Thursday, May 25, 2017

The military escalation in Fezzan can lead to an open conflict between Tobruk and Misrata

This analysis was to be published initially on Middle East Eye, but this publication has been canceled. So I decided to share it for free on my blog ...

For six months, escalation is increasing in the Tamanhint area – 30 kilometer northeast of Al Sebha – between the LNA’s 12th Infantry Brigade and Misrata’s Third Force. The latest major confrontation was the attack on Brak al-Shati — 80 kilometers north of Al Sebha — infrastructure on 18 May which let about 140 LNA militaries and civilians killed, and an entire key military air base ravaged. How a militia like the Third Force managed to fall such airbase so easily ?

The 12th Infantry Brigade, led by Colonel Mohamed Ben Nayel, is considered the core force of the “southern branch” of the LNA. The brigade consists mainly of fighters from the Al Maqarba and other tribes settling in Wadi al-Shatti, from the Ghaddadfa and the Toubou. Most of those tribes were former Gaddafi loyalists. Misrata’s Third Force was deployed in early 2014 as a “Peacekeeping Force” to Fezzan to ensure a basic level of peace, secure the oilfields, evict its rivals from Zintan and prevent the LNA from getting a foothold in the south. Far from impartial, the Misrata allied with the Awlad Suleiman against the Ghaddadfa and the Toubou.

The Brak al-Shati air base is located in Wadi al-Shati. It was captured on 7 December 2016 by the 12th Infantry Brigade without a fight. On 26 December, fighting started near Tamanhint air base. The 12th Brigade captured Gwairat al-Mal to Third Force. On 2 January 2017, it was reported that ‘Presidential Council fighter jets’ - Misrata Air Force - attacked LNA positions close to Gwairat al-Mal area resulting in the retaking of Gwairat Al-Mal checkpoint by Third Force. The position was recaptured by LNA’s 12th Brigade the day after.  Thereafter, LNA declared a no-fly zone from Brega to Sirte and Sebha, including the whole Jufra province, but its Air Force was never able to apply any restricted flying area. A new major confrontation was engaged beginning April between the two opposite forces. On 5th April, LNA Air Force launched airstrikes on Tamanhint air base where fighting were taken place between Misrata’s Third Force – reinforced with the 201st Infantry Battalion – and LNA’s 12th Infantry Brigade. Misrata Air Force launched in retaliation bombings near Birak al Shati. Brak al-Shati air base was used first for refuelling the MiG-23s flying from Benina or Ras Lanuf. The following days, LNA built a full infrastructure to deploy some fighter jets permanently, including fuel tanks, bombs and probably some SA-9 air défense system as those positioned in the Oil Crescent to prevent new air raids from Misrata fighter jets. In few weeks, Brak al-Shati became the key platform for LNA in the Fezzan and the place to wipe out for Misrata Third Force and allies. Militarily, the air base was a legitimate target.

Beginning May, prime minister of Libya's UN-backed government Faiez Serraj and Marshal Khalifa Haftar met at Abu-Dhabi. During their talks, it seems the two rivals agreed for a general truce in southern Libya. But this so-called agreement has meaning only if the two protagonists can apply it, but Serraj has no real influence on the Misrata militias. Indeed, the city has no natural resources on its territory, control of the gigantic network of pipelines supplying water and oil/gas is of utmost importance for the influence of the city. This requires to maintain a significant military presence in the center and in the south of the country. Furthermore, following the recent heavy fighting in the capital and the hostile and violent protests against Misrata, the Misrata local government suspended its contacts with the PC, feeling that its citizens and institutions were being targeted because of fighting with Misrata militias. So, the Abu Dhabi agreement engaged only Serraj and not Misrata militia as the Third Force.

According to Libyan sources, the night before the attack, two convoys of respectively about sixty and thirty vehicles came out from al-Jufrah and the city of Sirte. Following the supposed Abu Dhabi agreement, Marshall Haftar and the LNA have reduced their military presence on Brak al-Shati air base, probably being persuaded that it would be applied. Thus, a large part of the 12th Brigade took part in commemorations of the three years of Dignity Operation taking place at Tokra in eastern Libya, leaving the air base without real défense. So, the Third Force took therefore the opportunity to launch its offensive. Such attack is called an OCA (Offensive Counter-Air) in military words. The objective of an OCA is the suppression of an enemy's military air power, primarily through ground attacks by targeting enemy air base and facilities as parked aircraft, runways, fuel, hangars, etc. Such attacks were often carried out by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria for years, but its origin dates back to the Second World War. The Libyans are well aware of this type of operation especially for having undergone them in Chad in 1987. Twice, Hissène Habré's forces wiped out two major Libyan bases, first in northern Chad at Ouadi-Doum, and six months later in southern Libyan territory at Maaten es-Sahra. The tactics used were the same: columns of armed vehicles were running on the bases at high speed and destroying everything in their path. The two 1987 attacks killed 1,300 and 1,700 Libyan soldiers and destroyed about forty aircrafts and helicopters. The number of victims of the Brak al-Shati attack is therefore not surprising. It seems that LNA forces were small because a large part of the officers and soldiers were in their homes and another part was located in Ramla Zlaf near the Tamanhant air base. It remained only regular guard soldiers and a group of 50 students of the military college who arrived the day before from Benina airport, so, a total of 200/250 militaries and civilians on the base. Most of them were killed and a few were taken prisoners. The assailants also burnt the fuel station, destroyed the landing points, about one aircraft (not airworthy) the armed and armored vehicles.

Beyond the fact that at least 40 soldiers appear to have been executed, which is of course a war crime (a practice already observed on both sides), the destruction of this platform is a heavy defeat for Haftar even if LNA captured Tamanhint airbase the following days. The LNA made a major mistake in leaving the air base defenceless. Organize a military parade does not make you a great strategist. The conflict is now open between the LNA and Misrata which has reinforced its air force with the arrival of mercenaries recently who seems to be ready for a new war.

1 comment :

  1. Been following your posts on several sites, and gutted to see the LNA suffered such a devastating loss. They are the true air force here. My sympathies and condolences to the families of the dead and injured. The massacre and loss of the youths in training is especially sad.