Battles in Tarhouna, Wattiyah to prove decisive for Haftar’s pact with international, Libyan backers
On Monday night, Khalifa Haftar, the head of the so-called Libyan National Army, ascended to the podium to declare that he was nullifying the United Nations-brokered 2015 Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) and forming a new government.
In the brief televised address, Haftar said he was accepting a “popular mandate” to rule all of Libya, seemingly brushing aside the civilian government figures in Tobruk and Benghazi that are aligned with his military patchwork of former Libyan Armed Forces officers, foreign mercenaries, local militias and Islamists.
“We announce that the general command is answering the will of the people, despite the heavy burden and the many obligations and the size of the responsibility, and we will be subject to the people’s wish,” he said.
Haftar had hinted at Monday’s announcement on April 23, when he gave a speech calling for “popular mobilization” to scrap the LPA. In the intervening period, however, there were no notable protests backing the general’s call.
While Haftar did not spell out what form the new power structure would take, one high-ranking LNA officer, who is close to the general and stands to be part of his military government, tells Mada Masr that Haftar plans to issue a constitutional declaration in the coming period, before forming a new government and announcing the names of members of his ruling military council.
When it was drafted in December 2015, the LPA made provisions for a new government structure, the Government of National Accord (GNA), at the head of which sat the nine-member Presidential Council led by Fayez al-Sarraj, a former parliamentarian who was living in exile in Tunis.
Haftar has led an assault on the capital of Tripoli over the last year, with the backing of France, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan and Russia, precisely in an attempt to oust this government structure from power.
While the LNA made significant advances toward Tripoli in the second half of 2019, GNA forces, which have been increasingly backed by ethno-Turkish Syrian troops on the ground and Turkish drones in the skies since the start of the year, have turned the tide of the conflict in recent weeks.
Despite the show of force of Haftar’s Monday announcement — which the high-ranking LNA officer claims came with the backing of the UAE and United States President Donald Trump, even as the US diplomatic mission in Libya expressed “regret” at the move and the US has increasingly voiced public support to the GNA — Monday night marked no significant departure from the LNA’s recent setbacks in its military campaign.
Hours after his Monday address, two of Haftar’s military and logistical strongholds in the campaign on Tripoli were hit.
The GNA conducted five airstrikes on the crucial Wattiyah Airbase, 130 km southwest of the capital, according to GNA military spokesperson Mohamed Qanunu.
And 180 km southeast of Tripoli, the GNA struck Haftar’s main supply line that runs from Bani Walid — the home of many Qadhafi loyalists who have remained a neutral party in the Tripoli war but allow Haftar to use their airport for air supply drops — to his main operations center in Tarhouna.
A Bani Walid resident, who told Mada Masr that he saw a drone in the sky above the city half an hour before the airstrikes were conducted on Monday night, says that three civilians were killed and two others injured in the airstrike on a truck carrying commercial goods.
What happens in Tarhouna and Wattiyah is far from settled, but it may prove decisive for Haftar’s Tripoli campaign and have far-reaching ramifications for his political and military profile.
Sources inside Libya and informed officials in Egypt and Europe that have spoken to Mada Masr in the last week say that the setbacks are a sign of eroding international and domestic backing for the LNA, an erosion that will only hasten if Haftar continues to lose ground and parties prepare for a future beyond the figure of the general who has dominated Libyan politics in recent years.
As recently as February and the early weeks of March, the story was different, however. The LNA was still making some advancement toward Tripoli.
A Libyan political source who is close to Haftar blamed the recent setbacks on the wavering support of Haftar’s closest regional allies: Egypt and the UAE.
“While Turkey has been very forceful and visible in its support of Sarraj, Egypt and the UAE are being a lot more cautious and certainly much less visible in their support of Haftar,” the source says.
According to the source, over the past four weeks, Turkey has gone to great lengths to fortify the forces that are fighting under the GNA.
“The UAE has provided strong financial and logistic support, and Egypt has also been providing expertise, intelligence and logistic support. But neither has been there for Haftar the way Turkey has been there for Sarraj,” he says.
Haftar’s international allies, the same source argues, including Russia, who helped the LNA bounce back from their mid-2019 setback by deploying mercenaries linked to President Vladimir Putin, have also been too calculating in their support.
