On December 21, forces affiliated with the United Nations-backed Government National Accord (GNA) launched a military offensive on Tarhouna, a city that has served as the main command center for the so-called Libyan National Army’s (LNA) assault on the capital of Tripoli, 88 kilometers to the northwest.
Nearly five months earlier, GNA forces had taken LNA leader Khalifa Haftar’s primary command center in the city of Gharyan, pushing them to retreat to Tarhouna in what was a major setback for the LNA’s campaign that began in April.
Tarhouna, a city once favored by former Libyan ruler Muammar Qadhafi and which has played a critical role in supporting Haftar’s offensive in western Libya, is controlled by a tribal militia known as the Seventh Brigade or Kaniyat, as it is led by four members of Tarhouna’s Kani family. The combination of tribal militants and former military officers who served under Qadhafi has helped Haftar maintain the gains he made south of Tripoli during the last three months and press further into the capital than he has ever before.
Knowing the strategic position of the city, the GNA-affiliated forces, which are a patchwork of different militias from western Libya, hoped to come away with at most a surprise victory and at worst a needed distraction. They were unsuccessful on both fronts.
By the evening of December 20, the GNA forces attacking Tarhouna retreated in order to avoid airstrikes from aircraft affiliated with the LNA. In the early hours of December 21, Haftar’s side went on the offensive, conducting eight airstrikes on targets in Msallata, a town adjacent to Tarhouna, according to a resident in the city who spoke to Mada Masr.
Tarhouna and Msallata were not the only cities targeted by airstrikes. Misrata, a city located 250 kilometers east of Tripoli, was subjected to an intense aerial bombing by LNA-affiliated air forces in the early hours of December 21. The air campaign included 16 strikes, according to a journalist stationed in the city who preferred to remain anonymous, while other areas around west Libya were hit by around 47 strikes on the same day.
Once dependent on militias plagued by infighting and corruption for its security, the GNA has come to rely on forces from Misrata to fend off Haftar’s attack on Tripoli. With Fathi Bashagha, a former military pilot who is originally from Misrata, at the head of the GNA’s interior ministry, the city has come to contribute the largest number of fighters and machinery to the GNA’s war front in the capital. Misrata forces cover over 130 kilometers of the front lines south of the Libyan capital, relying on an arsenal of weapons seized after Qadhafi’s ouster.
In the week since the repelled attack on Tarhouna, the situation has only worsened for the GNA forces. A military official in the GNA military operations room told Mada Masr on Thursday that amid continuous shelling and violent clashes along the front lines of combat south of Tripoli, GNA forces were trying to recover positions they had lost in the past few days but were unable to push back against the LNA advance. One day after conducting a deadly, imprecise airstrike on the city that a medical source told Mada Masr left two dead, forces affiliated with Haftar launched on Friday an attack on the western city of Zawiya, which is about 45 km west of Tripoli and aligned with the GNA.
This is what is happening on the front lines of the battle for Tripoli. But how did we get here, after the resounding blow Haftar was dealt this summer?
The answer, according to sources familiar with the inner workings of both sides and analysts Mada Masr has spoken to in recent weeks, centers on Haftar’s ability to establish dominance over the skies of western Libya, with the support of airstrikes from regional and international allies, while also creating a surge in troops through the introduction of Russian mercenaries.
However, the LNA’s push in the last few months was necessitated by and masks divisions within their Libyan base in the east of the country, divisions which sources within the LNA tell Mada Masr came to a head in a recent move against Haftar’s leadership.
While the LNA is undoubtedly making advances in Tripoli, Turkey’s decision to deploy its navy and groups of Syrian ethnic Turkmen rebels that have fought alongside Turkey in northern Syria to support the GNA, coupled with Ankara’s discussions with Moscow over a potential deal have left Haftar “walking a tightrope,” looking to shore up military and diplomatic support from an at-times-distant ally in Egypt, while working to keep the tensions that nearly ran the Tripoli campaign into the ground at bay.
How the LNA won the battle Libya’s skies
The advantage LNA forces have gained in the ability to conduct airstrikes over the last three months has been crucial in turning the tide of Haftar’s military assault on Tripoli.
Crucial to this effort has been constricting the GNA’s air capacities.
Haftar was able to conduct these strikes due to safe airspace in central and eastern Libya. The LNA was also aided by its advanced Pantsir S-1 air defense system and support from Wing Long II drones, which the United Nations Panel of Experts indicate in a report were provided by the United Arab Emirates.
After Misrata was struck on December 21, the GNA released a statement attributing the airstrike to foreign air forces. A military source from the GNA’s air command center told Mada Masr that they acquired information that Egyptian fighter jets depart from Egypt to carry out airstrikes from time to time.
