LNA accuses Turkey after Gharyan battle, threatens to retaliate

The LNA has downplayed the significance of the loss, with its spokesman saying the main offensive “is going well.”
Saturday 29/06/2019
War goes on. Worshippers leave mosque after Friday prayers in Gharyan, June 28.  (AFP)
War goes on. Worshippers leave mosque after Friday prayers in Gharyan, June 28. (AFP)

TUNIS - On June 26, 12 weeks to the day since the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar took control of the strategically located town of Gharyan ahead of launching its offensive on Tripoli, it seems to have lost it to rival forces supporting the Tripoli-based

Government of National Accord (GNA).

The LNA accused Turkey of backing the vast array of militias and militant groups loyal to the GNA and of helping them push the LNA out of Gharyan. LNA troops were ordered to attack any Turkish vessels within Libyan territorial waters.

LNA spokesman Ahmed al-Mesmari said the country had “come under illegitimate Turkish aggression” in recent weeks.

“Turkey has become directly involved in the battle (for Tripoli), with its soldiers, planes, sea ships and all the supplies that now reach Misrata, Tripoli and Zuwara directly,” al-Mesmari said.

 Turkish forces bombed LNA positions and provided air cover for militias allied with the Tripoli-based government to retake the town, he added.

The Gharyan setback could be a serious blow to the LNA’s ongoing campaign aimed at capturing Tripoli. The LNA has said it is reviewing its battle plans and that its push for Tripoli is proceeding normally.

Located in the mountains some 80km south of the capital, Gharyan was home to the LNA’s headquarters for the offensive and one of its main supply bases. The LNA has also lost its field hospital, a significant amount of weapons and equipment and a prime supply and communications route from the south of the country.

It is a blow to its credibility, too. It brings into question the LNA’s capacity to defeat the GNA and eventually take Tripoli. Why, it is being asked, was the LNA so unprepared for an attempt by the GNA to seize back Gharyan, especially given the knowledge that there were those there opposed to the LNA.  It was a major miscalculation.

GNA forces outside the mountain town pushed forward, seizing positions just to the north of it, while local forces inside attacked and captured the LNA’s headquarters. The commander of the LNA’s offensive managed to escape along with most of his forces but it was one of the bloodiest battles to date since the LNA started its blitzkrieg on Tripoli. According to the mayor of Gharyan, now back home after almost three months of forced exile, nine men on the GNA’s side were killed in the fight, six of them from Gharyan. Other reports indicate that some 50 were killed altogether. These would include two LNA officers, ten Tuareg LNA fighters from Obari and an unspecified number of Chadians fighting with the GNA.

The LNA has downplayed the significance of the loss, with its spokesman saying that its main offensive “is going well.” Some pro-LNA media have simply ignored the news. Privately, though, there is dismay and shock.

“It’s a disaster,” said a leading pro-LNA activist and political adviser who asked not to be named. He questioned the LNA’s military capability. “If they couldn’t keep a small place like Gharyan, how are they going to take and keep Tripoli?”

The loss is a PR body blow for the LNA – and, as such, a major propaganda boost to the GNA. Over the past few weeks, numerous security organisations in the west of Libya have announced a change of loyalty, from the GNA to the LNA, clearly expecting an LNA victory.

They and others elsewhere could now reconsider their position. There is also a real possibility that the LNA’s foreign supporters will feel a need to re-assess their relationship.

It is not impossible for the LNA to retake the strategically-located mountain town, but it will be difficult given its terrain and rival forces’ mentality. After having lost the area once in a surprise attack, local forces will be fully prepared for a counter-offensive and well backed up by the GNA.

The danger for the LNA is that the loss of Gharyan makes it highly likely that GNA forces will follow up with an attack on Tripoli International Airport. They have tried to take it several times in the past few weeks and failed. Now, though, the LNA will be handicapped by the loss of its supply lines.

So far, Haftar’s response has been to hit out at Turkey, which in violation of the UN arms embargo has been supplying arms, notably drones, to the GNA and which no longer even bothers to try and hide this.

In a clear signal of where power in eastern Libya lies, he has ordered the Beida-based interim government of Abdullah al-Thani to cancel all contracts with Turkish companies, expel those in the country and suspend all flights to and from Turkey.

The order will, of course, be effective only in areas under the LNA’s control and will have little serious consequences other than possibly at the new power station at Ubari in southern Libya,  built by the Turks and supposed to start production sometime in July.

Far more serious is Haftar’s order to his air force to attack any Turkish vessels within Libyan territorial waters. It is the closest to declaring war without actually doing so. But an attack on a Turkish ship would almost certainly trigger a reprisal. The showdown threatens a major escalation and internationalisation of the Libyan crisis.