Fresh fighting would pit the Libyan National Army against the Government of National Accord
by WOLFGANG PUSZTAI & ARNAUD DELALANDE
Beginning in December 2016, the Saraya Defend Benghazi — also known as Benghazi Defense Brigade — an Islamist militia group that formed in June 2016 to oppose Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s Tobruk-based Libyan National Army, was involved in the attack on facilities in Libya’s Oil Crescent.
The LNA decisively repulsed the attacks. But the wider conflict is only deepening — and could spark a new civil war in Libya pitting the two major claimants to the country’s leadership. Haftar and his allies in Tobruk on one side. On the other, the Government of National Accord in Tripoli.
Resource constraints on both sides could head off further fighting — assuming the local allies of both Haftar and the GNA behave themselves.
The December fighting was fierce.
On Dec. 8, 2016, LNA aircraft launched what appeared to be retaliatory air strikes targeting SDB/BDB forces and their allies in the vicinity of Al Jufrah air base, killing field commander Katibat Umar Al Mukhtar and wounding 13 people.
Apparently anticipating a counterattack, in the aftermath of the Dec. 8 air raids the LNA deployed SA-9 air-defense systems in Ras Lanuf. Another 9K31 Strela-1 vehicle was spotted in Zintan at the end of December 2016 and may have been involved in the Dec. 22 destruction of a MiG-23 fighter belonging to the pro-GNA Libya Dawn Air Force.
On Dec. 26, 2016, fighting broke out between Misrata’s 3rd Force — a unit that’s notionally aligned with the Government of National Accord in Tripoli— and the LNA’s 12th Infantry Brigade near Tamanhint air base in Sebha province. The 12th Infantry Brigade emerged victorious — and captured Gwairat Al Mal from 3rd Force.
The same day, the LNA’s warplanes targeted an apparent SDB military camp in Hun near Al Jufrah, but missed and struck a facility belonging to Al Bunyan Al Marsoos, which is loyal to the GNA.
On Dec. 27, 2016, a second wave of LNA air strikes struck Hun. And two days later, LNA aircraft hit an SDB farm in Al Jufrah. All the air strikes involved LNA MiG-21MFs and MiG-23MLs taking off from Ras Lanuf airstrip.
On Jan. 2, 2017, Libya Dawn Air Force planes — most likely MiG-23MLDs — reportedly attacked LNA positions near Gwairat Al Mal in the Sebha area, allowing the 3rd Force to recapture a checkpoint in Gwairat Al Mal.
The GNA victory was short-lived, as the LNA’s 12th Brigade recaptured the position the very next day. On Jan. 3, 2017, the LNA MiG-21MF with the serial number 27, a former Egyptian plane, reportedly targeted an SDB position at Al Jufrah air base, damaging a the sole C-130H transport in service with the Libya Dawn Air Force and killing one and injuring two, including Ibrahim Beit Al Mal, the spokesperson for the Misrata Military Council.
According to the LNA, the C-130 was carrying ammunition and soldiers, but the Misratans claimed the plane was merely carrying a delegation coming to pay their respects to the family of soldiers killed in prior LNA air strikes. It appears that the C-130H was only lightly damaged.
Later on the same day, the LNA declared a no-fly zone stretching from Bregha to Sirte and Sebha, including the the whole of Jufra province, but it’s doubtful that the LNA has the assets to surveil and enforce it.
The LNA versus the GNA — with side action
This steady uptick in direct confrontations between the LNA and the GNA in Misrata points to a new phase of the civil war in Libya — a showdown between the two major military forces in the country.
But the situation on the ground in southwest Libya is complex. On both sides there are several groups, each pursuing its own goals.
For starters, the Awlad Suleiman, Ghaddadfa, Toubou, Touareg and other southern tribal militias are heavily involved in smuggling, human trafficking and other criminal activities — and fight each other over turf. In 2016 alone, several dozen people died and hundreds were injured in clashes between the Awlad Suleiman and the Ghaddadfa.
Misrata’s 3rd Force deployed to Fezzan in southwest Libya in early 2014 as a kind of peacekeeping force, aiming to ensure a basic level of peace and secure the oilfields — oh, and also to evict its rivals from Zintan and prevent the LNA from getting a foothold in the south. Far from being impartial, the Misrata fighters allied with the Awlad Suleiman against the Ghaddadfa and the Toubou.
In late summer 2016, the 3rd Force, commanded by Jamal Treiki, sent significant reinforcements to the GNA-friendly Al Bunyan Al Marsoos fighters targeting Islamic State in Sirte.
Moreover, Misrata has suffered severe casualties in the fight against Islamic State. Altogether the 3rd Force has lost around one-fourth of its people, which at their peak numbered 22,000 fighters and 18,000 support personnel.
Even after this erosion and division of its forces, the Misrata army still controls much of Sebha and several other key positions in Fezzan, including a major part of the local oil infrastructure. Still, the 3rd Force needs some time to recover and consolidate its positions in Tripolitania and in Fezzan.
This could prove difficult for Misrata. The situation in Tripoli is currently going from bad to worse and could compel the 3rd Force to deploy several thousand Misrati fighters there. And although Islamic State has fled Sirte proper, the militant group still threatens the greater Misrata and Sirte areas.
All this is to say that Misrata’s 3rd Force, while still the most powerful single army in the west of Libya, is severely overstretched.
Misrata’s intention is probably to maintain or preferably even extend its influence on the government in Tripoli by all means including military, economic and diplomatic.
For now, that means supporting the GNA, which despite its military weakness is still the main internationally-recognized regime in Libya. International recognition is very important for Misrata, a merchant and harbor city.
