The Libyan blind alley

Summary: Haftar’s military operation to take Tripoli seems to have failed. His foreign supporters. Need for an international conference and a political solution.

We are grateful to Christopher Thornton, now at Oxford University, for the article below which was published in the leading Moscow daily Nezavisimaya Gazyeta on 25 September (translation in haste by Arab Digest).

A T-55 operated by the LNA (source LNA)

The analysis of foreign support for Haftar does not include Russia. There have long been rumours that he has Russian support, perhaps based on his visits to Moscow. The only evidence of real support we have seen is a 13 September report by Jane’s (details behind a pay wall)  that for the last year a team of 23 specialists has been overhauling Russian tanks and other heavy arms, providing parts worth $278,000 (this would be material left over from the Qadhafi period). The source does not state whether these are serving personnel, but there is evidence connecting them with the Wagner Group. This group has reportedly been active in Ukraine and Syria, and is described by some as a private military company and by others as a Russian Ministry of Defence unit used for deniable operations.

The Libyan blind alley

None of the opposing parties is capable of leading the country out of crisis.

By: Nikolai Dmitrievich Plotnikov Director of the Centre for Scientific and Analytic Information at the Institute for Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Doctor of Sciences (Political Science)

Valerii Ivanovich Zakharov, Leading Specialist of the Centre for Scientific and Analytic Information at the Institute for Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, PhD

Chistopher Thornton – Special Adviser at the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, an International Non-Governmental Organization (Geneva)

For some three weeks now a deceptive calm has prevailed in southern Tripoli, which for the last five months has been under siege by the Libyan National Army (LNA) of Khalifa Haftar. It was established after the failure of numerous unsuccessful attempts by the field marshal to take the Libyan capital under his control. Supporters of the Prime Minister of the Government of National Accord (GNA) Faiz Sarraj have succeeded in defending Tripoli in fierce fighting. According to the World Health Organisation clashes between the two sides have caused the death of more than one thousand and the injury of about 5.5 thousand. As always most of the victims are among the civilian population.

The tactics followed by Haftar in the east and south of the country, thanks to which the LNA succeeded in establishing control over wide areas, did not work in western Libya. In Fezzan the LNA neutralised or drove out its opponents thanks to its superiority in the air and to skilful exploitation of tribal alliances, and also to the support of its foreign backers, above all the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. In Tripolitania that did not work. Unlike the desert regions of Fezzan this is a built-up and urbanised area with high population density – two thirds of the inhabitants of Tripolitania live in one third of the area. In these conditions Haftar did not set about mass indiscriminate bombing. Groups loyal to the GNA in their turn did not allow themselves to be drawn into fighting at a disadvantage with Haftar’s units in open spaces and to expose themselves to his airstrikes.

Also unsuccessful was Haftar’s procedure of making deals with local tribes in the area of the so-called oil crescent (along the seaboard of the Gulf of Sirt) and in Fezzan. Exceptions were the occupation of Garyan which according to Haftar’s opponents the field marshal simply bought, and of Tarhuna which his units also took practically without a shot being fired. In western Libya things are not quite the same. People there live in mixed communities dominated by regional and political interests, and getting them onside relying solely on tribal identity is more complicated than in the other regions of Libya. Moreover commercial alliances with tribes come unstuck as financial subsidies are reduced or more advantageous proposals received. Many such examples could be quoted in the history of Libya after Qadhafi.

Haftar may rely basically on fighters from Cyrenaica, who find themselves fighting far away from their homes and their tribal areas. They lose the idea which consolidates their fighting spirit of defending their homeland, and are cast as aggressors fighting against their Libyan brothers. This is behind increasing feelings of disappointment and depression, particularly among those enlisted from the Awakir tribes who have borne heavy losses in the battles for Tripoli, and an increase in desertion.

Haftar’s Tripoli operation was also made much more difficult by the LNA’s over-extended supply lines and their great vulnerability particularly on the side of Misurata, the dominant force in western Libya. Haftar should have taken into account the great capabilities of this city-state. Its leaders have so far not announced total mobilisation for fear of being charged with pretensions to extend their hegemony over the capital.

In the short term violence will continue to escalate in all probability, so long as Haftar does not lose hope of taking Tripoli. He relies more and more on mercenaries and on ideologically motivated recruits, including ultra-conservative Salafi militias, as well as on air power. The LNA is already not taking account of the presence of the civilian population in quarters of the city, and ever more frequently making use of missile and bomb strikes, including the use of military drones. On 19 August air defence forces loyal to the GNA brought down in the airspace over Misurata a drone of Haftar’s army supplied by the Emirates. This system was taking part in an attack on Misurata airport.

Haftar’s military setbacks have forced him to ask Egypt and the UAE for additional military assistance. He is interested in additional supplies by the Emirates of Chinese WingLoong 2 drones, and in expanding the mercenary contingent. According to the Qatari website Al-ArabyAl-Jadeed the Emirates have agreed with the deputy head of the Provisional Military Council in Sudan General Muhammad Hamdan Dagalo to move groups under his control across the border of Libya with Sudan and Egypt to Tripoli (not less than 4,000 men). This operation is allegedly financed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

A few days ago Haftar decided to reduce the number of police in the territory under his control, and to direct all those released into military units. This is obviously an attempt to make up for human losses somehow or other.

France at least until recently was also giving support to Haftar’s army. Its official representatives could give no convincing explanation of how four FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missile systems belonging to the French army turned up at the LNA military base in Garyan. The government of Faiz Sarraj accuses France of playing a double game: on the one hand official Paris supports the GNA and calls for an immediate end to military action in Tripoli, on the other it provides Haftar with technical and reconnaissance military assistance.

France has its reasons for supporting the field marshal. It is most of all concerned about the situation in the Libyan south, and the defence of its political and economic interests in a number of countries of the Sahel region. Paris gave approval to the participation of sub-units of the LNA in putting down an insurgency movement from Chad, to the south of Libya. The insurgents were engaged in an armed struggle with the Chad leader Idriss Déby who is supported by France. The LNA drove the movement on to the territory of Chad where it was bombed by the French air force. France is also interested in preserving its oil assets in eastern Libya.

Haftar also relies on the support of the USA. His emissaries from members of the House of Representatives in Tobruk (the Libyan parliament elected in 2014) met in Washington at the end of July American lawmakers from the Republican side, and convinced them that the Muslim Brothers (an organisation banned in the Russian Federation) were dominant in Tripoli and were exercising their dire influence on the whole situation in the country. According to documents on the registration of foreign agents published by the US Justice Department, Haftar (like, incidentally, the head of the GNA Faiz Sarraj) has hired lobbyists in Washington to defend his interests in the US power structures, and to present his policy in an advantageous light in the US media. This counts on the negative attitude of President Donald Trump and those around him to political Islam, and on the commitment of the US administration to relations as allies with the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

In showing definite support of Haftar, Trump’s starting point is that his army is fighting radical Islamists. The USA is determined to control the activity of Islamist groups in Libya and the countries of the Sahel region. On general grounds the Americans also do not wish Libya (with or without Haftar) to be in Moscow’s orbit. To judge by statements of certain American politicians, there are forces in Washington which fear that Russia, having consolidated its position on the Syrian seaboard, wants next to extend its influence in the Mediterranean to the shores of Libya.

The US position on Libya looks inconsistent in many respects because of the division within the political elites after the arrival of Donald Trump at the White House. We recall that the Americans together with Great Britain, France, Italy, Egypt and the UAE made a joint declaration on 15 July calling for an immediate end to military action in Tripoli and the return of the warring parties to political dialogue with the mediation of the UN. But at the beginning of August the USA voted against a British draft resolution on Libya in the UN Security Council.

It was proposed in this document to support the new plan of the head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) Ghassan Salamé dated 29 June for the settlement of the Libyan crisis, to invite the parties to end military action and renew the political process under the aegis of the UN with the support of the African Union, the Arab League and the EU, to call for the immediate closure of the centres for the detention of illegal immigrants in Libya, and to call for rigorous observance of the arms embargo on Libya. Earlier the USA refused to support a draft UN Security Council statement sharply condemning the strike by the LNA air force on the migrant detention centre in Tajura (a suburb of Tripoli), which resulted in the death of 44 and the injury of 130 people. Salamé called this attack a war crime.

The collapse of the LNA’s offensive against Tripoli led to a purge in Haftar’s army. According to Libyan sources a number of officers in key positions were removed. The unsuccessful actions of the command may lead to a split in the LNA and the loss of allies in the regions. Such signs have already been observed in Fezzan, which Haftar is not in a position to control because of his offensive against Tripoli. Moreover relations have been strained between the Toubou people and the Arabs, which may lead to large-scale inter-communal violence.

Dissatisfaction with the lack of clear successes by Haftar’s army is being expressed by the shaikhs of the eastern tribes which at first supported the field marshal’s advance on Tripoli. There is talk of the leaders of the tribal federations of Tarhuna and Bani Walid withdrawing their recruits from the Tripoli sector.

Tribal and local forces which have fought and died for Haftar have started more and more to challenge his legitimacy. In Benghazi this led to a clash between different power centres within the LNA. The forces supporting the LNA largely consisting of members of the influential Awakir tribe and controlling the centre of Benghazi city together with LNA special forces had a number of clashes with 106 brigade of the LNA which is commanded by Haftar’s son Khalid.

Haftar and his army suffered severe reputational damage inside the country and abroad from their strikes against civilian targets which caused many casualties. Above all there was the air attack on the night of 2/3 July on the refugee holding centre at Tajura, the drone strike on the residential quarter of the southern city of al-Murzuq with the loss of 43 victims, and a number of airstrikes on medical establishments.

There was widespread publicity of the kidnapping in Benghazi on 18 July of the member of the House of Representatives Saham Sarqiwa (Seham Sergiwa). Witnesses saw fighters of 106 brigade of the LNA, also notorious as the Salafi brigade Awliya Al-Dam [“those of the blood”, a revenge group], break into her house and carry her off in an unknown direction. Sarqiwa was one of a number of members of Parliament who two months before publicly called on Haftar to cease military activity in Tripoli. On the day before she was kidnapped she criticised the LNA operation in the capital in an interview on the Cairo-based al-Hadath TV channel and called for the formation of a government of national unity including supporters of the Muslim Brothers.

Saham Sarqiwa’s anti-military and anti-Haftar position reflects public attitudes of a significant part of the civilian community of eastern Libya. According to a number of sources a group of activists has appeared in Cyrenaica opposing Haftar’s war operation in Tripoli. It operates more or less underground, organising confidential meetings and protest campaigns on social networks. The group includes lawyers, engineers, workers and students. The activists (some of whom are in Tunis) appeal to foreign diplomats demanding an end to the interference of foreign states in Libya’s affairs, particularly France and Turkey, and accept that the Libyans themselves should find a political resolution of the conflict.

They oppose both Haftar and the Islamist groups against which his army is fighting, positioning themselves as a third force. A feature of this movement is its expressly anti-war character, something unusual for the Arab world. The group’s leaders limit information about its activities and the names of its members. They consider that it is at present too risky to organise protest actions on the harshly controlled streets of the towns of eastern Libya.

As for the position of the government of Faiz Sarraj, they appear more determined than at the beginning of the crisis. Factors contributing to this are the consolidation of various political forces in Tripoli in the face of a common threat, the relatively successful operations of the formations of the GNA, and above all the failures of its anniversary, Haftar’s army. Qatar and Turkey continue to provide the GNA with financial and technical military support. According to many experts this has played an important part in the turnaround of the situation on the war fronts.

Ankara pretty well openly provides the authorities in Tripoli with arms and military technology, including Bayraktar TB-2 drones. Turkish military specialists service the command posts operating the drones at the Mitiga airbase in Tripoli and in Misurata. After the July visit of Sarraj to Turkey President Erdoğan promised to increase the military power of the GNA, including sending an additional contingent of operators to control the Turkish drones. On the other hand following the formation of the new Italian government and the resignation of Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, technical military assistance from Italy to Misurata may come to an end. Salvini was a supporter of the GNA and maintained confidential relations with its first Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Maatiq who represents Misurata’s interests in the government of Faiz Sarraj.

The Tripoli authorities have begun to conduct a more active and forward diplomacy towards Europe, America and Africa, and also in their contacts with UNSMIL and its chief Ghassan Salamé. The GNA as a rule declares support for most of  Salamé’s initiatives. Nevertheless Sarraj has more than once sharply rejected statements by Salamé, including those he made at the UN Security Council on 29 July asserting that the armed forces of the GNA include terrorists on the UN Security Council’s sanctions lists.

At present one of the acute problems which Sarraj’s government faces is that of the migrant holding centres. In Tripoli and its neighbourhood and also in a number of coastal towns there are 27 such centres which are nominally controlled by the GNA. This subject started to be particularly keenly addressed after the airstrike of Haftar’s army on the camp in Tajura. In July the UN called for the decommissioning of all the centres, declaring that they were not suitable to hold migrants.

Amnesty International has called conditions in the migrant holding centres horrific. The migrants themselves who are guarded by recruits from every imaginable militia speak of mass torture, rape, hunger and disease. In the words of the top representative of the UN agency for refugee affairs in Libya Jean-Paul Cavalieri the centres or at least some of them work on a business model which includes smugglers, people traffickers and forced labour. Many immigrants from the centres have been sold as sex slaves or as construction workers.

Following the UN intervention the Tripoli authorities have announced that it is planned to close three of the largest migrant detention centres, those in Tajura, Misurata and Homs. But the international humanitarian organisations which follow the situation in Libya fear that closing them will lead to even greater overcrowding in the remaining centres. According to the information of the UN High Commissioner for refugees there are more than 6,000 people in the migrant detention centres, half of them in Tripoli and its neighbourhood.

One more acute problem in Libya is the activity in the country of jihadist groups, above all cells of the Islamic State (IS – banned in the Russian Federation). According to their anonymous representatives, the military actions in western Libya have allowed IS not just to come back to life, but to undertake active operations of subversion and terrorism striking both organs of the GNA and Haftar’s army. In other words the whole of Libya is exposed to their strikes. The largest part of the jihadist fighters, some 70%, are citizens of poor African countries: Niger, Chad, Mali, Sudan and foreign Arabs. The total number is unknown. According to some information IS regards Libyan territory as a launchpad to expand its activities into other African countries.

Based on an assessment of the situation in Libya and the actions of the opposing parties, there is no prospect of a political settlement in the country. In the opinion of Ghassan Salamé the warring parties have so far used only 30% of their forces, and the production of 1.2 million bpd of oil, which yielded $10.28 billion in the first half of 2019, guarantees that the conflict can continue for a long time yet. At the same time none of the parties has the chance of unconditional victory. The further development of the situation depends now not so much on the relations of forces within the country as on the balance of forces and interests of the international players who are drawn into Libyan affairs. Most undesirable and dangerous would be their direct intervention in the conflict, which would further aggravate the situation in the country.

The most acceptable and realistic option is to support the efforts of the UN to call an international conference on Libya bringing in all the participants who are interested in settling the crisis; at the conference it would be absolutely essential to draw on the results of the preparatory work for a Libyan national conference which went ahead last year. That might contribute to a reduction of the level of violence in Libya and a return of the warring parties to the political arena.

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