“Haftar would not be a player today without the foreign support he has received,” a Libyan affairs expert told The Wall Street Journal in a new lengthy profile of the Benghazi-based General Khalifa Haftar, whose Libyan National Army (LNA) is advancing this week on Tripoli.
As Haftar consolidated power over much of the country's war ravaged east, also making huge gains in the past year over the south, he's all along enjoyed the political backing of an unlikely assortment of powerful countries that include the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, France, and Russia. But the new WSJ report reveals his latest major external backer with endlessly deep pockets:
Days before Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar launched an offensive to seize the capital and attempt to unite the divided country under his rule, Saudi Arabia promised tens of millions of dollars to help pay for the operation, according to senior advisers to the Saudi government.
Citing senior Saudi officials, the report reveals further the offer came during a recent visit to Saudi Arabia, as part of a broader trip which took Haftar to European capitals where the perception was that the renegade general now militarily challenging the UN-backed Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) was crucial to negotiating a lasting power sharing settlement between the eastern and western halves of the country.
The diplomatic meetings bolstered his status and resolve to take the whole country, even as lately the US and EU have vehemently called on him to halt the LNA's military advance, which lately included airstrikes on suburbs of Tripoli.
But apparently, the Saudis and possibly other backers are actually funding the assault on Tripoli, and further securing weaponry. The WSJ continues:
Mr. Haftar accepted the recent Saudi offer of funds, according to the senior Saudi advisers, who said the money was intended for buying the loyalty of tribal leaders, recruiting and paying fighters, and other military purposes.
“We were quite generous,” one of the advisers said.
The report also notes that with his so far rapid advance west, more previously reluctant European officials are jumping on the Haftar train. As we noted previously, "Libya's incoming strongman will send the oil out to Europe, and keep its migrants in."
But the Saudis only very recently emerged as apparently Haftar's prime backer, putting into motion the bloody battle for Tripoli that has now been on for a week. The WSJ reports that Haftar's March trip to Riyadh included a key meeting with crown prince MbS:
The following day, on March 27, he was welcomed in Riyadh by Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. Undisclosed by the Saudi government at the time, he also met Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, along with Saudi Arabia’s interior minister and intelligence chief, according to two Saudi officials.
And now the question remains, if the Saudis are now so aggressively backing him, will Washington be next to officially jump on the bandwagon?
It should be noted that the likelihood is that he's already long been the CIA's man in Libya. What's not often stated outright is that Haftar is an American citizen, as recounted in a CNN profile this week: "Haftar is, to be polite, the ultimate pragmatist. He supported Moammar Gadhafi in his 1969 coup, then found himself in Langley, Virginia in the 90s where he gained US citizenship, before returning to overthrow Gadhafi in the 2011 conflict."
While in exile in the US he lived a mere minutes from CIA headquarters: "As a military commander, Mr. Haftar broke with Ghaddafi in the 1980s and became part of a C.I.A.-backed effort to destabilize the Libyan regime. He then spent two decades in exile in the U.S., before returning to join the rebellion in 2011," according to the WSJ report.
Interestingly, though the White House has urged Haftar to avoid military conflict while pulling a contingency of Marines from the country, Bolton's comments to the WSJ reveal that "condemnations" of Haftar's offensive might be coupled with a wink and a nod:
The U.S., meanwhile, has backed Mr. Haftar’s rivals in Tripoli. But before the attack on the capital, Trump administration officials expressed a willingness for Mr. Haftar to play a role in Libya’s future under a possible political settlement.
President Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, spoke with him by phone the day before the attack on Tripoli and urged him to stand down, according to a senior Trump administration official.
“I suspect he was on the move already” when Mr. Bolton spoke to him, the official said.
The past two days have witnessed the heaviest fighting in and around Tripoli thus far, driving over 6,000 people from their homes this month, and resulting in at least 58 deaths and about 300 wounded, according to the UN.
And it's about to get worse, as late Friday the LNA's military spokesman pledged, "Our Air force operations will increase" in the coming hours. The LNA has also issued an arrest warrant for Tripoli GNA government's beleaguered Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj.