May 23, 2023
IntelBrief: Libyan Warlord Exploits Sudan Crisis
Bottom Line up Front
- The eastern Libya strongman, Libyan National Army (LNA) commander Khalifah Haftar, has actively backed the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) against the Sudanese military and armed forces in the ongoing fighting in Khartoum and its surrounding environs.
- As in Sudan, contending leaders in Libya, including Haftar, have refused to implement internationally-backed political transition agreements that would require them to cede power.
- Haftar calculates that an RSF victory in the Sudan power struggle would secure valuable trade and smuggling routes through Sudan and potentially improve the prospects for Haftar and his allies in the domestic power struggle in Libya.
- By supporting the RSF, Haftar is aligned with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Russian mercenary Wagner Group, but is at odds with his key mentor, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El Sisi.
The post-dictatorship experiences of both two large countries in North Africa, Libya and Sudan, have been converging over the past several years. Deposing longtime Libyan dictator Muammar Qadhafi in 2011 and Sudanese military chief Omar Hassan al-Bashir in 2019 failed to produce peaceful transitions to unified civilian rule. Libya remains divided by rival administrations based in Tripoli in the west and Benghazi in the east. In both Sudan and Libya, military and militia-backed leaders in both countries have refused to implement U.N.-brokered agreements to cede power to civilian rule or to hold elections, apparently perceiving that stepping out of their positions would render them vulnerable to prosecution, retribution, and loss of wealth. In Sudan, major fighting - still ongoing amidst the wreckage of several cease-fires - broke out in mid-April between the two top military leaders of Sudan - General Abdul Fattah al-Burhan, who commands the Sudanese Armed Forces, and General Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo (widely known as “Hemedti”), who leads the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The fighting between the two forces appears to have no realistic conclusion other than the defeat and exile of one or the other. Libya has been plagued by similar armed conflict; in 2019, the eastern-based strongman, Field Marshal Khalifah Haftar, leader of the Libyan National Army (LNA), sought but failed to unify the country by force, despite backing from Russia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Egypt. Haftar and his allies in eastern Libya have since - with limited success - turned to political means to try to gain control over Tripoli and the rest of western Libya.
As tensions between the Sudanese army and the RSF heightened during March and April, Haftar saw brewing conflict in Sudan as both a threat and an opportunity. Conflict could threaten his strategic and economic arrangements in Sudan if his key Sudanese contact, Hemedti, were defeated. Yet, Haftar could increase his value to two of his powerful backers, Russia and the UAE, if he could serve as a conduit through which to help Hemedti prevail. Haftar, as well as his outside backers, depend on Hemedti to protect their lucrative trade, smuggling, and investment arrangements in Sudan. According to Jalel Harchaoui, a political analyst and an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, “The Haftar family cares about the survival of illicit trade networks that exist between Sudan and eastern Libya…For the first time since 2014, Khartoum is a problem for Libya. Everything that is connected to the south might have to be altered [if Hemdti is defeated] and who knows what political change will come out of it." Fuel, Captagon (the stimulant drug produced extensively in war-torn Syria), hashish, gold, and stolen cars are among the illegal goods smuggled in and out of Sudan and Libya. Haftar also seeks to benefit strategically by helping the RSF, in the event that Haftar was to engage in further combat with his domestic foes; Hemedti reportedly sent some RSF fighters to Libya to fight alongside Haftar’s LNA during his armed effort to capture Tripoli in 2019, according to regional sources. Similarly, Russia and the UAE have looked to Hemedti to further their efforts to secure access to Port Sudan, a potential springboard for both Abu Dhabi and Moscow to extend their influence in the Red Sea, the Horn of Africa and beyond. The Wagner Group has cooperated with Hemedti on gold mining and other commercial operations in Sudan. The UAE has supplied the RSF with military equipment and, in partnership with key UAE ally Saudi Arabia, looks to Sudan as a potential source of secure food supplies.
Gearing up to help Hemedti, Haftar’s LNA reportedly helped prepare the RSF for battle as tensions between Hemedti and Burhan rose. Days before the Army-RSF fighting erupted, one of Haftar’s sons, Sadeeq Haftar, was named the honorary president of one of two big Sudanese football/soccer teams, flew to Khartoum to announce a $2 million donation to the club, and subsequently visited Hemedti at his home. Haftar also ordered the arrest of a deputy of Musa Hilal, a Sudanese militia commander who is a bitter enemy of Hemedti. Hilal’s forces were responsible for inflicting heavy losses on Wagner Group mercenaries in the neighboring Central African Republic in an ambush near the Sudanese border earlier this year. After fighting erupted, and partly at the reported instigation of Moscow, Wagner, and the UAE, Hafter began flying in planeloads of military supplies, reportedly including anti-tank weaponry, to the RSF. Cable News Network (CNN) has reported that weapons shipments from LNA-run airbases to the RSF have been organized by Wagner, which maintains a presence in both Libya and Sudan, that it has used to support Haftar and the RSF, respectively. Haftar also has delivered the RSF fuel from an oil refinery near the Libyan town of al-Jawf, in addition to medicines, amenities, and other supplies. Regional sources have previously told journalists that LNA Battalion No. 128 was assigned to secure the transport of materiel to Hemedti due to the unit’s extensive familiarity with the border area between Libya and Sudan and its control of Kufra Airport. Yet, the political value to Haftar of supporting the RSF might exceed the practical military value: the U.N. Special Envoy to Sudan, Volker Perthes, has confirmed that Haftar is a supporter of “one of the two parties in the conflict in Sudan,” but added that "Haftar's role is not decisive in this war."
Haftar’s support for the RSF might augment his value to Russia/Wagner and the UAE, but it separates him from another one of his major patrons – President Abdel Fattah El Sisi of Egypt. Although Egypt has partnered with Russia and the UAE in supporting Haftar in Libya, Egypt has adopted the opposite stance in Sudan, where Cairo has actively supported Gen. Burhan and the Sudan Armed Forces as a source of stability. Cairo’s critics have also accused President Sisi of allying with Burhan because of shared opposition to Ethiopia’s construction and unilateral control of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which Egyptian officials see as threatening Egypt’s water supply and agricultural production. Egyptian pressure on Haftar appears to have compelled him to reduce or cease weapons shipments to the RSF after the first few days of the fighting in Sudan. If Haftar has decided to reduce his involvement in the conflict in neighboring Sudan, he might have calculated that neighboring Egypt, which has a powerful military on Libya’s borders and is not distracted by a failing war effort in Ukraine, is in a position to make him pay the price for defying Cairo’s wishes.