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.
Last October, British and Italian oil giants BP and Eni announced that they were set to return to explore Libya's vast oil reserves, cooperation halted in 2014 when fighting broke out.
However, because of continued fighting and erratic behaviour from both the Tripoli and Tobruk governments, international firms have largely avoided returning. In the case of BP and Eni – the sites in question are 3 major exploration blocks; 2 in the Ghadames Basin in the west and third in the Gulf of Sirte. BP purchased rights to these sites back in 2007 but withdrew in 2013 due to security concerns.
A new deal emerged in 2018, in which Eni purchased 42.5 percent of BP's stake in these fields with the intention of starting work in October 2019. Yet a year later, no work has started in building the rigs and infrastructure, and the foreign companies make no mention of these projects on their websites.
It seems the continued fighting and occasional US airstrikes against ISIS targets, especially around Sirte, would mean significant investment in what is still a chaotic place.
Beyond that, Libya's National Oil Company, NOC, is frustrated with both the UN recognised Tripoli government and the Tobruk based parallel government, which have impeded their operations by introducing further instability. The Tobruk prime minster Abdullah al-Thinni complains that the Tripoli government is not sharing oil revenues and demands a greater share of the current $2 billion a month the NOC brings in. The Tobruk government, backed by Haftar's LNA forces, currently controls roughly two-thirds of all oil production, but the Tripoli-based NOC collects the revenues. The Tobruk government claims that the Tripoli based GNA withholds its due share of the revenues, with Tripoli doing so claiming Haftar is using the fuel to enable airstrikes and the ongoing fighting. To complicate matters worse, Tobruk seized control of a major NOC subsidiary, the Brega Petroleum Marketing Company based in eastern Libya, to try and skirt the problem.
It is not only the infighting that has stymied oil production. The NOC reportedly is also frustrated by a lack in stability in the government's dealings with foreign companies. Thus, the Tripoli government's oil minister suspended operating licenses for the French Total and 39 other foreign firms in May 2019, because the EU leaders did not support the GNA during Haftar's April offensive. The GNA then backtracked and allowed the firms to submit new license applications, then turned course again and warned that if they did not do so quickly, other firms would fill their place. As of August, the companies remain in place and nothing happened on the ground. However, the lack of stability and chaotic and arbitrary approach is causing foreign firms, those already in country and those considering cooperation, to lose confidence and think twice.
Libya currently lacks domestic refining capability for its crude oil and therefore must import roughly two-thirds of its oil needs from abroad, primarily from Italy. A Chatham House investigation found that much of this is stolen by the various powerful militias in Libya, and then sold on the black market or exported back to Italy.
Oil production and revenues are far under what they could be. Libya currently produces 1.3 million bpd (barrels per day), but the NOC seeks to boost that production to pre-war levels of 1.6 million by 2020. Eventually, according to NOC chairman Mustafa Sanallah, NOC seeks to surpass levels of 2 million bpd by 2022. However, foreign investment and cooperation will be crucial to reach these lofty goals.
Recently, Sanallah visited neighbouring Algeria and invited energy company Sonatrach to return to operating in Libya. NOC and Sonatrach agreed to form a joint working group to explore possibilities.
NOC is further working to convince Egyptian companies that left when fighting broke out to resume suspended projects, including work to expand Libya's pipeline network for both oil and gas.
At least in the near future, Libya's economic stability is almost entirely dependent on getting its oil production back on track and expanding it. However to do so, it seems clear that it will need to attract international firms to resume and increase their investments. And, this can only happen if the two duelling sides can reach some sense of stability, which remains to be seen.
US President Donald Trump announced earlier this week the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, at the hands of US special forces in Syria.
What does al-Baghdadi’s death mean for ISIS, and more specifically, for ISIS’ involvement in Libya and its civil war?
ISIS itself is a far cry from where it stood just five years ago, as it jumped to the world’s attention and took control of vast swaths of territory across Iraq and Syria, and as Islamist affiliates began swearing allegiance to the new caliph, including in Libya. By 2015, al-Baghdadi’s new Islamic Empire had an estimated 30,000 fighters, with foreign Jihadists streaming in daily, significant arms and a budget of around $1 billion a year from oil fields, taxes, ransom, extortion and more. Yet, by 2016, ISIS’ hold on the territory began to weaken, as the US and Russia, and the various regional actors they backed, worked to beat back the group and dislodge it from power. By 2019, it had lost most of its territory in the Levant and was also significantly weakened in Libya and other places.
