Power Balance Shifts Towards Haftar as LNA Seizes Jufra and Misratans & BDB Withdraw
The Libyan National Army’s (LNA) seizure of the strategic Jufra airbase on 3 June, following the withdrawal of the Benghazi Defence Brigades from the area, is a significant development that has shifted the power balance in Libya decisively in favour of the LNA and Khalifa Haftar, at least for the time being. Mohamed al-Afirs, spokesman for the LNA’s 12th Brigade, said his men had found Jufra base deserted when they entered. The BDB had clashed with the LNA around Jufra the day before, but then withdrew, scattering north towards Sirte and Misrata. Control of Jufra airbase will allow the LNA to conduct airstrikes deeper into western Libya and advance further into the south-western region. Indeed the LNA spokesman indicated the LNA’s goal was to move north-west towards Bani Walid, on Tripoli’s doorstep.
Tensions had escalated in south-west Libya after units from the BDB and the Misratan-led Third Force, aligned with the Government of National Accord (GNA), launched a surprise attack against Brak al-Shatti airbase in mid May, killing an estimated 140 LNA fighters. Following the Brak attack, and the subsequent eviction of anti-GNA militias from Tripoli, many Misratan militias withdrew from strategic positions in south-west Libya. The LNA took control of Temenhint airbase and launched heavy airstrikes in Hun and Jufra, with support from the Egyptian air force. On 1 June, forces from the GNA-aligned, Misratan-led al-Bunyan al-Marsus (BM) coalition claimed they repelled an attack by LNA units at a checkpoint the 17km east of Sirte. Local sources also reported brief clashes between BDB forces and the BM-affiliated 604 Brigade — which secures parts of Sirte — in the Abu Hadi district south of Sirte. The BDB denied any clashes took place. The 604 brigade is a large unit of the BM coalition predominantly comprising ‘quietest’ or ‘Madkhali’ Salafists, who are generally pro-Haftar and anti-BDB and ISIS.
Haftar’s hand has been further strengthened by important shifts in regional alliances following the move by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Yemen to cut off diplomatic ties with Qatar. The House of Representatives (HoR) also announced it was cutting ties with the country for its role in ‘supporting terrorists’ in Libya, although this is purely symbolic move as it has no ties to cut. Qatar is an important regional ally of hardline Islamist factions in Libya. This coordinated political isolation of Qatar is likely to further weaken the Islamist faction and strengthen the eastern faction by elevating the power of its key allies Egypt and the UAE.
The final significant development last week came from the GNA. On 1 June, the GNA announced the division of Libya into 7 military zones, naming new military commanders for these zones. By 5 June, the GNA had issued a total of 12 inter-related decisions, including naming military commanders for these new zones. General Usama Juwili, current head of Zintan’s local military council, was appointed as commander of the Western Region zone, and General Mohammed al-Haddad, a member of the pro-GNA Misratan Halbous Brigade, was appointed to head the Central Region zone. The PC’s decision provoked a major reaction in eastern Libya as the Central Region includes all the Oil Crescent ports, sparking fears that this may be a new ploy by the GNA to take the Oil Crescent from the LNA. The GNA issued a statement on 3 June saying that the Oil Crescent will remain a neutral zone, controlled by the National Oil Corporation (NOC) and the Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG). It is not clear whether these decisions are based on secret agreements or negotations between GNA PM Fayez al-Serraj and Haftar, or whether this is a defensive move by the GNA in an attempt to reassert its control over Jufra and the Oil Crescent region.
Taken together, these developments signify a collapse of the anti-Haftar alliance of militias, which includes the Benghazi Defence Brigades, the GNA-aligned Misratan-led Third Force, and other Islamist oriented militias in the western region. The short term future is highly uncertain but the current trend could go in one of two directions: towards reconciliation or greater conflict. The Misratan/ BDB withdrawal has effectively de-escalated the conflict in the south-west, at least temporarily, and has largely cut off Misratan support for the BDB. This, combined with the GNA’s eviction of hard-line militias from Tripoli last month, could pave the way for a grand bargain between Serraj and pro-GNA militias in Tripoli and Misrata, and Haftar. However, the more likely outcome is that the LNA will capitalize on its new military advantage to push westwards towards Tripoli, a move that will undoubtedly provoke deeper conflict.