, like the United Nations and other outside observers, might have invited Haftar to Riyadh to get a feel for exactly what he wants, what he’s prepared to do in order to get it, and what position short of national dictator he is prepared to settle for. The outlines of an arrangement in which he retains complete control of the military and holds a position comparable to the elected prime minister can be glimpsed.