With the Help of Russian Fighters, Libya’s Haftar Could Take Tripoli

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But Russian aid will come at a cost.


 | DECEMBER 5, 2019, 10:40 AM

TRIPOLI, Libya—In a shattered villa south of the Libyan capital that serves as his field headquarters, a middle-aged militia commander named Mohammed al-Darrat, an engineer in another life, fretted over incoming ordnance. These were not just any artillery shells, he explained during a lull in the fighting late last month: They homed on their target through a laser designation from a ground spotter. The projectiles had forced him to move his headquarters more than three times in the last several weeks. And they were just one of several worrying upgrades to the arsenal of his foes in this latest phase of Libya’s ongoing civil war, which started on April 4, when a septuagenarian Libyan general named Khalifa Haftar launched an assault to topple the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli.

Ostensibly undertaken to rid the capital of militias, the campaign by Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (also called the Libyan Arab Armed Forces, a coalition of regular units and militias) was in fact a baldfaced grab for power and wealth. The United Nations envoy to Libya has said it “sounded more like a coup.” As it unfolded, al-Darrat and other militia leaders from Tripoli and its environs set aside their differences to confront the incursion. They were joined by fighters from across the country: On the front lines recently, I met militiamen from the eastern city of Benghazi and ethnic Tuareg from Libya’s deep south. The war that ensued started as a grinding, largely stalemated fight that blended aging Soviet artillery and state-of-the-art drones, piloted by personnel from the United Arab Emirates, which backs Haftar, and Turkey, which supports the GNA.

But the deck was shuffled in early September, which saw the arrival to the Tripoli front of yet another foreign meddler—more than 100 Russian mercenaries from the so-called Wagner Group early that month, joined, in recent weeks, by hundreds of additional fighters, who’ve inflicted an uptick in casualties among al-Darrat and his men. The Libyan commander bemoaned the apparent improvement in the precision of the ever present armed drones that destroy his vehicles at will, day or night, constricting his movements and forcing him to hunker down for hours on end. There is a seemingly endless supply of mortars that rain down. Russian anti-tank missiles, the dreaded Kornets, snake between sand berms to incinerate their target with a devastating accuracy.

And then there are the Russian snipers. Their shots to the chest and head, al-Darrat says, reveal a professionalism he’s never seen before, accounting for 30 percent of the deaths in his unit. One of these marksmen had recently killed a 23-year-old fighter, whose body still lay on the battlefield. al-Darrat and his men plotted for hours one morning about how to retrieve it using ropes or armored cars: It lay directly in the path of snipers, who’d already wounded a soldier in a previous recovery attempt, with an anti-materiel rifle. The mission seemed all the more urgent because the dead man’s father was imploring al-Darrat to return his corpse.

All this may sound like good news to Haftar, who, for the first time, could conceivably take Tripoli. But the battlefield advantages that come with Russian aid may carry costs. On Nov. 14, the U.S. State Department issued its most forceful condemnation yet of his war, singling out his militia by name and asserting that his alliance with Russian mercenaries is a dangerous breach of Libyan sovereignty. In tandem, the U.S. Congress is growing considerably more concerned about the war’s effect on civilians and its boon to Russian influence in the region. Bipartisan legislation is pending in both the House and Senate that would place sanctions on the Russian contractors and their enablers.

Together, these moves represent an encouraging departure from months of U.S. ambivalence about the latest twist in the Libyan civil war.

Together, these moves represent an encouraging departure from months of U.S. ambivalence about the latest twist in the Libyan civil war.

The disastrous “wait and see” policy stemmed from a phone call by U.S. President Donald Trump to Haftar in mid-April, in which he endorsed the general’s attack as being in line with U.S. counterterrorism goals. Beyond its boost to Haftar’s war, the phone call was confounding because most of America’s counterterrorism activity in western Libya has been conducted with the militia commanders whom Haftar is now fighting. al-Darrat is one of them. In 2016, I had joined him as he led militiamen in a battle against the Islamic State in its stronghold in the central city of Sirte. Back then, he had U.S. intelligence and airstrikes to help him. But now he questions Washington’s commitment to its old allies.

He doubts that the State Department’s Nov. 14 statement and Congress’s increased scrutiny will mark a constructive shift in U.S. policy. Not much will change from America, he told me the day after the announcement, in the weary tone of a hardened soldier. “And they’re going to attack tonight,” he predicted of Haftar’s forces, in a defiant retort to Washington’s admonitions. And sure enough, at the front after dusk, two missiles from an Emirati drone streaked across the sky. Hearing the low-pitched hum of another, we ducked under some foliage until it was out of earshot.

The next morning, there was a volley of mortars and machine gun fire from Haftar’s positions, only several hundred yards away, to dodge.

“They hit us under a tree!” A fighter ran up to tell al-Darrat. “We had to fall back!”

“Deal with the enemy!” the commander exhorted his men. But the young man’s belt-fed machine gun had jammed.

Fighters dashed back-and-forth, and mutual accusations were shouted into walkie-talkies—“You didn’t cover my flank!” The toll of this relentless violence—the results of Haftar’s recent technological edge—was etched on the faces of these combatants: It was a stark difference from when I met them this summer, when they were flush with a boisterous confidence.



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