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Exclusive – Derna Liberation: Haftar Faces Dangerous Task as he Turns to Western Libya

Exclusive – Derna Liberation: Haftar Faces Dangerous Task as he Turns to Western Libya

Tuesday, 19 June, 2018 - 08:45
Commander of the Libyan National Army Khalifa Haftar. (Reuters)
Libyan-Egyptian borders – Abdul Sattar Hatita
Commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) Khalifa Haftar is looking West to impose his control after the liberation of the eastern city of Derna from the last remaining terrorists in the area.

With his loyalists cementing their power in the South, his venture West will require new alliances and difficult concessions by tribes that still support the former Gaddafi regime, which was ousted in 2011.

Since the beginning of the month, parties affiliated with the presidential council have been collecting information about the city of Bani Walid, some 150 kilometers southeast of the capital Tripoli, ahead of an imminent military operation. The parties are hoping to acquire the backing of the United States in the offensive given the ongoing presence of ISIS terrorists in the city.

The US had waged an offensive against the group in Sirte two years ago. Washington had in recent days carried out a strike against the terrorists near Bani Walid amid conflicting reports on the causalities there.

Bani Walid is considered the spiritual capital of the major Warfalla tribe, which is prominent throughout Libya.

Fears are mounting that Haftar would succeed in striking alliances that would include this tribe. To counter this possibility, some forces in power in Tripoli have sought to release imprisoned members of the former regime and restore confiscated land to others in order to gain support against the LNA commander.

Dr. Mohammed al-Warfalli, a leading member of the Libyan tribal council in Bani Walid, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “Tripoli would be done if the LNA and Warfalla tribe joined forces.”

Bani Walid’s strategic importance

During World War II, commander of the Italian forces in Libya, Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, described Bani Walid as the “Dardanelles of Tripoli.” Whoever sought entry to the capital had to do so from Bani Walid, a view endorsed by Warfalli.

The city played a prominent role during Italian occupation of Tripoli and it currently boasts a number of skilled military figures, including Younes Farhat, Haftar’s defense minister, and Saad al-Warfalli, his air force commander.

Figures from Bani Walid had also taken part in the operation to liberate Derna, many of whom paid the price in blood, such as Abdul Hamid al-Warfalla and Mahmoud al-Warfalla, who was wanted by international law for executing suspects accused of joining the ranks of extremists in Benghazi city.

As it stands, it seems doubtful that Haftar will be able to garner the support of all Warfalla leaderships. Some of these leaderships still maintain ties with other tribes, including those still loyal to the Gaddafi regime, such as the Gaddafa and al-Magarha tribes.

Parties will still throw obstacles in his path even if he strikes alliances with these powers. This was demonstrated in preparations in Tripoli for the release of several former regime leaders from prisons run by militias that are loyal to Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, who is based in the capital. The son of former late ruler Moammar al-Gaddafi, Al-Saadi, is among those ready to be released.

Numerous obstacles

Other obstacles against Haftar’s march West included some attempts by forces in Tripoli to lure loyalists to their side. A security source revealed that Tripoli authorities contacted one of Haftar’s senior commanders to that end, but their efforts failed. Military commanders in the al-Tabou tribe, which is fighting with the LNA chief, were also contacted, but to no avail.

Meanwhile, when asked if the alliance with the Warfalla tribe will continue if the Magarha tribe cooperated with Haftar, a senior member of the latter said: “Such political affairs have nothing to do with our efforts to release our sons from jail or restore our land that was confiscated in 2011.”

Such claims did not hinder pro-Gaddafi tribes from holding meetings in Egypt to address Haftar’s efforts to march West, the role tribes can play in supporting him and the concessions demanded of them. They also focused on the possibility that Bani Walid could be used as a launchpad for an advance on Tripoli.

Bani Walid is known for its mountainous terrain, as well as its valleys. The forces loyal to the new rulers in Tripoli twice attempted to capture the city: once in 2011 and another in 2012. Both attempts failed. They also failed in forming military councils or brigades loyal to them in the city as they had done in other Libyan cities.

A Warfalla military commander revealed to Asharq Al-Awsat that many of the tribe’s armed forces had joined Haftar’s ranks “not because they support the February revolt, but because they want to restore the Libyan state.”

He added, however, that members of the tribe’s social council members remain wary of Haftar because he is still committed to the principles of the February revolution. “We are committed to the Gaddafi regime. We can discuss a middle ground, but according to certain terms,” he stressed.

Haftar rivals

It appears that Haftar’s rivals have started to seriously believe in the danger of any alliance he may strike in Bani Walid, especially in wake of his successive victories in Derna. As a result, many of these opponents attempted in recent months to mobilize forces to storm Bani Walid. The city’s improved fortifications, however, proved too great and the military push failed.

A security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Asharq Al-Awsat that several reports had been filed about the military and political situations in Bani Walid to forces that are supposed to be seeking to restore stability in Libya. They included complaints that the city still harbors the henchmen of the former regime. Others charged that ISIS terrorists were still holed up there.

This latter claim was aimed at persuading international powers to launch air strikes against important sites in the city.

A security source in Tripoli revealed that some presidential council leaders, who launched an operation against ISIS in April, were hoping for American cooperation in the offensive, similar to its assistance in liberating Sirte from ISIS in late 2016.

Indeed, the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) requested detailed information about Bani Walid and its surroundings earlier this month. “We are cooperating with the US to combat terrorism,” stressed the source.

Asked whether the presidential council has evidence of the presence of terrorists in the city, the source replied: “Yes, ISIS is present there and American forces struck one of its affiliates only days ago.”

This revelation grants Americans the excuse to strike the city at any time, stated a security aide in Tripoli.

Since Gaddafi’s ouster, Bani Walid has posed a problem for Tripoli leaders. They view it as a threat because it has not yielded to their rule. A common saying in Bani Walid is that the city is easily breached, but hard to maintain.

Warfalli backed this claim, saying that any militia can storm the city, “but it will face a difficult task in keeping it for more than two or three hours. The residents are more than capable of dealing with any invading force. The youths have grown accustomed to guerrilla warfare and they have derived lessons from the past.”

On whether cooperation was possible between Haftar and the Warfalla tribe in his push West, Warfalli said that some disputes between the two sides that date back to 2011 remain unresolved.

The dispute erupted when Haftar described Bani Walid residents are “mercenaries” because they stood against those who joined the revolt against Gaddafi. His statements were recorded in a video that has been widely circulated on social media by his opponents.

“This dispute still stands,” said Warfalli, who said that Haftar had yet to apologize for his remarks.

He added, however, that the statements incurred the anger of the people. The situation is different among the military figures in the Warfalla tribe.

“No one knows what the future will hold,” he stated.

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