Panic sweeps Tripoli over reports of LNA offensive

Sarraj risks a major escalation if he calls on Turkish troops to intervene.
Sunday 15/12/2019
The calm before the storm. A fighter loyal to Libya’s Government of National Accord holds a position south of Tripoli’s suburb of Ain Zara. (AFP)
The calm before the storm. A fighter loyal to Libya’s Government of National Accord holds a position south of Tripoli’s suburb of Ain Zara. (AFP)

TUNIS - “I’ve hidden away all our valuables and packed a suitcase in case Haftar arrives and I have to leave quickly.”

The speaker, a senior official in Tripoli, was responding to reports December 13 that the Libyan National Army, led by Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, had begun an offensive to capture Tripoli and was advancing towards the city centre.

It followed a video on social media in which Haftar appeared to order the assault, saying zero hour had arrived.

In fact, nothing happened. “There’s no fighting, no bombing,” the official explained. “It was just a rumour. People are going to Friday prayers as normal today. I’m off to lunch downtown afterward with some friends.”

That there was no evidence of an LNA offensive did not stop the rumour from spreading beyond Tripoli. It was claimed that some 80 Government of National Accord (GNA) forces had been killed in the previous 24 hours as LNA troops advanced, that Misratan forces defending Tripoli had pulled out, that Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and his internationally recognised GNA had fled and that remaining foreign diplomats in Tripoli were being taken by boat to Tunisia.

No one had fled — not the ambassadors, not the GNA. Sarraj was in neighbouring Tunisia where earlier in the week he met with US diplomats and Tunisian President Kais Saied, before flying to Doha.

The reason the rumour was believed was that throughout November when there was a lull in fighting, LNA sources repeatedly said a final assault was imminent. Reinforcements had been deployed on the front lines and all that was needed was the order from Haftar to attack, they claimed. The field-marshal’s video was seen as him giving the order.

The other reason the rumour was believed was Turkey’s offer to send troops to Libya to fight for the GNA. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said December 10 that Turkish forces would be deployed if the GNA requested it.

His special Libya envoy, Emrullah Isler, declared they would defend “Libyan democracy” and prevent “the return of a military dictatorship” — a statement that left observers wondering about his understanding of Libyan realities.

The GNA may derive its legitimacy from the United Nations’ endorsement of the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement that established it but it has never been democratically elected.

The only organisation that can claim democratic legitimacy in Libya, other than municipal councils, is the House of Representatives (HoR), elected in 2014. Its president, Aguila Saleh, and its members in Tobruk are fundamentally opposed to the GNA and Saleh is trying to persuade the international community to no longer recognise the GNA.

Erdogan’s offer of troops is the direct result of military and maritime deals agreed by him and Sarraj, by which, for the GNA’s approval of Turkish claims to a large area of the Eastern Mediterranean as its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), Ankara would provide military support to the GNA.

Under international law, Turkey can deploy troops if Sarraj, as head of the internationally recognised government, requests them. No UN approval is necessary. Until Erdogan offered troops, though, the precise nature of his support was unknown, although many suspected that it might involve a deployment to North Africa in addition to military hardware, including drones to replace those destroyed by the LNA.

Haftar’s supposed rush to take Tripoli was consequently seen by some as an attempt to create facts on the ground, securing it before the Turks arrived.

Sarraj has not requested their deployment.

His acceptance of Erdogan’s EEZ boundaries reaped a whirlwind of Greek fury that could destroy European support for Sarraj, however.

Despite the threat of Erdogan allowing tens of thousands of asylum seekers to cross to Greek islands in the Aegean, Athens has gone on the offensive. Moving far further than the LNA’s Egyptian, Saudi and Emirati allies, it broke decisively with Tripoli and reached out to authorities in eastern Libya.

Greece expelled Sarraj’s ambassador and invited Saleh to Athens for talks, ignoring EU sanctions against him. There are reports that Greece is considering withdrawing recognition of the GNA.

That would be music to Saleh’s ears. His call on the Arab League and the United Nations to do so has had no result, although Egypt and Saudi Arabia are said to back the idea.

Saleh will reckon that, if Athens leads the way, other EU members may well follow and not just Cyprus, which is embroiled in its own row over Turkish exploration of its south-western coast.

Others, such as Austria, Hungary, Slovakia and, possibly, France, may decide to vent their mistrust of Turkey on the GNA. The first signs of a possible EU-wide breach with it came December 13 when the European Union denounced the Erdogan-Sarraj maritime treaty.

Sarraj cannot afford a breach with the European Union and calling in Turkish troops would anger the Europeans. On the other hand, with the LNA’s strength growing and no sign that US efforts to engineer a ceasefire will succeed, he may think he has no choice.

That would escalate the Libyan crisis enormously. Risking a response from Egypt, it could turn a proxy conflict into a regional war.