CAIRO – Forces aligned with Libya’s U.N.-installed government seized control of a key western military base from eastern-based commander Khalifa Hifter on Monday, delivering a major blow to his more than a year-long effort to oust the government.
The capture of al-Watiya air base, roughly 80 miles south of the capital, Tripoli, was acknowledged by loyalists from both sides, and footage posted on social media showed fighters from the Tripoli government roaming around the base, on runways and in hangars.
“The base has been a strategic asset for [Hifter] for over half a decade,” Emadeddin Badi, a Libya expert and nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said on Twitter. “Though its capture is by & large symbolic militarily, strategically & morale-wise, it is significant.”
Hifter, a dual U.S.-Libyan citizen and former CIA asset who lived for years in Northern Virginia, launched his Tripoli offensive in April 2019, vowing to seize the capital quickly. Instead, the campaign has turned into a military stalemate, with forces bogged down in fighting that has killed and wounded several thousand civilians and displaced hundreds of thousands.
The violence is the worst since Libya’s 2011 Arab Spring revolution and NATO involvement led to the toppling and death of dictator Moammar Gaddafi. In the years since, the country has been led by rival administrations – the U.N.-backed one in Tripoli and an eastern-based one.
Outside powers,including Russia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, have fueled the fighting by backing one side against the other with heavy weaponry, mercenaries, military trainers and intelligence in violation of a U.N. arms embargo.
The seizure of al-Watiya was the latest setback for Hifter’s forces, a hodgepodge of militias that was once known as the Libyan National Army but now calls itself the Libyan Arab Armed Forces.
In recent weeks, militias aligned with the Tripoli leadership, known as the Government of National Accord (GNA), have captured several towns along the western coast with increased support from Turkey. Ankara’s backing, fueled by contracts to gain access to Mediterranean Sea gas fields, have included drones, Syrian mercenaries as well as military trainers.
Hifter’s forces, backed by Russia, the United Arab Emirates and other European and regional powers, remain in control of eastern and southern Libya,as well as the strategic city of Sirte. In Tripoli, they remain entrenched in southern suburbs and have unleashed artillery and drone strikes targeting civilian areas, according to the United Nations.
Still, Monday’s capture of al-Watiya could bolster the morale of the GNA forces, which until Turkey’s increased intervention this year had suffered many losses to Hifter.
“Today’s victory does not constitute the end of the battle but brings us closer than any time before to the bigger victory, the liberation of all towns and regions and bases,” GNA Prime Minister Fayez Serraj said in a statement.
The capture of al-Watiya also exposed the heavy military support from outside powers, despite protests by the United Nations. Photos and videos posted on social media by GNA forces showed a captured Russian-made Pantsir air defense system on the base.
Analysts said that although the Tripoli government is likely to push forward to extract more gains against Hifter, the commander’s air power remains significant. He still has an air base in eastern Libya.
“The loss of Al Wutiya is not a fatal blow for the LNA’s Tripoli offensive,” Hamish Kinnear, a Middle East analyst at the global risk consultancy firm Verisk Maplecroft, said in an emailed statement. “Airbases elsewhere – such as Al Khadim in the eastern Al Marj district – can serve as launchpads for LNA warplanes active over the Tripoli skies.”