In October 2017, Egypt carried out airstrikes on the eastern city of Derna on behalf of its ally Haftar. An Egyptian source said at that time that Egyptian forces were responsible for these airstrikes, despite the Foreign Ministry’s denial.
Jalel Harchaoui, a researcher who focuses on the international dimension of the Libyan conflict, tells Mada Masr that the UAE has escalated the pace of its airstrikes, not only through the use of drones but also using fighter jets that usually go overlooked by media coverage.
“The UAE bombs Libya using fighter jets in a very casual manner and everybody keeps talking about the combat drones,” says Harchaoui.
The GNA has also relied on foreign support in its bid to control the skies, mainly relying on Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones. After the victory in Gharyan in July, LNA spokesperson Ahmed al-Mesmari pointed to the presence of Turkish drones as a decisive factor in the battle.
According to the military source in the GNA’s air command center, the UN-backed government acquired seven Turkish drones in mid-2019, which provided air cover to the GNA’s ground forces. However, the LNA has managed to destroy most of the drones and to undermine the infrastructure supporting the rest of them, the source adds.
When Haftar announced the “zero hour” in his assault on Tripoli on December 13, urging his troops to move into the capital, GNA forces launched a drone to help deter the push, the source says. However, the air command center lost contact with the drone as it flew over the south of the capital and then was brought down. The source says that the drone was brought down by deliberate interference with the connection, which occurred an hour after takeoff.
Six of the seven Turkish drones that entered into service in June have been destroyed, the source says, adding that two planes were destroyed before entering service when the LNA struck a cargo plane in the raid on the Air Force Academy in Misrata in August.
The source also added that they acquired information from residents south of Tripoli that an estimated 25 military technicians, who are thought to be from the Wagner Group, the Russian mercenaries fighting alongside the LNA in the capital, established transmission towers and platforms atop buildings south of the capital. The source believes these towers are behind the jamming of control signals for the drone aircraft.
Turkish drones were not the only drones that were brought down. In November, the United States lost contact with one of its drones flying over the same area south of the capital. A few days later, the Italian military’s general staff announced that one of its surveillance and reconnaissance drones was downed south of Tripoli. American and Italian drones have been carrying out regular reconnaissance operations in Libyan airspace and, in the case of the United States, bombing Islamic State targets as well.
In late November, Mesmari declared the skies above Tripoli’s southern suburbs to be a no-fly zone following the downing of the US drone. The injunction also seems to apply to LNA drones, as the use of unmanned aircraft south of the capital has decreased significantly over the last two months.
From air to ground: The LNA’s pivot to mercenaries amid internal disputes
The neutralization of GNA’s air forces coincided with the arrival of mercenaries from the Russian Wagner Group to the front lines, a move that prompted the US State Department to express “concerns” over the existence of mercenaries supporting the commander of the LNA.
Ali Bouzayen, a GNA field commander fighting south of the capital, tells Mada Masr that GNA troops have documented the death of three armed men from the Wagner Group during clashes that erupted mid-December along the Yarmouk axis, which is considered the main front in the south of Tripoli.
Abdallah Khaled, another GNA-affiliated fighter from Misrata stationed in the combat zone south of Tripoli, says that using long-range binoculars, he has spotted fighters who he believes are Wagner Group mercenaries in the field on three different occasions since November. “I have been here for five months, and I have never seen similar fighters in terms of equipment, weaponry, and how they move in small groups. I have participated in many battles, but I have never seen fighters like them.”
According to estimates from the GNA’s military command acquired by Mada Masr, the Wagner Group has deployed around 1,000 mercenaries in Libya since September.
Officially, Russia has adopted a neutral diplomatic position on the Libyan conflict, and the Russian Wagner Group is a private company. But the paramilitary group’s presence in the combat south of Tripoli represents a growing Russian influence. Emboldened by a highly trained mercenary force and control of the skies, Haftar brought in 500 troops from eastern Libya, according to an LNA military source, allowing Hafter to seize control of three key military camps south of Tripoli, gains that outpace his earlier advances toward the capital in the period between April, when the campaign launched, and July’s setback in Gharyan.
According to Harchaoui, the Russian presence has had a “psychological” impact on the GNA forces.
“The skill and discipline of the Russian fighters have scared the GNA-aligned forces, he said, including the Misrata fighters.” “This has altered the dynamic in profound ways within just a few weeks. For instance, Russian snipers were able to undermine the morale of GNA-aligned forces by killing competent mid-level chiefs among their ranks. The Russians also showed up with high-precision equipment, such as laser-guided howitzers.”
While the entrance of Russian forces buoyed Haftar’s advance into the capital, it also masked unresolved tensions within the LNA war machine, according to Harchaoui.