In Syria and Iraq, however, while losing its territory and sovereignty, ISIS did not simply disappear. Rather, it is believed to have gone "underground” with close to 20,000 fighters. It continues to conduct sporadic suicide attacks, assassinations, kidnappings and arson, continues terrorising villages and extorting tax payments. Rather than acting like a de-facto state, ISIS transformed itself, and continues its propaganda campaigns to recruit resentful Muslims to join the jihadist cause- either in person or in spirit. Numerous terrorist attacks in Europe and the US in recent years can be chalked up to such incitement, beyond the attacks ISIS itself launches.
It is not clear to what extent al-Baghdadi was running the affairs of the group in recent years or to what extent he was a symbolic figure of inspiration. Even if he was more of the latter, his death could affect ISIS’ morale as well as its unity. This has to do, in large part, to al-Baghdadi assuming the mantle of the caliph, a hybrid political-religious leader who commanded the Islamic empires of old. Did al-Baghdadi, or ISIS leaders, already appoint a successor? Will they be able to appoint someone who similarly commands the allegiance of Jihadists world-wide, a sdid al-Baghdadi? The extent to which they do this is in some ways the extent to which ISIS can continue to remain an influential force beyond its immediate area.
What about Libya?
Libya has long been a hub for the global Jihadist movement, especially once Qaddafi was ousted and much of the state turned to lawlessness. The power vacuum invited Jihadists to set up shop, especially carving out pockets in Benghazi and Derna, and co-opting some the dominant militias throughout 2014. As ISIS aimed to expand its territory globally, with Jihadist groups swearing allegiance to al-Baghdadi, it was bolstered by a flow of fighters graduating from the Syrian arena and returning to Libya. By late 2014, Derna firmly fell into ISIS’ control.
If the ties between the ISIS core in Iraq and Syria, and the Libyan affiliate were initially loose, they would strengthen in time due to this constant flow of fighters between the two areas. The Libyan franchise would become a key part of ISIS’ growing empire. ISIS managed to capitalise on the disaffection of some of the Islamist militias fighting in the civil war, the same groups who rose up to fight Qaddafi initially. Then ISIS aligned groups succeeded in taking over Sirte in 2015 and claimed their sovereignty over the area. Libyan ISIS, due to its initial successes, soon became a key attraction point for ISIS recruiting, and even a refuge for Levant based ISIS leaders.
However, similar to the situation in Iraq and Syria, ISIS in Libya soon managed to alienate much of the population due to its brutality and drew the ire of both sides in the conflict, and especially of US forces involved in the conflict. By the end of 2016, US backed militias managed to drive out ISIS from Sirte, although the fighters simply regrouped in the south and continue waging guerilla warfare. While diminished significantly, ISIS remains a nuisance throughout the country, and continues to conduct attacks, including on oil infrastructure.
Al-Baghdadi’s death will likely have little influence on the presence and motivation of Jihadist fighters in Libya, even those who had sworn allegiance to him, to continue their efforts to regroup and remain an influential presence. However, to the extent that his death influences ISIS central in Syria and Iraq, it could have an effect on the connection between those fighters in Libya and their counterparts further east. If a suitable successor is found who can maintain the ISIS networks, including ideological leadership and the flow of fighters and money, then this might have little effect beyond a temporary moral blow to the loyalists. On the other hand, if ISIS has a hard time recovering from the loss of their uniting figure, this could put a strain on ISIS Libya’s connections to the main group.
In either case, It is doubtful Jihadists will disappear from the myriad militias seeking power and influence in Libya so long as the larger issues there remain prevalent. And, as we have seen in numerous cases, defeating ISIS militarily is one challenge, largely accomplished at this time. But defeating the group ideologically is a far more complex political, social and economic challenge that is far from having been achieved.
As reports come out of the extent of Russia’s involvement in the Libyan conflict, it is worthwhile asking what it is Russia seeks to accomplish, and whether it is succeeding.
As the two sides of the civil war emerged by 2016, various international and regional powers started taking sides – each with their own interests at play. The al-Sarraj’s GNA, who controls Tripoli, received international recognition by default. He maintains relations with the European Union since it is his coast guard that can mitigate the flow of migrants into Europe. And, given the Islamic character of some of the GNA’s allied militias, the GNA also has Qatari funding and Turkish military aid on its side.
On the other side, supporting Marshal Haftar’s LNA forces, who control virtually the rest of the country, including most of the oil fields, are the Egyptians, Saudis, and Emiratis. This rests, in large part, on Haftar positioning himself as a secular force willing to take on radical Islam. The French have also taken to support the LNA, seeking access to Libyan oil resources.
