On 26 June, forces fighting for the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli recaptured the strategic town of Gharyan from the Libyan National Army (LNA).
The LNA, commanded by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, had been using Gharyan as a forward base for the offensive it launched against the capital 4 April with the stated purpose of driving out the radical militias that have controlled the capital for several years.
The turn in events on the ground appears to have given fresh impetus to the peace-making efforts of UN Envoy to Libya and Head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) Ghassan Salame who has been touring major capitals to mobilise support for the resumption of a political process that ground to a halt because of hostilities.
Gharyan, with a population of about half a million, is situated 90 kilometres south of Tripoli. To control that town is to control a major junction between the capital and the Tripoli province as a whole, and southern Libya. The loss was a major setback for Haftar.
This recent turn in events has cast into relief the growing intervention of regional powers in the conflict in Libya. Turkey has assumed a particularly high profile as a major arms supplier to the GNA militias, to which testify widely circulating photos and video footage of dozens of Turkish-made armoured vehicles, drones and other military hardware being unloaded in Libyan ports.
The GNA’s other main regional backer, Qatar, is working to mobilise international support for the internationally recognised government.
The mounting regional meddling has raised concerns over the possibility of a flare-up of another proxy war in the region, to the detriment of the Libyan people above all.
Following its victory in Gharyan, the general command of GNA forces released a communique stating that its forces had launched a surprise attack against the town in the framework of “Operation Abdel-Salam Abu Sitta”.
Advancing under air cover, GNA forces managed to enter the town while an “internal uprising” among the townspeople compelled the “aggressor forces” to retreat from the city, “leaving behind fighters, equipment, military machinery and advanced weaponry”.
The communique added that GNA forces seized control of the main operations room that the LNA had been using to conduct the offensive against Tripoli.
GNA Army Spokesman Colonel Mohamed Gnounou said that GNA forces have taken command of the centre of Gharyan, Rabita Hotel, the city hospital and all other strategic locations in the city.
Speaking at a press conference, Gnounou said that the GNA’s military aircraft carried out eight “pinpoint” strikes against locations of LNA forces in Gharyan, which facilitated the mission of ground forces.
In the city, GNA forces found internationally banned weapons that were turned over to specialised committees for documentation and disposal, he said, adding that 150 LNA soldiers had been captured.
Spokesman for LNA General Command Major General Ahmed Mismari, described the GNA surprise attack as “an attempt to destabilise the Jebel Gharyan region”.
In a press conference held on the evening of the same day as that attack, he said: “This battle began on Facebook before it began on the ground and the theatre of operations. But our forces are still in control in the area.” He added that LNA command remains determined to keep up the fight for the capital.
After GNA forces seized Gharyan, LNA forces launched a number of air strikes, primarily aimed at a military camp on the outskirts of the city.
Observers believe the purpose was to destroy weapons depots that LNA forces were unable to take with them when they left the city.
The LNA vowed a harsh response to the setback in Gharyan. It ordered a halt to all transactions with Turkey because of Ankara’s support for terrorist organisations and militias. It also threatened punitive measures against Turkish interests in Libya.
Some Western observers read the LNA’s actions as part of an appeal to regional allies to offer more support for Haftar’s campaign to win the capital.
GNA forces, for their part, published photos of what they claimed were advanced US weapons given to Haftar’s forces by the UAE. They included four Javelin anti-tank missiles of the sort the US has sold to the UAE.
There were also Chinese weapons and three drones among the equipment that Haftar’s forces left behind in Gharyan.
A US State Department spokesperson said: “We take all allegations of misuse of US origin defence articles very seriously. We are aware of these reports and we are seeking additional information. We expect all recipients of US origin defence equipment to abide by the end-use obligations.”
The spokesperson reiterated Washington’s support for the efforts of Salame to avert further escalation and to devise a way forward towards security and prosperity for the Libyan people. He urged Libyans to return to negotiations, the success of which is contingent on a ceasefire in Tripoli and its environs.
In a joint press conference with Italian Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi following the P3+3 meeting on Friday, Ghassan Salame said that the development in favour of GNA forces in Gharyan broke the military deadlock that had existed since the LNA launched its Tripoli operation, and that he hoped this would help persuade all parties to return to the political process.
Observers anticipate that, sometime this month, the UN envoy to Libya will present to the UN Security Council a new vision for ending the political stalemate and restarting the UN-backed political process for Libya.
Al-Ahram Weekly has learned that Salame has a preliminary concept for new negotiations between Libyan forces. He believes that recent developments revolving around the battle for the capital have made it essential to broaden the dialogue beyond Haftar and Chairman of the GNA Presidency Council Fayez Al-Sarraj.
According to sources, he envisions a dialogue among 20 figures representing all parts of the country and all social, cultural and tribal components.
He hopes regional and international powers will back the resumption of the political process by encouraging Libyan parties to commit to a ceasefire and return to the negotiating table. However, recent developments may work to hamper efforts in this direction.
The Weekly has also learned that members of the House of Representatives opposed to Haftar’s Tripoli campaign and who have been convening in Tripoli, separately from the main House of Representatives assembly, have intensified communications with Cairo in the hope of persuading it to pressure Haftar into withdrawing his forces from around the capital and returning to the negotiating table.
A delegation of House of Representatives members from Tripoli is expected to arrive in Cairo soon to discuss the matter further with Egyptian officials.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Reversal at Gharyan