We are used to discussing foreign involvement in Libya in terms of which side is benefiting – GNA or LNA. Classic thinking about military conflicts tends to be zero-sum in this regard. Increase support for one side, it wins over the other. Conflict over. Or not. Jump to Libya.
Embedded with GNA fighters in Tripoli, journalist Frederic Wehrey, writing for Foreign Policy Magazine, has noticed the on-the-ground implications of Russia’s growing involvement on Haftar’s side. As the two sides have reached a stalemate, in part due to Turkey and the UAE having rushed in, the “deck was shuffled” again in September as Russian mercenaries began arriving by the hundreds to help the LNA. Wehrey describes significant improvements in the use of attack drones, mortars, advanced anti-tank missiles and especially snipers, bringing a level of professionalism the conflict had not previously known.
He warns that this Russian assistance, however, may come with a price tag. The United States started taking notice recently, and began condemning this involvement specifically. Congress is looking to place bi-partisan sanctions on the Russian contractors.
Wehrey is encouraged by this new, more assertive US position after months of ambivalence, where it wasn’t clear which side the US backed. Officially, the US and State Department were backing the GNA, but after Trump’s phone call to Haftar in April, who claimed to be leading the fight against ISIS and al-Qaeda, this was no longer certain.
Wehrey noted that the effect of the Russians has been to sow distrust and panic among the various GNA militias, who were already not under any unified command. The effect, on the ground, is the tearing of the social fabric of the country, more and more as each day passes. There are already over 140,000 internally displaced persons by the fighting. In areas controlled by the GNA, social services barely function, not that they functioned well before. And, as fighting continues, the various corrupt militias taking control of the areas grow bolder. At the same time, the LNA and its use of airpower has shown little sensitivity to differentiating between civilian and military targets.
The author calls for a more resolute and clear US diplomacy. The recent meetings by a senior US delegation with GNA officials, followed by meetings with Haftar pressing him to accept a cease fire, are a good start. But Haftar has shown little incentive to stop his efforts. The US, says Wehrey, must convince the various foreign powers to stop their military support, especially the UAE, Turkey and Russia, all seeking to make themselves the power brokers in the region.
The danger, Wehrey suggests, is not that the GNA will collapse and Haftar will take over Tripoli and the environs. Far from it, Wehrey suggests, rather, that the urban areas will descend into vicious, block-by-block fighting that will rip Libya apart further. The GNA will not give up so quickly, as they are not under unified command rather are disparate and passionate militias.
Haftar’s offensive, backed by Russia’s advanced capabilities, are bad news for Libya. Haftar will seek to coopt some militias in Tripoli and import his management style – stoking communal tensions in some places, and strongman dictatorship methods in others. This will only encourage a continued insurgency and perhaps may even give new life to ISIS and other Salafist groups to regroup and continue fighting. This would be ironic indeed, given Haftar’s selling himself as the one who will fight off ISIS.
Back to our opening thought. If we take Wehrey’s suggestion and flesh it out, what may happen is that given Russian backing, rather than having one side reach a decisive victory in Libya, the LNA’s new advantage could see a crumbling of the GNA but not of the militias that comprise it. Thus, we could see the conflict dragging on in Tripoli itself in a far more chaotic fashion. Moreover, this could allow for a resurgence of ISIS and ISIS like groups, something neither side wishes to see bounce back.
As Russia seems intent on stoking further violence, perhaps the US and various European or NATO powers, must work more decisively to end the conflict. This starts by getting the Russians, Emiratis and Turks on board first and pressuring all sides for a diplomatic and political solution.
Last week, once again, Libya’s National Oil Corporation (NOC) had to shut down production of the El Feel oil field due to fighting in the vicinity between GNA and LNA forces. The fighting, including LNA airstrikes, that did not end up harming the significant oil infrastructure or employees, bit did however force the NOC to shut down production for one day, until all fighters cleared out from the area. This means Libya produced and exported 73,000 barrels less than it does most days.
Only a short time after, Libya had to shut down production again as the pipeline from El Feel to Mellitah had been interrupted due to an “unlawful valve closure”, a “criminal attempt”, according to NOC Chair Sanallah.
When fighting began anew in April, Libya’s largest oil field, Sharara, had to be shut down a number of times in one August, causing national production to dip below 1 million barrels per day, the lowest level in months.
Sannallah, has, it seems at times almost had to beg the two warring sides to leave Libya’s oil infrastructure out of the fighting, that they are a vital source of revenue for the country. Indeed, even with the years of conflict and lack of investment, Libya still produces closet to 1.12 million barrels per day, according to OPEC figures.
After last week’s airstrikes, Sanallah had to “remind all parties that Libya’s oil and gas fields are vital sources of revenues for the benefit of all Libyans”… and that “they must not be treated as military targets.”
It seems as though this should not have to be said. If there is one factor that has remained stable throughout the years of fighting, and one thing that can carry Libya economically through the continued fighting, is its oil sector. It is clear, and we have written in the past, that much of what is driving foreign intervention in Libya is the various international and regional powers jockeying for day-after position to win lucrative oil and infrastructure projects. But for the most part, the two warring sides have managed to stay clear of all-out fighting over the fields. The last thing Libyans want is a 1991 Saddam Hussein style scorched-earth of oil fields that only wreaks havoc and benefits nobody. No matter which side of this conflict one supports, we should all agree that nobody touch the oil fields.