“There was a time during the past year when Russia was more supportive, but this support fluctuates a lot. France’s support has also been fluctuating. They were very supportive in February when Haftar was making progress but less so now.”
Nonetheless, two Egyptian government officials that spoke to Mada Masr independently at the beginning of the week before Haftar’s announcement were firm in saying that Egypt, with all its reservations regarding Haftar’s performance, still supports the LNA general.
The sources touched upon the oft-repeated policy aim of securing Egypt’s porous western border to justify the continued support of Haftar, an issue that caused tensions between the two sides in the rollout of the Tripoli campaign.
“Now the question is not about Haftar and his political and military performance or his chances. It is rather about what Haftar means for keeping militias away from eastern Libya,” one of the Egyptian officials says.
In a statement released on Tuesday, Egypt’s Foreign Ministry maintained this line, expressing its appreciation “for the relative stability achieved by the Libyan National Army across Libya’s territories, which led to a decrease in terrorist operations in the country, which certainly means the decline of the terrorist danger emanating from Libya and threatening its close and distant neighbors.”
Even with the emphasis on security pragmatism, the second Egyptian official also notes that the battle for Tarhouna is far from a closed matter.
“I know that the Turks who support Sarraj have been projecting an easy victory for the militias, but this cannot be a matter of a few days,” the official says. “There is an attack — agreed. But there is a fightback,” an assessment shared by diplomats in capitals that count themselves as foes and allies of Haftar.
The LNA and local forces in Tarhouna — home to the Seventh Brigade, also known as the Kaniyat Brigade, as it is led by four members of Tarhouna’s Kani family — successfully repelled a GNA attack on April 19.
A military officer in the city told Mada Masr at the time that local armed factions in the city came out in full force, perhaps spurred on by the not-so-distant memory of violent reprisals doled out by forces fighting under the GNA after Qadhafi was ousted resurfacing when Sorman and Sabratha were taken earlier this month.
Over the weekend, Haftar brought together his top generals to update his plans for the fight for Tarhouna, according to the Libyan political source close to Haftar.
According to two informed European officials, one in Cairo and one in Brussels, Haftar has already moved most of his military equipment out of Wattiyah. The equipment at the airbase, one said, was moved very far east — almost to the Libyan-Egyptian border.
The Egyptian government sources declined to firmly confirm or deny whether or not the military equipment from the Wattiyah base had been moved near or inside Egypt’s borders.
Egyptian officials have often credited themselves for helping Haftar, an outcast Armed Forces officer under former Libyan dictator Muammar Qadhafi, to assemble his “army,” noting the essential role they have played to secure the three-way coordination that brought Cairo, Abu Dhabi and Amman together in support of Haftar and to secure continued French involvement on his side.
This support, however, brought Egypt visible criticism within Libya over the last week. In a press conference on Wednesday night, GNA Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha criticized what he called a damaging intervention in Libya by Haftar’s backers, blaming Egypt for sending mercenaries to fight alongside the LNA.
According to a Brussels-based European source: “There has been no evidence of Egyptian fighters in Libya. It has been said often, but it has not been proven. What there has been evidence of is the presence of Egyptian intelligence agents and military experts on the ground to help Haftar with his plans.”
Cairo’s commitment to Haftar might not be so ironclad, however. According to the Libyan political source, Egypt has opened a steady communication channel with Abdel Razeq al-Nathuri, Haftar’s chief of staff who the source says has recently fallen out of the general’s good graces. And Egypt is not the only one in contact with Nathuri.
A high ranking GNA source says that there have been ongoing discussions between military and social leaders in eastern Libya and GNA-affiliated former high ranking Libyan Armed Forces officers and members of the Awagir tribe, with whom Nathuri has established relations, over the possibility that Nathuri might succeed Haftar as the head of the military.
Nathuri, the GNA source says, is a preferable choice given that he has not been involved in the war in Tripoli.
According to the Libyan political source, Nathuri also recently offered to mediate between Haftar and the head of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives Aguila Saleh, who has often been a strong supporter of Haftar but proposed a roadmap of his own only last week that was centered on restructuring and electing a new presidential council that would form a new government.
The source adds that Saleh’s proposal received the backing of United Nations Support Mission in Libya acting head Stephanie Williams and the Russians, who voiced disapproval of Haftar’s Monday announcement. However, Haftar turned Nathuri down, the source says.
The discord over the rivaling plans for a new government, according to the Libyan political source, is one example of the fact that political and tribal leaders in the east of Libya are becoming less supportive of the LNA general.
Saleh’s initiative, the source says, was “truly ill-timed, as it came at a time when Haftar is going through a very crucial battle not only for Tarhouna but also for the Wattiyah Air Force Base.”
The source argues that Saleh has been bitter over his marginalization in the Libyan scene compared to both Sarraj and Haftar. “But as he saw Haftar to be weakening, Aguila Saleh decided to come out and offer himself as a possible peacemaker for Libya.”
This read of the intentions behind Saleh’s initiative is shared in some of the capitals that support Haftar. Away from the regional and domestic fronts, some European capitals are looking at the recent LNA setback as a potential to restart the political process.
On Saturday, Italy, France and Germany — supporters of Sarraj, Haftar and the host of the January Berlin Conference respectively — issued a statement alongside European Union High Representative Josep Borrell calling for a humanitarian truce at the start of Ramadan.
After largely being sidelined by Russia and Turkey, who brokered a temporary ceasefire in January, European diplomacy in Libya exerted effort on guiding a plan for intra-Libyan negotiations along economic, military and political tracks launched at the conclusion of the Berlin Conference earlier this year.
However, this effort faltered and finally came to a stop as the world turned its focus toward the public health crisis and economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.
According to the Cairo-based European diplomat, who is informed of developments in Libya, the statement of the three European foreign ministers is merely “an indication that there will not be a decisive military victory for any of the two sides and that the resumption of the political process is essential.”
While Turkey and Qatar are scaling up their support for the GNA, the LNA has been also receiving considerable support from Egypt and the UAE, the source adds, singling out the UAE, “which is obsessed with eliminating all Islamist political factions in Libya and elsewhere in the Arab world.”
The UAE is much less politically pragmatic than Egypt, the source says, which is supporting Haftar with one hand and is pursuing a potential political solution that would significantly reduce the role of Islamist political groups with the other.
Any resumption of the political process that was initiated in Berlin, according to the source, would have to wait for two things: first, for the coronavirus pandemic to recede, and second, for one of the two fighting sides in Libya to feel too weakened to continue the war.
“Most probably, Haftar will be the one that will be weakened by the upcoming Tarhouna battle, and, if he were to sustain a considerable loss, then maybe the UAE would agree to give the go-ahead for his group to engage in a political agreement that would later exclude both Haftar and Sarraj,” the source says.
“But this is not a scenario that the Emiratis would agree to easily. They are being very stubborn, despite the American pressure on them to reduce their support for Haftar.”
A second Cairo-based European diplomat echoes this sentiment. “At the end of the day, there will be no decisive military victory for either side,” the diplomat says.
“Whatever happens on the ground will impact the balance of power on the political front. Tarhouna is under pressure, for sure, but it is also resisting very hard and it is not just the LNA that is resisting but also the people of Tarhouna, who saw the kind of looting and chaos that happens to cities taken over by the GNA.”
Meanwhile, the UN must still pick a successor to Ghassan Salame, who resigned as head of the UN Support Mission in Libya on March 2 after two years of failed attempts to get the Libyan peace process on track.
A source close to Salame at that point told Mada Masr that Salame had grown more frustrated with the regional players rather than with Libyan players. He blamed conflicting regional agendas more than the failed political will of Libyan leaders to pursue a political situation to the crisis in Libya.
Several regional and international players, including Abu Dhabi, according to a well-informed regional diplomatic source, vetoed the nomination of prominent Algerian diplomat Ramtane Lamamra to succeed Saleme.
And while UN Secretary-General António Guterres seems inclined to pursue a successor to Salame from an African nation, several regional players are pushing for an Arab successor, according to the same regional diplomatic source, who adds that an attempt by Salame to pass the job onto Williams, his trusted assistant, would not have passed Russia.