Alwaght- Despite UN Secretary-General Antonia Guterres' call for a ceasefire in the global conflicts to focus on passing the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, over the past few days Libya witnessed severe clashes between the forces of Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Prime Minister Faiz Seraj and the eastern forces loyal to General Khalifa Haftar.
General Haftar, a remnant of Muammar Gadhafi regime, has been hopeful that amid the global obsession with the pandemic outbreak he could seize the capital Tripoli as the seat of the internationally-recognized GNA. But not only he made no gains on the fronts but also his forces received the biggest defeat since he collected an army to overthrow the Tripoli-based government. In the recent clashes, the GNA forces managed to tighten their grip on the whole coastal cities west of the capital to the Tunisian border.
Last week, the government forces, backed by Turkish-sponsored militia fighters, launched a surprise attack on the opposite side, recapturing from Haftar’s loyalists Sabratah, Al Ajaylat, Al Jamil, Surman, Al-Ajalat, Raftalin, and Zlatan, all along the western coast.
Dream of Tripoli capture shatters
Haftar-commanded Libyan National Army (LNA,) since April 2019 when began its assault on the capital, has managed to make rapid advances and move close to the gates of the capital to hold an upper hand in the confrontation. The general, confident of the financial and military support from such backers as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Russia, rejected requests by the Seraj government for the cessation of the fighting and declined to show any will for a political solution as he unwaveringly pushed towards the capital.
The recent defeats, however, indicate how uncalculated and unrealistic his campaign was and how much he and his allies underestimated the power of the GNA and its allies. Very likely, Haftar based his calculations on the fight against the militias east of the country, where he succeeded to quell the tribal militant forces by pressuring them through an encirclement. The outcome was control of Benghazi and Derna, the two cities hosting huge oilfields. He took advantage of the massive military, economic, and diplomatic supports offered by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt and set up tribal alliances that helped him gain control of the country’s “oil crescent.”
But the Tripoli front has been largely different as the government forces in the capital and its suburbs managed to unite the ranks of the armed forces and the militants and face off Haftar’s push, an arrangement then enabled them to move to offensive from defensive position.
A shock was given to Haftar when Seraj managed to deepen the GNA influence in the six important western cities under Haftar forces’ control. The six cities all are located along the western coast that connects Tripoli to the border with Tunisia within 150 kilometers.
Economically, restoration of control of these cities can remove all the trade obstacles with Tunisia and return the business to the normal form, namely before the attack by Haftar loyalists in January 2019. This triumph can ease the economic pressure on the GNA that has been mounting since oil exports from eastern oilfields dropped.
The Tripoli government did not have international military support as massive as Haftar’s but it established military and political alliances with the active tribal forces and thus thwarted the attacks with the help of Turkey.
On January 2, the Turkish parliament approved President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s plan to deploy troops and heavy weaponry to Libya. In return, the GNA signed two pacts with Ankara, one for maritime borders demarcation in the Mediterranean Sea and the other for security and defense partnership. The pacts helped protect the capital as they justified Turkish military presence on the Libyan soil. On the one hand, Turkey refers its troop deployment to the internationally-legitimate GNA request and on the other hand justifies its military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean region under the cover of protecting its interests.
Upon the parliament’s approval of the military deployment to Libya, Erdogan said that the Turkish forces in the North African country could help create a balance of power with the UAE and Egyptian proxies.
Definitely, a major development in the war took place when the GNA recovered its air power on the strength of the Turkish backing. The Turkish army’s drone units made a difference in the battle. There is evidence of the Turkish fighter jets intervention, giving GNA a military boost. On Tuesday, Greece announced that its air force detected Turkish jets en route to Libya. At least 16 F-16s belonging to the Turkish air force were deployed to Libya on Friday, the Greek military said.
Hours after the Greek statement, the Turkish ministry of defense stated that its armed forces conducted surprise air and sea drills in the Eastern Mediterranean. A day after the so-called Turkish military drills, the GNA forces launched an attack to seize Tarhuna town 61 kilometers to southeastern Tripoli, where the anti-Tripoli command center is located, taking a strategic step in the course of the several-months war.
The successes of the GNA and its militant allies will certainly deal a major blow to the Haftar’s military ambitions to seize the capital and also to his regional allies. Now, the GNA forces have seized large amounts of weapons and ammunition from the opposite side. The weapons, ammunition, and armored vehicles delivered to Haftar by the UAE will certainly boost the GNA militarily, as they will negatively impact the position of the thousands of mercenary forces like Russia’s Wagner security company and Sudan’s Rapid Support Force commanded by General Mohammad Hamdan Dagalo. Fear of defeat pushed Abu Dhabi to ask Dagalo to deploy more forces to the Libyan battlegrounds.
Rays of hope amid international pro-ceasefire efforts collapse
Over the past year, all diplomatic efforts to end the conflict between Libyan warring sides met their failure. Berlin conference on Libya, held in January, failed to properly execute the truce despite gathering the major actors and announcing an agreement towards a peaceful solution to the conflict and emphasizing the respect to the UN arms embargo on Libya. These countries failed to adhere to their commitment to stop arms delivery to Libyan sides. As a result, Qassan Salama, the UN special envoy to Libya, on March 2 announced his resignation via a Twitter message, indicating that peace outlook is dimmer than before amid international sides’ failure to stay committed to the terms of Berlin agreement.
A major part of this failure stems from the severe disunity among the Europeans that leads to the inability of the EU to take united measures towards the conflict in Libya. The conflict of interests, especially between Italy and France, resoundingly affects the dynamicity of the Libyan war. For Italy, Libya is not only a historical colony but also a geostrategically and geoeconomically important country that is hard to be left alone. Italy also deems Libya the bedstone of its national security especially when it comes to combating illegal migration and human trafficking. France, in its turn, has strategic interests in Libya. Its interests vary from the fight against radicalism and terrorism and illegal migration to the trade and energy resources.
Certainly, the recent Libyan developments will leave deep impacts on the future of the country. If General Haftar loses his command center, this can mark the end of his military ambitions which have the large-scale backing of foreign actors.
This is a big win for the GNA and may introduce a change to the trend of the confrontation, as control of Tripoli since the beginning was an ultimate goal for the warlord and his foreign backers. Losing this objective can trigger further efforts and return to a political solution that Haftar and his allies have repeatedly rejected with reliance on their supposed capability to settle the crisis with an outright win on the battleground. Perhaps the results of the recent confrontations motivate Haftar and his sponsors to review their strategy to capture Tripoli and seek a peaceful political solution instead.