Libya: The Siege


May 6, 2019: After five weeks of fighting LNA (Libyan National Army) forces are stalled in the southern suburbs of Tripoli. The many Islamic militias that have controlled Tripoli since 2011 are in a panic and becoming even more oppressive to the civilian population. There have been over a thousand dead and wounded so far and more than 50,000 civilians have fled their homes to avoid the fighting. The LNA can only bring up a limited number of reinforcements without risking problems elsewhere in Libya. Currently, most of Libya and all the oil production and export facilities are safe because of LNA operations since 2014. That is the main reason the LNA has not gone after Tripoli until now.

The militias that have controlled Tripoli and nearby Misrata since 2011 always looked out for themselves first. Technically the Tripoli and Misrata militias are subordinate to the UN backed GNA (Government of National Accord) but in practice, the GNA has to persuade the militias to do anything and most of the time the best the GNA can hope for is that the militias will not openly feud with (and fight) each other inside Tripoli. The militias get violent regularly anyway because they answer to no one but themselves.

Heavily influenced by Islamic groups, the militias are hostile to ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) but not to less extreme Islamic terror groups. The problem with the Tripoli militias is that they refuse to submit to any national government, including the one the LNA represents. Self-preservation keeps them going and that has forced the major militias to cooperate to prevent Tripoli from being taken by the LNA, which controls the rest of Libya and has always been hostile to Islamic militias in general and Islamic terrorists in particular.

The LNA and its commander Khalifa Hiftar are on the verge of taking the capital and ending eight years of factional fighting that has left Libya broke and chaotic. While Haftar is eager to take the capital and finally unite all of Libya and end the war, he has always been a methodical commander and avoided tactics that caused high casualties to his forces. The LNA forces are better trained and led than the Tripoli militias. Despite that, the militias are aware that they are out of business once the LNA controls the city. Many of those militias are involved in people smuggling and various other illegal activities. It was that realization that led to more and more European nations to switch their support from the UN created GNA to the LNA.

Hiftar has the support of most Libyans along with Russia, most Arab states, especially Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE and now the United States as well. The UN opposes Hiftar, as does ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), the Moslem Brotherhood and pro-brotherhood nations like Turkey, Qatar and Iran. The main argument against Hiftar is that he could turn into another dictator like Kaddafi, who was overthrown in 2011. Hiftar had been an early supporter of Kaddafi and was a colonel in the Libyan army when, in the late 1980s, he and Kaddafi became enemies and Hiftar was declared a traitor. Hiftar got support from the CIA to form an opposition force (the first LNA) but no African nations were willing to host it for long and by 1990 Hiftar was living in the U.S.. Hiftar became a U.S. citizen and spent 20 years living in the West before returning to Libya after Kaddafi was overthrown in 2011. By 2014 he realized that Islamic terror groups and independent militias were preventing the formation of a new government and formed the LNA in the east (Benghazi) and took on all the warring factions, especially the Islamic terror groups. Five years later the LNA, the only organized military force in Libya, is closing in on the last concentrations of militias in Tripoli and Misrata. Moreover, he is unlikely to become another Kaddafi or ruler of Libya. Hiftar is 75 and in declining health. He is a Libyan patriot who wants to leave a legacy of a unified, peaceful and prosperous Libya. All the Middle Eastern dictators took over when they were much younger than Hiftar and did not spend two decades living in the West and witnessing what peace and prosperity look like. More UN members are realizing that, as were a growing number of senior GNA officials. That popular support has played a major role in the LNA effort pacify the entire country. Hiftar was trusted to do what he said he would do; shut down outlaw and Islamic terrorist groups and restore peace.

There have been two rival governments in Libya since 2015. The GNA has since late 2018 become more amenable to working with Hiftar. But the many militias the GNA presides over wanted nothing to do with losing their power to a unified government. Currently, Hiftar forces control nearly all of the country including most of the coastal areas (except Misrata, Tripoli and the coastline west of the city to the Tunisian border). The GNA has occupied and pacified most of the areas where oil production, refining and export facilities are. Before moving on Tripoli from the south the LNA had pacified the Fezzan region in southwest Libya. At that point, it was noticed that many prominent militia leaders in Tripoli are leaving the country with their families. The LNA was expected to move into Tripoli at the request of the GNA government but, when the GNA leaders proved unable to do that, the LNA acted anyway. The UN, which played a major role in creating the GNA (and deciding that LNA was a threat to Libya despite most Libyans believing otherwise) also became less hostile to the LNA.

The 2015 deal the UN brokered, backed and pushed through to create the GNA was a mistake and the UN later admitted they ignored the complexity of local politics in Libya and the ability of many local groups to block a nation-wide deal. The UN also played down the power many Islamic militias in Tripoli (and Misrata) retained while pretending to support or tolerate the GNA. Meanwhile, these militias refused to halt their private feuds and wars.

