Forces loyal to the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) recaptured the strategically important Al-Watiya Air Base on May 18, 2020. This came in the context of a shift in ongoing battles in western Libya since renegade General Khalifa Haftar launched an attack on the capital Tripoli on April 4 of last year. This defeat represents a springboard for the restoration of GNA control over all the Libyan cities of the west coast and allows an advance toward the city of Tarhuna and the targeting of supply lines between Al-Jufra Air Base and battlegrounds in the west.
The Significance of al-Watiya’s Fall
Al-Watiya Air Force Base is located 140 kilometers southwest of Tripoli and within the administrative borders of the city of Aljmail, located just 27 kilometers from the Tunisian border. The base was established by US forces in 1942 during the tripartite American-British-French administration of Libya during World War II. Its infrastructure and facilities were modernized under the rule of Muammar al-Qadhafi to accommodate large numbers of aircraft as well as 7,000 military personnel.
The base is far away from any residential areas and is bordered by a terrain that provides natural fortifications. It was bombed by NATO forces in 2011 before coming under the control of military formations from Alzintan and allied tribes. The base returned to the forefront of events in 2014 following the division that accompanied the launch of Haftar’s Operation Dignity that Alzintan forces joined. Since then, the base has remained one of the advance sites for Operation Dignity in the western region.
The base has played an important military role since Haftar launched the attack on the capital last year, as it became a center for assembly and supplies for Haftar’s forces and allied mercenaries and a launching point for aircraft that targeted Tripoli, Zawiya, and other cities under the control of the GNA to the west and southwest of the capital. Since the GNA launched Operation Peace Storm, the base suffered a series of drone strikes that severely damaged its equipment and infrastructure and killed a number of combatants. The dead had mainly hailed from Rajban and Alzintan or were deserters from the cities of the west coast; among them was their commander Osama Mseik.
On May 5, 2020, joint forces affiliated with the GNA attempted to storm and control al-Watiya but were forced to retreat after incurring human losses; but they returned on May 18 to take full control of the base following the withdrawal of Haftar’s militants. It appears that the cutoff of supplies to the base, the military pressure, and the human toll and material losses inflicted by several weeks of continuous air strikes helped the GNA win the battle for the base. The GNA also made arrangements with social groups in the region that secured its control in exchange for allowing the withdrawal of the Alzintan and Rajban militants back to their regions and the departure of others to areas under Haftar’s control.
Securing the Capital from All Sides
After regaining control of all the cities of the west coast and Al-Watiya base, the GNA still has three important areas to capture in order to secure the capital and the western region as a whole and to enhance its negotiating position in any upcoming political settlement. These areas are south of Tripoli and in Tarhuna and Sirte-al-Jufra. Although the battle appears generally in the form of interlinked rings, different field and societal particularities apply to each.
As soon as Al-Watiya was recaptured, GNA forces moved to the city of al-Asabea––which was one of the corridors of entry for Haftar’s forces into Gharyan and then Tripoli on April 4, 2019––and took them after one day of clashes. Despite the limited population size of the city of al-Asabea, taking control of it ensures the southern flank of Gharyan, the road leading to Alzintan, Rajban, and others in the Jabal Nafusa area, and opens the road towards the cities of Mizda, Qurayyat, and Ash Shwayrif, which are major service stations for supply convoys coming from Al-Jufra airbase.
While GNA forces may not be ready to advance on these towns, their drone attacks on convoys passing through them over the last few weeks have limited the ability of Haftar’s forces in the western region to withstand the scarcity of fuel and ammunition supplies. The GNA appears to be counting on a policy of continuous pressure to establish understandings with social groups in these areas, as they did at al-Watiya. There are initial indications that a breakthrough can be achieved in this direction in light of the statement issued by the tribes of Mizda city in which they declared loyalty to the GNA and desire to dissociate their region from any armed conflict.
Seizing Al-Watiya represented a significant symbolic victory for the GNA going beyond strategic gains. Although the capital and the cities of the western region are safer, this does not mean that the collapse of areas south of the capital and the city of Tarhuna is inevitable. They are the two most important fronts in the vicinity of Tripoli, as happened in the cities of the western strip. Haftar and his regional supporters realize that the fall of Tarhuna and areas south of the capital will represent the greatest blow to his efforts to control western Libya, and that the repercussions will not stop at the borders of Tripoli and the west. For this reason, Haftar’s forces have resorted to bombing residential areas in the regions south of Tripoli to impede the progress of GNA forces, prevent the return to normalcy, and the repatriation of the displaced. This has posed a real challenge that has hindered progress and killed large numbers of GNA fighters in recent days.1
Despite these field difficulties, GNA forces are slowly advancing and recovering areas that have been under the control of Haftar forces since April 2019 and are close to surrounding Tripoli Airport and Qasr Bin Ghashir, the two most heavily fortified outposts south of the capital. In the same context, the “Al-Kaniyat” forces (of the Al-Kani family)––which form the solid core of Haftar’s forces in the Tarhuna suburbs and south of Tripoli––realize that the fall of the areas south of the capital will lead to the siege of Tarhuna.
The pressure on supply lines and the withdrawal of Russian “Wagner” mercenaries has compounded the difficulty of the battle being fought by Haftar’s forces in their recent positions in the region. In recent months, highly trained mercenaries provided advanced operations along the southern outskirts of the capital.2 It thus appears that Haftar’s remaining positions in the area are likely to collapse with the battles spreading to the outskirts of Tarhuna.