A recent op-ed contribution in Forbes by two American Libya experts (Ethan Chorin and Dirk Vandewalle) in Forbes has caused some stir on social media. We thought it worthwhile to explore what was said.
The authors suggest that Libya should be atop the agenda at the upcoming NATO Summit in London, since “what happens next in Libya is immediately relevant to core NATO interests including combating terrorism, addressing Europe’s migrant crisis, curbing Russian opportunism in the Middle East and assuring the long-term viability of the Alliance itself.”
The authors recall that in the 2011 overthrow of Ghaddafi, in which NATO intervened, “many hoped that Libya would be a bright spot among the Arab revolutions.” However, the US’ and NATO’s “hands-off approach” only “encouraged states like Turkey and Qatar” to influence the democratic process in favour of Islamists, which, when Libyans became aware of this, were “powerless to stop it”.
The authors point out that it was Haftar and the LNA who, “through a bloody war of attrition freed Benghazi from the ISIS-Al Qaeda grip in 2016”. Haftar created the LNA to fight ISIS in 2016. Although, they claim, this was “popular within large parts of Libya, the international community has spurned Haftar as yet another authoritarian strongman and backed a UN-built political agreement, which arbitrarily took authority from an elected government and put it the hands of an unelected and still unratified body, hoping it would rubber-stamp Western air attacks on the emergent Libyan franchise of the Islamic State, and solve the migrant issue.”. The authors go on to claim that, “It did neither: US strikes were largely ineffective, and the refugee crisis eased only when Italy paid human traffickers… to keep migrants in Libya under appalling conditions.”
Haftar’s efforts have since shifted from Benghazi to Tripoli. It is here, the authors point out, that the international community, even within NATO, has become divided and inconsistent. Thus, France is seen as backing Haftar, along with most Arab states, especially Egypt and the Gulf. The EU, especially Italy, Turkey and Qatar back the GNA, while the UN continues to call for a ceasefire. And of course, although the US officially backs the GNA, there have been more than a few signs it is considering a policy shift. Within this mess, Russia is exploiting the vacuum to advance its own goals, sending mercenaries to back Haftar while maintaining contacts with Tripoli.
The authors claim that it was Haftar who did “NATO’s dirty work” in dealing with the various militias, although “few are willing to state the obvious”. Thus, if Haftar ends up taking control, many will assume he had the West’s backing, and NATO and the West will have limited leverage. Haftar, they suggest, has done his job to bring order to a chaotic Libya, but most Libyans do not want another strongman in charge. Haftar himself has been less clear over what he plans to do next, even if he insists on handing off power to a civilian government. The West should hold Haftar to this promise.
The authors call for NATO to take advantage of the current opportunity to intervene in Libya, in order to bring stability, address the migrant crisis, deal with terrorism and block Russia’s expansionist efforts. This is crucial given Libya’s geostrategic importance to NATO. They can do this by:
An unexpected and puzzling diplomatic agreement has stirred tensions and clarified shifting alliances in the Eastern Mediterranean.
This past week, Libya’s Tripoli-based GNA signed a puzzling diplomatic agreement with Turkey regarding determining maritime borders between the two countries. They also signed a deal to expand their military cooperation, as Turkey has been the main international power arming the UN-recognised GNA during the ongoing fighting. The accord was announced by Turkey, and comes at a time of growing tensions between Ankara and Athens / Cairo / Nicosia over energy drilling rights in the Mediterranean. That is, as Turkey conducts exploration near the coast of Turkish Cyprus, the EU is preparing financial sanctions against Turkey in response, and Greece recently signed over exploration rights to an international consortium off the coast of Crete. Turkey’s move was meant to head off these efforts and cement its claim to these resources.
In the background, there are also internal NATO tensions as Turkey seems to be conditioning its support for a defence plan involving the Baltic states on receiving NATO backing for its operations against Kurdish militants in Syria.
Turkey, in recent years, has searched for allies, finding itself increasingly isolated as it seeks to assert greater regional influence. Libya’s GNA also finds itself somewhat isolated. Despite having official UN and EU recognition, it watched as many regional powers shifted their favor to Haftar and the Tobruk government, especially since Haftar positioned himself as an anti-Islamist (and portrays the GNA as pro-Islamist), and when it seemed clear he was set to take Tripoli in April.
Greece and Egypt, whose territorial waters are situated between Libya and Turkey, rejected the agreement. According to Greece’s foreign minister, it “ignores something that is blatantly obvious, which is that between those two countries there is…Crete…. Consequently, such an attempt borders on the absurd.” Egypt, which has long been at odds with Turkey, also condemned the deal. The two countries currently back the respective sides in Libya’s ongoing conflict.
Meanwhile, Cyprus, whose territorial waters also run between Libya and Turkey, was likewise opposed. Turkey, which occupies northern Cyprus, does not recognise Cyprus as a state nor its rights to its territorial waters and resources there. According to Turkish media, the Turkish-Libyan agreement came as a way for Turkey to preempt a Greek-Cypriot-Egyptian mechanism in the Mediterranean that would have effectively shut Turkey out from having a share of natural resources. The paper claims this was a Greek effort to isolate Turkey regionally. Turkey, having rushed to cement its agreement with Libya, upended those plans.
