Battle for Derna complicated by events in the Libyan south

The challenges facing the LNA in this new battle for Derna have already resulted in a lengthy campaign.
Sunday 20/05/2018
A fighter from the Libyan National Army (LNA) near the coastal city of Derna, last April. (AFP)
Remote solution. A fighter from the Libyan National Army (LNA) near the coastal city of Derna, last April. (AFP)

TUNIS - In the sharply divided political and military map of Libya, the port city of Derna, halfway between Benghazi and the Egyptian border, has long remained the only place in the east of the country beyond the control of Libyan Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

Once the capital of Cyrenaica and still considered by many as the most beautiful city in Libya, Derna fell into the hands of the Islamic State (ISIS) in 2014, serving for almost a year as the centre of its Libyan operations. ISIS was driven out in September 2015 by the Derna Mujahideen Shura Council (DMSC), equally Islamist and equally militant but oriented more towards al-Qaeda and with the advantage of being a local movement with solid local support.

Since then Derna has remained a stubborn thorn in Haftar’s side, beyond his grasp and, as such, subject to a siege by his Libyan National Army (LNA). Derna has also been subject to air strikes that have on occasion been carried out by Haftar’s principal foreign ally, Egypt, such as in May 2017 following the slaughter of 28 Christians in Egypt’s Minya province.

Egypt claimed the massacre had been perpetrated by Egyptian militants based in Derna supported by the DMSC. It says the city is one of the main bases for Egyptian terrorists and it wants the threat eliminated.

As expected, after Haftar’s return to Libya following his mystery illness, the LNA began what it said would be the final offensive to take Derna. Certainly, after all the concerns about Haftar’s health and vigour, a victory there would reinforce his image considerably.

Speaking May 7 at a celebration at Benina airbase to mark his return, Haftar said efforts to resolve matters peacefully had come to an end and that “Zero Hour” for the town’s liberation had arrived. He added that he had issued instructions to avoid civilian casualties.

Preparations for the offensive had supposedly been going on for most of the previous month. Responding to rumours in the beginning of April while Haftar was absent, the LNA first claimed that Haftar had given orders to launch the operation. However, very little happened.

Finally, in the beginning of May, the battle appeared to begin in earnest, with the LNA making advances on the high ground south-east of Derna and some air strikes, which the DMSC accused the Egyptians of carrying out. The LNA called on civilians to stay indoors and away from the fighting or to leave altogether. Then the air strikes grew intermittent and, for a while, there was an apparent lull in the offensive. It looked as if the momentum was being lost.

With the LNA’s Benghazi liberation in mind, which took some three years to achieve, questions were already being asked over how long the Derna offensive would take.

Derna may be small compared to Benghazi, but given the mountainous terrain surrounding it — peppered with mines and booby traps — the city was never going to be easy to capture. The difficulties facing the LNA were demonstrated by the number of casualties taken in the first week of operations. It was reported to have lost 13 men, mostly as the result of mine blasts, although it claimed to have killed dozens of DMSC fighters and seized many more, several of them non-Libyans.

The LNA’s battle for Derna has also been further complicated by events in the south of the country.

In Sebha, clashes since February between local Tebu forces and the 6th Infantry Brigade, made up of members of the Awlad Sulaiman tribe who switched loyalties from the Tripoli-based Presidency Council of Fayez al-Sarraj to the LNA, have for the moment resulted in something of a victory for the Tebus. On the night of May 11, Tebu forces captured the iconic but sadly now heavily damaged Sebha Castle and a neighbouring camp from 6th Brigade, forcing it to retreat. The Tebus, who had previously backed Haftar, have the upper hand in the city for the moment and have managed to create an alliance with various local tribes also opposed to the once dominant Awlad Sulaiman. According to a source linked to the Tebu coordinating committee in the city, the Tebus currently regard their struggle as being not with Awlad Sulaiman, but the entire LNA.

This means that the LNA is now effectively fighting on two fronts, Sebha and Derna.

The famous historic battle of Derna occured 213 years ago, in 1805, when a US-led force captured it as an initial step to regime change in Tripoli. It was the first US victory on foreign soil and the fight lasted less than two hours. About a fortnight later, there was a failed attempt to recapture it from the Americans.

The challenges facing the LNA in this new battle for Derna have already resulted in a lengthy campaign. How much longer it will last is anyone’s guess — and a protracted undertaking is not the PR story the LNA would like to present.

In mid-May, the LNA brought in reinforcements and talked confidently of advances and of the DMSC’s capacity being degraded. The city’s capture appears inevitable given the LNA’s military superiority, but finally taking it may require a significant number of air strikes. This, however, could result in civilian casualties that Haftar said he wanted to avoid, not willing to be held accountable for them. That clearly hampers the LNA initiative.

It is not clear how many locals support the mujahideen, but in the past few months, faced with the siege and bombardments, many have left. Still, large numbers remain and there is certainly some genuine support for the DMSC, which has now renamed itself the Derna Protection Force. But it is also said many locals are simply keeping their mouths shut and their heads down for safety’s sake.

“If you are a supporter of the LNA, you will be kidnapped and murdered,” one pro-LNA Dernawi claimed. He agreed that there were those who backed the DMSC but claimed that, once the LNA moved in, the majority would turn against the DMSC. The result, he said, could be bloody, with revenge killings.