Haftar Goes All-In with Large Scale Assault on Benghazi
Only a few days after repeated suicide attacks made it look like Benina Airport was about to fall to the Benghazi’s Revolutionaries Shoura Council, Operation Dignity forces have launched throughout the week a massive assault on the eastern city in a bid to expel once and for all their Islamist rivals.
After calling on Benghazi’s population to take up arms against ‘terrorists’, in a speech broadcasted on Tuesday night, renegade General Khalifa Haftar and his forces started the current military operation in the early hours of Wednesday morning with a well coordinated assault that involved the use of different forces. For starters, airstrikes were carried out against Islamist positions with an intensity and effectiveness that is reportedly well beyond the capabilities of Haftar’s remaining air forces. Although both Egypt and the Operation Dignity leadership denied direct foreign involvement, the understanding is that, at the very least, Libyan pilots have been provided with Egyptian planes for this particular operation. Although some say it is the reverse that it is Egyptian pilots flying Libyan planes!
The officials, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, said the operation would last three to six months and involve the use of an Egyptian navy vessel as a command center off the Mediterranean coast near Tobruk. Renegade Libyan general Khalifa Hiftar, who has vowed to wipe out the Islamist militias, is not leading the operation, they added, with Cairo dealing directly with a newly appointed Libyan chief of staff who has visited Egypt several times in recent weeks.
Secondly, for the first time since the start of Operation Dignity, the 204 Tank Brigade was involved in battle and is reported to have played a key role in facilitating the expulsion of the February 17th Martyrs Brigade from its base in Benghazi. The situation in the city remains nonetheless fluid with localized, yet interconnected, armed skirmishes and fights effectively bringing the city to a halt and stranding several families within their houses.
Most importantly, after the speech made by General Haftar on Tuesday, fighting this time directly involved civilians in what some activists have started calling the ‘October 15 Uprising’. Disturbingly, revenge attacks and killings have already been reported across the city, and today’s appeal by Haftar to refrain from reprisals and bring suspects to Army posts, so as to refer them later on to justice, might have come already too late. The Middle East Eye reports a quote on this matter by Mohammed Eljarh:
Mohamed Eljarh told MEE that the spread of fighting to the city’s residents is not a new phenomenon, but that in this fight the link-up between army and non-army fighters seems to be better co-ordinated.
(…) “We may witness revenge attacks against people loosely affiliated with Ansar al-Sharia, even on families of the group’s members. This is because now it is not just professional army personnel conducting the offensive.”
More broadly, had Haftar’s attack been limited to an offensive carried out solely with Libyan forces belonging to sympathetic militias and army units, this operation could have still been perceived as an attempt to balance the score between Operation Dignity and Operation Dawn before the imminent resumption of UN-sponsored negotiations at Ghadames. However, the overtly clear foreign support received by Haftar and his forces, along with the statements of support coming for the first time from the Tobruk-based establishment and the army, have clearly altered the matter, making the resumption of negotiations or the undertaking of the Algerian dialogue initiative less likely, but all the more urgent. It is not yet clear if Haftar intends to step down after this offensive and is just hoping to go out with a bang or to build facts on the ground that his allies can use as bargaining chips in negotiations.
The attack on Benghazi looks therefore more and more like an all-in attempt by the Tobruk-based establishment to put itself in a favorable position before entering in a prolonged stalemate which will be solved by negotiation. In this sense, with part of Benghazi possibly under their control, even though the capital city would remain in the hands of Libya Dawn and Misratan forces, the HoR and its government would find themselves in a much stronger position. Being able to count on the bulk of Libya’s oil reserves, as well as on the widespread international recognition that has been accorded to them by Libya’s international partners and with a renewed internal standing, the HoR and its partners could even envision trying to wait out for the Dawn camp to either collapse under its lack of financial assets and international recognition or to accept the necessity to come to the negotiation table in a weaker position. Yet in reality that is a false calculus and it is Op Dignity and not Op Dawn who will likely find itself in a weakened position as a result of the developments and the ill-conceived Egyptian intervention.