As Misrata has no natural resources in its own territory, control of the “Great Manmade River” — Libya’s gigantic network of pipelines supplying water from deep below the Sahara to the coast — and oil and gas infrastructure is of utmost importance to the city. This requires, among other things, that Misrata maintain a significant military presence in Al Jufrah in the center of the country and in Fezzan in the south.
Misrata needs a reliable land line of communication to Sebha in order to maintain its forces and influence in the south. As the road from Sebha to Gharyan and further on to Tripoli is under the control of the city’s adversaries in several locations — for example, near Brak, south of Gharyan and in Al Aziziyah — keeping open the road between Sebha, the Jufra Oasis and Misrata is crucial for Misrata.
This is another reason for the importance of Al Jufrah to Misrata, and also explains the significance of Gwairat Al Mal, which lies around a dozen miles north of Sebha, and the Tamanhint air base. Jets from this base operating under the auspices of the Libya Dawn Air Force occasionally attack LNA forces and other targets in the south.
The SDB, which is estimated to command between several hundred and 1,200 fighters, suffered as many 100 fatalities in the failed December 2016 offensive and the subsequent LNA air strikes. It’s definitely too weak to challenge the LNA in an open battle without the support from other, larger militias. Therefore the SDB tries — with the strong support of Libya’s grand mufti Sadeq Al Ghariani — to drag Misrata into the fight.
The probable intention of the SDB is to renew the offensive against the LNA as soon as possible in order to divert some pressure from the Islamist Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council, or BRSC, which is struggling for survival in eastern Libya’s capital — and also to prevent a consolidation of Haftar’s sphere of influence.
If Misrata doesn’t join the fight, the SDB could launch small-scale raids on eastern targets, including the oil infrastructure.
What does the 12th Brigade want?
The 12th Infantry Brigade, led by Col. Mohamed Ben Nayel, is considered the core force of the southern branch of the LNA, but follows mostly its own agenda. The brigade consists mainly of fighters from the Al Maqarba and other tribes in Wadi Al Shatti, including the Ghaddadfa and the Toubou. Most of those tribes were followers of Muammar Gaddafi.
Birak air base, located in Wadi Al Shati just about 43 miles north of Sebha bloodlessly fell to the 12th Infantry Brigade on Dec. 7, 2016. But the site, a former training base of the old Libyan air force, is in poor condition.
All its MiG-23s, most of them UB models, and the vast majority of the L-39s are no longer airworthy. There is also a lack of trained ground and aircrew. The base cannot currently contribute to the air support of LNA ground troops.
The 12th Infantry Brigade’s aim is probably to take over control of the local oil fields and smuggling routes — and to force Misrata out of Fezzan.
The LNA relies heavily on air power in its fight against the Islamists in northern Cyrenaica as well as against the SDB in the Oil Crescent and in Al Jufrah. However, as its assets are limited. And as the closest MiG-21 and MiG-23 base — Ras Lanuf — is 350 miles from Sebha, the LNA/AF will not be able to generate a sufficient number of sorties to achieve a decisive impact in the south.
This is especially true since, despite air support from the United Arab Emirates, the LNA’s aircraft and helicopters are heavily engaged in the Ganfouda district in Benghazi and in Derna, leaving just two free fighter jets at Ras Lanuf together with a few uncommitted Mi-8T and Mi-35 helicopters.
Moreover, in spite of the presence of a refueling probe on some MiG-23BNs, the LNA doesn’t possess any aerial tankers and its pilots have received no training in mid-air refueling.
Prior to 2014, the northern Libyan city of Zintan was heavily engaged in Fezzan. Since their September 2014 defeat in Tripoli, the Zintanis have rebuilt a well-trained and -equipped force numbering about 2,500 troops.
Their Al Watiya air base, close to the border with Tunisia, plays an important role. The base, also known as Uqba Ibn Nafa, fell to the LNA on Aug. 9, 2014. By the end of that year, the LNA began overhauling as many as a dozen former Libyan air force Su-22 bombers that had been stored at the base.
In March 2015, the LNA also began work on a Mirage F.1AD at the base. To date, two Su-22s, the single Mirage F.1AD and one or two Mi-35s are active at Al Watiya and frequently fly reconnaissance missions over western Libya.
The Zintanis have concentrated their effort on the Jabal Nafusah Mountains and the coastal Jafarah plain. They have a strained relationship with Haftar and, although formally part of the LNA, are really only halfway responsive to his orders.
However, to give credibility to Haftar’s recent threat to take Tripoli, Zintan and its local allies from the Noble Tribal Army must keep many of its fighters around the capital. They probably won’t be available to fight in the south.
In conclusion, an all-out offensive by the LNA to take Al Jufrah or expel Misrata from Fezzan is, for various reasons, currently unlikely. The LNA is overstretched. It cannot project sufficient air power for a ground offensive in central or southern Libya to be successful.
As such an offensive would overstep one of Misrata’s “red lines,” it would almost certainly trigger a major reaction — and this could endanger the LNA’s overall strategy.
Consequently, it’s probable that the LNA will maintain just enough pressure on Al Jufrah to weaken the SDB and deter a renewed offensive toward the oil crescent.
Meanwhile, Haftar’s forces could seal off the SDB’s access to the east with checkpoints and aerial surveillance in order to prevent raids on the oil infrastructure in the Sirte Basin.
But as much as the LNA’s options are limited, Misrata too has few choices. It would be unwise to aim for an all-out war with the LNA, considering Haftar’s big advantage in troops and planes.
The question is whether the SDB will honor Misrata’s wishes — and the 12th Infantry Brigade will honor the LNA’s.