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Health of the LNA commander in question

19 April 2018 Ludovico Carlino

On 11 April, Libyan and French media reported that Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) had suffered a heart attack and been transported to Paris for medical treatment.

  • The LNA spokesperson has denied reports of Khalifa Haftar's illness. However, French media, including Le Monde, has continued to maintain the reports' veracity.
  • Haftar's potential incapacity, if not death, would produce a leadership vacuum in the LNA, which in recent months has consolidated its control of eastern and central Libya, including most of its energy assets.
  • Any weakening of the LNA would encourage its rivals in the West, including forces nominally loyal to the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) to attempt to recapture key sites, including the oil export terminals in the Sirte basin, lost to the LNA.

According to Libyan media, Haftar was initially taken to the Jordanian capital, Amman, and subsequently transferred to a Paris clinic as his condition deteriorated. A few hours after the news emerged on local media outlets, the LNA spokesperson, Ahmed Mesmari, wrote on Twitter that the news of Haftar's health was false and that the self-proclaimed Field Marshall was "following his daily command duties". On the same day, Mesmari avoided any comment on the topic at a press conference on the current situation in Derna, where the LNA is engaged in a new offensive against the militant Islamist militias controlling the eastern city backed by the Cyrenaica government. Although no pictures of Haftar - either in Paris or Libya - were produced, some Libyan media insisted on 12 April that Haftar was in a coma, and others claimed that he was no longer in a critical condition. IHS Markit is unable to verify any of these conflicting reports. However, IHS Markit sources based in Libya commented that reports of Haftar's poor health s were most likely true, as Haftar has not been seen in public in the past two weeks. Independently, Libyan social media accounts claimed that intensive meetings attended by Egyptian military intelligence, which has long supported Haftar and the LNA, took place at Rajmah Camp, south of Benghazi, to nominate Haftar's successor as LNA commander.

Endangering the Libya political transition

Although Haftar has been a key obstacle to a rapprochement between the western UN-backed government based in Tripoli, the government of National Accord (GNA) led by Fayez Serraj, and the eastern Parliament based in Tobruq, the Field Marshall has become a necessary interlocutor for Western countries sponsoring the Libyan political agreement, with France and Italy chief among them, as the LNA has consolidated its position.

Since early March, officials from the GNA and the LNA were also engaged in discussions in Egypt to find common ground to unify the Libyan Army under a single command structure, as a first step towards national reconciliation. Moreover, Haftar has hinted at his intention to run in the presidential elections that, according to the UN plan, should take place in Libya by the end of 2018.

Haftar's departure from public life for an extended period, or any doubts about his capacity, would risk throwing the already chaotic Libyan political situation into further disarray, hindering key political decisions that Libya has still to take before holding the elections, such as the drafting of a new Constitution and of a new electoral law. It would also give rival armed non-state actors and semi-state sanctioned armed militias the opportunity to renegotiate Libya's power dynamics by force, derailing the limited progress made thus far.

Outlook and implications

As previously noted by IHS Markit, the LNA is not a cohesive military force. Instead, it is a coalition of different militias fighting under the LNA to preserve their privileges and strategic interests, and it is bound together by Haftar's charisma and authority. Haftar has no clear successor or appointed deputy. As such, Haftar's potential incapacity, or even death, would produce a leadership vacuum in the LNA, which would likely jeopardise its progress in consolidating its position in eastern and central Libya. A leadership vacuum would also risk encouraging its rivals in the west - especially among the Misratah militias, who disagree with the GNA's attempts to engage in dialogue with Haftar - to attempt to recapture key sites, including the oil export terminals in the Sirte basin such as as-Sidr and Ras Lanuf, or key military positions in the southwest, such as Brak al-Shati and Taminhint, lost to the LNA in the most recent round of fighting. Last, instability caused by an LNA power vacuum, and its consequent weakening, would create favourable conditions to accelerate the return of the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda-leaning groups to northeastern Libya. The LNA ousted Islamic State fighters and Al-Qaeda-linked militants from Benghazi in a three-year campaign which ended in July 2017. The Islamic State, however, has already mounted two attacks against LNA checkpoints around Ajdabiya, just 40 km south of Benghazi, since late March, whereas Derna is still controlled by militant Islamist militias. A power vacuum or the break out of an internal struggle for power in the east would give jihadist militants the opportunity to exploit the new situation and accelerate their efforts to re-establish a solid presence there. Several indicators would point to the LNA's future trajectory if Haftar's incapacitation or death is confirmed. One would be opposition by restive tribal elements in eastern Libya, such as the Awaqir tribe or some of the several Salafist/Makhdalist militias active in eastern Libya and nominally supporting the LNA, to new appointments in the LNA's leadership structure manoeuvred by LNA external backers such as Egypt and UAE. A shift in allegiances from the LNA to the GNA among local tribal militias in the south, especially around the Sebah area, would also indicate internal instability in southern Libya. Equally, any mobilisation of anti-LNA forces, especially militias from Misratah, toward previously contested fronts, such as military positions in the southwestern Fezzan region or oil terminals in the Sirte basin, would signal their intent to exploit the LNA's preoccupation with internal unrest.

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