Published: July 11, 2019
The commander of the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), Khalifa Haftar, has launched a new foreign-backed air campaign to unseat the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. The LNA launched Operation End of Treachery July 1 after a GNA ground offensive pushed Haftar’s army back out of the city of Gharian, which had served as the staging ground for the LNA’s April 4 Tripoli offensive. This loss seriously jeopardized Haftar’s ability to sustain his ground offensive in Tripoli. Now, the last LNA supply line in the town of Tarhuna, 60 kilometers of Tripoli, is the prize GNA forces eye hungrily from Tripoli.
The loss of Gharian was a pivotal moment in the Libyan civil war, as GNA ground forces now begin to encircle and apply pressure to Tarhuna in the hope of breaking the LNA’s military resolve. Tarhuna’s armed groups aligned with the LNA days before the offensive and are primarily motivated by access to Tripoli’s lucrative security arrangements. A siege could force Tarhuna to renegotiate a pragmatic ceasefire and enduring peace, independent of Haftar, around inclusive security arrangements. A military siege that cuts the final military supply line from Tarhuna or ends in negotiations almost certainly ends Haftar’s ground offensive against Tripoli. It also demonstrates Haftar’s political irrelevance to a peace agreement.
These military vulnerabilities, a fear of losing local allies, and political desperation to win Tripoli, all drive Haftar’s new operation with the backing of international sponsors. The current push poses a danger to any prospective peace deal to end the war. The new operation could transform the civil war from a shrinking and geographically contained ground offensive into a foreign-led air campaign intended to prop up Haftar, rendering any local ceasefire or peace talks between ground forces meaningless.
Why Gharian Was a Turning Point
The loss of Gharian is both a symbolic blow and a strategic loss to Haftar and marks a serious setback to his bid to take Tripoli by force. Gharian is one of two major supply lines into the LNA’s Tripoli offensive, and LNA ground forces in Tripoli are now more reliant upon the last remaining vulnerable supply chain from Tarhuna. Importantly, the supply chains offered unequal value and served the LNA operations room in distinct ways. Gharian is home to a small airfield, and was the most dynamic point in Haftar’s military logistics network supplying Tripoli. The airfield was critical to receiving high-value military equipment and arms by air deemed too risky to transport by land from Eastern Libya. After Haftar’s forces fled Gharian, GNA forces uncovered the LNA’s massive cache of high-value French-procured and U.S.-manufactured anti-tank missiles. Critically, Haftar’s ground forces used Gharian and its airfield as a rapid response supply line. The LNA operations room in Gharian also was able to rapidly respond by air to unanticipated military shortages and needs of LNA forces in Tripoli in a way that Tarhuna’s slower ground supply line couldn’t. This loss has put a tremendous amount of strain on the LNA and redirected the focus of GNA forces on Haftar’s last remaining supply line in Tarhuna. If Tarhuna’s military resolve were to be broken, through negotiations or conflict, the ground offensive in Tripoli would likely be over.
Libya’s Air War
Haftar responded to his loss in Gharian by launching the End of Treachery air campaign July 1 after “exhausting all traditional means” to capture Tripoli. There is growing concern that Haftar’s foreign backers are leading this new air campaign on Tripoli to compensate for Haftar’s ineffective ground offensive and military strategy. LNA military sources claim to have received new American-produced F16 aircraft, indicating foreign support from Haftar’s sponsors.
Both sides in the war now have foreign air support, but the strength, variety, and use of Haftar’s support vastly outweighs that of the GNA’s. Haftar has long relied upon the air support of the United Arab Emirates, which established an air base in eastern Libya in 2016, to support his military campaigns in Benghazi and Derna shortly after a U.N.-led agreement installed the GNA. The United Arab Emirates possesses a fleet of at least four Chinese drones in eastern Libya in addition to a mercenary air force using converted air tractors operated by Erik Prince. The first confirmed image of an alleged Emirati-operated, Chinese-produced Wingloon drone surfaced in Tripoli, shortly after the LNA announced its new air campaign. In comparison, the GNA recently came into possession of a Turkish drone that was reportedly destroyed by the LNA last month. The remainder of the GNA’s known air force, outdated MiG 21s and 23s, are effectively no match for the top-of-the-line American aircraft now carrying out airstrikes on Haftar’s behalf.
The full impact of this new air war was felt July 2. The GNA claims the United Arab Emirates conducted airstrikes that struck a migrant detention facility in Tripoli’s suburbs, killing at least 44 people and wounding 130. The strike targeted a GNA-allied armed group based in the complex housing the detention center. The United Nations claims the act could constitute a war crime in the bloodiest day since the Tripoli offensive began.
What next for Tripoli?
Mediation between GNA forces in Tripoli and LNA forces in Tarhuna could be the key to ending the ground offensive in the war for Tripoli. GNA forces began to coalesce around Tarhuna from neighboring towns on July 1 in a sign they intended to besiege the city and force a ceasefire. The United Nations has experience in local ceasefires around Tripoli: It successfully brokered a ceasefire last September between the very same forces from both factions in Tripoli, and it sanctioned actors who broke the ceasefire. However, the LNA successfully evaded condemnation, sanctions, and diplomatic pressure to enter ceasefire agreements since 2014. The LNA ignored International Criminal Court warrants for officers accused of war crimes, abandoned political talks and declared war on Tripoli during a visit by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres, and continuously violates embargos without repercussion. The GNA, which mediated with Haftar for 3 years until April 4 in an attempt to avoid conflict claims that international ambivalence and air support to Haftar left its forces with no choice but to break the arms embargo and seek “alternative options to defend themselves.” The confirmation of French military assistance to Hafter in Gharian will send shockwaves in Libya. France denied supporting Hafter on April 4, and claimed any French military presence in Gharian was “fake news” on July 1. This will certainly cast doubt on how the United Nations can criticize the GNA for breaking the arms embargo, whilst a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council delivers weapons and intelligence to Haftar to unseat the GNA.
Prospects for a diplomatic and peaceful settlement for the time being seem unrealistic given the prevailing military dynamic and discrete diplomatic support to Haftar. The U.N. Security Council convened July 4 to discuss LNA airstrikes on the migrant detention facility, but the United States prevented a statement condemning the airstrikes. Analysts question whether the United States has a coherent Libya policy, citing its political and commercial ties to the United Arab Emirates and Egypt as reason behind its tacit support of Haftar.
The transformation of the conflict from a localized battle in Tripoli’s suburbs and low intensity civil war into a large-scale, foreign-led air campaign seems more likely now than it ever has been before. This would render local ceasefires on the ground meaningless. Intriguingly, as military facts on the ground change, and new developments in the sky emerge, Haftar has become increasingly irrelevant to the decision to continue the war or broker peace. The growing role of external actors reveals that the key to an elusive peace and an end to the civil war may be in Libya, but not on the ground, and not entirely decided by Libyans.
Anas El Gomati is the founder and director of Sadeq Institute, the first public policy think tank established in Tripoli, Libya, funded by a non-governmental organization based in the Netherlands. He is a former visiting fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut and former visiting lecturer at the NATO defense college in Rome, Italy.
Image: Voice of America source