Sarraj given cold shoulder by US after rejecting dialogue with Haftar
TUNIS - The battle for Tripoli pitting the Libyan National Army against the forces of the internationally recognised Government of National Accord has intensified in recent weeks.
Libyan National Army (LNA) Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar needs to show progress in the fight to strengthen his position ahead of an international conference on Libya in Berlin, possibly before the end of October, analysts said.
To that end, there have been renewed attacks in Tripoli, Misrata and Sirte. While the LNA has tried to shift action from near Tarhuna and to the southern edges of Tripoli, there is no sign of an imminent breakthrough.
The LNA continued to hit Tripoli’s Mitiga airport and, on October 1, renewed its attempt to capture military camps in southern Tripoli and push towards Gharyan. The LNA claimed to have destroyed Turkish-supplied and -operated drones and the installations from which they were launched at Mitiga.
However, for every drone the LNA destroys, Turkey is said to provide the Government of National Accord (GNA) with replacements, which are often launched from roads rather than airport runways. There are said to be hundreds of unmanned aerial vehicles being used on both sides in the battle.
Drones were used with deadly effect in another part of the country but these were US drones. Amid warnings that the Islamic state (ISIS) was using the Libya power vacuum to regain strength, the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) carried out four strikes September 19-29 on suspected ISIS fighters near Murzuq in southern Libya. The Americans claimed to have killed 43 terrorists.
US Defence officials were quoted after the first attack as saying that it was carried out by Reaper drones based in Niger, where American forces have been using a drone base in Agadez. Initial operations at the base started in August and significantly increased US capabilities to strike targets in southern Libya and the wider region.
The timing of the Murzuq attacks was seen as linked to the base becoming operational. A Tebu source said ISIS fighters and other militant organisations, such as Boko Haram and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, have been in the town for some time but only recently have they been targeted.
The strikes may be linked to the fact that Murzuq, the source said, is now empty of its civilian population. Its Arab majority, members of the Al-Ahali tribe, fled in August after mainly Tebu fighters took control. Tebu civilians subsequently left because shops, offices and schools all closed.
“Only fighters remain,” the source said, effectively backing up AFRICOM’s claims that no civilians were killed in the attacks.
However, the fighters also fled following the drone attack September 19. The source said a strike September 26 hit militants heading north towards Sebha and a September 29 attack targeted a group moving south.
GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj's hard-line position at the United Nations against talks with Haftar seems to have resulted in a cold shoulder from US officials during the UN General Assembly.
In the flurry of contacts other leaders had on the margin of the UN meetings, there was no meeting for Sarraj with US President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo or other top US officials. In what was considered a slap in the face, the only officials Sarraj met with were David Hale, the State Department’s under-secretary for Political Affairs, and David Schenker, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs.
US displeasure is thought to be linked to the uncompromising position adopted by Sarraj at the General Assembly where he condemned Haftar as a “war criminal” and said there would be no negotiations with him.
Sarraj later set out a series of conditions for taking part in talks with the LNA, conditions seemingly designed to be rejected by Haftar. These include the acceptance of the Skhirat Agreement as the sole basis for dialogue and of the GNA as the sole legitimate government; LNA forces to withdraw to their pre-April 4 positions; the military to be under civilian government control; and all countries to cease dealings with parallel institutions -- in other words with the government in Benghazi and the LNA.
The hardening of Sarraj’s position comes as Haftar’s stance appears to be softening. The same day Sarraj addressed the General Assembly, Haftar said dialogue was necessary.
Although he said dialogue could not happen while militias and terrorists controlled Tripoli, he had previously ruled out dialogue. His new position followed talks he had in Abu Dhabi with US Ambassador Richard Norland during which Norland made it clear that Washington is determined for a political solution to the Libyan crisis, not a military one.
International protagonists in Libya have their eyes set on the Berlin conference. Western diplomats in Tunis accredited to Libya said the conference, aimed at enforcing the Libyan arms embargo as well as organising a ceasefire and setting out the basis for an all-Libyan conference, would take place. Many are not confident, however, that it will succeed.
Turkey is seen as the potential spanner in the works. While it is accepted that Washington could pressure Egypt or Saudi Arabia to stop supplying Haftar and Qatar to stop aiding the GNA, it is another matter whether Turkey would go along.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is ideologically committed to the GNA. Diplomats and analysts said the chances of him stopping arming it and providing it with tactical and operational support, including military advisers, are almost zero.
The expectation that the Berlin conference is likely to fail does not appear to particularly worry LNA officials. One pro-Haftar Libyan analyst suggested they would go through the motions of supporting it to keep the international community happy but a war of attrition was fine with Haftar.
“Haftar can afford to wait,” he said. “The [Tripoli] militias cannot."