WASHINGTON — A former general in Moammar Gadhafi’s army who defected to the United States almost three decades ago has launched an unexpected offensive against Islamist militias in Libya — a development that appears to have broken the stalemate that left the militias in charge in much of the country
But whether Khalifa Hifter’s move against the same militias blamed in the death of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others will prove to be a boon to Libya or merely usher in more bloodshed and instability is hardly certain.
Hifter’s offensive, which began Friday in Benghazi, has spurred militiamen, military commanders and rogue fighters alike to pick sides in what potentially is a nationwide battle every bit as violent as the one that ended in Gadhafi’s death in 2011. On one side are the Islamists who want to maintain their hold over Libya. One the other are Hifter’s allies, who want a new political order and a return to stability — even if it means an end to Libya’s gridlocked elected government.
It is a fight that neither side can decisively win, Libyans, analysts and U.S. officials agreed Tuesday.
“Libya is at a dangerous precipice,” said Derek Flood, an independent analyst who in 2011 wrote a detailed paper on Hifter for the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington think tank. “Can Hifter mobilize enough troops to create change or create a new kind of war?”
“It is an escalation,” said Karim Mezran, a Rafik Hariri Center Senior Fellow for the Atlantic Council, who specializes on Libya.
Both sides bring their own advantages to the evolving battlefield. Hifter’s offensive is going against Islamists, especially Ansar al-Shariah, the militia blamed in Stevens’ death, who for the past two years have controlled large swaths of the country and have conducted scores of assassinations and assaults.
The Islamists are backed by many in parliament and have a sense of religious purpose that makes them formidable foes.
Hifter has the advantage of a public increasingly exhausted with the Islamists’ campaign of intimidation. He also can draw on support from Libya’s nascent army and appears to have the support of neighboring countries, including Egypt, where the military-imposed government is waging a campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood.
Hifter also appears to have the backing of influential militias in the west, including those in the western mountains near Zintani.
An unknown is what the militia that dominates Misrata, which played a critical role in toppling Gadhafi, intends to do. Misrata’s militia has long supported the Islamists; if they decided to resist Hifter’s offensive, the outcome is uncertain.
Still, despite being a national figure in a fractured Libya, Hifter lacks a base of support outside the Gadhafi-era military and their successors. Because of his longtime exile in the United States — he lived in northern Virginia for 24 years before he returned to Libya — many Libyans presume he is a CIA operative.
“To have any staying power on the Libyan political scene, Hifter will have to keep pressing his campaign forward successfully. His ability to do so — at least right now — is very much in question,” said a U.S. official familiar with events in Libya who agreed to be interviewed only under the condition of anonymity.
Hifter has complicated his fight by opening fronts both in the country’s east and its west, Flood said. On Friday, Hifter’s forces attacked Ansar al-Sharia positions near Benghazi, in the east. Two days later, carrying anti-aircraft guns and rockets, Hifter’s forces attacked the parliament building in Tripoli, in the west, where many legislators support the Islamists.
Hifter “doesn’t have a big enough power base to keep going unless he is getting outside support. Are there going to be enough nationalists to rally and win against the jihadists?” Flood asked. “They are powerful.”
Hifter has been an important figure in Libya since Gadhafi took control in 1969, with Hifter’s help. Hifter was aligned with Gadhafi until 1987, when Hifter suffered a disastrous defeat during Libya’s war with Chad, leading to his defection and exile in the United States.
Hifter’s return set off jubilant celebration in Benghazi during the 2011 uprising. During the uprising, he vied to become Libya’s next military leader only to fall out of favor again upon Gadhafi’s October 2011 death.
For the past two years, he reportedly has sought to rebuild support against the backdrop of Libyans increasingly controlled — and frustrated — by Islamists who essentially have prevented the democratically elected government from asserting its authority.
In February, during a dispute over dissolving parliament, Hifter appeared on television in his military regalia and vowed to take back the country. When nothing happened for months, Hifter was again dismissed and forgotten. Until Friday.
On Monday, Benghazi Special Forces Commander Wanis Bukhamada backed Hifter, calling the operation “the work of the people”
Hifter has said he is fighting a war on terrorism, referring to Islamists in the same way Egyptian officials did in their war against the Muslim Brotherhood. And his supporters said that while he launched the operation without government support, he can count on elements within the military establishment.
“The plan now is the advancement of our army like the great army of Egypt,” said Mohammed Hegazi, Hifter’s spokesman.
The Libyan government has remained on the sidelines. Its statement on Hifter’s moves took no position, saying only that it “condemned the use of force as a means of political expression by all parties.”
Amid increased public pressure to hold early elections, the government announced Tuesday that elections to pick a new legislature will be held June 25. But it seemed a little too late in a nation that increasingly is seeking stability at any cost.
The United States is uncertain where Hifter’s offensive will end.
Hifter “faces significant countervailing pressure from a variety of extremists and militia groups,” the U.S. official said. “Hifter’s strategic endgame is anything but clear at this point. He may not even know.”