Libya’s GNA receives limitless Turkish supplies but faces locals’ hostility
TUNIS - Flushed with the success in mid-April of capturing a string of towns west of Tripoli from the Libyan National Army (LNA), forces supporting the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) have turned their attention to Tarhuna, the LNA’s main operations base some 60 kilometres south-east of the capital.
The first attempt to take the town from April 18-19 failed although the offensive, which included shelling, is said to have resulted in some 3,000 residents there and in parts of neighbouring Garabulli municipality fleeing their homes. But after an initial advance on several sides, GNA forces were forced to pull back.
Taking Tarhuna is likely to prove quite difficult for the GNA. There is deep animosity in the town towards outsiders in general and towards the Tripoli-based GNA in particular, as well as resentment over the 2011 revolution.
With a significant number of locals having served in the old Libyan army, support for the former Qaddafi regime remains strong and has transferred itself to the LNA, led by Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar. The town is firmly united against the GNA and, although increasingly under siege, it is also well stocked with arms and other military supplies.
Privately, senior GNA officials have admitted that taking Tarhuna will be a challenge.
The big difference, though, is the support for the GNA from Turkey.
The Misratan units that make up the bulk of the attacking forces have experience from the 2016 campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Sirte, but without the presence of Turkish military technicians, the supply of arms and equipment and, most importantly, a now seemingly limitless supply of drones to give air cover, any offensive would have been unthinkable.
Moreover, reports speak of Ankara sending even more equipment and fighters to help the GNA. The LNA have shot down Turkish-supplied drones in
southern Tripoli, in the Tarhuna area and in the other main front at Abu Grein, south of Misrata but, like a hydra’s head, the more they are brought down the more drones are provided.
Unlike early on during the Tripoli offensive, when only a handful of drones were dispatched to the GNA, the supply now seems limitless — a sign of the massive expansion of the Turkish arms industry on the back of the conflict in Libya.
During the past week and in a bid to sap the LNA’s strength, the GNA also launched fresh attacks in the southern Tripoli suburb of Ain Zara, which has been one of the main frontlines over the past year.
Hoping to stop the GNA drones, the LNA has continued intermittent bombardment of Tripoli’s Mitiga airport. With Turkish drones and offshore Turkish frigates armed with surface-to-air missiles, the GNA has air superiority, at least for the moment.
The GNA’s Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha has meanwhile floated the notion that Russian mercenaries previously in Syria have started using chemical weapons in southern Tripoli but there is no independent evidence of it.
The coronavirus outbreak, however, has a greater impact on people’s lives. It continues to spread, albeit slowly. By April 25, there were 61 confirmed cases, including two deaths. The slower than expected growth in numbers resulted in authorities in both east and west relaxing the curfew. In LNA-controlled areas, it was reduced from 2pm-7am to 6pm-6am.
In GNA areas where there has been a 24-hour curfew and people were being allowed out for shopping only on foot before noon, it will go to the same 6pm-6am as of April 28. The GNA has also opened the Ras Jedir border crossing to allow food and other imports from Tunisia.
The changes may ease some of the restrictions, but the continuing clashes, combined with the outbreak and the lockdown, are making for one of the most difficult Ramadans Libyans have ever known.