Overlooked, battle for Watiyah air base key to Libya’s future

Russian heat-seeking rockets terrorize the fighters scattered along the front at the Watiyah air base in Western Libya.
February 18, 2015

This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.

Russian heat-seeking rockets terrorize the fighters scattered along the front at the Watiyah air base in Western Libya. “Torpedoes are dangerous because they precisely target cars, often full of men,” one of the fighters told The Media Line while adjusting his walkie-talkie in preparation for his deployment along the front lines.

“Thirteen men were killed in one day last week, and three ambulances were destroyed. Also, an ambulance driver got killed by the same Russian guided rocket,” said Dr. Ashraf Al-Mansouri, who is responsible for the field hospital set up in a gas station about six miles away from the fighting. Here, the supply of anesthetics and analgesics often run out.

Over three years after the uprising that ousted former strongman Col. Muammar Gaddafi, Libya is once again drowning in civil war. The fighting has continued unabated since last May, bringing to mind the former dictator’s prophecy about a “Somalia-ization” of the Libyan conflict.

Last August, armed groups led by the powerful militias of Misrata, a city 120 miles east of Tripoli, launched “Operation Fajr Libya” to take the control over the entire capitol, driving out the fighters of the Zintan Brigades, government-funded armed units emanating from the city of Zintan that featured prominently in the revolution that ousted Gaddafi.  Although the two sets of militias were comrades-in-arms during the 2011 uprising, shortly afterward they began to compete to fill the power vacuum left by Gaddafi. Misrata allied with the Muslim Brotherhood while Zintan ended up fighting alongside Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s loyalists.

Haftar is a former Gaddafi-era officer who defected in the 1980s and returned to the country in 2011.  His allies today include security men from the old regime, prominent eastern tribes, federalists demanding greater autonomy for the east, and the Zintan militias. Last May, Haftar launched “Operation Dignity” against the fundamentalist Islamist groups in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi.

The split reached the national institutions, the House of Representatives (HOR) being supported by Zintan and the outgoing National Congress by Misrata. In August, Misrata drove Zintani armed groups from the capital Tripoli, forcing the internationally recognized HOR to take shelter in the eastern city of Tubruq.

While mainstream media focuses on the struggle between Gen. Haftar and fundamentalist groups in Benghazi, and on the clashes at oil terminals along the eastern coast of the country, the fight for the Watiyah air base remains in the shadow but in reality is one of the key battles that will determine the resolution of Libya’s civil war.  

The war between the Islamists, who nowadays count the Islamic State (ISIS) among its among its ranks, and Haftar’s forces is ideological and threatens to plunge the country into an abyss.

Last September, fierce fighting between militias resulted in conflicting charges of heinous acts, the deaths of thousands and gross violations of human rights.

In October, Haftar used Russian-made MIG 23s to strike ammunition depots in Zawiyah, Sabratah and Gharian, and then bombed Mitiqa airport in Tripoli. The Air Force general in charge of the Tripoli-based forces, Colonel Ali Abudeya, called Haftar a “terrorist because he strikes Mitiqa which is a civilian airport.”

By November, at least eight militias teamed-up to launch an assault on the Watiyah air base to put a halt to Haftar’s airborne strikes in a campaign seen as being the last stand of Haftar’s influence in the west. If the airport falls, Haftar and company will lose access to supplies, food, and weapons.

Zintan, some 50 miles south of Watiyah, would be completely isolated, and the airstrip that was built strategically after the 2011 revolution would not be able to guarantee refueling. As well, Haftar and the Tubruq based authorities would arguably lose the western region of Tripolitania, given that Libya has already begun to divide the country into the National Independence era’s three provinces of Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan.

The battle for Watiyah airport also poses an even more insidious threat to the entire country in the form of the radicalization of the local population paving the way for an ideological war that further divides the nation. 

A rebel commander in the city of Amazigh Jado told The Media Line that, “The terrorist groups are already inside the country, although they are still inactive. They are basically waiting until all of the revolutionary forces run out of ammunition to come out and conquer Libya.”  He concluded by saying that, “The international community seems to be blind. They waste their time talking with the national political representatives in Geneva, although the militias control Libya and they do not sit in Geneva.”

Last year, 2,825 people were killed in Libya's protracted conflict, and at least 120,000 people were forced from their homes. The United Nations-led national dialogue for the North African country’s stability is tenuous at best. The truce was systematically broken during the talks and no ceasefire has been scheduled despite the recent United Nations-brokered meeting with Libyan stakeholders in the city of Ghaddames last Wednesday.

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