Libya: Money Talks, Russia Walks


May 25, 2020: Over the weekend LNA (Libyan National Army) forces began moving away from the capital, Tripoli, which they had trying to take since April 2019. The cause of the retreat was the ability of the growing Turkish mercenary force to reinforce the various militias the UN-backed GNA (Government of National Accord) was using to unsuccessfully defend itself against the rival HoR (House of Representatives) government in Tobruk. The HoR was the last elected government of Libya and helped organize the LNA. The UN organized the GNA by making deals with the militias that dominate Tripoli (and Misrata city to the east). Many of those militias want or will accept, a religious (Islamic) government for Libya. Currently most of these militias are out for themselves and are basically a network of independent warlords whose only common interest is preventing the LNA from establishing a national government. The LNA has been, since it was founded in 2014, against Islamic terrorists and radicals as well as independent militias.

What prompted the seemingly sudden LNA retreat was the refusal of the LNA leader to go along with a truce deal that the Russians, Turks and GNA were willing to accept. The LNA controls most of Libya and saw itself as the defender of the country against a Turkish force that had brought in nearly 10,000 Syrian Arab mercenaries plus about a thousand Turkish troops. The much smaller Russian force of about 1,200 Russian military contractors and technical experts was seen as foreign aid, not a foreign invasion.

A major factor in the Russian withdrawal was an economic and public health crisis back home. Declining oil prices, economic sanctions for the 2014 invasion of Ukraine and the costs of dealing with the current covid19 virus epidemic have brought much of the Russian economy to a standstill. Russia is still paying for its more expensive 2015 Syrian intervention as well as the even more costly, and stalemated, Ukrainian invasion. Something had to go and given the LNA commander’s unwillingness to cooperate, Libya was the easiest expensive foreign adventure to get out of. Not all the Russians are leaving, but the most expensive ones are.

Leaving Libya also made it easier for Russia to deal with problems it was having with Turkey in Syria. Moreover, Turkish operations in Libya gave Russia a taste of what they were in for in Syria if Russian-backed troops got into sustained combat with the Turks. One embarrassing example was how the Turks defeated Russian-made Pantsir mobile anti-aircraft systems. Pantsir is a popular export item that consists of a 22 ton 8x8 truck carrying a radar, two 30mm autocannon (range four kilometers) and twelve missiles with a max range of 18 kilometers). A crew of three operates each Pantsir vehicle, which should have been devastating to the Turkish UAV force in Libya. Pantsir did shoot down some Turkish UAVs but the Turks also found ways to destroy Pantsir vehicles. This involved some EW (electronic warfare). Normally a Pantsir is active and using its radar to search for targets, including hostile UAVs. Turkey used their new Koral jammer, which is vehicle mounted and already used in Syria, to jam Pantsir sensors and enable Bayraker TB2 UAVs to fire a Mam-L laser-guided missile that destroy Pantsir vehicles. The Turks provided video of one of these kills. Bayraker, Mam-L and Koral are all Turkish developed and manufactured.

The Turkism invasion force in Libya currently consists of about 10,000 Syrian Arab mercenaries plus hundreds more undergoing training back in Turkey. The mercenaries sent to Libya are men already on the Turkish payroll in northern Syria. At first there was no problem getting these Syria based mercenaries to go to Libya. The pay was higher and initially it appeared to be less dangerous. That was no longer the case during the last two months as combat intensified. The thousand or so Russian Wagner Group military contractors are all Russian veterans, often of special operations and airborne units, helping to train and advise in combat LNA troops. Wagner reported to the Russian government that the Turkish force was formidable and was numerous enough to form special “brigades” capable of carrying out offensive operations. The brigades were technically part of an established local militia but the militiamen were happy to act as axillaries for the more experienced Syrian mercs and their Turkish advisors.

