It is a measure of the status of Libyan National Army commander Khalifa Haftar that his homecoming last Thursday after medical treatment in Paris saw a greeting line of military top brass stretching from the aircraft steps into the arrivals terminal.
Army, navy and air force chiefs lined up with politicians to shake the field marshal’s hand, underlining their support after weeks of speculation about the commander’s future.
The 75-year-old field marshal was hospitalised in Paris with an undisclosed condition on April 11, and the rumour mill went into overdrive over whether he was incapacitated. The speculation was dampened two days later when the UN special envoy for Libya, Ghassan Salame, tweeted: “SRSG Ghassan Salame and Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar communicated today via phone and discussed the general situation in Libya and the latest political developments in the country.”
Mr Salame’s tweet emphasised the pivotal role the field marshal has played in Libyan politics since civil war broke out in July 2014. Later that same year Libya’s parliament, the House of Representatives, based in the eastern town of Tobruk, appointed him its army commander and he has since led his troops to two key victories.
The first of those came in September 2016 when the Libyan National Army captured oil ports of the so-called Oil Crescent, home to two thirds of Libya’s oil production. A year later, he finally captured Benghazi, Libya’s second city, from militias after a three-year struggle.
Those victories have won the field marshal support across much of Libya, particularly in the east of the country, with many seeing him as a bulwark against militias who have brought chaos to the country.
He has also used his time in charge to rebuild armed forces who were left devastated by the 2011 revolution in which Muammar Qaddafi was deposed and killed. Meanwhile, the LNA is massing forces for an assault on the coastal town of Derna, the last eastern town held by militias.
Publicly, the field marshal insists that it is business as usual, telling a press conference after his arrival: “I want to reassure you that I am in good health.”
He joked: “I should be addressing you standing up but I am obliged to do so sitting down.”
Speculation that there was a power struggle under way during his absence was heightened after the LNA’s second-in-command, chief of staff, Abdul Razzak Al Nazouri, survived a car-bomb attack on April 18 in Benghazi.
Diplomats recognise that, with the LNA the single most powerful military formation in Libya, its commander has a pivotal role to play in any peace deal. Any such deal may hinge on the Field Marshal Haftar’s key demand, which is that Tripoli militias dissolve.
Last July, in an initiative begun by the UAE and Egypt, French President Emmanuel Macron invited him to Paris for talks with Fayez Al Serraj, head of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) for talks.
The Field Marshall is sceptical about GNA, which has failed to rid Tripoli of militias who periodically battle each other in the city. Earlier this month militia rockets struck a plane waiting to take off from the city-centre Mitiga airport.
In December Field Marshal Haftar declared the GNA was no longer legitimate, having come to the end of its two-year mandate announced when it was set up in December 2015. In the same speech, to newly graduating soldiers, he also dismissed past UN-led peace efforts as “just ink on paper.”
But a more robust peace effort may be under way, after talks were held last week in Morocco between the speaker of parliament, Aguila Saleh, and the newly appointed head of Tripoli’s State Council, Khaled Al Mishri, in Morocco.
The talks are to be resumed soon and are exploring the idea of reforming the GNA to make it more inclusive. UN envoy Mr Salame also favours reform of the GNA, hoping it can unify Libya and boost his call for elections later this year.
Field Marshal Haftar has given his support for an elected government, saying the army operates in “full compliance with the orders of the free Libyan people”.
His return, in apparent good health, means his role in any peace process remains crucial.