“As of late August, the Haftar army was in a very perilous place. Young Libyans from Cyrenaica were no longer joining the war effort in Tripolitania. Haftar’s offensive — thanks to the Emirati airstrikes and the continued involvement of Tarhouna — never stopped, but the tribes in Barqa all but ended their investment in the LNA in terms of lives sacrificed. Most brigades from eastern Libya had returned home,” he says. “Mainly for that reason, one crucial decision made in early September was for the LNA to allow Russian mercenaries, who have been active in Barqa for a while, to move into the outskirts of Tripoli and fight there on Haftar’s behalf.”
These tensions have not faded away, despite the presentation of a unified front.
A source close to Haftar from the village of Rajma near Benghazi in eastern Libya, the site of the LNA leader’s operations command center, tells Mada Masr that Haftar evaded a plot by military officers to oust him from his seat atop the general command, borne from both their criticism of the Tripoli front and the officers’ fractured loyalties, with pre-existing ties to their GNA counterparts.
According to the source, the LNA learned of the plot and moved to arrest one of Haftar’s assistants who conspired in the rebellion attempt. Egypt also intervened by sending a high-level security delegation to Rajma to meet leaders of the LNA to discuss steps to quell the rebellion attempt, the source adds.
The internal divisions in Haftar’s stronghold reflect the fragile state of the alliances that the LNA commander is managing, which are interwoven with historical tribal rivalries. According to Harchaoui, some important tribes outside Benghazi, such as the Obeidat, have historically felt entitled and superior compared to other tribes, such as the Awaqir, which typically have less centralized leadership. Within the LNA, the researcher adds, there is a tendency on the part of the Furjani tribe, from which Haftar hails, to concentrate an outsized amount of power in their own hands, which is difficult to sustain given that the Furjani are not perceived as prestigious or genuinely indigenous to Barqa. Many in Haftar’s immediate circle come from Tripolitania, specifically Sirte and Tarhouna.
Other divisions exist, not only within Haftar’s alliances but within the ranks of the LNA itself. A considerable number of the LNA’s current officers were Qadhafi loyalists, whom Haftar betrayed in 1987 and in 2011.
“Since 2014, Haftar has tried hard to be friendly to Qadhafi-era officers by allowing them to return, but there still is distrust. Haftar is surrounded mainly by his sons and other Furjan, because he doesn’t trust anyone else. That total supremacy may prove difficult to sustain over time,” Harchaoui adds.
There are also some differences between the Libyan National Army and civilian politicians, such as Abdullah al-Thani, the head of the interim government in eastern Libya, and Aqila Salah, the speaker of the eastern Parliament, the researcher adds.
“The fragmentedness of the LNA tends to fade from view whenever Haftar’s military is on the verge of launching a spectacular assault or, of course, on the verge of achieving a high-profile victory. In those cuspy moments, many actors who otherwise could challenge the LNA’s leadership, choose instead to go silent,” Harchaoui says.
However, this was not the case following the Gharyan setback, when the LNA was at its lowest point.
Egypt, the UAE, Russia and even France all started looking for ways to preserve the structure of the LNA without Haftar, Harchaoui says. But, starting in October, with the injection of the Wagner Group to the front lines and the LNA showing greater strength, those “LNA transition” talks receded, since foreign states only really care about the very short term, he adds.
“Rebalancing” the fight in Tripoli: The entrance of Turkey
The turn of developments in Tripoli in Haftar’s favor as he became slowly poised to take the capital prompted Turkey, which has become the main international ally of the GNA, to take action. President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Ankara could not ignore the support that Haftar was receiving from the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group.
On November 27, Ankara and the GNA signed two memoranda of understanding, which Mada Masr has acquired copies of. The first redraws maritime borders between the countries, while the other outlines security and military cooperation that allows deployment of Turkish troops to Libya upon the request of the GNA, a step to support the GNA that the Turkish President has repeatedly called for.
The GNA’s Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha described the recent cooperation protocols with Turkey as “restoring balance to the situation,” adding in remarks to the US-based Al-Hurra satellite channel that “Turkey managed to restore balance against UAE and Egypt interventions.”
On Friday, the GNA formally requested deployment of Turkish troops, activating the memorandum on security cooperation, and a Turkish official told Bloomberg that the Turkish navy and ethnic Turkmen rebel groups that have fought alongside Turkey in northern Syria would be deployed to the Libyan capital.
