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Libya: Haftar's LNA begins to strike back after string of losses

The eastern commander's army is advancing towards the strategic mountain town of Ghariyan
Fighters loyal to the GNA are pictured during clashes with forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar in an area south of the Libyan capital Tripoli (AFP)

Following a string of significant losses in western Libya, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) has renewed its offensive in mountain regions, advancing towards the strategic town of Ghariyan.  

LNA forces retook the town of Asabiah, lying around 15km southwest of Ghariyan, on Monday, while conducting extensive aerial attacks on positions held by forces aligned to the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA). 

Haftar’s progress is the first success in recent weeks, as the LNA begins to reformulate its strategy after pulling troops from the Tripoli frontlines.

'Pulling back troops from Tripoli front lines is a strategy to avoid another Benghazi scenario'

- Abdullah, policeman

Meanwhile, the UN announced late Monday that both sides had agreed to restart ceasefire talks.

“Pulling back troops from Tripoli front lines is a strategy to avoid another Benghazi scenario,” policeman Abdullah, who is close to senior LNA personnel, said referring to the damage wrecked on the eastern city earlier in Libya’s conflict.

“The LNA soldiers were getting deep inside Tripoli, and to continue fighting on those lines would cause more civilian casualties and widespread destruction of civilian homes. Even one sniper on a building can lead to large-scale destruction, which the LNA are trying to avoid.”

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Libya’s capital has suffered months of fighting between the LNA and GNA, during which both sides have been accused of targeting civilian areas.

A new analysis by the New America Foundation and Airwars found air strikes and civilian deaths rapidly increased over the past year that Haftar has waged his Tripoli campaign. The study found pro-Haftar forces were responsible for the vast majority of civilians killed. 

Abdullah said the new LNA strategy was to draw fighters aligned with the GNA into the less built-up Tripoli outskirts, which civilians have deserted after a year of fighting, and that are now effectively military zones. 

Particularly, he said, the LNA is seeking to expose the Syrian mercenaries Turkey has brought to prop up the GNA, who now reportedly number more than 10,000.

The LNA announced it would withdraw a few kilometres as a humanitarian Ramadan gesture, but, in reality, troops seem to have withdrawn around 10-15 kilometres, enabling the GNA to retake abandoned positions.

Strategic move

Libyan shopkeeper Khalil, who lives in a small town between Tripoli and Tarhuna, also claimed the LNA retreat from Tripoli front lines was a strategic move. 

“This will draw the militias out of AbuSleem and other populated Tripoli districts into military areas, such as Khalla district, where all the civilians fled months ago because of the war, so the two sides can fight without causing further civilian casualties,” he said. 

“It’s a strategy and it will probably work because most of the GNA militias are stupid, and easily fall into the army’s [LNA] traps and ambushes.” 

Before striking a deal with Turkey to bring thousands of Syrians to fight in Libya, the GNA was largely dependent on volunteer fighters with little training or experience beyond the country’s previous civil conflicts. 

During the battle to liberate Sirte from the Islamic State group in 2016, GNA-affiliated forces repeatedly sent large groups into battle with little strategic planning or forethought. 

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The LNA, by contrast, includes many Gaddafi-era military commanders among its ranks and, since 2014, has made training its forces a priority.

“The GNA militias don’t understand strategy and tactics, they just rely on firepower. They always think they have won and advance quickly into the places abandoned by the LNA, but then they get attacked and killed there,” said Khalil.

Pro-LNA accounts on Sunday claimed that 45 Syrians and 15 Libyans were killed during just one day’s fighting near the capital’s long-defunct, but still strategically important, international airport. 

The pullback of LNA troops has plunged Khalil’s town, relatively calm for a year, back on the front line. During intense clashes over the weekend, he admitted witnessing many LNA casualties and said there were also civilian injuries, mainly from shrapnel.

With GNA forces now so close, Khalil said residents were terrified at the prospect of the LNA being pushed back even further and leaving the town open to revenge attacks. 

“The fighting is very close now, and the [GNA] militias are threatening the people in my area, saying they will burn everything and hunt down anyone who stood with the [LNA] army, even civilians who did not fight but voiced support,” he said. 

