The Tripoli mirage

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by Tonio Galea


The Libyan National Army is enduring its worst days yet since launching an all-out assault on Tripoli to topple the Government of National Accord, more than a year ago. In fact, all indications point towards a total stop to the offences against the city after a series of blows to General Khalifa Haftar’s army.


This week, the UN-recognised GNA made important gains in cities close to the border with Tunisia, forcing Haftar to give up the strategic al-Watiya airbase. The LNA downplayed the exit and said that abandoning the area was part of its long-planned tactical game, vowing to recapture the base in the future.


Whichever version is more credible, Haftar’s forces have recently suffered several setbacks, including losing support from Paris as President Macron tries to reposition France at an equidistant point between the fighting sides. The LNA still enjoys backing by Egypt and, indirectly, Russia; however, the long-time support by the UAE has started showing signs of cooling down in the last few days.


The Emirates appears to have ruled that there is no sure path to a clear winner in the north African country after years of conflict. The economic devastation inflicted by the coronavirus pandemic will have reinforced Abu Dhabi’s decision to gradually pull out of the clash while it still can.


The situation on the ground in Libya is further compounded by growing concerns over the presence of foreign mercenaries, mainly Russian, Eastern European and Sudanese Janjaweed.


Meanwhile, the GNA has profited from support by Turkey in the form of aerial defence and other weapon systems as well as Turkish military advisors. Ankara’s intervention in Libya is motivated by a double threat for influence in the region presented by the UAE and Egypt from the south, and Greece and Cyprus (and the EU, by extension) from the west.


In March, the European Union launched a military operation to enforce a United Nations arms embargo in Libya. Codenamed ‘Irini’, Greek for “peace”, the initiative is proving to be a thorn in the sides of both the LNA and the GNA as it systematically cut down the smuggling of weapons and illicit oil exports from the sea border. The government in Tripoli exposed the impact of the operation when it publicly questioned the legality of the EU’s action.


The situation in Libya remains highly volatile and, although the forces under the control of Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj appear to have the upper hand at the moment, General Haftar has recovered from other defeats before.


Hope for peace in Libya has been elusive since the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi in 2011. The country’s descent into chaos and the global crisis may provide the perfect cover for the LNA to reorganise and launch another deadly offensive on the GNA’s positions before we know it.

Tonio Galea