Libya's Haftar takes Sirte

Kamel Abdallah , Wednesday 8 Jan 2020

Turkey and Russia reinforce their positions on the ground in Libya as international concern about foreign intervention in the civil war mounts, writes Kamel Abdallah

Ahmed Al-Mismari announces the LNA seized Sirte photo: AFP

On Sunday, the Libyan National Army (LNA) took control of Sirte in central Libya after its armed brigades surged from the east and south of the city. They were reinforced by local troops that had switched allegiance. This comes at the peak of foreign interference on the ground in Libya by Turkey and Russia which want a foothold south of the Mediterranean for different reasons. Meanwhile, the Berlin process sponsored by the UN is facing challenges due to disputes among those involved in Libya with the aim of containing growing tensions on the south and east of the Mediterranean.

General Ahmed Al-Mismari, spokesman for the LNA, told a news conference Sunday that the LNA surged onto Sirte and took control of the city in a “flash” three-hour operation. He said the city “was home to terrorist groups attacking the oil crescent, but it is now officially liberated from terrorism”. Al-Misrmari continued that the move on Sirte came from five main points, four by land and one by sea. “Taking controlling of Sirte does not mean moving on to Misrata,” he explained, where militia forces have been in control since the end of 2016.

As soon as the announcement was made that Sirte was taken by Haftar’s forces, the interim government based in eastern Libya appointed security leaders there. Colonel Mimi Lamine Al-Sadiq Al-Tarshani Gaddafi was appointed security director of the city, in a move that appears to appease the Gaddafi tribe which has a strong local presence and is worried that Al-Firjan tribe, which is the tribe of LNA Commander General Khalifa Haftar, will dominate. Especially since Al-Firjan members played a key role in empowering LNA forces in the city, most notably the Salafi current.

Local sources said that the Salafi 604 Battalion whose members mostly hail from Al-Firjan tribe, was operating under the banner of Sirte’s Security and Protection Forces formed by the Presidential Council of the Government of National Accord in March 2017, and facilitated the entry of the LNA into the city. Sources added that the picture remains unclear, especially since Misrata, where 700 people were killed while liberating it from the Islamic State group in 2016, may not accept that Sirte would remain under the control of its rivals, as tribal disputes, social and domestic conflicts escalate in the country. The turmoil has increased due to prevailing hate rhetoric propagated by the media that is mostly funded from outside Libya.

The announcement by the LNA that it has taken control of Sirte comes amid continued stalemate on the ground in the southern suburbs of the capital, Tripoli, which since April 2019 has witnessed fierce battles between forces of the GNA and the LNA. Even though it has been 10 months since war broke out in Tripoli, international efforts to secure a UN Security Council-backed ceasefire have failed.

On Saturday evening, drone strikes targeted the military academy in Al-Hadaba district in the capital, killing 30 cadets. This caused an uproar in Tripoli and among supporters of the GNA since the cadets were no more than 19 years old.

On Sunday evening, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that Turkish forces have started their descent on Tripoli to support the GNA, based on a memorandum of understanding between the two sides on security and military cooperation signed 27 November. Erdogan told CNN Turk: “Our soldiers have started to gradually head to Libya... The mission of our soldiers there is to coordinate... Our soldiers are deploying gradually.” He said Turkey’s aim is not to “fight” but “support the legitimate government and prevent a humanitarian catastrophe”.

Erdogan rejected criticism by Saudi Arabia Sunday that condemned the decision by Turkey’s parliament to give its ascent to Turkey’s Libya intervention. “We reject their condemnation and give it little weight,” he said.

Western and Arab media reported that Turkey recently sent Syrians allied with Turkey to fight in Tripoli. Arab media also reported that Russian security companies, as well as the Wagner Group, which is associated with President Vladimir Putin, reinforced its presence in combat zones south of Tripoli and Tarhunah with more fighters, as well as in areas of the oil crescent in the centre of the country.

On Monday, Fayez Al-Sarraj, chairman of the GNA’s Presidential Council, visited Algeria accompanied by Foreign Minister Mohamed Siyalah, Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha, National Security Adviser Tajuddin Al-Rizaqi and Brigadier General Mohamed Lakri from the Presidential Guard. The delegation met with Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune after a tête-à-tête meeting between Tebboune and Al-Sarraj. Also at the meeting were Algeria’s foreign, interior and defence ministers.

At the end of the trip, the Algerian presidency issued a statement in which Tebboune declared that “Algeria considers the Libyan capital Tripoli as a red line, and we hope no one crosses it.” The statement continued that military escalation and violence “do not and will not serve the interests of our Libyan brethren... Algeria always prefers dialogue over firepower, and once again urges its brothers in Libya to be rational and wise and choose dialogue away from outside pressure. This would serve a political solution that satisfies the Libyan people and provide them with security, stability and prosperity.”

Tebboune urged the world community to shoulder the responsibility of imposing an immediate ceasefire and end to military escalation which adds victims every day. He said his country “strongly condemns acts of violence, most recently the massacre of 30 military cadets in Tripoli. It is a war crime,” adding that Algeria “firmly” rejects foreign interference.

The US and UN officially voiced their concern about the recruitment of mercenaries in the Libyan conflict, warning that it is destroying the country’s infrastructure and causing serious injury among civilians. They blame all Libyan parties for the “serious” interference by foreigners in the domestic conflict. Russian and Turkish intervention on the ground has propelled this domestic conflict onto the world stage. In the past three weeks, phone diplomacy was in overdrive among the presidents and foreign ministers of countries involved in Libya to warn of the dangers of foreign interference there, most notably by Turkey.

On Wednesday, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry hosted a coordination meeting for the foreign ministers of France, Italy, Greece and Cyprus to discuss recent developments on the Libyan stage, and how to reach a comprehensive settlement that deals with all aspects of the Libyan crisis. Also, to resolve anything that hinders these efforts and discuss the overall situation in the East Mediterranean, according to a statement by the ministry.

In recent weeks, Egyptian diplomacy has intensified efforts and international communications to rally support to block Turkish intervention in Libya, describing it as a direct threat to Egypt’s national security, especially due to Erdogan’s hostility towards Cairo. On Monday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel invited Algeria’s Tebboune to attend the international conference on Libya that will take place in Berlin. She also invited Tunisian President Kais Saied to visit Germany soon to discuss developments in Libya, according to the presidencies in Tunisia and Algeria. This indicates that Germany is willing to expand participation at the Berlin summit, which will be attended by the US, Britain, France, Russia, China, Egypt, the UAE, Turkey, Italy and Germany. International circles criticised the move to expand participation, and said the number of attendees should, on the contrary, be reduced.

Until now, the summit does not yet have a date.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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