Airstrikes In Derna Leave Haftar At A Crossroads
On the 30th of October airstrikes hit a family home in the southern district of al-Fatieh in Derna, killing at least 12 women and children and injuring over a dozen more. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack though accusations for who is responsible are not in short supply.
Prime Minister of the Government of National Accord (GNA) Fayez al-Serraj issued a statement condemning the incident and called on the UN Security Council to investigate it as a possible war crime. Abdurrahman al-Swehli, the head of the High Council of State (HCS), has also condemned the attack.
Derna has been under a siege by Libyan National Army (LNA) forces for several months. The LNA has stated that its aim is to defeat the jihadist Derna Mujahadeen Shura Council (DMSC) coalition governing the city. While the LNA has conducted airstrikes on positions in and around Derna before, it denies responsibility for the most recent incident, claiming it was a ‘terrorist’ attack. Egypt has also been suspected of undertaking the attack, having previously conducted airstrikes against targets in Derna, yet an Egyptian military source has denied this.
The most likely scenario is that the LNA conducted the airstrikes, possibly in coordination with or with support from the Egyptians. Local sources say that Hisham al-Shmawy, an Egyptian al-Qaeda leader based in Derna, was the target of the raid. However, given the widespread shock and condemnation of the attack against civilians within Libya and internationally, neither the LNA nor Egypt will want to claim responsibility.
Nevertheless, Khalifa Haftar has built his recent political gains and international legitimacy on his claim that he alone controls eastern Libya, as well as much of the rest of the country according to the LNA. If he continues to claim he did not authorize this attack and had no knowledge of it, then it shows that he does not have the type of control that he is trying to convince the world he has. If he does accept responsibility, then he could face a significant loss of leverage and lose considerable support across the country.
The implications of these airstrikes, combined with the discovery of the mass grave in Benghazi, are significant. Haftar is at a crossroads: either he continues business as usual and risks spoiling the UN-backed political rapprochement efforts he has undertaken with rivals in the western region or he makes a significant course correction and attempts to establish accountability within the LNA.
The former is more likely for several reasons. Despite the uproar about the massacre and airstrikes currently, it is unlikely to be sustained. The international community have looked the other way so many times before that there is no real reason to expect that to change this time. Haftar’s hardcore supporters will continue to support him whatever, likely viewing some collateral damage as an acceptable price to pay to defeat the ‘terrorists’. Finally, while these developments could further derail the UN political process, that would actually play into Haftar’s overarching aim to take Tripoli militarily rather than through political compromise. The only fly in the ointment with this approach is that his fledgling relationship with some of the western militias could be damaged, which could ultimately limit his chances of taking Tripoli by force.