War simmers in battle for Tripoli, with neither side getting decisive support.
By Raja Abdulrahim
When Turkey sent armored vehicles here in May to help stave off an attack on the capital, there was a problem: The trucks didn’t have mounted machine guns.
“Because they lack weapons, they do us more harm than good,” said militia commander Yusuf bin al-Amin. “They are essentially just closed boxes, and those inside die if it’s hit with a missile.”
Foreign powers have funneled military support to both sides of Libya’s civil war—but not enough to give either a decisive advantage.
On one side is the United Nations-recognized Government of National Accord, or GNA, which controls Tripoli and much of the country’s west with help from arms supplied by Turkey.
On the other is the attacking force of Khalifa Haftar, a Libyan-American dual citizen who rules the country’s east and south with help from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
In June, the government recaptured the strategically important town of Gharyan, south of Tripoli, from Mr. Haftar. But since then the conflict has stalled, with efforts to broker peace sidelined by fighting.
The conflict risks becoming another dragged-out war in a region where foreign powers are also major actors in Yemen and Syria.
“This is not a war between Libya’s east and west,” said Fayez al-Sarraj, prime minister of the GNA. “It is between people who back civilian government and those who want military rule.”
More than 1,000 people have been killed during the battle for the Libyan capital according to the U.N.; entire Tripoli suburbs have been evacuated and hospitals have been bombed.
For months, militia commanders allied with the GNA have been clamoring for more Turkish weapons for a decisive counterattack, complaining that Mr. Haftar’s forces are better armed, with more committed foreign backers.
Mr. Sarraj said that in addition to receiving military support from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, Mr. Haftar is employing mercenaries from Africa.
He said his government has also found evidence—including personal effects found on the battlefield and videos posted online—that Russian private military contractors are fighting alongside Mr. Haftar’s forces.
Foreign interference “is making the situation more difficult. It is not helping Libyans sit down and find a solution,” he said.
The militias defending the capital say they often rely on Soviet-era weapons left over from the fallen regime of Col. Moammar Gadhafi, to hold off Mr. Haftar’s forces.
As bullets flew over their heads, young militia members on the front line on the southern edge of Tripoli struggled recently with a Soviet-era 120 mm mortar. To avoid a dangerous misfire, one fighter tied a white rope to the launcher’s switch, allowing it to be fired from a nearby house.
“If we were with Haftar, you’d see all new weapons,” said Muneer al-Swaih, a 32-year-old member of Mr. al-Amin’s militia.
Mr. al-Amin lamented the state of his militia’s equipment, as a young fighter drove up an oft-targeted road on a moped. “This is what we drive to the front-line on,” he said.
Mr. al-Amin wore cargo pants, a black T-shirt and sandals. Like many of his fighters, he has eschewed traditional combat gear because of the heat, making the government’s forces look more like ragtag fighters than an army.
Mr. Haftar has framed his offensive as a liberation of Tripoli from a weak government that can’t keep the electricity on, fill bank coffers or control the militias that patrol its streets.
The Saudis and some other Middle Eastern states have backed Mr. Haftar, saying he is a bulwark against Islamist groups, notably the Muslim Brotherhood.
Turkey has sought to counter the influence of Gulf states in Libya and prevent Mr. Haftar from taking over the country. In May, Turkey began delivering armored vehicles and armed drones to Tripoli, selling $350 million worth of military equipment to the GNA, said people familiar with the matter.
But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is hesitant to be sucked deeper into an arms race with wealthy Gulf states, the people said.
A Turkish government spokesman declined to comment on the equipment sold to Libya. Turkish officials said its arms sales were concluded within the framework of a 2012 bilateral defense pact and didn’t violate the embargo.
Saudi Arabia offered Mr. Haftar tens of millions of dollars in financial aid before his advance on Tripoli, according to senior advisers to the Saudi government, which says it maintains an even hand in Libya and backs U.N. mediation efforts. The Saudi government hasn’t commented about its support to Mr. Haftar.
Egypt and the U.A.E. have provided air support to Mr. Haftar’s forces, according to a U.N. panel that monitors a 2011 arms embargo that limits support to both sides. Egypt denies it has provided air support and the U.A.E. hasn’t acknowledged the presence of its aircraft.
U.S. officials say they are consulting with a range of Libyan leaders to bring both sides back to the negotiating table.
Washington has for years supported the GNA and initially condemned Mr. Haftar’s offensive. But at the urging of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, President Trump called Mr. Haftar in mid-April and “discussed a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system,” the White House said.
“This muddled, divided global approach has been a gift to Libyan actors on the ground, because they can turn to different sides,” said Frederic Wehrey, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, referring to both sides of the civil war. “They are playing off these divisions.”
Outside powers know they won’t be punished if they violate the arms embargo, Mr. Wehrey said.
Mr. Haftar’s forces have done much of their fighting with drones that the Tripoli government says come from the U.A.E. The weapons are used to strike vehicles near the front lines and have prevented the government’s forces from advancing, militia fighters said.
To avoid being spotted, the GNA’s forces hide tanks, armored vehicles and ambulances under trees, bridges and carports. Mosque minarets are used as lookout posts.
As the conflict has dragged on, some Tripoli residents have warmed to Mr. Haftar’s campaign.
Gas lines in Tripoli snake around entire neighborhood blocks, matched only by those waiting at banks low on cash. Across the capital, half-finished construction projects have sat for years with cranes still hovering overhead.
Waiting in line at her neighborhood bank, Amnia Ibrahim, a 52-year-old high-school art teacher and mother of six, said she and her husband have taken additional jobs to support their family because her bank branch rarely has cash to dispense.
Over the previous four days, power outages had blanketed Tripoli, leaving her without electricity.
“I think he will bring back order,” Ms. Ibrahim said of Mr. Haftar. “People are tired.”
Protesters once demonstrated against Mr. Haftar on Fridays at Tripoli’s Martyrs Square, so named because it was where Gadhafi used to hang dissidents. Vendors hawking cotton candy, popcorn and pony rides came to take advantage of the crowds.
Now, no one shows up except families looking for a distraction, said Abdulhamid Khabaat, 32, who sells belts, sunflower seeds and a weight check for 1 dinar (70 cents) on a white bathroom scale.
David Gauthier-Villars and Jared Malsin contributed to this article.
Raja Abdulrahim – Reporter, The Wall Street Journal. She is a former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times. Previously on the Metro staff, Abdulrahim spent a few years reporting from the Middle East, especially Lebanon and Syria. Earlier, she joined coverage of the Arab Spring revolutions and reported from Tahrir Square during the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as well as the first weeks of the Libyan uprising. She started at The Times in 2008.
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