Last Monday marked a turning point in the ongoing battle for Tripoli. The Libyan National Army (LNA) entered the coastal city of Sirte, the home town of former ruler Muammar Gaddafi. Commanded by Libya’s strongman, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the LNA took the city, 500 kilometres east of the capital, without a fight. Sirte used to be under the control of Al-Bunyan Al-Marsos, a militia nominally allied to the Government of National Accord (GNA). On 3 April last year, Haftar’s LNA launched a military campaign to take Tripoli and unseat the GNA, the only UN-recognised government in Libya.
Residents of Sirte, a small city situated strategically on Libya’s Mediterranean coast, report that LNA troops entered the city without a fight except for a short exchange of fire between withdrawing GNA forces and the advancing troops. They were surprised that Sirte fell so easily. “It happened very quickly,” explained Fawzi Omar, a local trader, “and we heard very little gunfire.”
In fact, LNA troops have been camping in Harawah since late 2018 waiting for their orders. When I visited the town just 80 kilometres east of Sirte in January 2019, LNA soldiers were manning checkpoints 10 kilometres away from GNA-allied forces.
What is the significance of Sirte and why has Haftar decided to move now? The city is strategically located in the middle of Libya on a triangle that connects the east-west and north-south network of roads. Whoever controls Sirte can, effectively, cut Libya into two or even three regions. The city is also close to Libya’s oil producing region and the export terminals at Brega and Ras Lanuf. Controlling Sirte means controlling any movement of troops and supplies in this strategic area.
What pushed the LNA to move on Sirte now is connected directly to Turkey’s announcement that it will start deploying troops to Libya in support of the GNA in Tripoli. On 6 January, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that Turkish troops have started moving into the country. Sirte, with its key location and harbour, is a potential target for the Turks’ deployment. Its harbour would be a perfect landing point for seaborne Turkish troops. However, it is unlikely to be used at this early stage of the LNA’s capture of the city, which seems to have been a precautionary move to deter any landing by Turkish soldiers.
Since defeating Daesh in 2016, with US help, the badly damaged city has remained under nominal GNA control. As a potential front line, facing LNA troops just a few kilometres to the east, Sirte was supposed to be well defended, but this turned out not to be the case
Apparently, Al-Bunyan Al-Marsos, which recruits mainly in the western city of Misrata, decided to leave to reorganise the defence of Misrata itself, which is likely to be the LNA’s next target on the road to Tripoli.
As of this morning, LNA troops have secured and left Sirte, and arrived at a little town called Al-Washka, some 250 kilometres west. Their next target must be the triangle of roads called Al-Saddadah, nearly 120 km west of Misrata. Once there they will be a direct threat to the city, where the real fight will take place since Misrata provides the backbone to the defence of Tripoli.
This, of course, is unless some sort of ceasefire is worked out in the openly proxy war being waged in Libya. While visiting Istanbul for the inauguration of Turk-Stream, a giant gas project with Russia, President Vladimir Putin joined Turkey’s Erdoğan in calling for a ceasefire in the troubled North African state, where Moscow and Ankara are backing opposing sides. Turkey openly backs the GNA while Russia is backing the LNA but keeps denying it. The two leaders said a ceasefire will come into effect at midnight, local time, on Sunday 12 January. The GNA welcomed this in a statement published on Facebook, but the LNA is yet to react. It is, therefore, unclear whether it will come into effect.
Meanwhile, GNA Prime Minister Fayez Al-Serraj was in Brussels meeting German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and EU officials. The meeting was held after a planned visit to Tripoli by Maas and other EU foreign ministers, scheduled for 8 January, was called off.
Reuters reported that on his way back to Tripoli Al-Serraj was supposed to stop over in Rome to meet Haftar. The Italian secret service apparently mediated to bring the two together, but their meeting never took place and Al-Serraj landed in Tripoli last night.
Rumours on social media claimed that the Prime Minister was taken away on arrival at Mitiqa Airport in Tripoli, but they were quickly denied by Minister Ahmed Moazed. However, a source within the GNA Foreign Ministry told me on condition of anonymity that, “A couple of members of a Tripoli-based militia went to the airport and stopped him [Al-Serraj]. They wanted to clarify if he met Khalifa Haftar or not. Many militias in Tripoli do not like the idea of reconciliation with Haftar if it means him playing any role in any future political settlement in Libya.”
As of this morning, no other source I spoke to could confirm this, but it is not unusual for militias nominally allied to the GNA to take matters into their own hands occasionally. In October 2013, for example, the then Prime Minister Ali Zidan was detained briefly by a militia while sleeping in his hotel room in Tripoli. Five years later, one of Al-Serraj’s colleagues, Fathi Al-Mjbri, fled to Tunisia after being detained by another militia in the capital.
Sunday is only three days away, and then Libyans will find out if there will be a ceasefire, however brief, giving them room to breathe after nine months of horror. They may be disappointed. Haftar has taken Sirte and threatens Misrata, but he wants Tripoli.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.