To be sure, Turkey’s arguments regarding maritime borders and economic zones are not entirely baseless. It essentially argues that some of the islands lying between itself and Libya lack a continental shelf, and are therefore not entitled to economic zones. It further argues that it should have a share of these resources, and since it lies diagonally to the Mediterranean, it sets maritime borders and economic zones differently.
While Turkey seeks any kind of international backing for its claims territorial claims, Libya’s GNA seeks access to crucial military support in the continued fighting. It may also be reading the diplomatic winds and trying to shore up much needed support ahead of possible international diplomatic conference that would force some kind of compromise. The two sides saw an opportunity for mutual benefit, or, as more than one observer suggests, Turkey conditioned its continued support on Tripoli’s backing for this maneuver. It is interesting that in light of the UN arms embargo, and at a time when Turkey is relatively isolated, it chooses to pursue such open military support of the GNA. This could be a blow to international efforts, especially the much talked about Berlin summit, to bring a diplomatic end to the fighting. For this, Germany and other powers will have to get Turkey and Qatar on one side, and Egypt, UAE and Saudi Arabia on the other, as well as Russia, to stop fuelling the respective parties.
With this in mind, it becomes slightly clearer why Turkey would risk stoking tensions, and why the GNA would go along with such a move, that could bring EU and regional pressure against it. The two sides are essentially desperate.
Greece has already summoned the Libyan Ambassador for clarifications, the same day that the Greek foreign minister flew to discuss the matter with his Egyptian counterpart, according to Egyptian news.
Although not likely a key factor, no doubt Ankara is likely jockeying for a better day after position, as far as winning lucrative energy, infrastructure and construction projects, much as are all the other international powers involved. Turkey likely assessed that such an agreement in place would help it cement its position.
However, we want to point out two other, more minor but interesting developments no less from the same day.
The first regards broader regional developments. The Tobruk government’s foreign minister, Abdul Hadi Al-Howeej, in a somewhat strange interview with an Israeli newspaper, floated the idea that Libya (under Haftar’s control) would seek to normalise relations with Israel, once Palestinian rights are addressed. The statement in itself is not so strange – many Arab and Muslim countries have moved toward normalisation with Israel in recent years, most notably the Gulf states, while Egypt and Jordan maintain full peace treaties.
However, why now? Some analysts, such as Emadeddin Badi, suggest that the Tobruk government’s outreach to Israel could be connected to the growing Greek, Cypriot, and Israeli energy alliance regarding eastern Mediterranean gas resources. Jalel Harchaoui, in Al Monitor, also discussed this option, suggesting that the Turkish move was directly related to Turkey’s isolation from the Eastern Med Gas Forum, which includes Greece, Cyprus and Israel, along with Egypt, Jordan, Palestine and Italy. Libya’s Tobruk government, which has strong ties to Egypt and Jordan already, is therefore, possibly seeking to firmly insert itself into this growing Mediterranean divide. An isolated Turkey is on one side of this divide, and since Turkey supports Tripoli’s GNA, it only makes sense that Tobruk and Haftar want to firmly attach themselves to the Greek-Egyptian-Israeli side of this alliance. And Haftar already has ties to Egypt and Jordan.
One other headline was also buried in all these developments. While Athens summoned Libya’s (GNA) ambassador to show its disapproval, it also held meetings the same day with Aref al-Nayed, the former Libyan ambassador to the UAE, a leading Islamic scholar, and someone we have mentioned here recently as trying to position himself to take power as a consensus figure. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Greece would meet with Nayed on this matter. Perhaps this means Nayed is succeeding in positioning himself as the de-facto political consensus figure for the LNA side. Perhaps it signals something bigger however – as the military conflict seems to be stalled with no clear winner in sight, perhaps the regional powers are starting to view Nayed as the political figure who can take off from where Haftar stopped.
It might be a reach, but its worth following. In any case, this Turkish move just clarified some important understandings of who is on whose side in the Libyan conflict and where things could be headed in the coming months.
This past week, a US defense news site, Defense One, raised the possibility that the Trump administration might be shifting its backing in Libya, yet again. The US, as does the EU, officially backs the UN-recognised GNA in Tripoli. In April, the administration seemed to be flirting with the idea of shifting this allegiance to the surging Haftar and the LNA, as he began his offensive on Tripoli, and seemed poised to take control over all of Libya. At the time, the statement released by the White House noted that President Trump “recognised Field Marshal Hifter’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources, and the two discussed a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system.” This took many, including in the State Department, by surprise. Perhaps it was Trump being impulsive. Perhaps it is Trump’s seeming affinity for quasi-dictatorial strongmen. Or perhaps it signalled a deeper policy shift within the White House and National Security Council and an anticipation that Haftar would take control over all of Libya.
Well, we are nearing December, and Haftar’s offensive has long stalled on the outskirts of Tripoli. This likely explains why the US has since distanced itself from Haftar and from this position. In fact, just last week, the administration seemed to clarify its policy by holding publicised meetings with senior GNA representatives in Washington and releasing a clear statement regarding whom the US supports, or at least, whom it does not. As we noted here on this site, this is likely due, in part, to the growing role and influence of Russia which is now backing Haftar’s efforts, including by supplying mercenaries. Less troubling for the US, Haftar continues to enjoy considerable support from the UAE, as well as Egypt and Jordan.
