Contrary to Haftar’s claims, Tripoli battle can only drag on

With southern Tripoli locked in a military stalemate, the LNA and GNA are demonising each other all the more ferociously.
Saturday 19/10/2019
Deadlock. Fighters loyal to the Government of National Accord fire their rifles during clashes with forces of the Libyan National Army at Al-Khalla front line in Tripoli. (DPA)
Deadlock. Fighters loyal to the Government of National Accord fire their rifles during clashes with forces of the Libyan National Army at Al-Khalla front line in Tripoli. (DPA)

TUNIS - After more than 6 months trying to capture Tripoli, Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s claim that his Libyan National Army could take the city in a couple of days left military analysts wondering where the campaign is heading.

In an interview with Russian news agency Sputnik, published October 15, Haftar said the Libyan National Army (LNA) could sweep aside all opposition in Tripoli in two days by using heavy weaponry but that would cause massive destruction and heavy civilian casualties.

This could not be allowed to happen, he said, because the point of taking Tripoli is to free its residents from violence and militias. The LNA is not willing to overrun the city “at any cost,” he said; therefore a clear timetable cannot be set.

Haftar said that, to prevent civilian deaths and structural damage as much as possible, his plan is to draw militias and their allies to the outskirts of the city and fight them there. The strategy is working, he said, claiming: “The terrorists have suffered great losses among their ranks.”

The notion that Tripoli could be taken so quickly, even if the LNA tried to blast its way into the city, was dismissed by military analysts. They pointed to the 3:1 rule of thumb, which holds that, in land operations, an attacking force generally needs three times the number of fighters of the defending forces to be successful. One diplomat said the standard used by British, French and other armies in urban warfare in places like Tripoli was 6:1.

As foreign diplomats accredited to Libya pointed out, the two sides’ forces in southern Tripoli are roughly balanced. That means the LNA would need six times the forces it currently has to be assured of capturing the capital.

The LNA has lately announced that reinforcements were being sent to the front line south of Tripoli but the figures are minimal. The chief problem is that several eastern tribes will not allow their members serving with the LNA to go to western Libya.

Even if the LNA did have the fighters it needs, one foreign diplomat noted, it would take a lot more than two days to achieve victory, even using full force.

“Haftar is living in a fantasy world if he thinks the LNA can take Tripoli in a couple of days,” the diplomat said.

While the LNA’s forces are better trained and more professional than those of the Government of National Accord (GNA) — three-quarters of its men are trained soldiers, unlike GNA forces — Haftar’s analysis is not realistic.

There was little else remarkable in Haftar’s interview. There was nothing new in his accusations that the GNA is controlled by militias and terrorists, that the United Nations’ military sanctions prevented Libyan armed forces from importing arms to fight terrorism or that the LNA had wasted time attempting to engage in dialogue with GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and there had been no contact between the two sides.

However, Haftar said he would not object to Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, the son of late leader Muammar Qaddafi, standing in presidential elections. This is a big shift by Haftar, who previously stated firm opposition to Qaddafi’s return to the political scene, probably because of the popular support he feared Qaddafi could gather.

Haftar’s indifference to Qaddafi’s political prospects seems to indicate that he doesn’t think presidential elections are likely in the near future — a point on which diplomats agree — and he no longer views Qaddafi as a political threat.

Qaddafi is being held in Zintan by the town’s military leader Osama Juwaili. After so much time in captivity, Qaddafi has reportedly grown mentally unstable, which would render him ineligible for the presidency.

With southern Tripoli locked in a military stalemate, the LNA and GNA are demonising each other all the more ferociously, blaming the other party for civilian casualties and claiming advances that are of little significance.

An attack October 6 on an equestrian centre in western Tripoli that injured numerous children and an October 14 attack in Fornaj district that killed three young sisters were both been blamed on the LNA, which denied the charges. Diplomats and the UN Support Mission in Libya said the LNA was responsible for the first attack and almost certainly for the latter, saying it mistakenly targeted the areas.

International mediation efforts have made little progress in moving towards a settlement.

A planned conference in Berlin aimed at forcing international supporters of the two warring sides to stop supplying weapons has little hope of coming together. International powers are far more focused on Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria, which has deepened divisions between Germany and Turkey.

11