So, where does Russia stand in this conflict? While Russia seeks to officially position itself as an “honest broker” that can influence both sides, behind the scenes it is becoming clear that Putin is betting on Haftar’s LNA. But unlike Russia’s involvement in Syria, where Putin is committed to Assad’s survival, the involvement in Libya is far more pragmatic in nature. Haftar seems to be considerably stronger, at least militarily, and controls the oil resources. Moreover, unlike the Europeans, Russia is unencumbered by the concern from migrants and refugees. Therefore, Russia’s pragmatism allows it to back what it sees to be the winning horse. And still, Haftar has yet to take Tripoli or gain international legitimacy that matches his military advances. And, with Turkey backing the GNA, Russia must tread carefully, as it must maintain cautious relations with Ankara due to its involvement in Syria. This has helped to shape Moscow’s strategy of hedging those same bets. Thus, Moscow continues to maintain diplomatic ties with al-Sarraj and the GNA and even with Saif Al Islam Qaddafi, who seeks a return to power. This strategy currently places Moscow as the only major power with influence, and perhaps credibility with both sides of the conflict.
What does Russia seek to achieve with this involvement? There are a number of goals. Having established itself as a power-broker in the Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean, as the US continues to limit its role, so too does Putin seek to establish himself as the power-broker in North Africa. Having such influence in Libya would also help open the gates for Putin to expand his influence into the Sahel and Central Africa. This is, of course, in addition to Russia seeking a lucrative future role in Libya’s economy when the fighting stops. Russian energy and infrastructure companies seek to earn a hefty profit from their involvement in Libya’s energy sector, but they first have to beat out other actors, like the French and Italians. Russia also hopes it can utilize the Libyan arena to improve its relations with the Egyptians, Saudis and Emiratis, all strained due to Moscow’s support for Assad. Lastly, and much like in the Syrian conflict, Russia seeks to quash the rise of Islamist forces far from its borders if possible.
How is Russia trying to achieve these aims?
Russia is one of a number of actors providing technical and material support to Haftar’s forces. It is also providing crucial diplomatic support, such as when it used its Security Council veto power to block an attempt in April to condemn Haftar’s offensive, along with Egypt and the UAE. Beyond this, it seems that Russian military contractors were involved in the April offensive. In exchange for actual combat support, Russian businesses supposedly received business contracts.
A tweet from September 9 mentioned, for the first time, that 7 operatives of the Wagner Group, Russia’s best-known private military contractor, were killed in the offensive. A later Bloomberg report mentioned that 100 mercenaries from the company were shipped over to fight for Haftar’s forces. Reportedly, Wagner has 300 troops on the ground, and who can supply artillery, armour and drone support for Haftar’s forces.
An investigation conducted by the Russian opposition website Meduza claimed that Wagner and other private contractors were indeed conducting a full range of military operations – from logistical support to actual combat roles, much as it did in Syria. The Meduza report assesses that anywhere from 10-35 Russian contractors have been killed in in the fighting in Libya, who were ostensibly sent to help Haftar secure newly won energy infrastructure.
Russia’s use of private contractors belies its caution in the seemingly intractable conflict. Its clear that Russia does not want to give up on the role it is building for itself as the neutral broker. Thus, mercenaries allow enough plausible deniability to be able to talk to both sides of the conflict simultaneously, even if everyone is aware Moscow is backing one side over the other. But more importantly, unlike Assad, it is not clear Haftar trusts Putin and will become a client of Moscow, or that one party can fully take control over the country. Haftar’s failure to take Tripoli thus far has forced Russia to be cautious. Essentially, this relationship of future business contracts in exchange for military support through contractors suits both sides at the moment.
There are some analysts however that downplay Russia’s efforts and any perception of success in influencing the conflict. Foreign Policy Magazine claims that since the Wagner Group’s blunder in Syria, in which it triggered a bloodying US reprisal against its forces there, wiping out 300 of 600 mercenaries, Putin has sought to distance himself from the group. Wagner, FP claims, is now a shell of its former self, relegated to minor military roles in unimportant conflict zones like Sudan and Central Africa, and that other Russian contractors, like Vega, Shield and Patriot (which has ties to Russia’s Defence Ministry) are now actively competing for bids. Thus, FP and others claim that the Russian contractors’ role in Libya is more a result of business elites in Moscow trying to make money, while Putin tolerates them, rather than any strategic vision from the Kremlin. And yet, if they succeed, everyone wins while if they fail, their connection to Putin can be denied.
Russia’s goals in Libya are clear – continue establishing Moscow’s influence throughout the region as the US limits its own, position itself as a power-broker, gain lucrative contracts for Russia’s defence, energy and infrastructure elites, and ensure ISIS and other radical groups remain checked, while maintaining working relations with all parties involved, domestic, regional and international. It is not at all clear if Russia can achieve these goals, given the complexity on the ground in Libya. However, Russia has certainly become adept at investing limited resources wisely, whether diplomatic or military, and with the right amount of plausible deniability, to avoid too much fallback if things go wrong, and to still reap enough benefits if things go its way.