What peaked Defense One’s, as well as our interest, and other media outlets, was an odd meeting between US National Security Council officials and Aref al Nayed, a Haftar linked politician, noted Islamic Scholar and former Libyan ambassador to the UAE (2011 until 2016). Al Nayed’s name should not be new to seasoned Libya observers – the prominent religious and political figure has made headlines over the past few years, as he attempts to position himself as the political future of Libya, a figure that can unite both sides along with international support.
Al Nayed has more than once expressed his interest in running for President. According to Defense One, the White House was “noncommittal” to al Nayed’s proposal that they shift their backing to him. Al Nayed also met with State Department officials in recent months. The State Department, which continues to support the GNA, and reiterated this recently, refused to comment, and replied by stressing that “The United States is engaged in broad outreach with a variety of Libyan stakeholders to promote progress toward an equitable economic and political solution to the conflict in Libya.” Indeed, just this week, an American delegation in Libya met with Haftar to advance a cease fire.
The NSC meetings with al Nayed were described by one former American official as “unusual”, and similar to the failed US experiment to bring in Ahmed Chalabi to Iraq after overthrowing Saddam Hussein in 2003. The official, according to Defense One, noted that al Nayed was “very western, very connected…. (but) doesn’t have the backing of people on the ground who would vote for him, so he’s looking for the West to make him into a leader.” However, Libya experts in Washington said that the meetings, and their publication, at least suggest the administration is considering the option as it looks for ways to end the conflict. As one previous Libya director at the NSC explained, the administration understands that both the GNA and Haftar have their limitations.
According to Nayed’s proposal, he would be a candidate for president, after Haftar takes control of the rest of the country, and facilitates elections. However, it is unclear if this would happen, since, at times, Haftar has expressed interest himself in being an Sisi-like or even Ghaddafi-like strongman figure and remaining in power.
Defense One notes that Nayed has been known to American officials since the 2011 overthrow of Ghaddafi, and was, since then, trying to position himself as a unifying figure with strong tribal ties on the ground. They question, however, how he can do that as he seems to rarely be on the ground.
In mid-2017, al Nayed launched a political movement called Ihya Libya, or “Reviving Libya”, with the intention of bringing a “stable, democratic and prosperous country”. Al Nayed pointed to four “pillars” he would focus on, including peace, security and rule of law, economic development, human development and governance, and public sector reform. To advance these, there would need to be a process of national and local dialogue and reconciliation first. In 2018, al-Nayed re-launched his political platform and announced his intention to run for president in the next election, as the House of Representatives has “failed to approve plans for a constitution referendum… and elections for a new parliament and president.” Al Nayed said, at the time, that the decision was based on “extensive discussions with representatives from towns, tribes… women… youth… and many other activists as well as with Libyans outside the country…”.
Rumours and reports regarding international backing for al Nayed were were picked up in the Libyan press as well. But even before this, already in July, as it seemed Haftar’s offensive to take Tripoli was stalling, rumours began to emerge that the UAE, Haftar's main backer, was considering shifting its support from Haftar to al-Nayed. One report even noted a source claiming that Abu Dhabi would impose al-Nayed on Haftar, since the attempt to take Tripoli has failed and created only chaos.
The energy sector news site OilPrice.com also raised this possibility, noting that Trump administration officials held multiple meetings with al-Nayed, who is described as “expected to hold a top leadership position once Tripoli is liberated by Haftar’s Libyan National Army.” The website suggests that the revelation of these meetings “renewed speculation and confusion over the future of Washington policy in Libya.”
Its not clear the US is changing policy, despite the meetings. Rather, it is more likely that Washington is keeping its options open for now and maintaining connections with any party who has the potential to be influential. However, what does seem to be clear from these reports is that the UAE is looking into switching its backing to al-Nayed over Haftar. The question remains – does he have support on the ground? And will the major international players back this move? This is certainly a development to follow.
The US seems to be moving toward a policy shift regarding Libya, and if it is, Russia is to blame. Just last week, the State Department concluded a high-level diplomatic dialogue with the GNA government, after which it offered a clear statement opposing Russia’s increasing intervention. At the same time, we learned that Congress is looking to introduce bipartisan legislation that would instruct the administration to enact sanctions on Russian mercenaries in Libya, as well as push the administration to appoint a Libya envoy. It seems that the recent, increased and deadly involvement of Russian mercenaries in the war torn North African country has reached a tipping point forcing the US to take a more active and decisive role in ending the conflict.
While some countries have clearly chosen sides in Libya’s conflict, the US has, so far, refrained from doing so. Turkey and Qatar’s support of the Tripoli-based GNA is well documented. Italy and the EU, at least officially, also back the GNA, for primarily very different reasons, mostly relating to curbing the flow of migrants. Many Arab countries, especially the UAE, Egypt and Jordan, as well as France, to an extent, are firmly backing Haftar’s LNA forces. In recent months, it seems Russia has chosen to stand more firmly in Haftar’s corner as well, supplying heavily armed and well-trained mercenaries and military equipment, as well as providing diplomatic cover and cash. At the same time, Russia continues to deny its connection to the mercenaries in Libya, while maintaining communication with the GNA.
