– Also read: Haftar doesn’t seem as strong as before
The war that is being fought began in April last year by the will of Haftar, who then controlled eastern Libya and parts of the south. Haftar had ordered his militias to attack Tripoli, the country’s capital, controlled by Serraj and his government’s allied militias. In Haftar’s plans, the attack should have quickly led to the fall of Tripoli, thanks also to the support of the city’s militias who had shown signs of impatience with the Serraj government. But things had not gone as the marshal had hoped: the Tripoli militias had not changed sides, and thanks also to the forces of Misrata, a very important and influential Libyan city, Serraj had managed to remain in power and to repel the offensive.
After many months of stalemate in the fighting, where Serraj’s position had always remained very much in the balance, the situation now seems to have changed. In the past week alone, Serraj’s militias have captured an important air base west of Tripoli (al Watiya base) using Turkish drones to destroy the air defenses of Russia, an ally of Haftar. Serraj’s forces, with the help of the Turks, also took control of al Asaba, a town of great strategic importance which is located a hundred kilometers south of Tripoli.
The fact that the tide of war has changed due to external intervention – that of Turkey – is not surprising. For some time the war in Libya has increasingly become a war of others.
Serraj, head of the only government recognized as legitimate by the UN, has Turkey on his side, which has sent about 3 thousand Syrian militiamen to Libya who fight alongside Turkish forces in northern Syria, as well as armed drones that have allowed to destroy some enemy air defenses. The journalist Declan Walsh from New York Times he spoke of the Turkish intervention as the most powerful in Libya since the end of the Ottoman Empire, more than a century ago.
On the other hand, Haftar has the support of Russia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt (and some other countries, such as France).
– Also read: The arms embargo in Libya is a farce
For some time the Libyan marshal has been able to count on about 2 thousand Syrian fighters arrived from the territories of Syria controlled by President Bashar al Assad, and on hundreds of Russian mercenaries of the private security company Wagner, who in recent years has carried out military operations in several countries of the world without however his presence was officially recognized by the Russian government. In particular, the United Arab Emirates have supplied many weapons to Haftar. On Wednesday, after conquering the air base in al Watiya, militiamen loyal to Serraj marched in the center of Tripoli showing an air defense system that belonged to the Haftar forces: the vehicle on which the system was mounted is one of the many that assumes Haftar bought from the United Arab Emirates, reporter Catherine Philp wrote on the Times.
The involvement of third countries could grow further, with the risk of making it more difficult to start a peace process that puts an end to the war.
On Thursday, for example, Fathi Bashagha, Serraj government’s interior minister, told Bloomberg to have been informed that eight Soviet-era warplanes had arrived at a base in eastern Libya controlled by Haftar, coming from an air base in Syria controlled by Russia. The news, which has been widely reported in several international newspapers, has not yet been confirmed, but has already provoked several worried reactions. The Financial Times for example he wrote: “It is the latest indication that the foreign powers involved in the Libyan conflict, which began nine years ago, are intensifying their efforts on the battlefield. It could suggest that the Kremlin is increasing its support for General Haftar and diplomats fear that there is a risk of a direct confrontation between Russia and Turkey “.
This week, Stephanie Williams, a UN envoy to Libya, spoke about the risk of a further military escalation caused by the continued arrival of mercenaries and weapons in Libya. “With the increase in interventions from third countries, the Libyans themselves risk getting lost in the middle, and their voices risk not having more space and not being heard.”
It is still not clear however what Haftar’s reaction will be after the last military defeats. Haftar Air Force chief General Saqr al Jaroushi said his air forces were preparing to respond to the attacks on Thursday in what would be “the largest air campaign in Libya’s history”. Jaroushi added that all Turkish posts in Libya would be considered military targets.
The military response of Haftar could however be curbed by his allies, who in the past had already tried to convince the marshal to negotiate with his opponents, without however obtaining great success. In recent days there have been new contacts between Russia and Turkey. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke with his Turkish counterpart Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, agreeing on an immediate ceasefire and the resumption of UN-led peace talks. A similar attempt had already been made in January in Moscow, but even then – as several times before – Haftar had refused to accept the proposal.