Retreat of Libya's Russian-backed rebel leaves scarred country at risk of being partitioned
Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar
For his followers, he was a strong waiting man, a factual former general who would smash militant Islam and bring order to the nightmare of an upset revolution.
For his enemies, he was a potential despot ready to kill countless civilians with artillery, drones, and missiles in order to realize his dream of a military dictatorship.
The collapse of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar's fourteen-month siege of Tripoli last week changed the face of the ongoing civil war in Libya and turned the once almost omnipotent general into a political - if not literal - corpse.
"It is now clear that he will not be the king of Libya or even Eastern Libya," said Jalel Harchaoui, a research fellow at the Clingtael Institute.
"Strategically and militarily, he won't be able to decide whether to accept or reject a deal. He won't be able to change the leadership of the East Army or the face of the civilian government as he has said publicly."
A file photo dated March 18, 2011 shows Libyan people celebrating after the United Nations Security Council approved a no-fly zone over Libya - EPA
Gen Haftar is a career military officer who fled to the United States after quarreling with Muamar Gaddafi over Chad's catastrophic invasion in the 1980s.
He returned to Libya after Gaddafi was overthrown in a NATO-backed uprising in 2011 and was able to convince several foreign governments, including France, Russia and the United Arab Emirates, that he was the potential military strength they were targeting could rely on to restore order.
By April of last year, his self-proclaimed Libyan national army - also known as the Libyan Arab Armed Forces - controlled about three quarters of the country and he seemed ready to respond to the United Nations-mediated talks he wanted to widen his gulf Bring power to the internationally recognized but ineffective government of national unity in Tripoli.
Instead, he insulted the meeting and seized absolute power, launched an armed attack on Tripoli and promised to exterminate "terrorist militias" there.
His troops, which UN experts said were supported by foreign air forces and included Russian mercenaries, besieged the capital for 14 months, but failed to make it to central Tripoli until they were stopped by GNA-allied militias.
They collapsed last month after Turkey deployed drones, air defense systems and thousands of Syrian fighters as mercenaries on the GNA side.
At the beginning of last week, Haftar's main supporters sought an armistice on his behalf. By Friday, the main front was more than 200 miles east near the coastal town of Sirte.
In the meantime, gruesome details have become known about the atrocities committed by his armed forces during their 14-month siege of Tripoli.
LNA troops and Russian Wagner mercenaries left hundreds of landmines and booby traps in civilian areas in southern Tripoli when they retreated.
Images of booby traps have appeared on social media, linked to garden gates, doors, and even chandeliers and children's toys in civilian homes.
Amnesty International has made the massive use of landmines a war crime and has called for an investigation.
"We have seen violations of the rules of war on both sides. But the mass use of landmines is a war crime that we have never seen in Libya before and that we have only seen from the LNA side, ”said Amnesty International researcher Donatella Rovera.
GNA troops also claim to have discovered handcuffed mass graves in areas previously occupied by the LNA.
The United Nations special mission in Libya announced on Thursday that at least eight mass graves have been found, most of them in Tarhuna, a city southeast of Tripoli, used by the LNA as a base for their attack on the capital.
"International law requires the authorities to investigate alleged, unlawful deaths promptly, effectively, and transparently," UNSMIL said on Twitter.
The United Nations Human Rights Council will consider setting up an information mission next week to investigate the alleged atrocities.
The International Committee of the Red Cross announced on Friday that at least 19 civilians, including three children, have been killed since June 5.
United Nations-backed GNA fighters take cover in clashes with Haftar's forces in Tripoli.
In public, Mr. Haftar remains the leader of the armed forces in the east of the country, and foreign diplomats still pay him respect when they try to reach an armistice.
On Wednesday, Oliver Owcza, the German ambassador to Libya, tweeted a picture of himself when he met Gen Hafar, who was sitting on a president-style throne at his headquarters in Benghazi.
But behind the scenes, experts say that he is already being put out of action by the powerful foreign sponsors who are funding his regime and his war effort.
Last Sunday, Egypt's President Abdel Fattah Sisi announced a unilateral ceasefire offer that would limit Gen Haftar's powers while Haftar himself stood next to him.
Other Haftar allies, including Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, have set themselves the goal of maintaining public contact with Aguila Saleh, Speaker of the House and Haftar's main competitor for power in the east of the country.
"The Egyptians have clearly left him. The French, the Emirates and especially the Russians have also left him, ”said Peter Millet, a former British ambassador to Libya who met Gen Haftar several times.
A mural depicting Mohsen al-Kania, a commander of the loyal Libyan East Strong Khalifa Haftar - AFP
The siege of Tripoli is now finally over. Libya's future is likely to be decided in foreign capitals.
The withdrawal of the Wagner mercenaries from Tripoli last month was generally seen as evidence that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had already worked out the basic elements of an agreement.
This understanding, which no government has admitted, but which many observers have deduced from the events on the ground, would result in the LNA supported by Russia and Egypt remaining in control of the eastern part of the country, and the GNA supported by Turkey Control over consolidated the east.
However, there are already signs that such a deal must be worked out through fighting.
Fatih Bashaghar, the powerful interior minister of the GNA, said last weekend that the Tripoli armed forces would only negotiate after recapturing both the coastal city of Sirte and al-Jufra air base, where Russia deployed 14 fighter jets.
Turkey also explicitly rejected the Egyptian unilateral ceasefire, and Erdogan himself declared to Donald Trump that the struggle for Sirte would continue.
Russia, Egypt and the LNA see Sirte as essential to the security of the "oil crescent" lucrative hydrocarbon reserves that they are currently controlling and are likely to fight bitterly to maintain it.
Members of the security forces affiliated with the Interior Ministry of the Libyan Government of the National Agreement (GNA) stand at a checkpoint - AFP
Government forces that were approaching Sirte last week had to retreat through air strikes, although it was unclear whose air force had hit them.
Last Friday, they camped about 70 kilometers west of the city in an area protected by Turkish air defense systems.
"The arrogance of Turkey and the drunkenness of victory through the GNA means that the phase of dialogue and conversation has ended," said Jalel Harchaoui, research assistant at the Clingtael Institute.
“The question now is how much blood should be spilled to get to the final state. I don't want to sound like Bob Dylan, but how many civilians have to die to get a result whose rough configurations we already knew?
The GNA commanders swore on Saturday to continue their offensive and prepared a bloody showdown with Russian and Egypt-backed Eastern Libyan forces determined to maintain control of the oil crescent.
"Our armed forces are now in the Buirat Lahsoun area, 70 kilometers east of Sirte. Our goals are to liberate Sirte, Al-Jufra and all of Libya," said Colonel Hussain Alshiltat, GNA commander for field operations in Sirte-Al-Jufra -Offensive.
"There is no specific time frame, but there is great determination and determination to turn to Sirte and al-Jufra," he told the telegraph.
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