Al-Sarraj’s heat level: A Hot comeback

  • + Fayez al-Sarraj shelled Khalifa Haftar’s al-Watiya airbase.
  • + This is amongst the many military defeats Haftar has faced lately.
  • + The war is predominantly dictated by international actors. 
Source: Middle East Monitor

Why is al-Sarraj’s heat level Hot?

Answer: The tables of Libya’s Civil War have turned in his favor.

Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj’s Libyan Army attacked the al-Watiya airbase on the 10th of May. This military base, located in Southern Tripoli, is the last western stronghold of warlord Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA). 

Built by the United States in World War 2, al-Watiya is one of Libya’s most important military facilities and has been used by Haftar to fire most of his rockets at Tripoli’s based Government of National Accords (GNA). The airbase is controlled and protected by Haftar’s international allies; its subjugation would indicate a robust victory for al-Sarraj’s GNA, would stop civilian-targeted raids aiming from such strategic position and it would allow GNA’s efforts to focus on another of Haftar’s strongholds: the town of Tarhouna. 

For years, Libya has suffered the violent consequences of this dispute, and for the most part, it seemed like Haftar’s forces had the upper hand. But since al-Sarraj secured his position through an alliance with Turkey, he has had a fiery comeback. For the past months, the GNA has taken control over several towns neighbouring the capital back from the LNA and has surrounded Haftar’s western supply town, Tarhouna. In a sign of desperation after his losses, the warlord requested a ceasefire in early May alluding to the month of Ramadan, but it was denied due to his past peace breaches and because the GNA saw it as a way to gain time to reorganize his forces. 

Similarly, Haftar has engaged in frantic attacks that only demonstrate his current fragility. For instance, the al-Watiya strike came as a response to the LNA’s raid of Tripoli’s last standing airport and its surrounding residential areas. The attack, which used more than 100 rockets, resulted in at least 6 civilian deaths, it set an aircraft ablaze and was internationally condemned. It also followed allegations by Italy and Turkey that the neighbouring areas of their respective embassies had been shelled by Haftar’s forces. And unsurprisingly enough, GNA’s strike was met with a reckless attack by the LNA on the Tripoli Central Hospital. And so, as al-Sarraj gains terrain in this long-lasting war, Haftar is responding with desperate moves. 

What is changing al-Sarraj’s temperature?

Answer: International involvement.

Since 2014, al-Sarraj’s GNA and Haftar’s House of Representatives (HoR) have been involved in what is known as the Second Libyan Civil War. After the First Civil War, the Government of National Congress (GNC) was elected to ease Libya into a democratic constitution, but it failed to do so in time and was forced to call for elections in June of 2014. With only 18% turnout, the results favoured the Tobruk-based House of Representatives, but they were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court after a petition by the GNC. Consequently, in 2015, the UN-brokered Libyan Political Agreement was signed in Morocco to solve the on-going conflict by establishing a Presidency Council to guide cooperation between the HoR and the newly-created GNA. For more than 6 years, Libya has suffered the horrors of a second civil war and international puppeteers – despite peace talks, ceasefires and arms embargoes – who have dictated the path it would take. 

On the one hand, the HoR has been backed, among others, by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Russia and, clandestinely, France. The UAE has provided vast military equipment to Haftar and, in only one year, it has conducted more than 850 drone and jet strikes as an effort to promote an authoritarian dictatorship in Libya that would expel Islamists from the country. Russia has allegedly sent more than 200 mercenaries from the Wagner Group –a paramilitary organization supposedly under Putin’s direct supervision-, and France has sold weapons to the LNA despite Macron’s promises to stop meddling in the country. This varied international support had allowed Haftar’s forces to sustain the upper hand in the conflict for years.

On the other hand, the GNA is defended by most Western countries, Qatar, the UN, and recently, Turkey. This last ally has been essential for al-Sarraj’s comeback. Through parliamentary approval in late 2019, Turkey signed mutual defence agreements and maritime deals with Tripoli. It also became officially involved in the conflict by giving military training and weapons to the GNA. Thus, it is now able to keep one eye on Egypt’s political influence and another on the power struggles in the Mediterranean. Erdogan has been remarkably outspoken of his support for the GNA, and he has recently declared that he would see Haftar’s forces as a “legitimate target” if their attacks persisted. 

All throughout the conflict, international actors have been successful at designing the development of Libya’s battle for their own interest, first by expanding Haftar’s power, and now by leading al-Sarraj in the counterattacks. International agents have also pushed for peace, but haven’t been so successful. 

What is driving al-Sarraj?

Answer: Libya’s gloomy recent history. 

From Italian colonization to Muammar al-Qaddafi’s dictatorship, Libya has suffered severely unstable governance for the past few decades, and due to the ongoing conflict, its people require a strong and uniting leader more than ever to lift them out of the water.  

Besides his alleged Pan-Islamic interests, Fayez al-Sarraj is motivated by the idealized stability of Libya. He has portrayed stronger willpower to establish a ceasefire than his opponent. For instance, a national conference between the two leaders was scheduled for April 14th of 2019, but Khalifa Haftar –after a phone call with Donald Trump in which the American president confessed his “wait and see” policy for Libya- began an aggressive offensive to seize Tripoli. Similarly, during the Moscow peace talks on January 14th of 2020, Haftar walked away without signing a ceasefire and claimed that the draft “ignored many of the Libyan army’s demands”. Days later, and only hours after the ceasefire agreement in Berlin was signed, Haftar attacked the south of Tripoli. 

And so, while Haftar has proven to be an unreliable leader, al-Sarraj has persistently pushed to give Libya the moment of peace it deserves. 

What does it mean for you?

Answer: We don’t seem to learn from our mistakes. 

Besides the numerous civilian deaths and the enormous migration crisis this everlasting war has led to, Libya is in the minds of many as a key piece for geopolitical stability. For starters, the country has the largest oil reserves in Africa, and it has continued to pump more than 1.3 million barrels a day throughout the conflict. It is also a source of terrorist militias, and if the war results in a power vacuum, it could leave free room for ISIS’s return. 

Day by day, the players, motives and the results of this civil war resemble the ones in Syria, and many worry that Libya’s conflict could escalate to a proxy war or result in a political, economic and social crisis of the same magnitude as that of the Arab Republic. And if you add the threats posed by the COVID-19 to all of these factors, you’ve got yourself a ticking time bomb.  

Laura Escobar Díaz

Author & Editor