Clearly all the talk around the serious health conditions of Operation Dignity Commander, Khalifa Haftar, cannot be mere rumours. As debate over the controversial strongman grows and as the reverberations of his possible disappearance from the political and military scene escalate, the regional sponsors of "Operation Dignity" are scrambling to find a successor, one who can face the reality that has arisen after the 17 February Revolution. The next in line is also a pre-emptive measure that holds together the frail tribal and military alliance that gathered around Haftar.
Born, in 1942, in the eastern town of Ajdabiya, Khalifah Haftar was the descendant of a family from the Ferjan tribe whose lineage spread east from the central region. In September 1969, Haftar joined in a coup that brought Colonel Muammar Qaddafi to power. He first appeared in the media in 1987 when he was held captive after a deadly attack by Chadian President HissèneHabré at the military base of Wadi al-Dom where Libyan troops were stationed in northern Chad. During his captivity, Haftar joined the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL) and after his release he moved to the United States. He remained out of the spotlight until the uprising of February 17 when he returned to Benghazi in an attempt to secure a leadership position with the rebel forces. Be that as it may, the presence of General Abdel Fattah Younis, who was later assassinated, thwarted him. Following the overthrow of Qaddafi, a number of officers had opted for Khalifa Haftar to become the new chief of staff for the Libyan army. However, the General National Congress had quickly granted Haftar an early retirement. He later moved back to the United States.
On February 14, 2014, Khalifa Haftar returned to the spotlights through Al Arabiya news brodcaster, where he gave a statement announcing the suspension of the National Congress. He said his move was "in response to popular demand." However, this attempted coup did not succeed in rallying many politicians and military personnel around him. The failure of this attempt never hindered him from a second appearance on Al-Arabiya that same year on May 16th, when he announced the launch of "Operation Dignity" which was purposed for "cleansing Libya from terrorists and outlaws, especially those who target the army or the police.'' The launch of Haftar's operation was timed to coincide with a vicious media campaign that was coordinated and secured by the UAE, Egypt and some local TV channels. The campaign was made to advocate Haftar and portray him in the image of Libya's saviour, a man who can rescue the country from the chaos and deterioration and proclaim a rapid military resolve on all Libyan soil.
Notwithstanding the regional, media, financial, and even military support to Haftar, not to mention the participation of Egyptian, Emirati and French air forces in the operations of Benghazi, Jufra and the oil Crescent, their mission failed to reach a quick end result. For instance, the Battle of Benghazi lasted three years, devastating the city's infrastructure, displacing nearly a third of its population and tearing up its social fabric as a result of numerous mass killings, dispossession and burning homes. The oil crescent remained a scene of military operation between Operation Dignity and the Benghazi Defence Brigades (BDB) who managed, in March 2017, to seize control over most oil platforms before retreating under the heavy fire of foreign air raids. The same scenario reoccurred in Jufra District. Although pro-Haftar militias control most of the south, that scene remains unstable. Furthermore, they were unable to achieve any tangible outcomes in the west, including the capital Tripoli. Haftar's influence continued to decline even in the smaller areas that supported his mission since its inception.
Many followers of the Libyan dossier associate the ambiguity surrounding Khalifa Haftar's fate with laying down the groundwork for his successor, in addition to preventing any attempt that could undermine the fragile alliances that scarcely gathered around him, without any real consensus. According to certified media sources, since Haftar went into a deep coma, meetings in and out of Libya have intensified between Operation Dignity's allies and various representatives from the Egyptian, Emirati, and even the French and Italian sides. Most of the meetings focused on searching for the most suited replacement from within Haftar's sphere of influence, namely, his sons Khalid and Saddam, his close office manager and tribe member, Aoun al-Ferjani, the head of his operations room, Abdul Salam al-Hassi and the chief of staff of Operation Dignity forces, Abdul Razak al-Nadhori.
It is too early to guess who the regional backers will select to be in control after Haftar, considering the strictly confidential activity and extreme secrecy around Haftar's critical health conditions. However, assessing each of the characters' role and stature over the last four years narrows down the array of possibilities. For instance, Haftar's two sons, in addition to their young age, lack military experience, they do not hold any relative qualifications nor do they have strong connections with the military. They relied entirely on their father's influence to obtain military rank and command of militias and battalions. Besides, there is hostility between Saddam and Khaled Haftar and some other military commanders from Operation Dignity. They have also been accused of many assassinations that took place in a number of eastern prisons, and as such, it is not expected that any of the two will be chosen by the regional sponsors.
Most indicators suggest that the pick will be between al-Ferjani, al-Hassi and al-Nadhori. However, the number of options can be further reduced due to the complex social structure and tribal composition of the eastern region. Aoun al-Ferjani, being a descendant of Haftar's Ferjan tribe, is likely to find himself out of the race. As it was previously mentioned, the tribe is originally from central region, hence it does not enjoy a balanced presence in the east compared to the other tribes. Despite the fact that Haftar succeeded at first in rallying supporters and propagating a powerful image of himself, the status quo is considerably different from 2014, particularly after the significant ebb in support for Operation Dignity and its leader. Thus, the pick has now been narrowed down to only two, that are the potential dark horse, al-Hassi, or alternatively, al-Nadhori who has provoked much controversy through his support of Salafi Modkhalism.
The regional sponsors are well aware of the complexities surrounding the selection process of Haftar's next in line. They also realise that the alliances they have engineered around Haftar through pumping money, supplying arms and tightening grip can crumble at any point marking the failure of their strategy.