Until now, the US has been somewhat split and distant from the crisis. The State Department officially backs the UN recognised GNA, while the CIA is reportedly sympathetic to Haftar, who has had long-standing contacts with Langley. President Trump further called US policy into question in a telephone call he conducted with Haftar in April, after his offensive on Tripoli began. Many took this as a sign indicating the US may be pulling its support from the GNA to what seemed to be the winning side at the time. Trump’s affinity for strongmen might have played some role here as well, as well as Haftar’s image as a staunch secularist fighting Salafist militants. In the meantime, the only thing that was clear from the US’ involvement was its ongoing effort to take on ISIS in Libya and the region. Thus, the US has consistently acted against ISIS strongholds, most recently, in September, striking 4 ISIS targets, and taking out a significant percent of estimated ISIS forces remaining in Libya.
However, it increasingly seems the US is shifting course, and it is in large part due to Russia’s increasing involvement more than anything else. Russia has many interests in Libya. Some relate to Libya’s significant natural resources, and getting a head start on obtaining lucrative infrastructure and energy contracts. Other interests relate to obtaining defence contracts, including for private military contractors in the current fighting. Yet others revolve around ensuring radical Islam does not spread to Russia, with Haftar billing himself as one who will take on ISIS and militant Islamic forces. And still other interests pertain to Russia seeking to expand its influence in key parts of the world, including establishing military bases, especially at the US’ expense, essentially trying to challenge and rewrite the rules of the current US-dominated world order. Russia also seeks to gain some sort of influence over the flow of migrants into Europe, to be able to use that as leverage over the EU. And part of this is in an attempt to strengthen ties with the UAE, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, relations with whom are strained due to Russia’s involvement in Syria. This too, is also an attempt to peel them away from the US’ sphere of influence.
However, these extra efforts may have tipped the scales and awakened a sleeping American giant hesitant to instil itself in additional conflicts, especially in the Middle East. Numerous reports of expanded Russian interference have finally made their way into American media, reporting about “thousands” of mercenaries, especially from the Wagner Group, a sort of Russian Blackwater, with close ties to the Kremlin.
And, as the military efforts seem to largely be at a stalemate right now as LNA forces can’t seem to take Tripoli, growing foreign involvement, especially with air support, has led to a rise in civilian casualties. Russia’s gamble on Haftar seems to be failing – despite the supply of arms, cash (printed in Russia) and now mercenaries; Haftar still can’t take Tripoli. Russia’s gamble on Haftar is failing to push him to victory, and now it seems to have crossed the line with Washington.
The US, certainly the State Department, does not seem to be a fan of another anti-Democratic Sisi-like strongman, even if Trump and some of the previous senior figures in the National Security Council flirted with the idea. But now that Bolton is out of office and the Russians are increasing their efforts, the White House itself is also conducting a policy review. The recent focus on Russia’s involvement in the American press, the National Security Council’s policy review, the introduction of sanctions legislation, and the State Department’s meeting and statement show that Russia’s involvement may have moved the issue from the back-burner to a high priority issue in Washington. Essentially, it seems that Russia’s and Haftar’s strategy may have backfired.
As Russia is capitalising on American hesitancy to become involved in foreign conflicts in order to raise its own stature, and increasingly uses private military contractors as a form of strategy that allows it deniability, the US has to make some choices. Will it leverage its diplomatic power to take Moscow down a peg or continue to sit on the sidelines? There are those who think the US can leverage a combination of sanctions, economic and diplomatic ties with Haftar’s other backers (the UAE, Egypt, etc.), and with the Europeans to take a leading role in limiting foreign intervention and pushing the warring sides to a compromise. Sanctioning Russian mercenaries would be a start. Does the US remain on the sidelines, letting rival Russia continue to expand its influence, or push back and reassert its role as the dominant power in the region and the world? The time to choose is here.
As we enter the 7th month of Haftar's offensive to take Tripoli, and as we conclude the 4th year of the civil war in Libya, two things are becoming clear: 1) Haftar's LNA forces will not take Tripoli and 2) this is increasingly becoming a foreign proxy battleground.
Even with the increase in foreign support, especially and including Egyptian and Emirati airpower, military advisers and now Russian and Sudani mercenaries, Haftar's efforts were blocked by the loosely organised group of militias backing the GNA. Turkey's entrance on the GNA side, bringing its own airpower and armoured vehicles, and backed with Qatari cash, managed to stave off Haftar as much as did the fact that the LNA itself is likely half comprised of loosely organised militias.
The drone war that has come to characterise much of the fighting over Libya in recent months is primarily not conducted by Libyans, rather by Turks and Emiratis. And as the fighting on the ground is increasingly influenced by thousands of Russian and Sudani mercenaries, especially the much better trained and equipped Russians, we must start asking ourselves, to what end? Are the various foreign powers backing the two sides in Libya really trying to back one party or another? Do they have a positive vision for Libya's future? Do they care about Libya's civilians? Or, what seems to increasingly be the case, are they simply fighting each other for regional influence and using Libya as a football pitch.
