By Mohamed Toumi
This paper focuses on Operation Peace Storm’s advances and investigates their political and security implications.
Fighting has intensified in Libya between the forces of the internationally recognized Government (GNA) and the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) since April 18, 2020.
After taking over six Western cities (including Sabratha, Sorman and Zeltan) Prime Minister Sarraj’s forces advanced in an attempt to seize Tarhouna, Hafter’s strong hold.
A victory would be a tipping point in Libya’s war, allowing the GNA to move its forces towards the Southern Jufra district, the main supply route to the Western area and Sirte, and its rich Gulf.
Despite the escalation in fighting, the door to a peaceful resolution is still open given the complex social and ethnicties among Libyans as well as the rapid change of allies.
Libya’s UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) has retaken six cities from the pro-Hafter forces and is advancing towards Tarhouna, a strategic town, Southeast of Tripoli and 65 Km (45 miles) from the capital.
The warring factions have been exhausted and state resources are being depleted while foreign powers have benefited from the instability.
Political changes on the ground in the aftermath of Operation Peace Storm
The GNA has made important advances on the Western front through Operation Peace Storm.
The rapid advances are mainly due to a number of factors – Turkey’s intervention in the central Mediterranean in the aftermath has led to critical geopolitical changes in the region, neutralizing Egyptian and Emirati air strikes.
Despite Hafter’s confident rhetoric and media perations, Operation Dignity and the Volcano counter-attack revealed that Hafter’s command is dysfunctional, composed of local militiamen as well as fighters from the Wagner Group, Sudanese Janjaweed militia and Madkhali-Salafis, and poorly trained.
The rapid attack on pro-Hafter forces in the Western coastenabled Operation Peace Storm to recapture six strategic cities (Sabratha, Sorman, Mellitah, Al-Ajaylat, Zelten, Rakdalin, Al-Jamil, Qirdalin and Al- Alssah) followed by an attack on the strategic city Tarhouna.
Overall, the GNA have captured an area covering 3250 sq km, a densely populated region extending from Tripoli to Ras Jedir. Its significance lies in its maritime access, proximity to the capital and its potential as a hub for economic and trading activities.
It is also located at the junction between Western and internal regions. From a geopolitical perspective, this convergence is likely to lead to a changing balance of power and big losses for Haftar’s Operation Dignity forces.
The defeat of General Hafter will likeyly encourage the GNA forces to take over the Gulf of Sirte, defeat ISIS-affiliated groups concentrated in Jufra, end Haftar-aligned Madkhali Salafists’ dream of setting up a state and recapture strategic oil fields and Benghazi, the cradle of the 17 February revolution.
Political changes and differences between Hafter’s foreign supporters
As a result of the long political impasse and the failure of international efforts to reach a negotiated agreement on a lasting ceasefire (after the Ghademess, Skhirat, Geneva and Moscow Accords), Operation Peace Storm was launched on March 26, 2020.
Haftar’s rapid military advance in Operation Volcano of Rage and its success had encouraged some Western allies (who have long turned a blindeye to human rights abuses by dictators and strong men) to argue more forcefully that Libya would be better off as a dictatorship.
However, the recent Operation Peace Storm may encourage them to rethink their strategies.
The UN Security Council’s Group of Experts on Libya has warned that the Libya conflictis ‘‘a war with no winner’’ and acknowledged the growing involvement of foreign mercenaries.
Many of these have been sent by Russian and UAE companies in violation of the UN embargo, transported from Russia, Egypt, Chad and Sudan.
Politically, Haftar’s anti-democratic project is also falling apart. Dr. Mohamed Imran Kacheda, a Libyan political commentator, argues that many Libyans have hit back at attempts to impose a totalitarian regime and have called for a peaceful transition of power via the ballot and not guns.
The military advance of the GNA on the ground would help it to capitalise on its successes in any future peaceful settlement under UN auspices.
Implications of Operation Peace Storm on Tunisian foreign policy
The rapid advances of the GNA and the escalation in the Western area have brought about a new wave of Tunisians fleeing across the border in Ras Jdir.
The Tunisian Government has been on high alert as leaked information suggests that the Arab Nationalist Guard, Mohamed Brahmi’s militiamen fighting on behalf of Bashar Assad, have moved into Libya to fight along side Hafter, and have infliltrated Tunisia in the recent influx.
This could open a diplomatic conflict regarding how these fighters were able to cross borders and travel using improperly obtained passports, as well as questions over responsibility for dispatching these militiamen to Syria.
The escalation in Libya has revealed inconsistencies and lack of coordination in Tunisian diplomacy and lack of institutional cohesion between the head of the National Constitutent Assembly, Rached Ghannouchi, and the Defence and Foreign Ministers over Libya.
While Ghannouchi supports the GNA, the Minister of Defence, Imed Hazgui, described the GNA’s forces as militiamen. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Noureddine Erray, appears to be undecided between these two positions.
This inconsistency risks squandering Tunisia’s diplomatic capital and precious cards on the Libyan issue.
The domestic debate over this issue has opened the space for a reform of Tunisia diplomacy in order to address its weaknesses, address mistakes and promote a long-term vision built on a multi-stake holder approach rather than ideology-based diplomacy.
The advances made by the GNA’s Operation Peace Storm and Hafter’s losses on all fronts have important implications inside and outside Libya.
Locally, the GNA forces’ strategy has shifted from defence to offence, succeeding in recapturing strategic Western cities and expanding its campaign to Tarhouna due to Turkish support, the role of civil society and weaknesses among Haftar’s militiamen.
These events have also exposed the role of foreign intervention by the UAE, Egypt and France, and the use of foreign mercenaries known for their brutal tactics.
Furthermore, Tunisia’s response to the escalation in Libya has provoked a debate about Tunisian diplomacy, leading to intensified calls for its reform and a more coordinated, long-term and pragmatic approach to foreign policy.
Translated from Arabic by Hatem Sebei