“We basically have two options: either support the army or abandon our homes and leave them for the militias to burn.”

Local men had already started forming small volunteer support units to back up LNA forces, he said. 

Russian jets

Turkish airpower and equipment, along with the Syrian mercenaries, had significantly boosted the GNA militarily, and appeared to have tipped the conflict in the Tripoli-based government’s favour.

However several Libyans told MEE that new aircraft and equipment, believed to have been mainly supplied by Russia, would reverse the trend and get the LNA back on the offensive.

“The GNA had little airpower before and the LNA only lost al-Watiya because of Turkish warplanes and drones, but now the battlefield has changed,” said Mohamed, a Sirte resident who has contacts fighting on both sides of the war.

“Turkey was controlling the Libyan skies and cutting the LNA supply lines, but the tables have turned, with the Russians responding by stepping up their support and sending planes and equipment,” he added. 

“There is no doubt, the LNA is now back in control of Libyan skies.”

'It’s not clear if Haftar’s power has actually increased as much as people think, but that is certainly what most Libyans believe'

- Mohamed, Sirte resident

Aviation analysts told MEE previously that the fleet of Russian-made warplanes sent to Libya are militarily “useless”, would “change nothing” on the ground, and are likely a deterrent against Turkish attacks.

However, Libyans in western Libya say Turkish warplanes have fallen largely silent and the LNA, which is also backed by the UAE and Egypt, appears to now have air-defence capabilities to down Turkish drones.

Either way, Russia appears to be stepping up its interest in Libya and support for Haftar.

The United States’ Africa Command, AFRICOM, said last week that Russia had deployed the warplanes “to support Russian state-sponsored private military contractors operating on the ground,” with commander General Stephen Townsend saying there was now “no denying” Russia’s involvement in the Libyan conflict.

AFRICOM’s statement, along with video footage taken by civilians and circulated on social media showing Russian forces and military equipment moving in Libya, has reinforced local belief in the LNA’s regained supremacy. 

The year-long battle for Tripoli between the GNA and LNA forces has been characterised by victory propaganda and disinformation peddled, largely across social media, by both sides and their supporters. 

But Mohamed said an increased reticence of pro-GNA social media accounts spoke volumes. 

“Before, they were always posting about their victories but, since al-Watiya, these accounts have gone very quiet. It’s not clear if Haftar’s power has actually increased as much as people think, but that is certainly what most Libyans believe,” he said. 

Haftar’s supporters near Tripoli are still waiting for the Russian warplanes to make any significant difference. Meanwhile, the GNA is reportedly drawing more support from Ankara.

Khalil said LNA sources had told him that in the past few days nine Turkish cargo planes had landed in Misrata and that the approaching GNA-forces seemed to have enhanced weapons capability.

Ghariyan next?

Even as fighting rages on the Tripoli outskirts, several Libyan sources told MEE current LNA airstrikes indicated preparation for a ground offensive to retake the mountain town of Ghariyan, which it lost almost a year ago.

That loss, like al-Watiya more recently, was billed by international media as a “major blow” and “game changer”. But, even without strategic Ghariyan, the LNA was still able to make progress into Tripoli until its recent reversals. 

Libya’s ongoing six-year civil war between rival governing institutions in the east and west, interrupted by several battles against IS, has been characterised by territorial shifts. 

Both sides have long struggled to retain territory and allegiances. For more than a year, however, Libya’s eastern government has maintained control over the lion share of landmass, although not the country’s most populated western towns and cities.

The LNA does not have wide local support in Ghariyan, making it more challenging to take and hold than other pro-Haftar mountain towns, such as Asabiah.

But Abdullah said he remained confident in the LNA’s ability to regain such lost territory and even eventually take Tripoli, stressing that the east’s military prowess was not from Haftar himself but the experienced commanders surrounding him. 

“The LNA commanders are working round the clock. I’ve seen in Benghazi how they rarely even go home, preferring to stay at the bases, constantly monitoring the situation,” he said. 

“Yes, the battle for western Libya will take time, maybe a lot of time, but Tripoli will fall.”