The Russians, we know, are all about expanding their regional influence, and gaining influence over regimes that will become beholden to them. And let's not forget about all those lucrative energy and infrastructure contracts. The French and Italians want in on that as well. The UAE is trying to expand its regional presence, supporting anti-Islamist forces, in such arenas as Syria, Yemen and now Libya. Egypt, alongside the UAE, prefers a Sisi-like secularist to help prevent the inflow of Islamists from their west, as they battle ISIS fighters in the Sinai in the east. Turkey also seeks to to expand its regional role, seeing itself, with Qatari money, as the prototype for a successful moderate and modern Islamist regime, and thus props up those elements in the GNA who would like to emulate the Turkish model. And the US? Until now it has remained largely on the sidelines, fighting off ISIS. The State Department seems to back the GNA, and reiterated that recently, but Trump has expressed personal admiration for Haftar. It seems now that the Russians are firmly on Haftar's side, the US might become increasingly involved backing the side that fights him – in this case the GNA.
With all this in mind, it seems the Libyan aspect of the Libyan civil war has long dried up and various regional and international powers are simply fighting each other for influence and each with its own set of goals. The international community must focus its combined efforts to force these various powers to back down and back off. The planned Berlin conference would be an opportune time to clarify this strategy and message. Chancellor Angela Merkel recently noted that "its imperative we do everything we can to make sure this does not escalate into a proxy war". We are afraid, Ms. Merkel, that it is already a proxy war. But that does not make Germany and the international community's efforts less important or timely – quite the opposite.
The upcoming conference must focus on getting the various foreign powers out of Libya and uphold the international arms embargo. It must also push the sides to come to a fair power-sharing arrangement, including and especially regarding oil revenues. If the sides cannot seem to do this, then perhaps other alternatives should be considered for the good of regional stability and the Libyan people.
During the fighting in recent months, international media and military analysts have focused their attention on Libya increasingly becoming a theatre for drone warfare. This lead UN special envoy to Libya claim that Libya is “possibly the largest drone war theatre in the world”, suggesting that as many as 600 drones were fighting for “one side” and “300 for the other”, although he did not state which side had which.
As the fighting continues and foreign powers seem to be taking on greater roles, introducing new technologies, this raises an interesting question: has Libya simply become another Middle Eastern proxy war or is it more than that? Are we seeing a redux of the Spanish Civil War, in which world powers tested out new technologies and tactics that later changed the face of warfare?
Despite the international arms embargo placed on Libya, the two sides’ foreign backers – namely Turkey and Qatar on the Tripoli government GNA side, and the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt on the Tobruk government LNA side – have openly ignored this and supplied arms, including, increasingly, drones. Originally filling in reconnaissance and intelligence gathering roles, the two sides have begun employing drones as the main source of offensive air power, as the outdated air forces left from the Qaddafi period stay grounded due to lack of maintenance. Some have also suggested that Libyan pilots have been hesitant to target their own.
Turkey has become in recent years a manufacturer and operator of advanced drones, and since May, has begun employing its Bayraktar TB2 attack drone, which it has also begun to export to places like the Ukraine and Qatar.
Haftar’s LNA forces are backed by Chinese made Wing Loong II drones supplied and operated by the UAE. China too has become a major drone power in recent years. The UAE and Egypt also employ fighter jets periodically in support of the LNA.
Essentially, we are witnessing what has become a direct drone war between the UAE and Turkey, taking place over the skies of Libya. Although technically a proxy war, as both sides work to back one of the warring Libyan parties, they are essentially fighting each other. Since June, both sides have intensified their attacks against the other’s drone bases and command and control centers, as well as logistics bases and supply lines. And, since the Libyans have not gained proficiency on operating and maintaining the drones themselves, it is reported that the Turks and UAE operate the drones on the ground.
The LNA’s air-power allowed it to advance on Tripoli starting in April, while Turkey’s entrance a short while later allowed the GNA to halt the offensive. The two sides are now at a standstill, in large part due to this newly acquired air-power. According to defense analyst Arnaud Delalande, the GNA received a shipment of 12 Turkish drones between May and July, half of which were destroyed in UAE drone strikes, with a third delivery coming in August. He estimated that both sides are employing around 6-8 of the attack drones at any given time, mostly over the skies of Tripoli and its surroundings, but also further away as they target each other’s bases. It is here the drone and other air strike are reportedly killing and wounding civilians, as they occasionally miss their targets or have bad intelligence. A combined 3928 airstrikes, including by drones, were conducted by Egypt, the UAE, Turkey, the US, France and even Israel, from 2012 until August of 2019, according to the New America Foundation who tracks such developments. During this 7 year period, between 500-800 civilians were killed, most by Haftar’s LNA forces which is backed by the UAE.
Although late-comers to drone manufacturing, China and Turkey are now taking up increasingly dominant portions of the growing global demand for drones. This is, especially since the US will not provide this platform to many countries. The Chinese Wing Loong, like the American Predator Drone, is especially popular with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt. Saudi Arabia alone is reported to have purchased 330 drones at a cost of $10 billion. The UAV made its operational debut in 2015, with Nigeria employing it against Boko Haram militants. The Saudis reportedly are also using it in their involvement against the Houthis in Yemen, including to assassinate the Houthi leader last year.
