On April 4, the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar launched an offensive against the country’s capital, Tripoli, where Fayez al-Sarraj’s Government of National Accord is stationed. It took place two weeks prior to the start of the Libyan National Conference brokered by the UN special envoy Ghassan Salamé, which was to review the electoral roadmap addressing the political crisis. In an exclusive interview, the spokesperson for the LNA, Brigadier General Ahmed al-Mismari, gives assessment of what is happening at the walls of Tripoli, names the countries and organizations supporting the parties to the conflict and speaks about the prospects for peace in Libya, which has been in a state of civil war since 2011. 

– What is the cause of the current military crisis in Libya?

After the regime change in 2011, many professional military officers emigrated. Field Marshal Haftar managed to unite the former military personnel under the new armed forces to start the war on terrorism, which has been waging now for almost 5 years. Today we have a united and strong army capable of combatting terrorist challenges.

LNA’s counter-terrorism operation started in May 2014 with the liberation of Benghazi. The population of the city has long suffered from assaults of terrorist groups. Primarily, the civilians and personnel of the LNA were under fire.

The second major operation took place in the area of Libya’s oil fields. Then the city of Derna was cleared of terrorists. The terrorists expelled from there united in Tripoli. Prime Minister of the Government of National Accord, Fayez al-Sarraj, supported them by providing weapons and money. We were forced to launch an offensive against them.

As you probably know, there are now many members of Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups in Tripoli, including the Islamic State (ISIL). According to information available to us, many members of ISIL and Jabhat Tahrir Suriya (former Jabhat al-Nusra) were specially transferred to Tripoli from Syria. For this reason, the current operation is to purge Tripoli of all terrorist groups.

– Is there proof of Sarraj’s financing the terrorists that you could make public?

One of the clauses of the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement signed in Skhirat was that Sarraj committed to eliminate all terrorist groups. Only the army and the police should have been armed. Unfortunately, he chose to negotiate with the terrorists instead of fighting against them. In addition, he awarded military ranks to members of these groups.

Two weeks ago, when the operation to liberate Tripoli was launched, Sarraj handed over 2,400,000 Libyan dinars to the terrorists for salaries, weapons and other needs. We have all the proof, such as photo and video footage, which, in particular, shows that the Libyan cells of Al-Qaeda, Jabhat Tahrir Suriya and ISIL are backed by Sarraj.

Is LNA making great progress with the offensive on Tripoli?

By the third week of the operation we approached the suburbs of the capital. We have a big advantage – we forced the terrorists to flock and then cut off escape routes. Using two land fronts, the LNA surrounded Tripoli. The fighting backed by airpower continues unabated on the outskirts. 

– Do you have proof that terrorist groups fighting the LNA are backed by foreign countries?

– Those following the developments in Libya are aware of it, including the fact that Britain and Italy are making consistent efforts to protect terrorist groups through resolutions of international organizations. Moreover, Qatar and Turkey regularly deliver weapons to terrorists, in particular, through the port of Misrata. We also have photo and video footage of the cooperation of Libyan terrorist groups with their “associates” from Iraq and Syria. 

– The media had been occasionally reporting that certain tribes, unfortunately, supported terrorist groups fighting against the LNA. Is that the case now?

– Historically, the tribes have always supported the LNA. The current war on terrorism is being waged by the whole society, both the army and the tribes. Al-Qaeda and ISIL do not recognize the tribes as social formations and do not accept their support. Today, absolutely all Libyan tribes support the LNA. We would never have started a military operation without it. They have always supplied us with everything to combat terrorism.

– Do you think there is a chance to sit down at the negotiating table with Sarraj once again? What would be the terms?

We had multiple meetings, including one in Abu Dhabi in February. However, he had always violated the agreements reached. There is no point in further negotiating with him, because he supports the terrorists. How can one sit at the negotiating table with the terrorists who have killed and are still killing Libyans?

Sarraj is basically at the wheel of terrorist groups. But we don’t know exactly whether it is the Presidential Council controlling the terrorists, or vice versa.

– Can the leaders of Libyan tribes convince the parties to sit down at the negotiating table and stop the bloodshed?

– Since Saraj has violated the earlier agreements on multiple occasions, we don’t trust him. It makes no sense to negotiate with him. He does not wield power even in Tripoli. Sarraj is just a “signboard”.

The Supreme Council of the Libyan Tribes and Cities is now working on a memorandum which all tribes and territorial communities of Libya could endorse. This could unite the country after the purging of Tripoli of terrorists and prevent the consequences of their propaganda from sinking in with the youth.

– According to recent media reports, different countries are trying to pressure Field Marshal Haftar into halting or, on the opposite, speeding up the offensive on Tripoli. Is this accurate? 

Through the United Nations, many countries have pushed for a resolution calling for an end to an offensive against Sarraj in Tripoli, among them Britain and Italy. They did not succeed. Also, some international public organizations are concerned about the suffering of civilians – victims of the conflict. We carefully verify the validity of every message and take appropriate measures to help victims. At the same time, our task – and the global task – is the fight against terrorism. This is relevant not only for Libya.

– If Sarraj is supported by terrorist groups, why doesn’t the UN, through the Special Representative of the Secretary-General, Ghassan Salamé, take it into consideration, and  backs the Government of National Accord?

– The United Nations has played a major role in resolving the Libyan conflict from the very beginning. In 2015, an agreement brokered by the UN was reached in Skhirat, which established the Presidential Council consisting of nine members. Unfortunately, Sarraj violated the agreement by sponsoring terrorist groups. We do not know exactly what he wanted from them. But they actually protect Sarraj. For the record, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya also drew attention to the problem of terrorism in Tripoli.

– Should the international mediators propose now to hold talks between Haftar and Sarraj and conclude a new agreement, similar to the Skhirat one, would the LNA representatives agree to this? 

– Since Skhirat in 2015, we have been trying to meet Mr. Sarraj halfway, but each time we would get rejected. Instead of us, he negotiated with the terrorists and supplied them with everything they needed. Unfortunately, we see no prospects for agreements with him.

– In the current settings, what are the chances of holding the Libyan National Conference, which, until the offensive on Tripoli launched, was due to take place in mid-April?

– The LNA has always welcomed this format of inter-Libyan talks. We supported the Libyan National Conference. Now the conference is in question, since there are no guarantees. However, if there is an appropriate agreement at the UN level, we will support and ensure the security of this event.

Prepared by Oleg Gromov, exclusively for IAC