Libya: Hifter’s Stalled Anti-Islamist Campaign
Operation Dignity, General Khalifa Hifter’s effort to “cleanse” Benghazi of its powerful Islamist militias, has met with mixed success since it was dramatically launched in May. (Hifter has said that the campaign encompasses all of Libya, but actions beyond Benghazi, such as a May 18 attack on Libya’s national parliament, have been no more than sporadic.) Though the initial stages of his offensive seemed promising, the campaign now appears stalled as Hifter’s forces face stiff resistance. The Washington Post recently described Hifter’s offensive as having “given way to a deadly stalemate.” Despite the blood that has been shed, “neither side can claim victory.”
In hindsight, military success often seems clear and decisive, but while operations are ongoing, it can be halting and uncertain. Hence, campaigns may appear stalled just before a major breakthrough. In an interview, Hifter himself said that his campaign would take around six months before achieving its objectives absent support from outside actors. It is therefore possible that there is more going on beneath the surface. Hifter may be preparing his forces to take critical locations or otherwise make a breakthrough.
This article examines the short history of Hifter’s campaign, then analyzes strategic locations and neighborhoods in Benghazi that appear to be of key importance to the fighting.
Hifter’s Offensive: Background
Hifter is a former general in the Libyan army who defected to the United States in the 1980s and later joined the anti-Qaddafi rebellion in 2011. Shortly after he announced the launch of Operation Dignity, militias loyal to Hifter attacked the national parliament on May 18, propelling his campaign to national and international prominence. Though Hifter holds no official position in Libya’s government, he has benefited from several prominent defections to his side, including a Benghazi Special Forces group and the commander of the Libyan air force. These defections and the early popular enthusiasm for Hifter can be attributed to the fact that he was perceived as addressing serious problems that the government could not, or would not, handle. The Washington Post explains:
Many Libyans applauded Hifter’s push to drive extremists out of the eastern city of Benghazi when he first announced the military operation in May. After suffering years of armed attacks with little response from the government, Libyans saw in Hifter a bold figure willing to hit back at the gunmen stalking their streets.
The defections to Hifter’s side provided him with military advantages over his enemies, including airpower. In the two days after he kicked off Operation Dignity, Hifter’s forces carried out air strikes in Benghazi against the headquarters of Ansar al-Sharia, the February 17 Martyrs Brigade, and the Rafalla al-Sahati Brigade, while an estimated 6,000 troops undertook a ground assault on Islamist strongholds.
However, the Islamist militias adapted by relocating to residential areas. Hifter said this relocation forced him to “be very careful,” with military movements slow “because we have to hunt them as if you would hunt something that is among your parents.” As a result, Hifter’s forces have relied far less on airpower, artillery, and other heavy weapons. The militias have also launched a counteroffensive, and began killing local political figures.
Recent weeks have seen a lack of progress by either Hifter or the Islamist militias, resulting in what appears to be a tenuous impasse that continues even though Hifter escalated his campaign on June 15, launching a fresh ground and air offensive against Islamist strongholds. Even as Hifter’s forces continue to carry out air strikes, the militias have proven resilient. In fact, some reports suggest that they have gained ground since his offensive began.
Security analysts and civilians have various theories to explain Hifter’s struggles. Some suggest that Hifter’s offensive stagnated because his military capabilities are limited, while others blame Hifter for taking on too many opponents rather than focusing on Ansar al-Sharia. For example, Hifter described Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood as an “epidemic” that “the Libyan soil will not absorb.”
Key Strategic Locations in Hifter’s Campaign
Several locations are of clear importance as Hifter’s campaign continues. The Benina Airport, on the eastern outskirts of Benghazi, is Hifter’s main base of operations and the home of his air force. Hifter’s forces launch sorties from Benina, which has become a frequent target of Grad rocket attacks by Islamist militias.
A key part of Hifter’s strategy is trying to deprive the militias of weapons, ammunition, and essentials by striking at their supply routes. The militias and Hifter’s forces have engaged in several rounds of fighting over the Benghazi Port. On June 21, militants reportedly lit sections of the port on fire following clashes. Subsequently, militias reportedly seized the port on June 28 following days of clashes with Hifter-aligned forces. Hifter’s forces also shelled the Teeka airstrip, located south of Benghazi, on June 16 due to concerns that militants would use the base as a landing strip for ammunition and weapons deliveries.
