COVID-19 intensifies the case for blacklisting Khalifa Haftar
The world has been fixated on the COVID-19 virus, and rightly so. While the virus remains deadly and continues to proliferate, countries have become united in their efforts to prevent its spread. People are steadfast, disciplined, and in solidarity for “flattening the curve.” Hygiene requirements will continue to be upgraded, and countries now understand the importance of early coordination to prevent future pandemics.
But the fixation on COVID-19 has led to other harsh realities. The Dow dropped 900 points in Wall Street’s worst week since 2008. The virus has overtaken the news cycle, with its updates consuming primetime news networks and social media feeds. It becomes almost impossible to stay up to date on any other current event with the massive focus being given to COVID-19.
Meanwhile, Khalifa Haftar, renegade commander, a colonel from the East of Libya, continues attacks on Tripoli.
A recent joint statement issued by the United States, the European Union, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Algeria, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates urged a truce and encouraged health authorities throughout Libya to come together “in a spirit of national cohesion” to join the global fight against the coronavirus. Neither the appeals of the international community nor the well-being of Libyans mattered to Haftar, who for almost a year now has set his eyes on conquering Tripoli, a feat that military scholars and geopolitical experts consider impossible.
Since April 4, 2019, when Haftar launched a surprised attack on Tripoli after reneging on the Abu Dhabi agreement reached with Chairman of the Presidential Council Fayez al Sarraj, he has plunged the war-torn country into chaos. The attack came just before a major convention, painstakingly arranged after nearly two years of negotiations by then UN special representative to Libya Gassan Salame, was to take place — to bring all Libyan factions together to arrange a peaceful solution to ten years of conflict , division and chaos.
While the U.S. and others have urged the suspension of military operations, rejection of foreign interference and enablement of health authorities to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, the chaos seems likely only to deepen.
Even with strong backing from the main financiers of Haftar’s offense and PR efforts to change the narrative to a “fight against the terrorists in the West,” Haftar has failed to achieve his timeline of objectives. His mercenaries from Sudan, Chad, Egypt, Russia, and extreme Madkhali Salafists failed to enter Tripoli. But they have killed and wounded thousands and displaced more than 355,000 people.
Frustrated by their inability to enter Tripoli, Haftar’s militia have increased their random bombing of civilian areas deep inside the city, using Grad bombs known for their inaccuracy. Nothing is safe from these attacks, which have already devastated residential areas, the main airport to the city of over 2 million people, an illegal African immigrant camp (nearly 50 refugees killed), a police military college (over 30 young cadets killed) and Tripoli harbor. Just days ago, bombs fell in the historic Old City of Tripoli that dates back to the 8th century. Two days ago, Haftar’s forces attacked Al Rwemi prison, drawing condemnation from the UN Support Mission. This prompted the government in Tripoli to launch the Operation Peace Storm in an effort to realize a ceasefire.
To make matters worse, Haftar shut down oil production, the lifeline for all Libyans, on Jan. 18, trying to dry-up finances and drive ordinary citizens to turn against the internationally-recognized government in Tripoli. Haftar is hoping his actions will go largely unnoticed during the global focus on the COVID-19 virus.
The international community cannot allow him to continue.
Failing to curb the virus in Libya risks neighboring countries, but also Europe. The United States and the European Union should act immediately and blacklist Khalifa Haftar and his top associates. Such action would bring him to stop attacks immediately, honor the cease-fire agreement and re-open oil production so that health institutions throughout the country can move freely and have enough resources to combat COVID 19.
Just last Saturday, the U.S. Department of State issued a warning to Haftar.
Sasha Toperich is senior executive vice president of the Transatlantic Leadership Network. From 2013 to 2018, he was a senior fellow and director of the Mediterranean Basin, Middle East and Gulf initiative at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington.