Regional Gambles and Field Realities
Retired Libyan general Khalifa Haftar launched a new military operation on the night of 4 April 2019, with the aim of taking control of Tripoli.
Within a few hours, his forces entered the town of Garyan, the largest city within the Nafusa Mountains, and a number of nearby towns without fighting.
Local gunmen loyal to him from Sabratah, Sorman and Warshefana took control of a security gate on the coastal road west of the capital and smuggled military tanks and vehicles to the areas of the southern belt of Tripoli.
Warships tried to dock east of the city of Zawiya. Despite the speed of movement in the field and the intensity of the media coverage, hopes for a quick military and political achievement and the creation of a fait accompli to reshape Libyan politics have failed.
Battle for the Capital and Regional Gambles
Since the launch of the “Karama” operation (or “Operation Dignity”) led by Haftar in 2014, the military and political scene in Libya has been vulnerable to the regional and international contexts and the arrangements that have taken place in a number of countries in order to stifle the Arab popular movement ongoing since 2011 and to reproduce the totalitarian regimes.
The emergence of the Haftar phenomenon could not have been conceived without first the support of the United Arab Emirates, quickly followed by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and France.
Evidence suggests that the new round of conflict on the outskirts of Tripoli is not a purely Libyan event. A few days before his forces moved to Tripoli, Haftar visited the Saudi capital Riyadh where he met King Salman bin Abdulaziz and security, military and political leaders with Saudi media coverage.
But the Saudi official statements merely indicated that the two parties “reviewed the developments in the Libyan arena and the efforts exerted to achieve security and stability.”
Western media sources such as the Wall Street Journal have spoken of Saudi promises to cover the cost of the military campaign against Tripoli and provide it with funds and weapons.
UAE military and logistical support to Haftar forces also increased with the start of the attack on Tripoli, where intensive air traffic was detected between Abu Dhabi and Benina airport in Benghazi for military transport aircraft, according to sites monitoring air traffic and Arab and Western media sources.
Armored vehicles and tankers of the type used by the UAE forces in Yemen appeared in propaganda tapes broadcast by the media loyal to Haftar, a number of which were captured by Government of National Accord forces.
The commander of the Karama operation regularly visits Abu Dhabi, the warplanes and drones of which have contributed heavily to the battles of Benghazi, Derna and Al Hilal, launching from the UAE-controlled air base in Al Khadim district, south of the Marj city, or from the Benina base, where a the Emirati air forces are concentrated.
It is expected that, in line with the battles of Benghazi and Derna previously, the UAE will provide air, reconnaissance and combat support to Haftar’s forces south of Tripoli, launching from the al-Watiya airbase in the event they are unable to achieve any progress on the ground.
In the same context, the Egyptians have continued their support of Haftar, since the first day of the attack on Tripoli. On April 14, 2019, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi welcomed General Haftar and repeated his support for “counterterrorism efforts to achieve security and stability Libyan citizens in all of Libya.”
Cairo has been one of the most prominent political, diplomatic and military supporters of Haftar since the launch of Operation Karama in 2014. Its forces have already carried out air strikes in Derna and Al Hilal and maintains air forces at the Charruba base.
This was confirmed by media sources that revealed the launch of French spy drones from al-Watiya base, which is under the control of Haftar’s forces south-west of Tripoli, to support his forces, who are engaged in fierce fighting against the Government of National Accord forces.
At the same time, Tunisian forces revealed the arrival of a group of French combatants, believed to be military advisers to Haftar’s forces, at a border crossing between the two countries, aboard diplomatic cars.
On the western border of Libya, protests continue in Algeria despite President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s departure, unrelenting in the demand for change deep in the system of government.
On the south-eastern border of Libya, after months of protests that led to the ejection of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, an agreement on the transitional period and mechanisms is yet to be settled.
Meanwhile, there are increasing indications of regional efforts to influence the Sudanese movement’s outcome by “supporting the steps announced by the transitional military council in Sudan” and promises to “provide a package of humanitarian assistance including petroleum products, wheat and medicines”.
Field Calculations and the Stumbling Block
The attack by the Haftar forces on Tripoli on the night of April 4 was not surprising to those following the situation in Libya, especially after taking control of a number of southern cities and towns.
However, it is remarkable that the presidential council of the Government of National Accord and its chairman, Fayez al-Sarraj, did not take firm action against the threats made by the senior commanders of Haftar’s forces and media reports of large military formations heading towards the western region and the southern belt of the capital, and did not take precautionary military measures.