Beyond Libya, drone usage has proliferated in conflicts around the region, from Syria and Yemen to Libya, and throughout Africa. Until recently a platform only advanced entities possessed, the rise of China and Turkey (and Iran) as producers of cheaper and more affordable (yet effective) drones has significantly lowered the entrance barrier. Even non-state actors like Hezbollah, Hamas, the Houthis and ISIS have some kind of drone technology. This proliferation will only increase as the technology cycle speeds up and cost comes down. American Reaper drones (the newer model) cost about as much as an F16 – around $15 million each. The Bayraktar is about one-third of the price (around $6 million apiece) while the Wing Loongs cost even less, at around $1-2 million per unit. Smaller reconnaissance drones are even cheaper.
This evens the playing field – as can be seen in the sophisticated drone attack conducted by the Houthis (with Iranian drones and Iranian backing likely) against Saudi oil facilities recently.
Beyond the lowered financial and technological barrier to operate drones today, they offer foreign powers backing proxies a level of deniability. However, in Libya’s case, it is reported that both Turkey and the UAE are operating the drones themselves, and not only supplying their proxies. The ability for each country to employ this air-power for their proxy without the fear of having a pilot downed and causing a domestic backlash is certainly a draw. And yet, as the two sides increasingly target the other’s drone bases and operating facilities, this too might soon change. So far, the relationship between the two regional rivals – Turkey and the UAE - only seems to be escalating.
While the Chinese and Turkish churn out cheaper drones, the US seems to be going in the opposite direction, creating fewer and more expensive drones that are larger, more powerful and more advanced. There are some who attribute this to the US’ intention to avoid such conflicts as Syria, Iraq and Libya, and gear the military toward possible future conflicts with more advanced adversaries like Russia and China.
The Spanish Civil War (1936-39), which many claim was a precursor to WWII, can be seen as the prototype for the modern proxy war, as the various European powers and beyond backed either the fascist-leaning nationalists or the left-leaning republicans through “volunteers” and “advisors”. The war also allowed the various parties, especially the Soviets and Nazi Germany, to try out a host of new weapons and tactics, especially air-power that had just come into play. And as they were technically not fighting themselves, they had little to worry from the repercussions. Germany’s involvement especially helped give it a head-start as it unleashed its destructive power and conquered most of Europe in the first years of that horrendous war.
Libya has definitely become a proxy battleground between the various powers trying to extend their influence in the region – the Turks and Qataris on one side and the Saudis, Emiratis and Egyptians on the other. However, it might also be the latest testing ground for a new type of war in which both sides have cheap and easily deployed air-power, in which a downed aircraft is far less important than a downed fighter jet along with its pilot. In this kind of war, in which the warring sides care little for civilians on the ground or for the lives of their own combat personnel (who are not in harm’s way), only innocent civilians will bear the brunt.
In another leak from the expected UN report into violations of the Security Council arms embargo on Libya, new information comes to light regarding Sudan's role. International attention has been focused primarily so far on Turkey who supports the GNA, and the UAE, Egypt and Jordan who support the Haftar's LNA. More recently, and as discussed at length here on our site, international attention was called to Russia's role as it operates mercenaries on behalf of Haftar's LNA forces.
The Al-Jazeera report leaks that the report presented to the security council notes that Sudanese general Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, who is also known as Hemeti, had sent 1,000 Sudanese Rapid Support Forces, to back Haftar's LNA forces in July. They are reportedly based near al-Jufra in the central Libya, the strategic LNA base.
What are Sudanese troops doing in Libya anyway?
According to the UN report, the Sudanese militias were deployed after Dagalo met in May with two Canadian lobbyists with reported links to Haftar. The Canadians are being investigated for their involvement. According to the report, Haftar would pay the Sudani general USD 6 million to his council in exchange for assistance for the LNA efforts. Dagalo is deputy chair of Sudan's Sovereignty Council.
The Sudani's contribution was the transfer of around 1,000 men from the Rapid Support Forces – RSF – in July. These were to be the first of a larger instalment of 4000 fighters, according to Sudanese media. They were, according to the agreement, intended to take over security duties at energy installations in LNA territory, to free up more LNA troops for front-line action. However, there are some reports that the Sudanese fighters are not just guarding rear installations but fighting on the front lines themselves.
Who is the RSF?
Sudan's new Rapid Support Forces is actually the same Janjaweed militia that had been doing much of the fighting and committing human rights atrocities in Sudan's civil war in Darfur. Just this June, they were accused of killing 100 peaceful protesters in Khartum.
As the Darfur fighting wound down, hiring out the newly remodelled Janjaweed fighters, who gained significant combat experience, seems to be a good profit-earning model for the Sudani government.
According to numerous reports, as many as 30,000 RSF fighters are on the front lines in Yemen's civil war, fighting on behalf of the Saudi-led alliance. According to sources in Yemen, the Sudanis are considerably better trained and more experienced than the Yemeni fighters in that conflict. Some reports claim as many as 4,000 Sudanese have died in Yemen since 2015.
Why is the Sudanese government helping the LNA?
It seems there are two primary reasons that Sudan is backing Haftar's LNA forces. The first, is that Sudan has turned its newly freed up fighters into a source of revenue, first in Yemen and now in neighbouring Libya.
