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Russian-Backed Libyan Commander Retreats From Tripoli

2020-06-04 23:11:51
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The forces of the military leader Khalifa Hifter on Thursday retreated from their last footholds in the suburbs of Tripoli, the Libyan capital, ending his 15-month-old campaign to capture the city.

Mr. Hifter, 76, a former Libyan Army general and one-time C.I.A. asset, has fought for years to try to rule Libya as a new strongman and he launched his assault on Tripoli last spring in a last-ditch, all-or-nothing attempt to fulfill his goal.

Insead, his assault transformed what had been a simmering civil conflict among rival Libyan factions into an increasingly open proxy war among rival international powers.

The Russian mercenaries and Emirati air power backing Mr. Hifter had appeared to make his forces almost unstoppable at the start of this year. Then, the intervention of the Turkish military — and its deployment of brigades of paid Syrian fighters — helped turn the tide and instead delivered Mr. Hifter a stinging defeat.

But with so many foreign powers now entrenched in the contest to dominate Libya, analysts said, the collapse of Mr. Hifter’s Tripoli offensive was more likely to mark a new turning point in the conflict rather than a de-escalation.

Mr. Hifter’s foreign backers, principally from Russia and the United Arab Emirates, have pulled back from the former front lines around Tripoli. But none have so far shown any sign of withdrawing their forces or weaponry from Libya, and the Pentagon last week accused Russia of sending 14 fighter jets to support the Russian mercenaries on the ground.

“The war is not over,” said Emadeddin Badi, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, whose research focuses on Libya and the Sahel “There is clearly more conflict still to come, but everybody — domestically and externally — is going to recalculate their position.”

Libya has been in a state of perpetual turmoil since the ouster of Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi during an Arab Spring revolt in 2011.

As his Tripoli offensive was foundering, Mr. Hifter had already been facing challenges to his power from within his own territory in eastern Libya, centered around the city of Benghazi.

In April, a prominent eastern Libyan politician who had been a close ally, Aguila Saleh, publicly proposed the creation of a new ruling council as an alternative to Mr. Hifter, prompting him to reprise his previous announcement that he was seizing direct control as a new military ruler.

“There were already cracks in his alliance,” Mr. Wehrey said.

Now the militias that played the biggest part in turning back Mr. Hifter “are not just going to pack up and leave,” Mr. Badi said. “They will expect something in exchange.”

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