Haftar Losing Battles in Libya’s Civil War
Marshal’s forces lose two key areas in Tripoli. Foreign allies’ backing, local supporters’ faith both at risk, experts say
The UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) regained control of Tripoli International Airport on Wednesday from its opponent in the civil war, the Libyan National Army (LNA).
The victory over the LNA, which is headed by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, comes two weeks after he pulled his troops out of sections of Tripoli, the nation’s largest city and the stronghold of the GNA, which is headed by President Fayez al-Sarraj and based in the nation’s west, and after the LNA lost the strategic al-Watiya military air base, located 78 miles southwest of the city.
The conquest of the two airfields after weeks of combat means the GNA has regained control of the Tripoli area, thanks in great measure to the help of bands of Syrian mercenaries Turkey and Qatar reportedly brought in to fight in the civil war. The lifting of the LNA’s siege of the city has weakened the ranks of Haftar’s forces, which are backed by Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, and based in the east of the country.
Ziad Dghem, a member of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (the so-called “Tobruk government” to which the LNA has declared loyalty) and founder of the Federal Movement in Libya, told The Media Line that the direct and public Turkish military intervention had changed conditions on the ground and imposed a new reality in the country.
“Libya is now at a crossroads that will end in one of three possible scenarios: partition; an immediate cessation of the war in order to reach a political solution; or in something similar to the Syrian situation, with the Tobruk Parliament adopting an agreement with Russia, which is something we so far reject,” he said.
Russia had a historic opportunity, one that had not been available since World War II, to have legitimate military bases on the Mediterranean, Dghem said.
Yusuf Erim, chief political and Middle East analyst for TRT, the national public broadcaster of Turkey, told The Media Line that after a period of defending Tripoli against Haftar’s offensive, the GNA has moved to a more offensive stance. “Recent battlefield gains have not only demoralized the LNA but have also raised questions about Haftar amongst his international backers.”
He added that GNA leader Sarraj signaled on Thursday, during a press conference in Ankara with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, that there would be no more negotiations with Haftar. “The LNA has not been able to stop the GNA’s drone campaign; I see no reason for the Tripoli-based government to ease military pressure against the LNA,” Erim continued.
He clarified that the Turkish support for the GNA had been critical, saying Ankara had shifted the military balance in a short five-month time span.
“I think that Abu Dhabi and Moscow are definitely displeased with Haftar’s battlefield performance and authoritarian attempt to seize power,” Erim elaborated. “Turkey’s intervention has not only been effective on the ground, it has also raised the cost of the conflict for Haftar’s supporters; the UAE has lost millions of dollars of equipment to Turkish drone strikes.”
He added that on the diplomatic track, more countries were starting to question Russian and UAE involvement.
“Haftar has become worthless to his foreign backers, especially after he failed militarily to take Tripoli. Now he’s become unviable diplomatically as the GNA’s Sarraj announced they will not negotiate with him anymore,” Erim stated, stressing that he would not be surprised if the UAE and Russia both soon looked to replace Haftar.
A spokesman for the GNA, Muhammad Qanunu, said that its forces had taken the entire Tripoli International Airport, and added that the LNA forces withdrew toward the adjacent town of Qasr bin Ghashir.
The airport has been closed since 2014, due to the war damage suffered at that time.
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.
Salem Abu Khazan, a political analyst and writer for the Fasana Libyan newspaper, told The Media Line that the withdrawal of more than 2,000 LNA fighters from southern Tripoli to Qasr bin Ghashir and other areas had dealt a devastating blow to Haftar’s supporters in the area. They left behind destroyed homes and businesses, and much money had been stolen, he added.
“The LNA withdrawal took place in an organized and reasonable manner, and it came because [Haftar’s] army was repositioning its forces, but after losing the airport that, given its vast size, can be easily turned into a military airport, the LNA lost the capital Tripoli. Controlling the airport provides the ability to choke off or control the capital,” Abu Khazan said.
He added that LNA supporters were shocked by the airport’s fall, as they knew it would be followed by a withdrawal from Qasr bin Ghashir. “The GNA forces managed to capture the airport without any resistance; I consider such an event a moral victory.”
The LNA’s retreats from key areas had caused its supporters to lose faith, Abu Khazan said. “In military science, withdrawals in the face of the enemy are conducted by the weak side. I believe that what happened has affected [Haftar’s] army. … It has nothing left in Tripoli,” he said.