In deliberate tactic, LNA tries to draw GNA forces to south Tripoli

LNA sources said the aim was to prevent a repeat of the lengthy wars of attrition and the destruction that happened in Benghazi and Derna.
Sunday 14/04/2019
Moving up. Smoke rises from an air strike behind a tank belonging to forces loyal to Libya’s Government of National Accord, during clashes in the suburb of Wadi Rabie, south of Tripoli. (AFP)
Moving up. Smoke rises from an air strike behind a tank belonging to forces loyal to Libya’s Government of National Accord, during clashes in the suburb of Wadi Rabie, south of Tripoli. (AFP)

TUNIS - Within a week of beginning, the Libyan National Army’s offensive to take Tripoli, ordered by Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, appeared to have slowed.

Driven by effectively the same forces from Tarhouna, south-east of Tripoli, that were involved in clashes in southern Tripoli in September and January, the operation seemed after a few days not to be moving beyond the same areas where previous clashes led to the Tarhounis agreeing to a ceasefire and withdrawal.

However, that the clashes remained south of Tripoli was explained as a deliberate tactic by the Libyan National Army (LNA), which is said to have several thousand men in the area, in addition to members of the so-called “supported forces,” local units from elsewhere in western Libya.

LNA sources said the aim was to prevent a repeat of the lengthy wars of attrition and the destruction that happened in Benghazi and Derna before the LNA defeated militants there. The Tripoli tactic, they said, is to draw the Presidential Council’s forces out of the city and defeat them in undeveloped areas.

Fears were expressed by Libyan activists that, while the LNA may well take much of Tripoli, well-armed militias and militants would remain holed up in parts of the city. It was said that while deals might be made with militias interested primarily in money and saving themselves, fighting with militants would continue.

Many went to Tripoli after being forced out of Benghazi and Derna by the LNA and have nowhere else to go. Unlike most militias, they and militants from Tripoli, Misrata and elsewhere in western Libya, are ideologically driven in their struggle against the LNA.

It is thought then, given the size of Tripoli, that fighting could continue for months — possibly six to eight months — and with great destruction. The LNA has evidently recognised that possibility.

The tactic of drawing militants out may be working. Several positions in southern Tripoli have changed hands more than once, deliberately on the part of the LNA, it seems.

Yarmouk barracks, not far from the ruined airport, was captured by the LNA April 8 but it withdrew a few hours later and forces supporting the Government of National Accord (GNA) moved in. The LNA counterattacked April 10, withdrawing again a few hours later. GNA forces moved back in, claiming they had beaten the LNA. Then, early April 11, the LNA moved in for a third time, reportedly inflicting heavy casualties on the opposition.

Many in the international community, notably the United Nations, the United States and the European Union, objected to Haftar’s move, not least because UN Special Envoy to Libya Ghassan Salame had to postpone his planned Libyan National Conference, on which they were pinning hopes for a political solution.

Scheduled for April 14-15 in Ghadames, the invitations had gone out for the conference and preparations made. It could not happen, however, Salame announced, while guns were firing and air strikes being carried out.

The result has been demands from the UN Security Council, the United States, the European Union and the Group of Seven that the LNA withdraw. All have been ignored.

There are international divisions. The LNA offensive reopened the divide between France and Italy. Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini accused France of trying to block an EU statement demanding the LNA stop its offensive and EU parliament President Antonio Tajani, also from Italy, accused Paris of pursuing its own interests in Libya.

The Salvini accusation was a misreading of events. The EU demand appeared, albeit delayed for a day to consider French insistence that it include reference to the miseries faced by the migrants as a result of the offensive, the need to find a solution approved by the United Nations and the fact that the GNA was using fighters sanctioned by the United Nations for terrorist activities.

The belief that France was supporting Haftar complicated its relations with the Presidential Council. The French ambassador was summoned by Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj to explain Paris’s position and French diplomats hurriedly claimed France had nothing to do with the LNA offensive, was not aware of it in advance and had sent messages to Haftar to persuade him not to move on Tripoli.

That was followed by French President Emmanuel Macron phoning Sarraj to reassure him of France’s support for the Presidential Council and the GNA.

Russia seemed to confirm accusations of its support for Haftar by blocking a British-proposed statement in the UN Security Council to condemn the LNA’s Tripoli advance. Even there, questions were asked about how much the Russians knew in advance. The fact that Haftar phoned Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov on April 5, the day after the operation began, to brief him suggests that Moscow was not fully in the know.

Tripolitans, fearful that this could be a long and deadly conflict with food and fuel shortages, have been leaving the city in large numbers.

The city’s only functioning airport was forced to close April 8 after an LNA air strike against GNA military aircraft.

The United Nations said at least 8,000 people had left. The figure may be an underestimate. There were visibly fewer people in Tripoli, residents said. Usually congested with too much traffic, Tripoli has been much quieter.

The LNA indicated it was moving forces camped at the massive Jufra airbase in central Libya to open a second front near Sirte, to capture the town and draw Misratan forces from Tripoli.

Questions are being asked why Haftar decided to attack when the planned national conference seemed likely to confirm his dominance of the Libyan political scene and produce a political road map acceptable to him ­— a new government under his control, reunification of national institutions and elections, which, in such circumstances, would likely be won by those backing him. He seemed to have preferred to strangle his Tripoli rivals first.

The battle for Tripoli is seen as a fight to the finish, an existential struggle for both Haftar and the militias and militants in Tripoli and western Libya.

It may take months and it may end up with Haftar doing a deal with Sarraj, which would almost certainly be accepted by the international community. Haftar, however, cannot afford not to be seen winning control of Tripoli.