The move follows Russia’s pledge earlier this month to lift the UN arms embargo to allow Hifter to access weapons as well as recent visits by Hifter and his political allies to Moscow.
Already it appears this extra support is having some impact. The LNA is making significant gains against jihadi fighters in Benghazi, with several high-profile figures captured by the LNA last week. Security has been ramped up at the oil crescent ports, which Hifter has held since September, and the Ras Lanuf facility is being used to launch airstrikes around Sebha.
Indeed, it appears Hifter is applying the same strategy for control in southwest Libya as he did in the oil crescent: winning the support of local tribes in the area to remove the social support for his rivals. And it is gaining some traction: On Jan. 5, a group of tribal elders, civil society activists and militias from different southern tribes issued a statement in support of the LNA and demanded that Misrata’s Third Force leave the area.
However, it is important to note that the LNA is not militarily strong in this area, and Misrata has its own support among other local tribes. Likewise, although the LNA has some units stationed just south of Zawiyya to the west of Tripoli, most of the normally fractious political factions and militias in western Libya stand against Hifter and would almost certainly respond by uniting to oppose any LNA incursions in the area.
Nevertheless, if Hifter’s forces are able to access Russian equipment and weapons, and if the LNA seizes air bases in southwestern Libya from Misrata, then the risk of the LNA launching an aerial and ground offensive against western Libya, in particular the oil port of Zawiyya, cannot be ignored. One hopes that signals from the West, and the United States in particular, are deterring such potential foolhardiness.
It is this threat that could lead Misratan forces to mobilize en masse in southwestern Libya to cut off the LNA’s advance and prevent it from taking air bases that would allow it to attack Misrata or its allies in western Libya. After the Misratan-led, GNA-aligned al-Bunyan al-Marsus coalition defeated the Islamic State in Sirte in early December, divisions have been growing within Misratan ranks between hard-line Islamist factions who want to take the fight to Hifter and pro-GNA moderates who want to continue the fight against other Libyan jihadi groups, many of whom are providing support to their besieged Misratan comrades in Benghazi.