The GNA militiamen were able to provide guides and security support for the Turkish mercs carrying out mobile operations, which the GNA militias had not been good at before the Turks showed up. The Turks could also afford to replace the losses of troops and equipment. Their Syrian mercs received good medical care and compensation if wounded and their families received large payments and other benefits for those who died in combat. With the Russians gone, Syrian Arab mercs in Libya will suffer fewer casualties, at least initially. But if the Turks try to use this mixed force of mercenaries and GNA militias to gain control of the entire country, that will be a lot more expensive in terms of personnel and equipment losses.

The LNA and Libyans in general are growing angrier at the “Turkish invasion” and the fact that Turkey is supporting Islamic militias that are unpopular in Libya. That unpopularity is one reason the LNA still controls most of the country. LNA began in 2014 as a force opposed to Islamic terrorists and Islamic political militia. The longer the Turkish mercs are in Libya the more unpopular they become. The Turks have no problem with Islamic governments and militias that support such things. The Libyans are hostile to foreign invaders, especially one that was a former imperial ruler of Libya. The Turks are also flagrantly violating international law and UN sanctions. The UN, which created the GNA government the Turks are propping up, is not applying any real pressure against the foreign invaders.

Russia had been providing aid to the LNA for over five years, mostly in the form of weapons and technical assistance in repairing and maintaining the largely Cold War Russian weapons the LNA uses. There were never more than about a thousand Russian combat troops in Libya, and these were mostly military contractors and regarded as such by Libyans. Russians are not perceived as foreign invaders and nor are the Gulf Arabs and Egyptians who have been backing the LNA with weapons and other support.

Historically the Turks and Russians were always rivals and often at war with each other. Although the Russian and Turk empires dissolved a century ago, the ancient animosities did not. With Turkish and Russian forces fighting each other in Syria and Libya, both ancient rivals were eager to dial the violence down a bit. Both Syria and Libya used to be part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire and both became close to Russia during the Cold War, buying most of their weapons from Russia and cooperating diplomatically. Most Syrians and Libyans are more interested in reviving the Russian relationship than the Turkish one.

Most Turks do not support foreign wars. The current Islamic government of Turkey is increasingly unpopular for economic and political mismanagement, but its Syrian operations are justified because they keep terrorists out of Turkey. Moreover most of the Turkish combat troops in Syria are Arab mercs with a smaller number of Turkish troops to deal with support, technical matters and keeping an eye on things in general. Libya is a different matter and Turkish intervention there cannot go on too long. The economic justification for the Libyan invasion is the GNA willingness to support Turkish claims on areas of Eastern Mediterranean that may contain oil and gas deposits. These claims are illegal and the UN is under pressure to follow its own rules on this matter as well as the Turkish invasion.

Turkey has other problems in Libya. The Chinese UAVs supporting the LNA seem to be doing better than the Turkish ones. LNA forces have shot down over thirty Turkish Bayraktar TB2 UAVs. The Turks simply shipped in more replacement UAVs. The LNA is actively supported by several Arab states, mainly Egypt and the UAE (United Arab Emirates). The UAE has been operating its Chinese armed UAVs in Libya for several years and the LNA has an active air force that can shoot down large UAVs like the Bayraktar TB2. Despite these combat losses, the Turkish UAVs have performed as expected and are considered equal to the Chinese UAVs. All these UAVs are based on the American Predator and not designed to survive in a combat zone where the opposition is equipped with modern anti-aircraft weapons.

China does not supply weapons directly to the LNA but does sell weapons to anyone who can pay, and the UAE has bought a lot of weapons, including UAVs, from China and used them in Libya without any complaints from China. As far as China is concerned their UAVs' successful performance in Libya makes its UAVs easier to sell as “combat proven”.