Secondly, the two countries share a short stretch of border, and have interest in maintaining close relations. As the LNA controls that section of Libya, and most of the country, it seems only natural the sides would seek cooperation. The two countries have previously cooperated on limiting the flow of Salafists in the border area between Libya, Sudan and Chad. The third country to share the border area is also said to have supplied militia forces for Haftar's efforts.
Limiting International Involvement
Despite the international embargo on assisting either side in the Libyan conflict, both sides continue to rely heavily on outside help, and not making special efforts to disguise it. Haftar's force itself is believed to be comprised in large part of militias, including foreign mercenaries. Many estimate that without this assistance, the fighting would have died out months ago.
The international community must focus on limiting the foreign involvement as much as possible. Perhaps the new UN report can shift the necessary focus to pressure the UAE, Turkey, Egypt, Qatar, Russia and now Sudan to end their involvement and bring an end to this ongoing conflict.
International audiences follow foreign conflicts through the lens of international media. With the rise of social media and cellular phones in recent decades, we have more access to on-the-ground and amateur sources than ever before, but the reality remains – if it wasn't in the Guardian or NYT or Al Jazeera, we probably won't pay attention.
And so with the ongoing Libyan conflict. Much attention is focused these days on foreign interference – the Russians, Turks, Emiratis, and rightly so. Attention is also shifted to the plight of asylum seekers and refugees, including on this platform – as they remain stranded in Libya, often undergoing abuse and violence as they seek better lives, and rightly so.
Yet, the plight of every-day Libyans often goes overlooked in this.
In some places, life goes on as usual, if more difficult due to the economic downturn from the war and lack of functioning governance. For example, cut off from Tripoli's main landfill, lower-class residents have had to suffer trash piling up near residential areas and people burning off garbage – creating toxic smoke.
But in many areas, especially in and around Tripoli, where fighting has continued since April, civilians are also getting caught too frequently in the violence itself.
The World Health Organization (WHO) and UN estimate that since fighting renewed in April with the LNA push to take Tripoli, over 1000 have been killed, including over 100 civilians, and over 100,000 have been internally displaced. Earlier this month, an LNA airstrike on Tripoli ended up killing 3 children and wounding their mother and another sister. The family hurt in the strike was said to have been renting the property after fleeing from their original home further to the south of Tripoli due to the fighting there.
Haftar's LNA offensive on Tripoli began in April and continues, backed by foreign powers. Human Rights Watch claims both sides, but especially the LNA, has “repeatedly shown their disregard for civilians' lives with disproportionate or indiscriminate attacks against civilians.” HRW called for the UN to investigate these airstrikes for possible war crimes. The LNA claims it was targeting a nearby “terrorist operations room” and denied it was purposefully targeting civilians. Local sources verified there was a military intelligence complex about 20 meters from the house, although a Tripoli area GNA commander told foreign press the compound was not involved in the current fighting.
In early October, LNA forces reportedly attacked an equestrian club in Tripoli, injuring 6 children and killing horses. UN personnel in the area investigated the attack and found no GNA military facilities in the vicinity.
Amnesty International also conducted an investigation regarding civilian casualties in the conflict. The group visited 33 sites damaged by air and ground strikes since the April offensive. The investigations took place in August in and around Tripoli. They note airstrikes, often with unguided weapons, have hit civilian homes, field hospitals, a school and a migrant detention center, and also caused Tripoli's international airport to shut down for the past two months.
Amnesty mentioned incidents such as an LNA strike on the Abu Salim neighborhood in April, in which 6 rockets fell on the residential area, killing 8 and damaging buildings and a GNA attack in May in the Qasr bin Ghashir area hit a civilian building killing 5 and injuring more. Other incidents in which civilians were hit include GNA strikes on Tarhouna, using “parachute” bombs with an 800 meter blast radius – unsuitable for urban warfare.
The report further details LNA strikes on ambulances and field hospitals, some used to treat wounded fighters, who are protected under international law. Amnesty also found the GNA was making use of hospitals for military purposes, thus opening them to attack. Of course, the “deadliest such attack”, according to Amnesty, was a July LNA strike on Tripoli International Airport that killed 5 medical personnel and injured many more. The strike was determined to have been conducted by Chinese-made attack drones, which the UAE operates for the LNA. Amnesty, however, also determined that the GNA did not officially report the medical facility at the airport as such, and that it had been in use previously by militants.
While the two sides do not seem to be deliberately targeting civilians, it hardly matters. The lack of precision or concern for civilian deaths reaps a similar result. According to international law, attacks that are disproportionate or do not take enough precaution to minimise civilian harm are illegal.
This connects to one of the main dilemmas of modern warfare – who is to blame when one side builds its military infrastructure in and around civilian areas? Is one more at fault for attempting to strike such targets without ensuring it has the proper capabilities and intelligence, or is the other for having such a facility in a residential area to begin with? Is targeting civilian areas any worse than deliberately hiding behind civilians? Certainly, Libya is not the only conflict that has civilian casualties, and even pails in comparison to what is happening in places like Syria or Yemen - where targeting civilians is even deliberate. There the numbers of civilian casualties are in the tens and even hundreds of thousands.
Obviously an end to the war would be preferable for all, especially for Libya's civilian population. Short of such a lofty goal, as fighting continues with no end in sight, the international community, especially those countries like Turkey and the UAE and others backing the two sides, must make every effort to push for greater accountability and caution moving forward. It's the least they can do.