UAE, Egypt prepare for Haftar’s exit after loss of Wattiyah air base
 
 
Haftar's announcement last month declaring a military government dissolving the 2015 United Nations-brokered Libyan Political Agreement - Courtesy: LNA media
 

Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, two of the principal backers of the Libyan National Army (LNA), and its commander, Khalifa Haftar, have decided to abandon the renegade general after more than a year of a failed military campaign to take Tripoli, according to Libyan and Egyptian officials.

Egypt and the UAE have decided Haftar is “on his way out,” a Libyan political source close to the beleaguered general told Mada Masr today. An Egyptian official, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, echoed the Libyan political source’s account. “The question today for the Egypt-UAE-France alliance that has supported Haftar to this point is to decide on their next move in view of Haftar’s defeat,” the source says. “No one can bet on Haftar again.”

The move comes as Haftar is losing internal support as well, with powerful tribes and political allies in Libya abandoning him.

The withdrawal of support for Haftar comes after forces affiliated with the Government of National Accord (GNA) backed by Turkish airstrikes took control of the Wattiyah air base on Monday without any significant resistance from LNA forces.

The loss of Wattiyah is the most significant setback since Haftar launched an assault on Tripoli in April 2019, with the backing of France, the UAE, Egypt, Jordan and Russia. The GNA has turned the tide in the war in Tripoli with support Turkey has provided since the start of the year. With Turkey deploying ever-increasing numbers of ethnically Turkish Syrian troops on the ground and drones in the skies, the GNA has dealt the LNA a series of setbacks since the start of April. 

A sign of the extent of the setback came in the early hours of Tuesday morning when LNA spokesperson Ahmed al-Mesmari held a press conference to announce a “redistribution and repositioning in the battlefronts, disengaging from some crowded residential areas” in the front to the south of Tripoli. Mesmari tried to distance the decision from the loss of Wattiyah, saying that Haftar had issued the “redistribution” order months ago based on a report from the head of the LNA’s western military region.

Yet, Wattiyah had played a key role for Haftar, whose forces seized the air base in 2014, not only because it served as a key operations center for his assault on the Libyan capital but because it was one of the few former Libyan Air Force facilities spared from airstrikes in the 2011 NATO intervention, due the fact it had stored mostly decommissioned aircraft. Haftar had since restored many of the decommissioned jets to service.

Without Wattiyah, the LNA’s closest air base is in Jufrah, some 490 km away from Tripoli in central Libya. The city of Tarhouna, 180 km southeast of Tripoli, is the LNA’s sole remaining stronghold for the assault on the capital. The GNA has launched several attacks on Tarhouna in the last month. 

The GNA’s seizure of the base happened suddenly on Monday morning, after an intensive air campaign by Turkish drones for weeks. A high-ranking GNA military source close to Osama al-Juwaili, who hails from the western city of Zintan and led the GNA forces attack on Wattiyah yesterday, told Mada Masr yesterday that the attack was carried out in coordination with Zintani forces aligned with Haftar inside the air base. 

Juwaili persuaded two main groups inside the base to withdraw before the GNA forces advanced, according to the source, who pointed to the GNA’s air superiority in having conducted over 60 airstrikes in the last month as a key factor in draining the forces inside the base. “[The desertion in Wattiyah] shows a loss of confidence among armed groups loyal to Haftar and in his ability to change the situation on the ground,” the source said. 

After GNA forces took the air base, they posted images online of what they claimed were captured Russian-made Pantsir air defense systems mounted on trucks as well as manuals on how to use the equipment. 

Images of a purported manual for Russian weapons found in Wattiyah air base Source: GNA fighter’s Facebook

Purported Russian-made Pantsir air defense systems mounted on trucks photographed in Wattiyah. Source: GNA fighter’s Facebook page

“The Russians are not at all amused with some of the images that have been shared of the GNA troops capturing Russian weapons,” the Egyptian official says. 