The silence of the Presidential Council and the Government of National Accord contributed to the shock of the rapid entry of Haftar’s forces into the city of Garyan.
This opened a gap in the southern strategic belt of the capital and then small groups moved to take control of Gate 27 on the coastal road west of the capital and other groups moved towards the airport, and Qasr Ben Ghashir and Wadi al-Rabih and Azizia, on the southern border of the capital, and Azizia, on the southern border of the capital.
This came with a huge media campaign coordinated by social networking sites and satellite channels broadcast mostly from Abu Dhabi, Cairo, Amman and Tunisia, showing the size of military formations and strength of their arsenal and the popular welcome in each area of intervention.
It is evident through the intense publicity that accompanied the first military moves on the borders of Tripoli that Hafar’s forces and their regional allies were relying on a general state of shock, panic and confusion to prevent the organization of any resistance.
They were clearly encouraging their supporters in the capital to move to disperse the forces loyal to the government of National Accord and open weak spots to facilitate control of the capital in a very short time, as they were counting on some battalions to handover some positions and weapons without fighting, as had happened in the city of Garyan and some cities of the south.
This scenario is further validated by the security services’ announcement during the first days of the attack that groups of what they described as “sleeper cells” were arrested in various locations in the capital and the arrest of the leadership of a number of armed battalions, most of them Salafist.
Response to the Attack
The forces of the city of Zawiya were able to expel the Haftar forces that infiltrated the tourist road west of the capital within a few hours, captured dozens of them, and seized weapons and military vehicles.
Then they began to move south towards Azizia and the southern belt of of the capital.
At the same time armed battalions from Tripoli, Misrata, Zilten, Zuwara and others were mobilized and directed to the capital, adding to the forces of the Western Military Zone, the Central Military Zone and the Tripoli military zone of the Ministry of Defense.
Although Haftar’s forces managed to control more locations south of the capital, including Tripoli International Airport, which has been out of operation since 2014, the government forces recovered most of them in hit and run operations, taking attacking forces prisoner and dozens of dead and wounded on both sides.
By the end of the first week, the field progress of Haftar’s forces grounded to a halt.
As the second week of the offensive began, both sides started to use air forces.
While Haftar’s forces launched successive raids on the positions of government forces south of the capital, the Faculty of Civil Aviation of Misrata air force launched raids on Haftar forces stationed in Garyan and south of the capital and on its supply lines in Jafra and South Sirte.
At the same time, Haftar forces intensified its “GRAD” rocket strikes on neighborhoods south of the capital, causing extensive damage to civilian structures, including schools, warehouses and field hospitals, and the displacement of thousands of residents.
The shift from rapid dynamic combat to the use of aviation, missiles and artillery refers to a new tactic to destroy infrastructure and residential areas, a tactic previously used in Benghazi and Derna, where much of their territory was scorched.
Most of the parties involved in Libya, including the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, have issued statements urging all parties to come to a truce and revive the political process.
Countries such as Italy and the United States have laid the responsibility with Haftar for the escalation and called to restore the status quo but have not taken diplomatic measures to pressure Haftar and his regional supporters.
Domestically, the attack has put an end to the “National Conference” project, which UNAMID was seeking to hold in the city of Ghadames, midway this month, with a view to setting out a roadmap for unifying institutions, including the army, and holding elections that would produce a new executive and legislative authority.
Although Haftar has not shown much interest in political solutions since the launch of the Karama process, Al-Sarraj has been keen to deal diplomatically and even identify with the aspirations of the retired general.
However, he found himself compelled to abandon the sitting on the fence policy after the Tripoli attack. It is unlikely that he will soon return to his previous policy, in light of the current mobilization and the attack by the Haftar forces.
This attack has ushered in a new political and military phase in Libya.
After two weeks of fierce fighting, the attacking forces were unable to make significant progress on any level, and intensive media campaigning did not lead to breakthroughs in the center of the capital.
On the other hand, the political institutions represented in the Presidential Council and the Government of National Accord, and the military represented by the battalions coming from various cities in the West, have achieved some unity and managed to absorb the attack.
Several indicators suggest that prolonging the battle could cause great damage to the capital and its environs, while turning it into a quagmire of attacking forces and leading to a recline for the “Karama” project despite regional support.
Observers have not ruled out that the attack on the capital by battalions of tribal, regional, and ideological hue, and the corresponding mobilization in the central and western regions, creates a mood that is easily exploited by proponents of partition and fracturing.