The Al-Jalaa Hospital in central Benghazi has been the focus of a standoff between Ansar al-Sharia and the Benghazi Joint Security Room (BJSR), a militia affiliated with the Libyan interior ministry. Following the June 21 fighting at the Benghazi port, BJSR withdrew its forces from the hospital and shifted them toward the port. After that, Islamist militias took control of the hospital. The sequence of events that followed is indicative of the shadowy nature of some of the combatant groups. A group called the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries issued an announcement stating that the hospital had resumed normal operations. Middle East Eye reported on the aftermath of their statement:
According to the statement [of the Shura Council], volunteers from two districts of Benghazi have undertaken the task of securing the hospital. Mohamed Eljarh, an analyst living in Libya, explained that the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries may be essentially a front for Ansar al-Sharia, one of the biggest militant groups in Benghazi. “They use the name Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries to give them a breathing space, since the name Ansar al-Sharia is so hated in Benghazi. They say they are protecting people in the city and the hospital, but really they are seeking to use the hospital as a treatment centre for fighters injured in Operation Dignity.”
Several neighborhoods are significant to the military campaign. Sidi Faraj is another neighborhood that is hotly contested between Hifter’s forces and Islamist militias. Sidi Faraj borders Hifter’s stronghold of Benina, and Hifter’s forces have repeatedly tried to seize the neighborhood. Hifter’s forces have carried out both air strikes and ground attacks on Sidi Faraj and have reportedly tried to move tanks into the area. But despite early reports to the contrary, it seems Hifter hasn’t managed to take control of the area. Islamist militias frequently launch Grad rockets from Sidi Faraj into Benina — given its proximity to Benina, the neighborhood is obviously an ideal place from which to attack Hifter’s base. Hifter has in turn launched both air strikes and mortar strikes back into Sidi Faraj, specifically targeting Suq Saia, a market that Ansar al-Sharia uses as a weapons depot.
The Hawari neighborhood, in southeastern Benghazi, is believed to house the Rafallah al-Sahati Brigade, an Islamist militia aligned with anti-Hifter forces. Ansar al-Sharia also maintains a presence in the neighborhood. Some of the most intense clashes of Operation Dignity have occurred in Hawari, which has also been repeatedly targeted by Hifter’s air force. On June 16, Hifter attacked the neighborhood using tanks and rocket launchers, and since then has carried out numerous air strikes in the neighborhood. The area remains contested.
Qawarsha is a neighborhood in southwestern Benghazi occupied by Islamist militias that has been the site of heavy fighting. On June 15, Hifter’s ground forces clashed with militias in Qawarsha, and Hifter has also launched repeated air strikes against bases in Qawarsha believed to be occupied by the Rafullah al-Sahati Brigade, the February 17 Martyrs Brigade, and Ansar al-Sharia.
Qunfoudah is a neighborhood in the far west of Benghazi that has been repeatedly targeted by Hifter in air strikes and artillery attacks. Islamist militias have established weapons and ammunitions depots in Qunfoudah that have been targeted by Hifter’s forces.
The Future of Hifter’s Campaign
Though Hifter’s campaign is seemingly stalled, aspects of his strategy remain clear. He is simultaneously attacking the Islamists’ weapons, ammunition, and supplies while attempting to make incremental territorial gains.
The U.S. and other Western countries share Hifter’s concerns about the power Islamist militias enjoy in Libya, but have proven hesitant to openly throw their weight behind his campaign due to a variety of concerns, including questions about Hifter himself. But certainly his operation bears watching, as it could have a profound impact on Libya’s future.
In the near term, it is worth watching whether Islamist militias succeed in creating alternate supply routes, which could further insulate them from Hifter’s efforts to strangle their supplies. Another strong indicator will be whether Hifter’s forces are able to gain territory, particularly the four neighborhoods outlined in this article. Hifter’s campaign may not be as stalled as many observers think, but certainly he feels pressure to make gains soon, as some of his erstwhile supporters are reportedly losing patience.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and an adjunct professor in Georgetown University’s security studies program. Oren Adaki is an Arabic language specialist and research associate at FDD focusing on the Arab world. Nathaniel Barr is a research intern at FDD.
Image Credit: Elizabeth Arrott, VOA (public domain)