Evidence mounts of Turkish involvement in Tripoli fighting

The Libyan National Army dramatically stepped up air attacks, with strikes on Tripoli’s Mitiga International Airport, on the military section of Misrata’s airport and on Sirte.
Saturday 21/09/2019
A journalist reports from the front line during clashes between LNA forces and fighters loyal to the Libyan government of Fayez Sarraj, south of Tripoli. (AFP)
No end in sight. A journalist reports from the front line during clashes between LNA forces and fighters loyal to the Libyan government of Fayez Sarraj, south of Tripoli. (AFP)

TUNIS - In view of recent battlefield developments, there is little expectation that the struggle south-east of Tripoli between militants loyal to Tripoli’s Government of National Accord and the Libyan National Army is going to calm down soon.

There were also reports of a growing Turkish role in the fighting.

Despite silence from the Government of National Accord (GNA) on the role Turkey is playing in running GNA-supporting forces, there was an off-the-record confirmation from Western diplomats that Turkish officers were overseeing GNA operations. This, they said, explains more coordinated moves by the previously amateurish GNA fighters.

A Libyan National Army (LNA) officer said the September 16 attack on Gardabiya Airbase, south of Sirte, was meant to destroy Turkish drone facilities, which had been used in the attack on the LNA’s Al Jufra Airbase the previous day.

Earlier, the two top commanders of the LNA’s 9th Brigade, Abdelwahhab al-Migri and Moshen al-Kani, were killed in a GNA drone attack. Also killed was Kani’s younger brother, Abdelazeem.

The incident had dramatic consequences. In Tarhouna, which is firmly controlled by the Kani family and is the main operations base for the LNA’s efforts to wrest Tripoli from the GNA, there were revenge attacks. An LNA source admitted that “three or four” GNA agents had been killed by local people, not by the military.

The LNA dramatically stepped up air attacks, with repeated strikes on Tripoli’s now closed Mitiga International Airport, other locations in the city, on the military section of Misrata’s airport and on Sirte.

What made the killing of Migri and Kani so significant was that the 9th Brigade has been the most effective of the LNA’s forces in the attempt to capture Tripoli. Migri was its commander although Kani was more important. He headed the 3,000-strong “supported forces” unit that is the backbone of the brigade.

LNA Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar appointed Colonel Al-Sharif al-Bouzidi, from Bani Walid, as head of the 9th Brigade and Abdulrahim al-Kani took over from his brother. However, it may take time before the brigade adjusts.

The attack was clearly part of a coordinated attempt to weaken it just when GNA forces had pushed the LNA onto the defensive and were pressing towards Tarhouna. As the LNA’s font line operations base, the town is crucial to the LNA campaign.

The LNA’s air strikes were considered a deliberate tactical move to divert GNA forces from Tarhouna. It appears to have had some success, particularly the strikes on Sirte. There have been reports of at least one Misrati unit heading there to reinforce its defences.

Far from the front lines, efforts continued ahead of the proposed international conference on Libya in Berlin, both to ensure greater coordination on what needs to happen in Libya and to bring about a ceasefire on the ground.

A preparatory meeting on the conference took place September 17 in Berlin and was attended by representatives from the Arab League, the European Union, Egypt, France, Italy, Russia, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, the United States and by UN Special Envoy for Libya Ghassan Salame.

The next day, France and Italy publicly agreed to coordinate their policies on Libya after long being at loggerheads. Following a meeting September 18 in Rome with French President Emmanuel Macron, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said they had agreed on a “joint initiative” to bring about a meeting of the various Libyan groupings. Confirming they would be working closely together on Libya, Macron said that there was “a real convergence” between the two governments.

Conte’s talks with Macron occurred just hours after he met with the head of the GNA Fayez Sarraj to discuss Libya.

The following day US Ambassador to Libya Richard Norland met with Haftar in Abu Dhabi “to discuss the current situation in Libya and prospects for achieving a political solution to the Libya conflict,” a Twitter posting by the US Embassy stated.

The two meetings were not coincidental. Although LNA officials and supporters cling to the idea that Washington is swinging towards them, US officials are saying increasingly loudly they and other countries are working to achieve the only possible solution in Libya, a political one. It is believed Norland told Haftar that he had to return to the dialogue table.

That is unlikely to go down well with Haftar. His view, as conveyed by his spokesman earlier in September, is that the time for dialogue is over and there has to be a military solution, not a political one.