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.