Fighting in Tripoli


The battle for the Libyan capital Tripoli is currently stalled. Some 300 people have died and more than 1,000 have been injured. According to the World Heath Organization at least 20 of the dead are civilians caught up in crossfire or hit by apparently random shelling.

Even one civilian casualty in such fighting is one too many but continued street fighting suggests more innocents will be caught up in the violence. The Libyan National Army (LNA) led by General Khalifa Haftar, which is seeking to wrest Tripoli from the lawless militias that have effectively run it since the Muslim Brotherhood coup in 2014, protests it is doing all it can to minimize civilian casualties.

However, such claims from any side in this conflict need to be viewed in context. Training and discipline among the LNA is certainly enough to have them march smartly around a parade ground. But most of these troops have not undergone challenging field exercises nor the type of careful drilling that will enable them to operate and fire artillery effectively. The criminal gangs that are resisting them are virtually untrained. They once claimed to be “thuwar”, veterans of the bitter revolutionary battles that toppled the Gaddafi dictatorship. But after victory was won, the majority of the real fighters returned to civilian life. The gunmen who now parade as revolutionary heroes are often just common criminals.

What low training levels mean in any conflict is that rather than use disciplined fire and move tactics to advance, commanders prefer to blast away any suspected strong points. The LNA’s long struggle to drive terrorists out of Benghazi culminated in a protracted battle for the port area which left hardly a building standing. The same was seen when largely Misratan forces finally ousted Daesh (the self-proclaimed IS) terrorists from Sirte. Footage regularly emerged of young fighters darting out from behind cover to fire a whole AK47 clip in the vague direction of the enemy. There were also pictures of overweight middle-aged men showing the same bravado clutching heavy machine guns with another man inexpertly feeding in the ammunition belt. The reality is that while these conflicts make work for grave diggers, they make far more profit for ammunition manufacturers.

Many, probably the majority, of Libyans want to see a swift victory for Haftar’s LNA in the hope that it will finally bring peace to the country. With a return of stability, people can start to rebuild their shattered lives and communities. It had been hoped the LNA would take Tripoli with little difficulty and be greeted as liberators from the endless round of crime and violence that has disfigured the country. But it seems clear the lessons of Benghazi and Sirte have been ignored. In both those bloody urban battles a relatively small number of terrorists was able to hold out until they were completely cut off from food and ammunition supplies, some of it apparently supplied from Turkey.

Among the militia gangs fighting to preserve their fiefdoms in the capital are Muslim Brotherhood gangs allied to Daesh and Al-Qaeda. They will be calculating that in their final, very public battle to take Tripoli, LNA commanders will not be prepared to risk the levels of destruction that occurred in Benghazi and Sirte.