Prisoners Of The Past

The UN Libyan operations are based in Tripoli and must support the GNA it created or face the anger of the Tripoli and Misrata militias. Turkey openly backs “moderate” Islamic groups like the Moslem Brotherhood, which have tried, in several countries to form Islamic governments. The Brotherhood has never succeeded, mainly because it always runs into problems with its extremist factions that demand a more oppressive Islamic form of government than most Moslems will tolerate. Since 2003 the Islamic government in Turkey has carried out several of these increasingly aggressive interventions in Arab nations. The one in Syria has been going on since 2016 and has not worked out the way the Turks wanted. In early 2020 Turkey found itself facing Russian and Syrian troops in Syria as well as Kurdish militias. The Libya intervention was the most distant and aggressive so far and not a sure thing. The increasing Turkish involvement in Syria and Libya is condemned by most UN members, including Israel, the EU (European Union), Russia, Iran and the Arab states.

For the Arabs there is the fear that the Turks are trying to rebuild the empire they lost because they were on the wrong side during World War I. The empire was not popular with most Turks, who were fed up with ruling the troublesome and often self-destructive Arabs. Recep Erdogan, the current (since 2003) Turkish leader leads an Islamic party that got elected on the promise to reduce corruption. It did that for a while before becoming quite corrupt itself. Now Erdogan is trying to regain his popularity by invading Syria to establish an area where he can move the millions of unpopular (with most Turks) Syrian refugees. The EU states are threatening sanctions and other economic retaliation over what the Turks are doing in Syria. The UN is now having a more difficult time justifying the Turkish military presence in Libya. The Arab hostility to the Turks helps the LNA and hurts the GNA.

The Turks expected more of a welcome in Libya. They should have known better. The Turks first showed up there in the 1550s as the Ottoman Empire conquered the coastal towns and cities of what is now Libya. Eventually the Turks advanced inland but there was no real incentive to because south of the coast was mainly desert and before oil was discovered and developed in the 1960s, there was little economic value down there. Empires have bills to pay and tend to keep their soldiers where the money is.

From the 1550s to 1910 Libya was technically a province of the Ottoman Empire but was mainly run by local strongmen who were often Turks who had gone native. In 1911 Italy took advantage of the weak control the Turks exercised and invaded.

By 1912 Italy controlled what is now Libya. The Italians sent in colonists and brought the industrial revolution to Libya. Italian rule ended in 1943 when Italy, an ally of Germany during World War II, surrendered to the allies. Occupied by allied troops, Libya was given independence in 1951 as a constitutional monarchy. The royal family was led by a prominent local religious leader who became king. Libya's parliament demonstrated the political divides between eastern and western coastal Libya and the less populous tribal interior. The discovery and development of oil fields down south in the 1960s brought unprecedented wealth and prosperity to Libya. It also brought a military takeover in 1969. This coup was led by Moamar Kaddafi who misruled Libya until 2011 when he was overthrown and killed.

The Turks had good relations with the Libyan monarchy but less stable and cordial relations with Kaddafi. Now the Turks have returned and are backing the Islamic militias. This is not popular with most Libyans, who have learned to fear the chaotic and unpredictable militias. Libya remains a thinly populated and divided (by tribal and local loyalties) place. When the kingdom was established in 1951 the population was about a million. The 1960s oil wealth triggered a population explosion (and lots of imported workers) the reached six million when the 2011 revolution occurred. Despite many Libyans fleeing the country, the population is still about six million and a third of that is found in and around Tripoli. That’s why the city is so important to the GNA and why the LNA went after Tripoli only after they had established themselves in the rest of Libya.

GNA control is limited to a portion of western Libya along the coast. This includes the cities of Tripoli, Misrata and Sirte. The other two are much smaller than Tripoli and defended by local militias rather than any elected government. The LNA and HoR advocate elected governments while the GNA is less eager to discuss that lest it offends the many militias it depends on.

There are few things Libyans agree on and these include dislike of the Turks, Islamic terrorists, militias, especially Islamic ones, and foreign interference in general. For that reason the UN peacemaking efforts are none too popular. That’s because the UN backed an unpopular and weak government in Tripoli, a city controlled largely by rival militias. The UN is seen as outsiders more interested in pursuing their own goals rather than what Libyans want (peace and some form of unity). The LNA and its leader Khalifa Hiftar know that and made themselves useful by subduing the militias and Islamic terror groups in eastern Libya and slowly moving south and west to do the same throughout Libya.