The Battle of Tarhuna
Since April 2019, Tarhuna has been Haftar’s main base of operations in the western region. Its capture, along Gharyan, represented the most important field gain at the beginning of his attack on the capital. But its recapture by GNA forces the following June increased its importance. To Haftar, Tarhuna’s geographical location and social extension to the southern and eastern belt of the capital are essential elements. Members of the Tarhuna tribes represent varying proportions of the inhabitants of Qasr bin Ghashir, Ain Zara, Wadi Al-Rabi’a, Souq Al-Khamis, and various neighboring towns. It is also close to the Misrata expressway. The main military force in the city, known as al-Kaniyat is one of the most formidable armed formations among the pro-Haftar militias in the western and central regions.
When GNA forces took control of the cities of the western coastal strip, they headed toward the city of Tarhuna and came very close with the assistance of unmanned air raids on al-Kaniyat camps and locations within the city. Despite the field gains achieved by GNA forces in last April’s offensive, they were forced to retreat but maintained their siege of most access points to the administrative borders of the city. The GNA seems to have realized the difficulty of replicating their gains on the western coastal strip on the Tarhuna front, with several factors impeding field gains in a quick surprise assault.
On the other hand, the Kaniyat forces are aware that their options are very limited and that the siege and drone attacks will definitely affect their military capabilities. They also realize that the collapse of their advanced defense lines in the suburbs of south Tripoli will reflect negatively on the morale of their fighters and will narrow the area under their control, thus threatening military operations into the city itself. The withdrawal of Russian mercenaries from the outskirts of southern Tripoli and Tarhuna is compounded by factors of field weakness, whose indicators have begun to appear through the continuous retreat of Haftar forces in areas of the airports Qasr bin Ghashir and Ain Zara. At the same time, the city’s home front is another weak spot for the Kaniyat forces, in view of their assassination campaigns against family, tribal, and political targets in the city under their control.
Al-Jufra and Questions about the Russian Role
Al-Jufra Air Base has enjoyed an advanced function in the military operations of Haftar’s forces since the start of their attack on Tripoli and the western region in April 2019. Al-Jufra is the node connecting the Emirati Al-Khadim base south of Al-Marj in Libya with al-Sweihan Air Base in Abu Dhabi. Flight tracking applications have shown frequent flights by cargo planes from the UAE to al-Jufra, as well as the transport of mercenaries from neighboring countries in Africa.
For a whole year, supplies continued to flow from al-Jufra to Haftar’s forces in the western region across the road passing from Mizda, Qurayyat and Ash Shwayrif, but the movement across this road witnessed a significant decline due to the repeated GNA drone strikes on the supply convoys. Al-Jufra Air base has recently returned to prominence after the withdrawal of large numbers of Russian mercenaries from the southern outskirts of Tripoli and following the US AFRICOM’s revelation about the stationing of 14 Russian military aircraft in it to support the military effort of Haftar’s forces.3 Although the Russian bias towards Haftar is not new, the arrival of the MiG and Sukhoi military aircraft to this strategic base, and the subsequent US reaction, raise many questions about the activity of the Russia’s air assets and the limits of the role they can play in light of Haftar’s continuous setbacks and the Turkish support for the GNA which was the decisive factor in the recent military shifts.
While the Russian leadership remains silent about the details of its intervention in Libya, the Russian media have broadcast a brief statement by the Vice-Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Council of the Russian Federation denying the news.4 This added to doubts about Russian intentions and the implications of Moscow’s widespread interference in complex Libyan affairs which appear to be open to many possibilities.
It is clear that his retreat in the western region affected Haftar’s political situation in the east, not for the benefit of the GNA but of local powers. It also has become clear that Haftar is unable to rule or unify Libya. However, the internationally legitimate GNA’s influence is still limited to the western region; and even there the government has not yet succeeded in forming a unified national army and absorbed local militias, which raises the big question about the future of Libya and the need to reach a political solution that guarantees its unity as a sovereign country.
By regaining control of Al-Watiya, advancing on the southern outskirts of Tripoli, besieging the administrative borders of Tarhuna, and targeting Haftar’s supply lines, the GNA is close to restoring the status quo ante in the west (that before the April 2019 offensive). In the coming phase, the GNA seeks to stabilize these gains by resolving the military situation south of the capital and in Tarhuna, pending the clarification of the extent and depth of direct Russian military intervention, and the repercussions it will have on the conflict, which appears to be heading toward a major regional and international confrontation. The only guaranteed way to stop this is to politically marginalize Haftar and end the war. Politicians in the eastern and western regions have to reach a political solution through includes building a unified national army that obviates the need for any domestic actor to seek international assistance in the national conflict since no outside help comes without strings attached.
An earlier version of this paper was published on June 2, 2020 by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS) in Doha, Qatar.
1 See, for example, “Military Engineering Brigades Continue the Process of Removing Mines Planted by the Haftar Militias, South of Tripoli.” YouTube, Al-Ahrar Libya Channel, 27/5/2020, accessed 30/5/2020, at: https://bit.ly/36JrQbK.
2 “The Withdrawal of Russian Mercenaries from Tripoli … Final Departure or Abandonment of Haftar?”, Al Jazeera Live, 29/5/2020, accessed 30/5/2020, at: https://bit.ly/3ciZ0QA.
3 “Libya … Africom Reveals New Information about Russian Aircraft and Mercenaries Withdrawing to the Central Region”, Al Jazeera Net, 27/5/2020, accessed 31/5/2020, at: https://bit.ly/2ZRju0f.
4 “Russian Lawmaker Confirms Moscow Not to Send Military Personnel to Libya,” The New Arab 27/5/2020, accessed 31/5/2020, at: https://bit.ly/2XhjKUM.