Libya has been witnessing a critical change in the course of events in its civil war recently as the United Nations-backed Libyan Army has been advancing, with the support of Turkey, by gradually taking one strategic point after another. According to experts, however, despite the obvious shift in the power balance in the war-torn country, it is too soon to claim that the end of the conflict is near, with many expecting clashes to escalate even further in the upcoming days.
Last week, the Libyan civil war made headlines with breaking news of the critical Al-Watiya air base passing into the hands of forces loyal to the Government of National Accord (GNA), who liberated the base from the occupation of the putschist Gen. Khalifa Haftar's militias. The move came after the Libyan Army destroyed three other Russian-made Pantsir-type air defense systems used by Haftar's forces that were supplied by the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
“This capture of Al-Watiya is highly symbolic for the GNA forces and is a clear sign of the GNA’s ascendancy relative to Haftar, especially given the month of military victories which led up to it,” said Tarek Megeresi, a political analyst and researcher who specializes in Libyan affairs, underlining the importance of the move.
Since the beginning of the civil war, in western Libya, there were two crucial supply centers belonging to Haftar forces, which are normally based in the eastern parts of the country, particularly in Benghazi. Haftar militias were delivering the supplies coming from the east to these two centers in the west: Al-Watiya air base and the Tarhuna region. This means that these strategic points were the center of the Haftar operation in western Libya.
Emrah Kekilli, a researcher at the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA), pointed to the fact that the GNA’s fight against Haftar militias actually gained momentum after launching Operation Rage of Volcano in April.
“After the deal with Turkey, the GNA gained strength and launched an operation with an aim to remove these supply centers and prevent Haftar forces from attacking the capital Tripoli,” Kekilli said.
Libya and Turkey signed agreements in November outlining cooperation in terms of security and maritime affairs, angering Mediterranean countries, including Greece and the Greek Cypriot administration, which are prevented from unilaterally exploiting energy resources in the region by the diplomatic maneuver.
Following the deal, the Turkish Parliament in January passed a motion allowing for the deployment of troops to Libya for one year in order to respond to threats from illegitimate armed groups and other terror groups working against both countries' national interests.
In Megeresi’s opinion, the loss of Al-Watiya will be a big blow to Haftar’s image and the morale of his troops.
“And, it is a significant moment in the GNA’s bid to corral all Haftar’s forces in western Libya into Tarhuna. Also, now the GNA will have significantly more forces available to direct toward removing Haftar’s forces from southern Tripoli. This is the clearest signal yet that the game in Libya has changed,” he underlined.
Since the ousting of late dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, two seats of power have emerged in Libya: Haftar in eastern Libya, supported by Egypt and the UAE, and the GNA in Tripoli, which enjoys U.N. and international recognition.
According to Ferhat Pirinççi, a professor of international relations at Uludağ University, the move marks the beginning of the end for Haftar.
“The capturing of Al-Watiya clearly changed the power balance in favor of the GNA. The idea that Haftar forces are losing in the field is being highlighted with this gain,” Pirinççi stated, adding that it also increases the security of Tripoli.
However, despite the consensus on the significance of the capture of the Al-Watiya air base, experts highlight that the war still continues and it is too early for the GNA to declare victory.
“It is a significant event against a backdrop of other – relative – successes in recent weeks. However significant and preponderant in many areas of the country, Haftar’s military power has been generally overestimated, but recent setbacks have made its limits all the more apparent. Turkey’s involvement in the conflict has helped exposed this reality,” said Emiliano Alessandri, an expert on Euro-Mediterranean relations with a focus on North Africa.
Next target of GNA: Tarhuna
The initial next step is expected to be targetting the other supply point of Haftar forces in western Libya: the Tarhuna region.
“Now that Al-Watiya is captured, we can expect that the focus of the GNA’s operation will switch solely to Tarhuna, which has been already surrounded,” Kekilli said.
Tarhuna comes to the forefront as one of the gathering and supply points for Haftar forces. The province consists of 65 big families that have major influence over the country. One of them is the Tarhuna family, sharing the same name with the province, which works with Haftar's forces. The family took Mitiga International Airport in Tripoli under control in 2017 and allowed Haftar forces to be deployed. The attacks in the province have escalated further since January 2020 and have cost the lives of hundreds of civilians.
“If Tarhuna falls as well, this means that the Haftar forces in the west will be completely besieged," Kekilli emphasized.
These gradual advancements of the GNA and determined steps to completely secure Tripoli had an impact on Haftar militias and their supporters not only in terms of military losses but also regarding motivation.
