LNA forces launch assault and capture Sirte, Misratan forces withdraw
On 6 January, the Libyan National Army (LNA) launched an assault on the city of Sirte, resulting in the withdrawal of local anti-LNA forces and Government of National Accord (GNA)-aligned Misratan forces stationed there and the LNA gaining effective control of most of the city‘s suburbs, airport, and seaport. Following their withdrawal, the anti-LNA forces are reported to be planning a counter-attack. Brigadier General Ibrahim Bait al-Mal, GNN Central Military Region and Misrata Military Council member, has been assigned as the head of a new Sirte and Jufra Operations Room. Misratan forces are reported to have already started a counter-attack.
The timing of the capture of Sirte is critical as it comes in the wake of Turkey stating it will be deploying troops to assist the GNA in southern Tripoli and after the LNA issued an ultimatum to Misratan fighters to withdraw from Tripoli. The LNA likely wanted to “get the jump” on the anti-LNA forces by quickly gaining then consolidating territorial control prior to Turkey providing the anti-LNA forces with new aerial capabilities and ground forces. Strategically, Sirte marks the boundary between eastern and western Libya and has been controlled by Misratan forces since they drove Islamic State (ISIS) fighters out of the city in late 2016.
The LNA’s capture of Sirte is the most significant development in the LNA’s campaign to control Tripoli, both strategically and symbolically, since it lost control of Ghariyan mid-2019. The event is also the most overt ground encroachment by the LNA towards Misrata itself. As such, it is likely to boost the morale of the LNA forces and supporters, and allow them to continue to project an image of military dominance. It also allows LNA forces to push closer to Misrata, though they are unlikely to be able to make much headway in this direction. The LNA’s takeover of Sirte is likely to force Misrata to deploy forces away from Sirte in the immediate term to protect its own city from a potential ground assault and draw away troops from defending the capital. The LNA is likely to hold Sirte until the Misratan forces gain additional aerial support – both to defend their forces from the LNA drones and to attack the LNA positions in the city. It is unclear if and when this is to occur. Even with aerial support, the Misratan forces may struggle to re-take Sirte without significant ground fighting if the LNA are able to bed down and secure support from the local population. However, if aerial capabilities become more balanced, then Misrata is likely to have the upper hand in any drawn out ground fighting in the city due to the LNA’s manpower constraints.