By Kirill Semenov*
The military offensive of the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Field Marshal (according to the House of Representatives sitting in Tobruk) Khalifa Haftar on Tripoli that began on April 4, 2019 had finally petered out by mid-May, having achieved none of its goals. On the eve of the offensive, the military leader announced that he planned to install a new Government of National Accord by the middle of April. However, these attempts failed. The LNA was not able to breach the inner areas of the Libyan capital due to the fierce resistance it faced on the approaches the city. The blockade of Tripoli was also a failure, as reinforcements continued to arrive from the east (from Misrata) and the west (from Zawia). The Libyan Army that is loyal to the legitimate transition bodies — the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Presidential Council led by Faiz Sarraj — repelled the attempts of K. Haftar’s militants to enter the city and even carried out successful counter-strikes of its own.
K. Haftar deployed almost all of his combat-ready troops in the offensive to capture Tripoli, including regular units such as the Al-Saiqa brigades (one of the commanders of these brigades is Mahmoud al-Werfalli, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court), and the 106th Brigade led by K. Haftar’s son, Khalid. A number of the LNA’s elite units, which are made up primarily of Salafists, were also deployed in the Libyan capital, including the Tariq Bin-Ziyad Brigade, the 73rd Brigade (formerly the Khalid ibn al-Walid Battalion) and others. However, the only asset that the LNA managed to lay claim to was the intersection of the road connecting Tripoli with the Jabal Nafusah Region controlled by forces loyal to the Government of National Accord and by Tunisia. The LNA blockade also included the strategic port city of Zuwara, which became possible after the LNA established control over Garyan and Sabratah.
Old and New Allies of K. Haftar in Tripolitania: The Only Factor for Success
At the same time, we should bear in mind the fact that almost all of the LNA’s territorial acquisitions in Western Libya were not the result of successful military operations and the defeat of the enemy, but rather the defection to K. Haftar’s side of local forces that had previously been loyal to him. Many of them have long been called “Trojan horses” in Tripoli, meaning that their alliance with the field marshal was a foregone conclusion.
For example, the city of Sabratah to the west of the Libyan capital serves as the base for K.Haftar’s long-term allies, namely, the Salafists from the Anti-ISIS Operations Room and the Al Wadi Brigade. These forces were considered “sleeper cells” of the LNA in Western Libya, and shortly after K. Haftar’s offensive began, they announced that they had severed connections with the Government of National Accord and become part of the LNA.
The town of Bani Walid, which also fell under the control of the LNA, is the main base of the Gaddaffists. The town has always enjoyed independence and was hostile to the Misrata Brigades, the main military force of the Government of National Accord. Shortly after Khalifa Haftar launched his offensive on Tripoli, the Bani Walid sheikhs and the local council declared their neutrality, but allowed the LNA to use its transport infrastructure, including its airfield. The 60th Infantry Brigade, which was established in Bani Walid, joined the LNA.
K. Haftar’s biggest successes in Tripoli were achieved thanks to defection of the former 7th Brigade of the Presidential Guard from the city of Tarhunah. The unit was renamed the 9th Brigade after joining the LNA. These forces led a mutiny against the Government of National Accord in the summer and autumn of 2018 and had some fierce battles with the so-called Big Four brigades in Tripoli for control of the international airport and other suburbs of the Libyan capital. In April, the forces of the 7th/9th Brigade resumed their operations against the Libyan Army from its positions at the international airport, as well as in Ain Zara and Wadi Rabea, but under the flag of the LNA. Reinforcements in the form of K> Haftar’s supporters soon arrived from the east of the country. The conditional front line between the 7th/9th Brigade and the Big Four in Tripoli was transformed into a front line between the LNA and the Libyan Army/Government of National Accord.
K. Haftar’s hopes to enlist the support of the Zintan clans came to nothing, even though the Zintan Brigades were the main allies of the LNA during the Second Libyan Civil War in 2014—2015. While some sheiks in the region declared their support for K. Haftar, their armed units nevertheless refused to participate in the military operations, as other Zintan clans were fighting on the side of the Government of National Accord, and one of its most charismatic leaders — Commander of the Western Military Zone Osama al-Juwaili — is effectively leading the defense of Tripoli. The respect that al-Juwaili commands likely played a large role in the refusal of most of the elders to support K. Haftar.
K. Haftar could not take advantage of the loyalty of the people in Jafara and Aziziya, home to the Warshefana tribal association that has allied ties with Tripoli. Aziziya has been the main base of K. Haftar’s supporters at Tripoli since 2014. However, in late 2017, the 4th and 26th LNA brigades, which are made up of fighters from the Warshefana tribes, were defeated by al-Juwaili’s forces. At the start of the current operation, the LNA managed to enter Aziziya on a number of occasions but was repelled every time. By mid-April, the Libyan Army/Government of National Accord had a firm grip on the city, turning it into an operational base. With Aziziya under its control, the government troops are able to exert constant pressure on Tripoli International Airport by covering it from the flanks, while at the same time continually attacking the LNA communications infrastructure that runs through Gharyan. By maintaining a foothold in Aziziya, the Libyan Army/Government of National Accord may be able to carry out an operation to encircle the LNA forces operating in the areas of Wadi Rabea and Ain Zara at some point in the future. Therefore, without establishing control over the region, any attempts to advance the LNA into Tripoli along other routes would be extremely risky, as the forces operating there may get trapped. This explains why the fiercest battles (most of which have been won by the pro-government forces) have been for the Aziziya District. During these battles, the Libyan Army/Government of National Accord showed that it was able to act within the framework of a general operational plan, and its units demonstrated a high degree of coherence in their actions. The current campaign is likely to further bolster the influence of Major General Osama al-Juwaili, who is heading up Operation “Volcano of Anger” to repel LNA aggression.
“Yes” to an Islamist Militia, “No” to a Military Dictatorship
Even though a few factions that have declared their support for K. Haftar, most people living in Tripolitania would prefer the lesser evil of the “dominance of armed Islamic groups,” which is precisely what K. Haftar is trying to eradicate, to his “hard hand” and military dictatorship. What is more, many Tripolitans rushed to join the militants and fight against the LNA with weapons in their hands. It was precisely this ability to mobilize forces in Western Libya, as well as the willingness of these forces to speak out in support of the extremely unpopular Government of National Accord, that took K. Haftar by surprise.
The military operation contributed to the consolidation of the Misrata forces, which bore the brunt of the fight against the LNA. A maximum of 6000—8000 fighters were located in Misrata and the Misrata District during the relatively peaceful period between the civil wars. Now, they are capable of mobilizing up to 18,000 troops, thereby practically nullifying the numerical superiority of the LNA. Before the start of the campaign, there was no unity among the Misrata clans. For example, some factions from this region and their representatives (for example, the Minister of Interior of the Government of National Accord Fathi Bashagha) called for a dialogue with Field Marshal K. Haftar and were even prepared to consider the possibility of offering him a position in the cabinet. Now they are working together with his staunch opponents from the Bunyan al-Marsous coalition in Misrata. The Misrata groups that had until recently been opponents of Sarraj and were even subject to international sanctions for rallying against him started to provide military support to the Government of National Accord. We are talking here about the “national guard” of the alternative National Salvation Government, which has since sent its troops to protect Tripoli and now acts in lockstep with the government forces.
The Libyan Amazighs (Berbers) who control vast territories in the west of Libya, as well as the port city of Zuwarah also rallied against Haftar’s military operation and supported the actions of the Government of National Accord to repel the onslaught of the LNA.
The Field Marshal’s Last Hope
At the same time, the so-called Tripoli Defence Forces, which included the Big Four factions, adopted a rather ambiguous position. For instance, the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade and the Special Deterrence Forces did not deploy significant forces to counter the offensive, confining themselves to the formal deployment of a small group at forward positions, while the majority of their units refrained from fighting, remaining at the rear. These factions clearly want to hang on to the possibility of making a deal with either of the opposing camps. However, this position could lead to the Misrata groups, which the Big Four (with the help of Sarraj) tried to eradicate, further strengthening their influence in Tripoli. In this regard, the special position of the Tripoli Defence Forces, which include a number of moderate Salafists (“madhalits”) that also make up a significant part of Haftar’s army give the field marshal hope of steering the events in Tripoli in his favor. This notwithstanding, the chances of the Big Four choosing to support Khalifa Haftar, especially after all his failures, are very slim. On the contrary, it is entirely possible that their involvement in operations against the LNA will increase against the backdrop of increased military assistance from Turkey (including for groups that are part of the Tripoli Defence Forces).
Khalifa Haftar fully, and erroneously, expected that military support from his external allies (Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and France) would help his forces overcome the enemy’s resistance. While the LNA could count on the direct participation of the Egyptian special forces (as well as on the operational air force of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates) during its campaigns in Benghazi and Derna, this type of assistance is untenable in current conditions, given the ambivalent attitude of the global community towards K. Haftar’s actions. That being said, these countries do provide support to the LNA in the form of military supplies, including various types of armored vehicle such as armored personnel carriers and the Mbombe and al-Mared armored cars produced in Jordan. Many point to the fact that the LNA uses Chinese-made Wing Loong II drones equipped with Blue Arrow 7 missiles provided or even operated by military personnel from the United Arab Emirates. Moreover, we should not underestimate the role of Saudi Arabia, which has assumed most of the financial costs of the military campaign. Indeed, without proper funding, the LNA, which claims to be a regular army, will split into factions and groups with different ideologies.
Faultline: The Salafists Versus the Muslim Brotherhood
At the same time, the advantage that the LNA had thanks to the deliveries of weapons and military equipment from its allies could be negated by the fact that Turkey started supplying similar products to the Libyan Army/Government of National Accord in May of this year. On May 18, the Amazon Giurgiulesti ship arrived in Tripoli from the port of Samsun in Turkey under the flag of Moldova. The ship was loaded with all kinds of military equipment, including a battalion set of modern Kirpi II and Vuran armored vehicles made in Turkey, as well as anti-tank guided missiles, man-portable air-defense systems and light weapons. Also, according to the Chairman of the High Council of State, Khalid al-Mishri, the Libyan Army/Government of National Accord now has drones as well, which were also probably delivered via Turkey.
Libya has thus turned into a battlefield and Faultline between two antagonistic camps of the Islamic world. Heading up the first of these camps are Turkey and Qatar, which continue to rely on forces that adhere to the ideology of political Islam, are close to the Muslim Brotherhood and support the Government of National Accord. The second camp, led by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia (the “troika”), has practically elevated the fight with the Muslim Brotherhood to an ideology. The “troika” is prepared to rely on any forces in order to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood, be it secular generals or radical Salafists. It is this ideological “duet” of secular military and Salafists that is most pronounced in the framework of the LNA.
The deeper K. Haftar is drawn into the armed confrontation, the more he will fall under the influence of radical Salafi activists in his own surroundings who issue fatwas, refuse to consider opponents of the LNA Muslims, and prove that the truce in Ramadan does not extend to the fighting in Libya. If the hostilities continue, then the influence of the religious radicals inside the Haftar camp will likely continue to grow, since the offensive on Tripoli has effectively petered out and now the LNA command will need to motivate its supporters (it should be noted here that there are a number of Salafists among them), and attract further concessions regarding the dissemination of their ideology. At the same time, many experts consider the Salafists the most reliable and combat-ready element of the LNA. Thus, we cannot rule out the possibility that the countries which are backing K. Haftar as a secular leader will eventually become witnesses to the creeping “Salafization” of Libya with the active help of Saudi clerics. And this will not stop K. Haftar from further positioning himself as a champion of secularism, while at the same time dictating a completely different agenda on the home front.
Ceasefire as Salvation
Against the background of K. Haftar’s failures, the structures that are affiliated with him in Eastern Libya are looking for opportunities to achieve a ceasefire so that they can maintain their positions near Tripoli and perhaps even prevent the complete destruction of the LNA, which is a distinct possibility at the moment. For example, Abdullah al-Thinni, the prime minister of the provisional government in the east of the country, who is affiliated with K. Haftar, said in an interview with the Alhurra television station that the LNA would be willing to accept a ceasefire without withdrawing from the outskirts of Tripoli, a condition that Sarraj has rejected.
Haftar’s visits to Italy and France, which took place shortly after Sarraj visited these countries, were also devoted primarily to finding ways to establish a ceasefire.