Enes Canlı, a Libya reporter of Anadolu Agency (AA), highlighted the fact that although it was a major military achievement, the capturing of Al-Watiya also has a psychological aspect to it.
“Until recently, the GNA was constantly in a defensive position, even after the agreement with Turkey. It even lost the city of Sirte to Haftar forces in January,” he said.
“However, with the launch of Operation Volcano Rage, things started to change," Canlı said. "Turkey’s armed UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) have a great responsibility for this change. By April 13, all the coastal provinces toward western Libya had been liberated from Haftar.”
Haftar militias' morale damaged
At the beginning of May, Haftar engaged in an unexpected move by declaring a cease-fire for the duration of the holy month of Ramadan, a step interpreted by many as a signifier of his lack of motivation in the face of the GNA’s success.
Although neither of the sides has committed to the unilaterally declared cease-fire, particularly Haftar himself, as the GNA continued to advance, similar statements on a cease-fire have come from Haftar's backers as well.
Last week, the UAE’s foreign minister, Anwar Gargash, said on Twitter that the only acceptable path forward involves an immediate, comprehensive cease-fire and return to the political process.
In Megeresi’s opinion, Haftar’s declaration of a cease-fire was a highly cynical act.
“(The cease-fire declaration was) an attempt to either, by himself, with time and space, consolidate his forces or in a worst-case scenario flip the script on the GNA for refusing a cease-fire – which is something Haftar usually does – and direct international attention their way,” he said, underlining that it was a direct result of the series of military victories the GNA have had over Haftar in recent weeks.
For Pirinççi, however, Haftar may have also acted upon completely different motives in declaring the cease-fire.
“It is true that Haftar’s resistance has been weakening every day that it fails to capture Tripoli. This may be the cause of the declaration of the cease-fire. However, the move can also be interpreted as a failed attempt that has no practical value, but a step to only win the international community,” Pirinççi said.
UAE: The main backer of Haftar
The UAE has spent a fortune supporting Haftar, despite his failures, against the country's U.N.-recognized government.
Despite the international arms embargo on the war-torn country in place since 2011, the UAE has been continually looking for ways to get heavy and strategic weapons to Haftar and his forces in eastern Libya to overthrow the government since 2014.
After the Libyan Army’s last advancements, Abu Dhabi's financial support for the war has increasingly come under scrutiny.
“It seems that the UAE’s primary goal is to replicate the Egyptian experience in Libya, to roll back the Arab Spring and to install a military-style dictator that is responsive to Emirati interests,” Megeresi expressed, adding that it is a largely ideological involvement.
In Kekilli’s opinion, however, when it comes to the UAE, saying the country simply became involved in the war is inaccurate since it actually fueled the war in the first place.
“It created Haftar as a militia force by supporting him with money and fighters. The UAE, alongside France and Israel, aims to create a political order in the region, control of which is in the hands of a military elite determined by them,” Kekilli stated, adding that Turkey’s efforts in the region foiled these aims of the UAE.
The U.N. Security Council's Libya report, published in November 2019, confirmed the UAE's support for Haftar.
Among the arms Abu Dhabi provided were millions of dollars’ worth of heavy weapons such as $14.7 million Russian-made Pantsir S-1 air defense systems; $15 million South African Super Puma helicopters; $25 million of Yabhon armed drones made by the UAE; $100,000 Russian Orlan-10 armed drones; Soviet-made Antonov An-26 and Ilyushin IL-76 cargo aircraft; $2 million in Chinese-made Wing Loong II armed drones, Blue Arrow BA-7 and GP6 missiles; $250,000 of U.S.-made MIM-23 Hawk missiles; and UAE-made Nimr, Panthera, Spartan and Tygra armored personnel carriers. The UAE also pays the salaries of a large number of foreign fighters-for-hire who have long fought for Haftar, such as Russian mercenaries, Sudanese Janjaweed militias and Chadian armed rebels. Furthermore, UAE-owned companies carried 11,000 tons of military-grade jet fuel to illegitimate armed forces in Libya, despite the U.N. Security Council's embargo.
UAE-Egypt ties at risk
The U.N. reports reveal that Egypt is also involved in violations in the Libyan war, allowing the UAE to use its territory.
Satellite images have shown that at least six Mirage 2000-9 fighter jets belonging to the UAE were stationed in the town of Sidi Barrani, located roughly 85 kilometers (53 miles) from Egypt's western border with Libya.
