Turkish involvement gives military boost to GNA in Libya’s west

Sabratha, some 80 kilometres west of Tripoli and usually famed worldwide for its extensive and magnificent Roman ruins, hit the headlines last week for very different reasons.

Almost a year after Sabratha and the neighbouring town of Sorman switched sides in the country’s civil war and came out in support of Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar and the Libyan National Army (LNA), the two towns were re-captured in a lightning offensive by fighters supporting the Government of National Accord (GNA) headed by Fayez al-Sarraj. Like dominoes, four other towns and a military camp between the capital and the Tunisian border swiftly fell to the GNA. But the LNA remained in control of a couple of small towns much further south as well as Al-Watiya airbase, some 40 kilometres from the Tunisian frontier.

It was much the same picture further to the east, around Abu Grein, 100 kilometres south of Misrata. Renewed LNA efforts to take the strategic town failed. For the first time since April 2019 and the start of the LNA’s offensive to take Tripoli, the GNA now controls the entire coastal road from Abu Grein to the Tunisian border.

This dramatic turnaround is attributed to Turkey’s military intervention in Libya’s civil war in support of the GNA and air superiority played a large part in it.

It is almost five months since the security deal between the two, and three months since Ankara dispatched the first Syrian mercenaries to Libya. Until just a few weeks ago, the LNA had complete air control over the skies above Tripoli, having shot down all the limited number of drones sent by Turkey. But they have been replaced in the dozens.

This and the presence off the coast of Turkish frigates armed with surface-to-air missiles has meant that all-important air supremacy from south of Misrata to near the Tunisian border largely passed from the LNA to the GNA. LNA drones have continued to operate but almost entirely in the Abu Grein area and even there GNA heavy bombardment by Misratan units backed by Turkish drones forced the LNA onto the defensive. In the GNA’s Sorman and Sabratha offensive on April 13, drone attacks were followed by the ground assault.

The latter did not involve the Syrian mercenaries. It was undertaken by local Islamist militants who had been expelled in October 2017 from the two towns, supported by Islamist forces from neighbouring Zawia and from Benghazi. Once they had been captured, fighters mainly from Zuwara, the Amazigh town close to the Tunisian border, arrived at the other pro-LNA towns close to the Tunisian border – Al-Jmail, Rigdaleen, Zultan and Al-Assah – and forced out the pro-LNA forces there.

In Sorman, some 400 prisoners managed to escape during the fight. Initially, it was said that they included a large number of Islamists who had been freed by the arriving forces. It is now reported that the escaped prisoners included many convicted criminals, including murderers and those who were on remand, and that they managed to escape following a riot.

Whatever the exact circumstances of their escape, locals in Sorman and the neighbouring towns are reportedly more worried about the potential presence of murderers and criminals than anything else – other than coronavirus and the lockdown.

Sabratha is now again in the hands of Islamists, some of whom are alleged to have links to ISIS. Back in February 2016, an ISIS training camp just outside the town was bombed by a US warplane despite earlier vigorous denials by authorities of any ISIS presence there.

The return of Islamist militants is the subject of wariness in the town. Foreign diplomats likewise express deep concern. That concern, however, does not appear to extend to Sarraj, even though these are the same people whose expulsion from Sabratha in October 2017 he applauded.

The predominant view, not just among diplomats but also Libyan observers across the country, is that because of the turnaround, Sarraj is now completely in the hands of the Islamist militants and any pressure on him to break with them or with the militias will be futile – at least for the moment.  Sarraj and his interior minister, Fathi Bashagha, had already been under growing international pressure to do so.

Significantly, Sarraj’s position has now significantly hardened. In an interview with Italian daily “La Repubblica,” published the day after the capture of Sabratha and the other towns, he announced he would no longer negotiate with Haftar.

But the pendulum may swing again. Following the loss of the western coastal towns, the LNA intensified its assault on Tripoli, unleashing one of the heaviest bombardments yet in its year-long battle to take the city.

The novel coronavirus outbreak and how it will impact the fasting month of Ramadan, which is due to begin April 24, are of greater concern for exhausted Libyans than the recent military moves. Following a sudden spike in COVID-19 infections, the GNA announced April 15 that it was extending the 3 pm-7 am curfew to a 10-day 24-hour lockdown starting April 17. That caused large numbers of people to rush out to stock up on food supplies ahead of Ramadan. There was deep anger on the streets at the GNA over the timing of the lockdown restrictions. “What can I buy?” asked one resident. “I’ve had no salary for two months.”

Residents will still be able to go out to buy food or medicine, but only on foot – which means that for those without stores in their immediate vicinity, there will be no more shopping until the lockdown ends.

The article was first published in the Arab Weekly.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.