The unfolding geopolitical power play in war-torn Libya

After Libya’s renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar failed to seize Tripoli following a 14-month military campaign, his foreign backers are repositioning themselves on the battlefield for maximum leverage, analysts say.

In the past month, the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) recaptured strategic locations including the al-Watiya airbase and Tarhuna, Haftar’s last major stronghold in western Libya, which had been used to help launch an offensive against the capital.

Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) has since been pushed back from Tripoli and has withdrawn to Sirte, 450km (280 miles) east of Tripoli, and the al-Jufra airbase in central Libya.

Following a series of victories with the help of Turkey, the GNA now controls much of western Libya.

Forces loyal to the Tripoli-based government have launched an offensive now to capture the coastal city of Sirte, located close to major energy export terminals.

Libya, home to the richest proven crude reserves in Africa, has been mired in conflict since the 2011 civil war that saw the overthrow and killing of longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi.

The country is now divided into two administrations: Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj’s GNA based in Tripoli, and the House of Representatives allied with Haftar, who controls the oil-producing regions of eastern and central Libya.

Over the years the conflict has spiralled into a major proxy war, with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), France, Russia and Egypt backing Haftar, while Turkey supports al-Sarraj.

Transition away from Haftar

Following a series of setbacks for the LNA over the past two months, Frederic Wehrey, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Al Jazeera that Haftar’s foreign backers have since been reformulating their support as there is frustration with him on the battlefield.

“There’s splits within his foreign patrons,” Wehrey said. “The LNA is mobilising to confront the GNA attack on Sirte and that could perhaps give a slight boost to Haftar. But I think we have to underscore that much of his prestige, his appeal was wound up in the expectation that he would deliver a victory in Tripoli.

“I think all of these powers are trying to position themselves on the battlefield for maximum leverage,” Wehrey said.

Emadeddin Badi, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a Libya analyst, told Al Jazeera that rational and opportunistic backers of Haftar, such as Egypt and Russia, will now focus on succession planning and a transition away from Haftar’s own persona.

“This will, of course, be concomitant with an effort to consolidate his control in central and eastern Libya to avoid significant territorial losses that could have a knock-on effect on eastern Libya.

“In addition to Cairo and Moscow, Abu Dhabi and Paris – which come out as losers having backed a losing gambit – will also now jockey for influence over Libya’s political process moving forward,” Badi said.

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