Ankara seeks to use its alliance with the GNA to push Russia to realign its interests toward Tripoli’s government, withdraw Wagner’s mercenaries, and convince the Kremlin to cooperate on the Libyan file weeks after the two countries had worked together in Syria. A source from Tripoli’s Foreign Ministry told Mada Masr “We do not have a problem with Russia, our main problem is with Wagner Group mercenaries joining Haftar’s forces, and we are working jointly with Turkey through diplomatic channels to convince the Russians to withdraw their mercenaries from combat.”
Turkey and Russia are holding talks on the Libyan file, and there is a risk to the LNA that the critical mercenary support that has won them gains in Tripoli could disappear in the event that a deal is struck.
“Haftar has been walking a tightrope,” says Harchaoui. “Moscow is not the UAE or Egypt or France. The Kremlin does not believe Haftar leads an armed coalition capable of ever winning the war for Tripoli. Said differently, the risk of some form of entente between Putin and Erdogan could “flip” the Wagner force. If Wagner stops helping Haftar, Sudanese mercenaries will have great difficulty substituting for the Russians. That could throw Haftar back into the vulnerable position of four to five months ago.”
Turkey’s entrance has had a notably different effect on Egypt’s position vis a vis the LNA.
According to a source who has recently left Haftar’s forces to join the GNA forces, a meeting between Haftar and Egyptian officials took place in mid-December in which the LNA general expressed concerns over Turkey’s future role in Libya and its potential effects on his military operations. However, Egyptian officials assured him that “the presidency is keen on supporting him militarily in the event that Turkey decided to send troops to Libya,” the source says.
A GNA military source familiar with the front lines tells Mada Masr that intelligence information indicates that Egyptian troops have been in Tripoli since November, but mostly as support and maintenance forces.
The LNA military source in Rajma says that Egypt is playing a critical role by providing military supplies that move from a military base in western Egypt to Haftar in eastern Libya. Egypt is also providing military training to LNA personnel at one of its military bases close to the Egyptian-Libyan border, the source adds.
Alongside a pledge for military support, Egypt has also opened up a diplomatic front
According to an Egyptian government source, following the Greek foreign minister’s visit to Cairo on December 22, Cairo and Athens agreed to escalate a joint diplomatic campaign to reject what the source describes as the “aggressive and unacceptable Turkish intervention in Libyan internal affairs,” and “Libya’s attempt to practice piracy in the east of the Mediterranean.” This diplomatic campaign will bring up the “Turkish issue” at international events, and communicate with influential capitals, including Washington DC, whose stance on the Turkish moves in Libya and the Mediterranean is “unclear,” says the source.
On Thursday, US President Donald Trump held a phone call with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the White House announced, in which the two leaders “rejected foreign exploitation” in Libya.
“The leaders … agreed that parties must take urgent steps to resolve the conflict before Libyans lose control to foreign actors,” the White House said.
The government source also says that the Greek minister spoke with Egyptian officials about the message that Athens conveyed to EU member states asserting that “the international recognition of the Sarraj government should not translate into overlooking the fact that Sarraj does not represent the whole of Libyan society, and that significant sections among the Libyan people do not approve of Sarraj as their representative.”
The source says that Cairo is “interested in a political settlement that establishes stability in Libya. From this starting point, Egypt’s vision is to support the UN envoy Ghassan Salamé’s efforts to create a political framework.”
“Egypt has been honest with Salamé regarding our evaluation of Sarraj’s debilitating role in reaching a moderate political settlement, as he insists on being aligned with Erdogan, which could translate into imposing an Islamist political agenda in Libya. This is not rational, not only because of Egypt’s antagonism to such a direction, but also because a considerable sector of the Libyan people rejects this direction,” the source says.
The same Egyptian government source says that Egypt notified the concerned capitals, including Washington DC, Rome, which specifically appears to be supportive of Sarraj “due to the Italian-French competition over their interests in Libya,” and Berlin, which hopes to host an international conference on Libya after the Christmas holidays, to assert that allowing Sarraj to sign an international agreement with Turkey for military, security, and maritime cooperation with Turkey, which is “hostile to Egypt,” is “categorically unacceptable, and Cairo would take, or to be precise, has already taken what it believes to be the necessary political steps to preserve its interests.”
“No one should expect us to stand silent and watch Turkey move to control our neighbor in Libya and transport militias from Syria there to threaten Egypt’s strategic interests,” adds the source.
The main purpose of Egypt’s efforts is to prevent the provision of military supplies to the militias supporting Sarraj in his confrontation with Haftar’s forces, explains the source. What Egypt is doing is “anything but providing support to Haftar’s operations. It is rather an attempt to prevent Turkey’s bid to exert control over Libya by advancing into the western territories of the country.”
The GNA has also opened a diplomatic front, calling on the US, UK, Italy, Algeria and Turkey to activate their security cooperation agreements, in a bid to build an alliance that can put an end to the threats posed by the LNA.