Sunday,23 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1210, (21 - 27 August 2014)
Sunday,23 September, 2018
Issue 1210, (21 - 27 August 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Beyond the brink

Aerial bombardments in Libya by unidentified aircraft open the question of whether foreign intervention — called for by parliament, against popular protest — has already begun. Kamel Abdallah reports

Al-Ahram Weekly

In a sudden turn in the fighting between rival militias battling for control of Tripoli, aerial bombardment by military aircraft has been carried out for the first time since hostilities erupted between former allies in the Libyan revolution on 13 July.

 The strike signals an escalation in the intensity of warfare between forces associated with the coastal city of Misrata and allied with the Islamists led by the Libyan chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood, and forces associated with the mountain city of Zintan and allied with the non-Islamist forces headed by the National Forces Alliance, Arab nationalist forces and a number of tribal groupings opposed to Misrata.

Targeting the forces of the Central Libyan Shield and other contingents of the “Libya Dawn” operation launched by Misrata, the bombardments claimed four dead and numerous wounded, the total number of which has not yet been announced.

The spokesman for the Libya Dawn forces, Alaa Al-Howeik, said that military aircraft of unknown identity bombed two camps belonging to these forces after fighting resumed in the area of Naqliya Camp near the Tripoli Airport road between Libyan Dawn forces and the Qaqa and Sawaeq brigades.

The aerial attack against the camps — Yarmouk and Qasr Ben Ghashir — took place before dawn on Monday.

The Libyan chief of General Staff, Abdel Salam Jadallah Al-Obeidi, said that the attack “was carried out by foreign rather than domestic aircraft.”

In a press statement, he said that “guided missiles were used in this bombardment. This type of missile does not exist in Libya. Nor are there Libyan planes capable of deploying them.”

Al-Obeidi ruled out the possibility that the planes took off from domestic airports because “there are no domestic airports capable of being used at night or that have the facilities to fuel the planes.” Moreover, Al-Watiya Airforce Base is not operational.

 Al-Obeidi continued to say that the sound of the aircraft was that of jet-propelled airplanes. The aircraft circled over the target for an hour and a quarter at an altitude of 7,000 to 8,000 metres before carrying out the bombardment. He said that more than one location was targeted, indicating that more than one plane was used.

Official Libyan sources who spoke on condition of anonymity, as they are not authorised to speak with the press, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the military aircraft used in the assault probably took off from Al-Watiya near the Libyan border with Tunisia and Algeria. Since the beginning of the fighting in Tripoli, that base has been the scene of major activity and heavy security.

The source suggested that the planes may have been developed and equipped by Belarus, in cooperation with leaders and major businessmen from Zintan.

Other sources contacted by the Weekly claimed that the aircraft used to bomb Libya Dawn positions in Tripoli were Algerian and Egyptian, and that they were deployed with the purpose of defeating the Libya Dawn Operation, which sought to secure control over Tripoli Airport in order to prevent it from being used by the Qaqa, Sawaeq and Madani militias.

These militias are affiliated with Zintan and have come out in support of Operation Dignity, launched by renegade General Khalifa Hiftar, whose forces recently sustained serious losses in fighting with the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries in eastern Libya.

There have been reports that Al-Watiya in western Libya has fallen under the control of Islamist extremists affiliated with Zintan, but this information has not been confirmed. However, it is certain that the antagonism between the two sides in the current conflict has grown fiercer than ever as the fighting around Tripoli enters its second month. The aerial bombardment is a reflection of this and an indication that the ferocity of the warfare is likely to escalate in the coming days.

A resolution adopted by the Libyan parliament elected on 25 June calls for a ceasefire in both Tripoli and Benghazi: the combatant forces have ignored the order. International parties, led by the newly appointed UN envoy to Libya, Spanish diplomat Bernadino Leon, have stepped up their efforts to broker a ceasefire in Tripoli and to bring the warring sides to the negotiating table.

On Sunday, Leon, together with the head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), contacted individuals in charge of the Libya Dawn Operation in the hope of persuading them to agree to a ceasefire and negotiations.

However, a source close to the Libya Dawn leadership told the Weekly that a Libya Dawn commander, Salah Badi, told the UN envoy by phone that he was fighting the remnants of the Gaddafi brigades that sought to undermine the 17 February Revolution.

Also, an EU delegation accompanied a UN delegation, headed by UNSMIL’s deputy director, the Mauritanian diplomat Ismail Walad Al-Sheikh Ahmed, on a visit to Misrata to meet with the municipal and shura councils there in order to discuss the best means to end the fighting in the Libyan capital and to start negotiations.

At the same time, mass demonstrations took place in Tripoli, Benghazi, Misrata and other major cities to protest last week’s decision by the parliament to request international intervention to protect civilians from the ongoing hostilities in Tripoli and Benghazi.

In the face of such pressure, the parliament issued an explanatory statement asserting that “international intervention” did not mean a request for international forces or any scenario that might lead to occupation for foreign troops. The statement suggested that the parliament might be rethinking its original call for international assistance.

The issue of international intervention is a highly sensitive one in Libya. That the possibility has been raised again has stirred considerable controversy among government officials. It is also the subject of dispute among regional players and countries neighbouring Libya.

While the view of the new parliament appears generalised and unclear in its aims with regard to the tribal, factional and regional strife that has flared in Libya, the government, led by Defence Minister Abdullah Al-Thinni, feels that some foreign military intervention is needed to halt the current deterioration.

At a press conference in Washington, where he took part in the American-African summit, Prime Minister Al-Thinni said that regional forces, whether Arab, African or Islamic, were needed to restore security and to separate the combatant forces. The view of the Libyan executive thus appears to be considerably bolder than that of the parliament.

While Libya’s neighbours and other regional players are extremely concerned by the security situation in the country, talks between them on the crisis have so far failed to produce any agreement that could give rise to a joint effort to restore calm.

Although a meeting of Libya’s neighbours that was held in Algeria last month resulted in an agreement to form political and security committees, headed by Egypt and Algeria respectively, to monitor the situation in Libya, the Arab foreign ministers meeting held in Cairo some days later revealed a sharp polarisation between neighbouring countries over the Libyan question. The meeting ended without any agreement.

As a result, Libyan Foreign Minister Mohamed Abdel-Aziz left Cairo immediately after the meeting and flew to Washington to discuss the Libyan situation with US officials, and to explore the possibility of international intervention to halt the hostilities.

According to information leaked from the meeting, the issue of international intervention in Libya is a subject of dispute among Libya’s neighbours. While some want a diplomatic solution, others favour some form of military intervention, whether by air or land, with a “surgical” operation, or a comprehensive offensive to strengthen the Libyan government and help it build effective government institutions.

The Tunisian position was the most consistent in this regard. It calls for serious efforts to pressure Libyan factions to enter negotiations and begin a dialogue, setting into motion a political process that would lead to an equitable formula for sharing wealth and power, and that would promote comprehensive national reconciliation and spare the country the miseries of the civil war, which has already begun.

Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, on his recent visit to Russia, said that Egypt, like Russia, agrees on the need to refrain from intervening in Libyan affairs.

Certainly, any decision to launch an international intervention in Libya would require extensive study if it is to succeed in remedying the situation, containing the violence, and keeping the armed conflict from reigniting in the future. It may be difficult to persuade international and regional parties to send their forces into Libya when the contours of the conflict remain so blurred.

Such parties would need to be convinced that the advantages far outweigh the enormous risks of getting involved in a country that has been compared to quicksand, where the actions of the various militarised forces are considered well beyond the point of no return.

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