Fighters loyal to Libya's UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) stand outside a hangar at Al-Watiya air base, which they seized control of, southwest of the capital Tripoli, on May 18, 2020. (Mahmud Turkia/AFP via Getty Images)

Fall of Key Air Base May Decide Libya’s Civil War

Government of National Accord’s recapture of al-Watiya facility could doom Libyan National Army to defeat, Mideast experts say

On Tuesday, the Libyan National Army (LNA), headed by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, pulled its troops out of sections of Tripoli − the stronghold of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and the nation’s largest city − a day after losing the strategic al-Watiya air base to enemy forces.

The LNA, based in the country’s East, has been besieging Tripoli for months now, and Haftar’s fighters had been using the military facility, located some 90 miles southwest of the metropolis, to stage, coordinate and supply operations in western Libya.

The loss of the base after a weekslong battle deprives the LNA, which is backed by Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, of its lone aerial supply route to the Tripoli area.

This means that Haftar will not be taking the capital any time soon, and raises the question of how this will impact the commitment of his allies in the civil war that has been raging for six years.

Dr. Mansour El-Kikhia, a Libyan-American professor of political science and geography at the University of Texas at San Antonio, told The Media Line the loss was a setback for Haftar, but that he still controlled much of the country’s West.

“Most importantly the news has sent a strong message to him [Haftar], which I hope he gets once and for all,” the professor elaborated, explaining that Libyan Westerners did not want Haftar to rule them. “They don’t want him. Had they wanted him, the inhabitants would have given him more support.

“The reverse has been the case, and to add insult to injury they invited the Turks and mercenaries to fight on their behalf,” El-Kikhia said.

Bands of Syrian mercenaries, paid by Turkey and Qatar, have reportedly been brought in to fight in the Libyan civil war, with Ankara and Doha pursuing economic goals in sponsoring the fighters, in addition to their officially stated security and political concerns.

El-Kikhia revealed that according to officials in the Central Bank of Libya, close to $200 billion had found its way to Turkey from Libya over the last five years. “Turkey was going all-in this fight and it has tasted the money. I don’t know how valid this report is, but If this is true then Turkey would be nuts to give up this access during this time of economic difficulties.”

He added that considering the number of western Libyans and investments in Turkey, “I tend to believe that figure.”

El-Kikhia said that Haftar’s partial withdrawal from the capital did not truly strengthen Ankara’s overall position in Libya, but would reinforce its position in the narrower Tripolitania region. “Haftar’s supporters will continue supporting him with more arms and technology. However, my major fear is that we will see a far more aggressive conflict.”

He additionally said that Haftar had been holding back for fear of destroying property and killing civilians. “I think after this latest incident he will take the gloves off and will care little about destruction.”

The GNA’s interior minister described Haftar’s loss of al-Watiya air base as a major turning point, adding that the former Qaddafi regime general’s chances of capturing the capital were now “effectively zero.”

Libya has been torn in two since 2014, when Haftar, a renegade general, rejected a power-sharing agreement and withdrew to the oil-rich east, taking with him entire military units, including warplanes, in opposition to the GNA, backed by most of the West and Turkey, as well as Qatar.

The LNA had been on the offensive since April, taking over oil fields and key cities, and laying siege to parts of Tripoli until this Monday. On January 8, Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed a cease-fire in Libya. Previous efforts by Italy and France had also failed.

Saleem, a Libyan analyst and journalist based in the eastern side of the country who asked The Media Line to withhold his last name for security reasons, said that according to a recent press conference conducted by the spokesperson of the LNA, the latter was preparing to leave al-Watiya anyway, “given that it has no significance to the eastern government.”

Saleem said that in the past four months, more than 2,000 LNA personnel had left the base, taking their weapons and equipment with them. “What was left there [of weapons] was old.”

He added that the loss of the base didn’t have any great military significance, but was a symbolic victory for the GNA forces.

Nizar al-Makan, a political analyst and instructor at the Institute of Press and News Science in Tunis, told The Media Line that al-Watiya air base was of great strategic importance for Haftar and his forces. “It helped Haftar target and strike important sites in Tripoli repeatedly, not to mention that military airplanes in the south were provided with necessary fuel and supplies there.

“It’s a very strategic base for Haftar, and anyone who claims the contrary is ignorant of the basics of political and military science,” Makan added.

Haftar’s withdrawal would lead to a decrease in strikes on Libya’s western cities, as his bases would now be much farther from the front line. “This forms a tactical blow to Haftar’s field forces; as a result, they won’t be able to win the battle [for Tripoli].”

Makan said that the GNA had won a significant victory and that Haftar would now have to deal with constant disputes with his associated local militias. “Regarding his [foreign] allies, they won’t just leave Haftar now, as they have political aims in Libya.”

He added that while Haftar aspired to rule Libya following the model of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt, Fayez Saraj, the head of the GNA, was working to create a “balance of terror” between the two sides in the civil war, as he wanted to leave government after reaching a political agreement.

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