Libya Dawn Counter-Offensive: Local Spat or Larger Push-back?

(Source: BBC/AFP)

In the midst of large national discussions over the rejection of the UN-sponsored reconciliation plan, militias loyal to the Tripoli government quietly retook key territory west of the capital. Spurred on by reports of pro-Ghaddafi organizing, Libya Dawn forces led by units under the command of the Sabratha Military Council recaptured the city of Ajaylat and possibly seized Jumayl from local LNA militias.

Ajaylat, located roughly 80km west of Tripoli and just southwest of Sabratha, was garrisoned by the Libya Dawn Battalion 166 in May and saw significant fighting throughout the year. As the Libyan National Army (LNA) advanced towards Tripoli, the city was shelled regularly and Libya Dawn militias conducted mass arrests to round up LNA supporters on at least one occasion. Following ceasefire negotiations involving a number of cities in the region (including Sabratha), LNA forces under the command of Col. Idriss Maadi entered Ajaylat on June 20. Since then, the situation has been relatively stable with minor clashes every few weeks with no significant changes. While there is little information available, it appears that local Warshevani tribal militias under the command of the LNA Western Libya Operations Room garrisoned Ajaylat.

On October 17, a group of LNA-affiliated leaders held a meeting expressing pro-Ghaddafi sentiment in the town of al-Taweela, roughly 10km west of Ajaylat. The Zintan Military Council and the official LNA Tripoli Operations Room (the new name for the Western Libya Operations Room) condemned the meeting and attempted to distance themselves from anything resembling support for the former dictator. Libya Dawn forces, using this affront as a pretence, attacked Ajaylat, seizing the town before moving to al-Taweela, which also fell. Separate sources (including LNA social media accounts) appear to claim that Jumayl has also been seized. According to the LNA, 25 soldiers were killed and a number of civilians are fleeing the area. Unconfirmed reports indicate that Libya Dawn has conducted airstrikes in support of the attack. While official sources have not confirmed it appears that the local LNA affiliate, the Abu Bakr Battalion, is advancing on Ajaylat and Jumayl and may attempt to recapture them. Contradictory sources claim that LNA forces have fled to Wattiya Airbase and that Jumayl has been fully captured by Libya Dawn.

The GNC Ministry of Defense released a statement, claiming that “armed criminal gangs from the ‘Tribes Army’ [a common derogatory term for the LNA in Western Libya] infiltrated Ajaylat. The statement goes on to claim that the Chief of Staff authorized an operation to “liberate” Taweel and Ajaylat (noticeably excluding Jumayl) and thanks Brigades 200 and 110 for their efforts in the battle. According to the MoD, their forces captured one LNA tank, destroyed another and seized a number of vehicles while recapturing the two cities and “sweeping” Jumayl. Once again, Jumayl was described differently, furthering the assessment that the situation is less stable in that city. Finally, the statement acknowledges that the Libya Dawn air force played a “supporting role” in the battle and closes by promising to eliminate all supporters of the “former regime.” Whether the operation was as centrally planned and executed as the MoD claims, this makes it clear that Tripoli does not intend to distance itself from this action.

The status of the ceasefire agreement as well as the intentions of the Sabratha and Warshevani militias are still unclear. While many of the Misrata militias have expressed their discontent with the GNC and several have withdrawn, in the wake of the reconciliation failure the LNA likely lacks the support to undertake new major military operations. Despite this, local LNA affiliates and Libya Dawn fighters (the Warshevani tribal militias and the Sabratha Military Council, respectively) may seek to continue the fight potentially leading to inadvertent escalation. Furthermore, a close examination of this mini-conflict may signal the strength of support for the GNC in the towns west of the capital.

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