Thus, despite the menacing rhetoric that remains (“I am prepared to hold talks, but there is no one to hold talks with”), the terms of a possible ceasefire were apparently the only topic raised at K. Haftar’s talks with E. Macron in Paris on May 22, 2019. A week earlier, the same issue was discussed at a meeting between K. Haftar and the Prime Minister of Italy. It is, of course, possible that K. Haftar is looking for opportunities to call a ceasefire while at the same time-saving face with all his military bravado. At the same time, in the context of the LNA’s failures, Paris (a long-term partner of K. Haftar) has started to “curtsey” with increasing frequency before the Government of National Accord. The approach of France to the events in Libya is starting to align with the general course adopted by the European Union, which suggests that France may need to abandon its unequivocal support for K. Haftar.
The complexity of the situation lies in the fact that Sarraj is no longer willing to make any kind of deal with K. Haftar, as he considers him to be a rebel and a criminal. And the only acceptable condition for a ceasefire, as far as the head of the Government of National Accord is concerned, is for the LNA to return to the positions they occupied before the start of the campaign. In this situation, K. Haftar cannot directly declare his consent to external mediation when he cannot be sure that Sarraj will accept the terms of the ceasefire. On the other hand, continuing the operation is fraught with unclear prospects and is extremely risky, and in certain circumstances may lead to the complete defeat of the LNA. This is why some of Haftar’s allies see the creation of conditions for a ceasefire as a vital task and a way for the field marshal to hold onto his role as a key player.
Another option is also possible and is connected to the fact that a rift has appeared among Haftar’s allies, with France differing in its assessments of what is going on with the “troika” of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. We cannot rule out the possibility that K. Haftar is willing to negotiate the terms of a ceasefire with the mediation of France and Italy (if this was not the case, his visits to these countries would make no sense) and that the “troika” is pushing him, by offering increased military aid, for example, to toe the line that the only possible solution to the crisis is through military force.
Just how the situation in Libya continues to unfold will likely depend on the degree of engagement of the two great powers, whose positions at present are rather contradictory and unclear. We are talking, of course, about Russia and the United States, which have not yet had their say.
The United States has voiced two opinions to the current Libyan Crisis. One was expressed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who condemned the actions of K. Haftar and called for an end to the offensive. The second opinion is that of President Donald Trump himself, who had a telephone conversation with the field marshal and expressed his support for the fight against terrorism, which many observers took as an endorsement of Haftar’s military campaign. While Trump will certainly have the last word, it is unclear which of these approaches to the events in Libya will eventually prevail in Washington. Another position that should not be ignored is that of the Pentagon, which has developed relations with the Misrata brigades against the background of the fight against Islamic State terrorists in Libya — and it was Haftar’s military operation that opened the door for their increased activity. While the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) may have withdrawn its personnel from Tripoli and Misrata, it is entirely possible that they will return to Libya and resume interaction with their former partners.
Russia continues to maintain relations with both sides in the Libyan conflict. Despite the increasingly pro-Haftar bias in the Russian approach, Moscow, unlike Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, has not crossed the red line and continues to be regarded as a partner by the Government of National Accord. The problem lies in the fact that the three Russian structures that are currently working on the Libya track the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Defence and the Russian Contact Group for Intra-Libyan Settlement — assess Russia’s priorities and interests in Libya differently, and on some issues have opposite positions. On top of this, the signals coming from the Kremlin itself about which line to take in regard to Libya are not clear enough. The Russian approach to events in the country is likely determined by the current situation. Russia has demonstrated a certain amount of support for K. Haftar against the background of his military operation and the success he is expected to achieve. However, as the operation proceeds, Russian will have to either return to a more balanced line and pay more attention to the interests of Tripoli or, on the contrary, start increasing aid to K. Haftar, including military assistance.
The latter scenario is the riskiest. Even if the gamble on K. Haftar pays off and he somehow manages to emerge victorious, then the main beneficiaries will be the “troika” of the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which have invested far more money into him than Russia. At the same time, Russia would benefit from maintaining a certain balance in Libya. To this end, Moscow could make better use of the ties that it has managed to maintain with all the sides in the Syrian conflict — something that Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia, which have “put all their eggs in one basket,” cannot say. Russia has the opportunity to play the role of mediator in the conflict, joining France and Italy in these efforts. Russia should also pay attention to those figures in Libya whose influence continues to grow against the background of the events taking place in Tripoli and who have the opportunity to play a consolidating role in the future. Major General Osama al-Juwaili is one of these figures.
From our partner RIAC
*About the author: Kirill Semenov, Director of the Centre of Islamic Research at the Institute of Innovative Development
Source: This article was published by Modern Diplomacy