LNA Launches Offensive Across Benghazi

On September 19, General Khalifa Haftar, Commander of the House of Representatives-aligned Libyan National Army (LNA, sometimes referred to as Operation Dignity) announced the beginning of “Operation Doom” (“Hatef”), a multi-front offensive geared towards retaking all areas in Benghazi held by Islamist rebel groups aligned with the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries (SCBR), and fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS). The operation, a coordinated effort by LNA-affiliated battalions across Benghazi, came as the United Nations announced a final draft agreement for reconciliation in Libya had been reached, creating a difficult situation for the peace accord to be finalized.

Background:

Benghazi fell into the hands of Islamist groups in summer of 2014, following the expulsion of the internationally recognized House of Representatives government and allied forces from the Libyan Capital of Tripoli. In Autumn 2014, the Libyan National Army under command of General Haftar launched a campaign to retake control of Libya’s second city. The LNA and local allies have made progress in the city over the course of 2015, retaking the central neighborhoods and isolating areas under SCBR and ISIS control. Operation Doom was launched with the intent of pacifying the remaining neighborhoods outside of LNA control and extricating the Islamist rebel groups from the city.

The Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries consists of a number of Islamist rebel militias that took over the city in 2014 and have ties with the General National Congress (GNC) government and the Libya Dawn militia coalition currently in control of Tripoli. These groups include Libya Shield, 17 February, a number of other smaller militias, and al-Qaeda’s Libya affiliate, Ansar al-Sharia in Libya (ASL). There is also a sizeable presence of ISIS fighters in Benghazi under the Wilayat Barqa (Mandate of Cyrenaica) branch of the jihadist organization. While there is limited clarity on the interaction between ISIS and SCBR forces, there have been no reported cases of clashes between these groups, despite ISIS and al-Qaeda-linked fighters clashing in other parts of the country, the city of Derna particularly.

The LNA forces in Benghazi consist of a number of battalions and allied local fighters that took up arms to liberate the city. These include the 204 Armor Battalion, operating in the southwest of the city, 309 Battalion, operating south of the city; the LNA Marines and Naval Special Forces, operating in the northern parts of the city along the coast, 302 Battalion, operating both in western Benghazi and in other parts of the country, the 28 Deterrence Artillery Battalion, covering both the south and east, the Tawhid al-Salafiya Battalion, supporting advances in the southwest, and the al-Saiqa Special Forces, operating throughout the city. The LNA also utilizes airpower in the form of both fixed and rotor-wing aircraft to conduct airstrikes in the city.

Operation Doom (“Hatef”)

Operation Doom began on September 19 with heavy airstrikes across the city, targeting rebel forces in the districts of Qawarsha and Hawari to the south, Leithi, Buatni, and Sidi Faraj to the east, and Sabri, Souq al-Hout, and Wast al-Balad north of the city’s port. Following the airstrikes and heavy artillery bombardment, LNA units across the city began to press forward against SCBR positions.

The eastern neighborhoods of of Leithi, Buatni, and Sidi Faraj near the airport road have seen heavy fighting between the LNA and ISIS/SCBR forces in recent months. The beginning of Operation Doom saw a renewed push by LNA forces, led by Saiqa Forces supported by 28 Artillery Battalion and Libyan Air Forces, to secure key locations in these neighborhoods.

Between September 20–23, LNA forces claimed to have retaken two key military bases, the Saiqa 21 Camp and Air Defense Base, in Buatni, besieging ISIS/SCBR forces at the 319 Military Camp and surrounding neighborhoods. The advance also saw Saiqa forces secure Pepsi Road and the Pepsi Factory in the district as well. These represent significant seizures of bases from the opposition, and the LNA’s intention in these operations is to both secure the entirety the Airport Road to Benina Airport and to sever the link between rebel forces in the Leithi District and in Buatni.

Leith and Buatni along the airport road are jointly shared by ISIS and ASL control, with Ansar al-Sharia actively publishing images of the fighting along the road and the surrounding area during the LNA operation. It appears these two groups have at least deconflicted in the area, and may actively be cooperating in fighting against LNA forces.

Ansar al-Sharia in Libya of fighting near Airport Road (Source: Twitter)

Meanwhile, LNA forces also continue to battle to secure the Sidi Faraj neighborhood, and claimed on September 9 to control 70% of the area. Fighting continues under the Operation Doom as the LNA looks to fully secure the district in the offensive. Sidi Faraj is a strategic link between Benghazi’s Benina Airport and the contested Hawari neighborhood in the south.

LNA forces made significant territorial gains in the Hawari neighborhood in the last few weeks, taking control over the 7 April Hospital, the Safsafa Farms area, and the Man-Made River Project Authority buildings (For greater detail, see Libya Security Monitor’s Benghazi Update: Hawari Control Map). The renewed offensive under Operation Doom has seen the LNA-allied Tawhid al-Salafiya Battalion supported by 204 Armored Battalion advance into the areas between the areas under their control and the Benghazi Cement Factory, the SCBR command post and objective of the offensive in the neighborhood. Fighting also spilled over into the adjacent Qawrasha district.

South of Benghazi, LNA Battalion 309 increased its pressure on the SCBR-held Mreissa Port, announcing that it had taken full control over the town of Tikah. The Mreissa Port is rumored to serve as a lifeline for SCBR forces in Benghazi, providing a location where fishing trawlers and other small boats smuggle weapons, ammunition, and allegedly fighters to the city from its backers in western Libya. On September 24, LNA Aircraft and artillery also targeted holdout SCBR positions in the Gar Younis neighborhood, where Benghazi University is located.

The northern coastal neighborhoods of Sabri and Souq al-Hout, both held in part by SCBR/ISIS forces, also have seen fierce bombardment. Since early August, the fighting in these neighborhoods has ground to a stalemate (see Libya Security Monitor’s LNA Advance Near Coast Seeks to Cut Off Rebel Strongholds). On September 25, aircraft conducted multiple airstrikes on Souq al-Hout (see below map), possibly in advance of an attempted push into the neighborhood.

Souq al-Hout

Political Implications:

Criticism of the operation from both the United Nations and the GNC threatens to derail the current finalization of the political reconciliation deal.The UN Special Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), posted a message on social media on September 19 condemning the LNA offensive in Benghazi, making the unsubstantiated claim that the offensive conducted airstrikes “targeting civilians.” The House of Representatives and the Benghazi Municipal Council both condemned the statement, calling it “partisan rhetoric.” The UN Representative has since walked back the language of the condemnations after intense criticism, but is still concerned with the divisive nature the operation has had between the rival governments.

Similarly, the GNC, which is supportive of the SCBR in Benghazi, condemned the operation and threatened to boycott dialogue and the peace accord, claiming that Haftar is attempting to sabotage attempts at reconciliation. The GNC will likely use the operation as an excuse to delay final implementation of the deal. The operation will be used to bolster the arguments of anti-reconciliation elements within the GNC, further politically dividing the country .

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