The GNA continued to make advances on Tuesday, seizing the towns of Jawsh, Badr and Tiji — all on the outskirts of the Nafusa Mountains — from LNA control. The GNA forces remain engaged in clashes to try to take the city of Asabiah, a crucial city along the LNA’s supply line and strategic location for Haftar’s forces located near Gharyan, the site of Haftar’s former main operations center

However, developments on the frontlines may not be Haftar’s biggest problem anymore. The Libyan political source who is close to Haftar says that the UAE, after consulting with Egypt, has called on the United Kingdom to intervene to support the political roadmap put forward by Aguila Saleh, the head of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives who was once a strong supporter of Haftar but is now vying for a larger stake in the political scene himself and moving against the general.

“The UK is not just very close to the GNA, but it is one of the most knowledgeable states on Libya, and it knows that Saleh’s plan has more peace potential than Haftar’s warlike approach,” says Jalel Harchaoui, a researcher who focuses on the international dimension of the Libyan conflict. “The UAE is looking to fall back on Saleh, who is being supported by Egypt and Russia.”

The UAE previously had snubbed this plan, only weeks ago favoring a move by Haftar to declare a military government and to dissolve the 2015 United Nations-brokered Libyan Political Agreement that installed the GNA in Tripoli. The rival plans were a sign of discord between Saleh and Haftar, as well as more broadly in the general’s eastern camp, the Libyan political source previously told Mada Masr.

Saleh’s roadmap is centered on restructuring and electing a new presidential council that would form a new government. However, the Libyan political source says it is unclear whether the head of the GNA Fayez al-Serraj would agree to speak to Haftar now. 

The move to support Saleh’s plan and to distance themselves from Haftar is a significant about-face for Abu Dhabi, as, unlike the LNA’s other backers, it has been seen as unwilling to budge in its support for the LNA general no matter the cost. 

According to Harchaoui, however, recent months have impressed a new reality on the political and military landscape in Libya.

“What the spring of 2020 has revealed is that the UAE doesn’t possess the military or diplomatic wherewithal to continue protecting and strengthening Haftar’s ongoing offensive on Tripoli,” Harchaoui says. “Militarily and in terms of strategic savvy, the UAE is no match to NATO member Turkey, especially knowing that the latter enjoys Washington’s tacit acquiescence these days, over a year after the White House’s initial green light to Haftar. Meanwhile, the Russian state has just never provided the strategic support it could have, if it had genuine faith in Haftar’s adventure.”

In Harchaoui’s estimation, none of this means that the UAE will necessarily tamp down its ambitions to take control of Tripoli. “The UAE will never relent or abandon this old obsession, even if it takes another decade — Libya is just too important from a Sunni-Arab perspective,” he says.

As to what the UAE and Haftar’s other backers will aim for next, Harchaoui sees the move to discard the general as a way to reposition themselves and avoid criticism. 

“Said bluntly, the immense Libyan fiasco over the last 14 months along with all the murder and mayhem that came attached to it, is at least as much Abu Dhabi’s responsibility as it is Haftar’s. Yet — now that Moscow and Cairo are lobbying to push Haftar aside — the UAE is happy with the idea of sacrificing Khalifa Haftar, using him as a fuse, basically,” he says. “But if these states do discard Haftar, it will be a way for them to freshen up their stance and restore a tiny bit of their credibility by pretending it was Haftar’s fault all along. One must note that Russia will come out of this re-adjustment stronger and more influential in eastern Libya, because Russian President Vladamir Putin, unlike UAE Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed, always knew Haftar‘s attack was likely to fail.”

Egypt, on the other hand, is already turning its aims toward its longstanding border security aims. 

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi met with Armed Forces Chief of Staff Mohamed Farid Hegazy, Defense Minister Mohamed Zaki, Armed Forces Operations Authority Director Wahid Ezzat, Armed Forces Engineering Authority Ehab al-Far, and Central Military Region Commander Emad al-Ghazali. 

According to presidential spokesperson Bassem Rady, Sisi was briefed on Egypt’s security situation and the Armed Forces’ efforts to secure the country’s borders and to pursue ‘terrorist’ elements,” especially in North Sinai and in the western region.  

Sisi called on the Armed Forces to “show the utmost combat readiness to protect Egypt’s national security.”

Egypt is extremely worried that GNA-affiliated troops could head further east toward Egypt’s western border with Libya, according to the Egyptian official, who adds that this fear was the reason behind Sisi’s meeting with military officials yesterday. 

The source adds that Egypt is beefing up its security measures along its border with Libya. 

On Tuesday, speaking at an African Union-led Contact Group meeting on Libya, Sisi emphasized the role Libya’s security has on Egypt’s security, adding that Egypt is committed to reaching a political solution to the crisis but will not tolerate “terrorist groups and those who support them,” according to the presidential spokesperson.

Despite the president’s rhetoric, multiple Egyptian officials that have spoken to Mada Masr in recent weeks say that Egypt will not engage in a direct confrontation with Turkey in Libya, as long as Turkey keeps affiliated militias far away from the Egyptian borders. Otherwise, the sources say, Egypt will have to “act.”

A high ranking source in the GNA who spoke to Mada Masr on Tuesday reiterates that the Tripoli government is open to any position that Egypt could take in renouncing its support of Haftar, stressing that there is an understanding of “Egypt’s role in maintaining stability and security in Libya and the region” given the common borders and history between Egypt and Libya. 

Haftar has been a key security presence in eastern Libya for Egypt, whose chief policy aim in supporting the general has been to secure the porous western border between the two countries, a policy Cairo was worried might be jeopardized in the months preceding the rollout of the Tripoli campaign. Cairo’s lack of support for the campaign caused tensions between the two sides.

Now, however, Haftar’s ability to ensure stability even among his base may be waning.  

A source close to Haftar’s eastern operations room in the city Rajma, outside Benghazi, tells Mada Masr that public support for Haftar is eroding, as there are increasing talks among a popular federalist current in the east of the country to withdraw support for Haftar’s war effort. According to the source, leading members of the current came together in a meeting recently that ended with an endorsement of Saleh’s political roadmap. 

“There are voices in eastern Libya — politicians and among those on the street — saying that the war must end,” the source says. “They are under pressure from two fronts: their sons are fighting in the war in western Libya and their fear of Haftar.”

Egypt had already begun reaching out to alternatives beyond Haftar in recent weeks. The Libyan political source had previously told Mada Masr that Egypt had opened a steady communication channel with Abdel Razeq al-Nathuri, Haftar’s chief of staff, who the source said has fallen out of the general’s good graces. However, Nathuri subsequently faced accusations of treason from key figures close to Haftar. 

The situation around Haftar’s military patchwork of former Libyan Armed Forces officers, foreign mercenaries, local militias and Islamists will only grow more unstable if foreign backers don’t find a suitable replacement for him. 

“Haftar being thrown away means that his sons and the entire Furjani circle surrounding them at the top of the LNA will be in a much more vulnerable situation. Tribes that are more indigenous to northern Cyrenaica will feel emboldened and won’t necessarily all accept whoever succeeds Haftar in an equal manner,” Harchaoui says. 

“In urban areas, like downtown Benghazi, some militias — which are not unlike those in Tripoli — will also feel emboldened, and may be tempted to break away from the LNA, a structure that has been hyper personalized by Haftar. Turmoil will ensue. Although it is likely to be in the form of simmering tensions and periodic incidents rather than full-blown clashes. In all cases, the LNA’s sheer power will be diminished, and many dynamics will change. And the war will not end.”

There are also concerns that the fight might intensify in the western arena as well. 

In a press conference held on Tuesday afternoon, United Nations Support Mission in Libya acting head Stephanie Williams called for a ceasefire in Libya, urging the parties in the crisis to return to the political process.

Without a ceasefire, Williams warned that the war in Libya will expand and lead to disastrous results due to foreign interference.

According to the UN special mission’s acting head, 58 civilians were killed and more than 100 wounded between April 1 and May 8, a significant increase in the number of civilian victims compared to the first three months of the year. Most of these casualties, according to Williams, could be attributed to Haftar’s forces, who have been carrying out indiscriminate bombing of the capital in recent weeks. 

However, an international diplomat with knowledge of the UN mission in Libya who spoke to Mada Masr in recent days says that the key concern for the UN mission now is to secure the safety of civilians and to spare them from any acts of revenge. 

Forces affiliated with the GNA have meted out harsh reprisals in the past. In 2012, Misrata forces besieged the city of Bani Walid, a stronghold for loyalists to former ruler Muammar Qadhafi, displacing thousands of families. Similar scenes surfaced when GNA forces took the cities of Sorman and Sabratha to the west of Tripoli in mid-April, stoking concerns of further reprisals.

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