A year fighting in and around Tripoli has forced several hundred thousand civilians to flee their homes and caused several thousand casualties (fighters and civilians). As with most other battles in Libya, casualties are not as high as in places like Syria, Iraq of Afghanistan. While Libya is a large country, over 80 percent of the people live along the coast and the style of warfare is usually loud skirmishes meant to intimidate. Eventually one side blinks and withdraws. The Turks, and Islamic terrorists, prefer a more violent form of combat and that is one of many reasons why the Turks are not wanted. The LNA was willing to fighting it out but the Russians were not willing to pay for that. The Russians believed the Turks were overextending themselves in Libya and would eventually leave. The HoR did not want to go in that direction but now they have no choice because the Turk-backed GNA can survive and keep Libya divided.

The Virus

Efforts to avoid the spread of covid19 throughout Libya are hampered by the lack of health care facilities. There used to be more health care but that has faded away since the revolution in 2011. Up to March 2020 no one in Libya has been tested and found to have covid19. All Libyans agree that it is important to keep it that way. Currently 75 cases have been identified in Libya and three have died. There may be others but no one knows. Covis19 is most dangerous in crowded urban areas like GNA controlled Tripoli and Misrata. In LNA controlled Tobruk and Benghazi there is no quarantine, just a night-time curfew imposed by the eastern H0R government the LNA works for.

In neighboring Algeria about 8,400 have come down with the virus and so far Algeria has suffered about 14 deaths per million population compared to 11 in Libya. That’s much less than the world average of 42 deaths per million but much worse than South Korea where deaths were five per million. South Korea was praised for its efficient handling of the virus. South Korea has a much better public health system but so far Algeria has done well with what it has. Algeria has one of the worst national health systems in the world and among Arab nations ranks 17th out of 21. What blurs these statistics is the fact that not all nations really know how many have caught the virus or died from it. Neighbors Tunisia had 89 cases per million and four deaths per million. For Morocco it is 202 and five, Libya 11 and 0.4. Egypt is 169 and 7.

May 24, 2020: Turkey has been flying in more support aircraft for use in Syria. This includes a B-737 based Turkish AWACS (airborne early warning and control) aircraft. The Turks have also flown another 500 Syrian mercenaries into Misrata.

May 23, 2020: South of Tripoli GNA forces occupied three LNA bases that had been abandoned by retreating LNA forces.

May 20, 2020: Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia are demanding that Turkey get out of Libya. The Turks are not impressed and are reminding Arab nations why Turkey ruled most of the Middle East for centuries. These neighbors of Libya cannot ignore the Turkish invasion and the UAE, a Persian Gulf oil state that has long supported the LNA, is not backing down either.

May 19, 2020: Satellite photos showed at least one Russian MiG-29 fighter at an LNA airbase in Libya. The GNA accused Russia of supplying the LNA with six MiG-29s and two Su-24 light bombers.

May 18, 2020: Turkish GNA forces captured the LNA al Watiya airbase. This operation was supported by over fifty airstrikes carried out by Turkish UAVs. Several warplanes and one Pantsir air defense vehicle were captured at the airbase.

May 10, 2020: In Libya the LNA forces ambushed and killed a senior Syrian Turkish mercenary commander and showed off the man’s photo ID as proof. The dead commander, Mohamed Hendawi, was in charge of transporting the Syrian mercenaries from Turkey to Libya. The death of Hendawi makes it more difficult to persuade the Syrian mercs to work in Libya.

May 9, 2020: LNA forces fired several artillery shells at the Mitiga Airport support facilities, destroying fuel supplies and damaging some aircraft. There were three dead a dozen wounded. This is the only functioning airport for Tripoli. Recent airstrikes have caused Mitiga to be shut down several times since March.

May 8, 2020: The United States accused Russia and Syria of organizing an Arab mercenary force to use in Libya to reinforce Russian military contractors already there to oppose Turkey supplied Arab mercenaries.




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