By Sami Zaptia.
London, 5 June 2020:
The Khalifa Hafter led Libyan National Army (LNA) and their aligned forces gave up attempting to defend their last western Libya stronghold, Tarhuna, yesterday, as the forces defending Tripoli strolled unresisted into the city. Pro Tripoli forces say Hafter’s forces escaped to Jufra airbase
Hafter’s loss brings to an end his calamitous 14-month attempt to control western Libya and take over the capital Tripoli. Hafter’s forces have claimed they have retreated and retrenched further east at the Jufra airbase.
It is not clear if they had a choice and nor is it clear if the forces aligned with the internationally recognized government in Tripoli will stop at Tarhuna or seek to push on eastwards towards Jufra, the eastern oilfields – and even beyond to eastern Libya proper.
The collapse of Hafter’s military campaign came quickly and coincided with the increase of Turkish intervention and air support for Tripoli. Since April, Hafter has lost the western coastal towns of Surman and Sabrata, then the strategic Witya airbase, followed by all of Greater Tripoli and the disused Tripoli International Airport early this week – and finally Tarhuna yesterday.
On the face of it, the international community is pushing hard for peace talks to resume based on the Berlin conference outcomes, UN Security Resolutions and the Skhirat Libyan Political Agreement. Hafter’s side had announced their readiness to return to dialogue, but although Tripoli is making the right noises that it is also ready to resume talks – but it is making preconditions. Tripoli says it will no longer talk to Hafter as they do not view him as a serious partner for peace.
There is a fear that either side could be playing for time. Tripoli is scenting victory and feeling emboldened by its recent victories and could go all out for a comprehensive defeat of Hafter by moving eastwards. There is a fear by western diplomats that Tripoli’s militias could adopt a hawkish posture forcing Faiez Serraj into more fighting and waste a window of opportunity for peace talks – while Hafter is on the retreat.
Equally, Hafter could also be playing for time in order to retrench and regroup eastwards in Jufra for a counter-offensive. If Tripoli’s forces refuse to return to peace talks and Hafter has time to recover – he could make some military gains and strengthen his hand at negotiations. However, analysts feel that with Turkish intervention on Tripoli’s side, Hafter is very unlikely to regain his military zenith and threaten Tripoli again.
Much will depend on the respective foreign backers of the two contending Libyan sides and the geo-global deals made by them. How much do the two blocs of foreign backers want a Libya victory – may determine what happens next.
Either way, pushing Hafter’s forces as far east as Jufra will mean that Tripoli will at long last enjoy some calm and peace – which it has not seen since 4 April 2019.
From Hafter’s perspective, his military defeats may raise questions about his leadership and his whole raison d’être in his base in eastern Libya. Easterners may want to ask why their sons died fighting a lost campaign for Tripoli.