However, the successive achievements of the GNA also had an impact on the partnership between the UAE and Egypt. Last week, Egyptian authorities accused the UAE of being responsible for the latest defeats inflicted by the Libyan Army on the militias of Haftar.
According to Canlı, for the UAE and Egypt, the Libya issue has turned into an existential problem.
“They continue to support Haftar nonstop. Haftar’s existence depends on how much support it gets. In my opinion, it is very hard for both UAE and Egypt to leave the table as winning powers, but they would continue to support Haftar at the risk of losing,” he said, adding that they are too involved to leave.
Russia plays it safe
However, the UAE and Egypt are not the only countries that support the illegitimate Haftar militias in Libya. The involvement of Russia, in particular, in the process has been reported many times by international agencies.
According to a confidential U.N. report by U.N. experts monitoring the arms embargo, mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner Group are in Libya, and Syrian fighters from Damascus are supporting Haftar in the region.
"We know that certainly, the Russians are working with Assad to transfer militia fighters, possibly third-country, possibly Syrian, to Libya, as well as equipment," said the U.S. envoy for Syria, James Jeffrey, confirming Russia’s ties with Haftar at the beginning of the month.
However, Canlı expressed that Russia does not leave the GNA completely out of the game.
“They (Russia) see all the prominent Libyan actors, including Haftar and even Gadhafi’s son, as worth investing in. Russians prepare themselves for multiple alternative scenarios and try to come out as a winner in case of any of the outcomes,” he said.
Legitimacy key difference between sides
The foreign involvement in the war raises concerns as the U.N. acting Libya envoy Stephanie Williams last week warned that the foreign influx of weaponry, equipment and mercenaries to the country's warring sides would intensify the conflict.
Yet, many experts make a distinction between the different types of foreign involvement as their influence over both Libya and the civil war varies.
“Generally, in western Libya, Turkey’s intervention came as a huge relief and is perceived as something which saved the cities and people of the region from years of brutal warfare against Haftar’s forces that would have likely destroyed Tripoli and other cities,” Megeresi expressed.
“In response, there is now growing antagonism toward the UAE for the role it played in driving Haftar’s project to take over Libya," he said.
In Alessandri’s opinion, by upholding the GNA, Turkey has done what European countries for a long time advocated but did not, in the end, do.
“Of course Turkey has a national agenda too and expects a number of gains from its involvement – but has taken risks that others did not. It has become a key stakeholder and both gains and losses could be substantial depending on which way the conflict will go,” he underlined.
Kekilli, however, said he thinks that both sides want to have a solution to the conflict, which is their common value.
“However, there is one crucial difference: Turkey wants a civil and democratic Libya and wants to reach a solution through a political process. The ones who support Haftar, however, demand a military solution and want to see the establishment of a military dictatorship in Libya,” he emphasized.
Many highlight that there is also a legitimacy difference between the two sides, proving that supporting the internationally recognized GNA is not the same thing as supporting a putschist.
“Turkey supports the GNA on the grounds of legitimacy. However, the UAE and Egypt have an illegal presence in Libya. They are ghost actors,” Canlı said.
Peace to be reached after a rocky road
When it comes to the possibility of an end to the conflict, pundits express that although the memories of the failed past attempts still haunt Libya, there is hope for peace in the end, yet it may take a while to reach that point.
“The politically correct position is that there cannot be a military solution to the Libyan civil war. But developments in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) after the Arab uprisings tell us that there are hardly any political outcomes that are not preceded or buttressed by military achievements. Peace will be achieved when military gains are exhausted,” Alessandri stated.
Previously, several U.N.-backed attempts to reach a cease-fire between Libya's two rival forces have failed, and the world body has slammed repeated violations of a 2011 weapons embargo. On Jan. 12, parties in Libya announced a cease-fire in response to a joint call by the leaders of Turkey and Russia. But talks for a permanent cease-fire ended without an agreement after Haftar left Moscow without signing the deal. A week later, Haftar accepted the terms in Berlin to designate members to a U.N.-proposed military commission with five members from each side to monitor the implementation of the cease-fire. However, his blockade of Libyan oil fields overshadowed the summit in Berlin aimed at shoring up the shaky truce.
For Kekilli, eventually, there will be negotiations that will probably last for months and will be as harsh as the fight in the field.
“However, (unlike previous attempts such as Berlin), now the sides will come to the table with the acknowledgment of the fact that Haftar will not be able to enter Tripoli through war. Since the deal with Turkey changed the power balance in the region for the benefit of Turkey, Haftar will have to negotiate,” Kekilli emphasized.