On 26 March, Fayez Al-Sarraj, prime minister of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), launched operation “Peace Storm” against the Libyan National Army (LNA) under the command of Benghazi-based Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. In two weeks, the operation has succeeded in recapturing the western coastal zone from Tripoli to the border with Tunisia. It then turned its attention to Tarhuna. The strategically located city, 65 kilometres southeast of Tripoli, is a forward staging point for the LNA in the “Flood of Dignity” campaign that Haftar launched just over a year ago with the aim of recapturing the Libyan capital.
During the past year, the lines between the two sides have remained largely unchanged. The long LNA siege has been unable to break GNA defences around the capital, which have been heavily bolstered following a highly controversial military cooperation agreement between the GNA and Ankara. Turkish military support, in contravention of the international arms embargo, has helped shift the balances on the field in favour of GNA militias which, while outnumbering Haftar’s forces, had been less equipped.
Now that the GNA forces have taken the initiative, observers see a turning point in the war that could shift its focus away from Tripoli and towards the east, especially in light of the LNA’s loss, last week, of Sabrata, Al-Ajailat, Surman, the towns of Gemayel, Riqdalin and Al-Assa near the border with Tunisia. For over a year, these western coastal towns had been a major source of social and tribal support for Haftar’s forces. The air force base in the Jafara district to the southwest of Tripoli, which Haftar’s forces had used to support his ground forces, is now nearly surrounded, eliminating it as a strategic asset in his operations to the southeast of Tripoli. GNA militias have also acquired air superiority thanks to Turkish drones.
The purpose of the GNA offensive against Tarhuna, which began this weekend, is to cut off support for LNA forces on the outskirts of the capital and force them to withdraw. During the past two weeks, Turkish drones have intensified attacks against LNA supply lines from the Jafara district and other supply routes through the desert.
The GNA launched its recent offensive despite repeated UN calls for a humanitarian truce in order to unify efforts in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. Libya so far has 48 recorded infections, according to UN sources in Libya. Civilians, in general, continue to suffer from hostilities in the vicinity of the capital which have claimed hundreds of civilian casualties (over 350 dead and 330 wounded) and more than 345,000 displaced persons since Haftar launched the Tripoli offensive on 4 April last year.
Al-Sarraj claims Operation Peace Storm is in response to the LNA’s “constant violations of the truce” and to “repeated terrorist attacks against civilians”. He also stated that he heads “a legitimate civilian government that respects its obligations to the international community, but that it has the prior obligation to its people and the need to protect them within the framework of the legitimate right to self-defence within the bounds of international law”, according to a press statement from his office.
The statement continued: “The systematic bombardement of residential neighbourhoods in Tripoli has not stopped despite the truce and has caused civilian casualties, including women and children, heedless of the UN Security Council resolution, in disregard for the resolutions of the Berlin Conference and in contempt for the lives and security of the Libyan people.” Peace Storm was “to avenge the victims of the invading terrorist militias and the terrorist mercenaries fighting with them”, the statement added, referring to the LNA.
According to sources close to GNA forces, their commanders are determined to push LNA forces away from the outskirts of the capital by Ramadan in order to enable hundreds of displaced families to return to their homes and alleviate the pressures on the centre of the capital where these families have sought refuge.
LNA command reports that its forces continue to hold their ground in the vicinity of Tripoli and Tarhuna and that they have repelled GNA offences in both areas. LNA Spokesman General Ahmed Al-Mismari also mentioned that his forces have downed a number of Turkish drones. On the other hand, observers have noted that LNA air forces have been noticeably absent from the battle in the vicinity of Tripoli in recent weeks, despite losses in their ranks.
Mismari seemed to underplay the strategic significance of the loss of the western coastal towns. He held that this was achieved solely due to Turkish military support for the GNA. The Libyan army is “fighting an all-out war against the Turkish Army, with all its land, sea, air and electronic strength”, he said in a press conference Wednesday, 16 April.
Speaking in Benghazi on Sunday, Mismari said: “Turkey had been preparing for months and mobilising personnel and equipment to carry out the attack on Tarhuna south of Tripoli.” Confirming that LNA forces downed five Turkish drones that were preparing to attack Tarhuna, he added that these forces “were able to deprive the GNA of its air capabilities that were used in the attack on Sabratha”. He also reciprocated Al-Sarraj’s terrorist charges: “The Al-Sarraj government (GNA) funds terrorist groups in the southwest with Turkish sponsorship, which have been monitored by LNA reconnaissance... Turkey and Al-Qaeda are behind the movement of militias in all regions of Libya.”
Meanwhile, to the east of Tripoli and Tarhuna, LNA and GNA forces have been skirmishing in the open desert area south of Misrata using heavy artillery and drones. Dozens of fighters from both sides have died in the clashes in which GNA forces claim to have downed an LNA helicopter, killing its crew, Wednesday. The LNA, for its part, claims to have downed a Turkish drone in the vicinity of Al-Washka, southeast of Misrata. “It differs from the usual Turkish drones,” Mismari said.
The LNA has also begun to patrol areas in southwestern Libya in anticipation of hostile actives targeting the LNA and petroleum facilities in that part of the country where the local populace suffers shortages in basic goods and services.
A number of political activists in southern Libya have called for the creation of a political body to advocate the rights of this marginalised region. Local sources also reported that the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) plans to launch a television station addressing the region which observers fear may soon become engulfed in the warfare in Libya. The area has long suffered instability as the result of porous borders and the proliferation of foreign fighters and militant opposition groups from Chad and Sudan, many of whose members have been involved in the fighting in the vicinity of Tripoli, as has been documented in reports by UN Security Council committees of experts on Libya and Sudan.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly