image Photo: Reuters

Libyan National Army allegedly to help Syria’s Assad

Libya’s Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) is greeting an international appeal for a cessation of hostilities with its rival in the east, the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Khalifa Haftar. In a statement released today, “The GNA Presidential Council expressed its gratitude to the nations and organizations, which have paid attention and demonstrated the will to save our country from big tragedies via a call for an urgent humanitarian ceasefire … We welcome this call.”

The United Nations-recognized GNA also reaffirmed support for UN Security Council Resolution 2510, advocating a truce in Libya and other warring nations.

On Tuesday, a joint statement on Tuesday from Algeria, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, the United States, the European Union, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates said a GNA-LNA ceasefire would help efforts to combat the coronavirus.

“We strongly support the efforts of Libyan health authorities across the country as they come together in a spirit of national cohesion and urge them to take all necessary measures to support the health and well-being of all Libyans,” the statement said.

“A truce would also enable combatants to return home to provide care for relatives who may be at higher risk,” it added.

Although Libya has yet to record any confirmed cases, the World Health Organization representative in Tripoli has warned of the great risks faced if the virus spreads in a country fragmented by conflict. Libya, split for years between rival governments that have been fighting a war for nearly a year, lacks adequate isolation and other facilities to combat the virus, the head of its disease control center told Reuters today.

In response to the pandemic, both sides have pledged money to local health services, and closed sea and airports. After declaring a state of emergency over COVID-19 on 14 March, GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj said in a broadcast address that his internationally- recognized government had earmarked 500 million Libyan dinars ($360.54 million) to combat the disease if it eventually reaches the Sunni-Muslim North African country. The Interior Ministry of the parallel administration controlling eastern Libya announced yesterday that it will impose a curfew from 6 PM to 6 AM, excluding security and emergency personnel, to stop any spread of the coronavirus.

Libya has been torn apart between two rival governments since the assassination of the country’s long-time leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Tensions escalated April 2019 after the Libyan National Army began its operation to retake the capital of Tripoli, where the rival Government of National Accord is seated. More than 1,000 people have been killed in the violence since that time.

The internationalized-conflict is continually becoming more tenuous. The LNA is backed by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Russia while the GNA is supported by Turkey.

For the last year, the LNA has been waging a military campaign to capture the Libyan capital, which is the seat of the GNA. Numerous LNA bombardments have targeted GNA-held areas around Tripoli in recent weeks, with heavy fighting ongoing since early Wednesday. 3 children from the same family were reportedly killed in rocket attacks launched by militias loyal to Haftar on the Ain Zara suburb in the southern part of the capital yesterday, according to the GNA Health Ministry. A statement by the GNA’s Volcano of Rage Operation claimed another woman was killed, while her daughter and niece were wounded, when a rocket slammed into her car in Tripoli’s Bab Bin Ghashir district.

The Libya Observer reported that heavy clashes broke out Wednesday on Tripoli frontlines as Khalifa Haftar’s forces attacked Salah Al-Deen, Ain Zara and Airport Road, but that the “Libyan Army forces under the command of the Government of National Accord managed, after receiving military reinforcements, to repel the attacks and regain all lost positions, pushing Haftar’s forces away.” The spokesman for the Libyan Army Mohammed Gununu said troops had “tackled repeated violations of ceasefire by Haftar’s forces,” and reiterated that the military is committed to the truce. Later last night, Haftar’s forces fired a number of rockets on different Tripoli neighborhoods and houses in Abu Salim, Al-Hadba and Ain Zara as well as Ras Hassan in downtown Tripoli – for the first time since April 2019. 8 Libyan Army soldiers were reportedly killed and several others wounded in the fighting.

The LNA attacks occurred in spite of statements by a French presidential official 9 March, that Haftar was committed to signing the ceasefire agreement. The announcement was made after Libya’s eastern military commander met President Emmanuel Macron in Paris, where he reportedly said he will abide by the truce if it was also respected by the GNA.

Despite a peace conference held in Berlin in January 2020, violence has increased in Libya, with combatants in the west and east preparing for a long conflict as foreign weapons flood in, eastern factions close oil ports and rival alliances wrangle over revenues from Africa’s largest petroleum reserves. Several countries backing the rival factions in Libya have violated an arms embargo, according to the United Nations, which has previously named the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Turkey for breaching the embargo. The standoff over oil is one of several factors that could prolong the almost year-long conflict over the capital, where the GNA last month secured military backing from Turkey including Turkish-backed fighters from Syria. Today’s statement from the GNA also stressed the need to reopen blocked oil fields and ports, as well as to restart the exports of oil by the Libyan National Oil Corporation.

After the Berlin conference the violations increased and the U.N. denounced them without naming countries.

France has been accused of joining the UAE and Egypt in lending political support to Haftar, but Paris has denied this. “Haftar is one of the main actors on the Libyan political scene and must be taken into consideration,” the French presidential official said, but acknowledged that there are no plans for Macron to meet or speak to GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Seraj.

The official said Macron had raised the issue of oil and moves to ensure the revenues serve all the population and lead to blockades of ports being lifted, but Haftar said it had nothing to do with him.

Analysts are concerned that a further deterioration in the Libyan Civil War will have wider implications for the region – and beyond. Research by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace shows that “the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, and Qatar have allegedly provided funding, logistics, weapons, fighters and advisors” to their respective protégés, and “even conducted airstrikes in Libyan territory.”

Much of the LNA advance is being attributed to an estimated 100 Russian mercenaries from the so-called Wagner Group who are said to have joined his forces in September 2019, while thousands of Turkish-backed Syrian militia fighters have been depolyed to bolster the GNA’s front lines since December. Ankara has also been supplying major weaponry since signing defense and maritime pacts with the GNA 27 November 2019.

Meanwhile, Haftar opened an embassy in Syria at the start of this month, where he called for the two countries to unite in their common fight against Turkey-backed militant groups. “Terrorism will kill any Arab country if it’s permitted and if the criminal (Turkish President Recep Tayyip) Erdogan is permitted to win this fight,” Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said at the 3 March inauguration ceremony.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose regime is supported by Russia and Iran, has been seeking to shed his country’s pariah status and regain Arab support. The UAE, which backs Haftar in Libya, also reopened its Damascus embassy in December 2018 and has forged closer ties after once supporting rebels fighting against Assad.

The Avia Russian federal news agency is reporting that the LNA is now offering to assist the Syrian army “in the fight against Turks and terrorists,” as Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin have often referred to opposition forces. The media outlet cited the head of the Political Science and Sociology Dept. at the Russian University of Economics, G. V. Plekhanova, as saying that “the exchange of data between units of the Libyan National Army (LNA) and the official government of the Syrian Arab Republic (SAR) on the movements of militants from Syrian Idlib, which are being flown by Turkey to support the so-called Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA), will contribute to a more effective fight against terrorists and radicals, mercenaries of Ankara.”

The Russian news agency further published a report that “Experts do not exclude that Syria can transmit to the Haftar army data on the movements of militants in Libya, while the LNA will take appropriate measures to eliminate terrorists, moreover, on approach to the country’s borders. In response to this, the LNA may well transfer its troops to the Syrian fronts, which will ensure a more successful advance of the SAR in the liberation of Idlib.”