There are several hundred thousand armed men in Libya. These men belong to the LNA, militias or Islamic terror groups. Despite all those armed men, Libya remains a fairly low-level conflict because most of the armed men only defend their neighborhood. While there are many organized factions the largest one is the LNA, which comprises about a third of the organized armed personnel in the country. That only comes to about 25,000 trained men who can be moved around the country. More than half of these armed men are militias that have accepted training, weapons and the leadership of the LNA. The most reliable LNA units are those organized along military lines (brigades, battalions and so on). The LNA is a disciplined force that takes care of its personnel and does that risk their lives needlessly.

Most of the non-LNA armed men are operating as local defense units while the large ones (like many in Tripoli) support themselves via extortion or voluntary support from a clan or tribal organization. Casualties come from feuds between militias (usually over territory and/or access to resources) and fighting against Islamic terrorists or militias that are interfering with national resources (mainly oil). During 2018 the area with the most casualties (30 percent) was the coastal city of Derna where local militias inside the city (and more mercenary or Islamic terrorist groups south of the city) have been fighting each other and the LNA for over a year. About half the casualties in the last year were from half a dozen hot spots in the desert south where groups fought (and ultimately lost to the LNA) for control of oil or border control (smuggling routes). One reason for the success of the LNA is that it has become widely known that when the LNA moves in there is a lot less violence and general chaos. The LNA is the only armed group in the country that can do this on a large scale. All this violence is largely the result of there being no national government since the 2011 revolution.

The UN has called for a ceasefire in Tripoli, especially since the holy month of Ramadan begins today. Hiftar responded that he has not halted operations in the past because of Ramadan and won’t now. Many of the LNA opponents have been Islamic terror groups, including ISIL, and they prefer to intensify their violence during Ramadan.

The Oil Is Safe

The LNA had restored order to most of the major oil production and export facilities. Production is holding steady at 1.2 million BPD (barrels per day) and for once there is some assurance that the oil facilities will remain safe. Despite that, the LNA is still encountering problems with the NOC (National Oil Company), Central Bank and the UN over how to operate all these facilities and spend the oil income. The GNA has sought, with some success, to deprive the LNA of much oil income. There were also continuing problems with corruption in how oil income was spent. One thing the NOC and LNA can agree on is that the longer the fighting goes on the greater the risk is of oil production being disrupted once more.

May 5, 2019: The GNA has appealed to Turkey for military assistance in defending Tripoli. Turkey has been accused of violating the weapons embargo on Libya by smuggling weapons to pro-GNA militias.

May 4, 2019: In the south (640 kilometers south of the capital), ISIL gunmen attacked a newly established LNA training camp outside the oasis town of Sebha. Eight soldiers were killed and the main objective appears to have been a prison for Islamic terrorists inside the camp. ISIL was assisted by Chadian mercenaries and the attack was ultimately repulsed.

May 1, 2019: U.S. and European air forces have increased their reconnaissance flights over Libya during April. That data is usually shared with LNA forces fighting Islamic terror groups throughout the country.

April 29, 2019: In the east (outside Benghazi), a senior NOC (National Oil Corporation) official, the head of the labor union, was kidnapped by an unknown group.

LNA leader Khalifa Hiftar claims to have proof that Turkey is supporting ISIL in Libya. Turkey has been found supporting select Islamic terror groups in the past. Officially Turkey denies ever supporting any Islamic terrorists.

April 25, 2019: LNA apparently used Chinese UAVs and laser-guided missiles to attack targets near the Tripoli airport. The UAE supplied the LNA with the Chinese UAVs several years ago. These UAVs are similar to American Predators.

April 23, 2019: LNA forces shot down a GNA Mirage F1 jet fighter over Al Watiyah air base (135 kilometers southeast of Tripoli). The GNA has two Mirage F1s and the pilot of the one shot down was identified as an Ecuadorian mercenary (his name was on the ejection seat). The pilot got away after safely ejecting from the aircraft. Ecuador used to operate Mirage fighters (until 2011) and replaced them with Israel Kfir fighters (which are based on the Mirage).

April 20, 2019: In Tripoli, the various rival militias united to build a defensive line twelve kilometers south of the city center. This new coalition put enough fighters on the roads and other access routes to the city to halt the LNA advance. This standoff cannot last. The LNA forces are better organized and trained to keep at this, the militias are not.

April 14, 2019: In Egypt, Libyan military leader Khalifa Hiftar visited to discuss the current situation in Libya, where Hiftar forces are seeking control of the capital. Egypt has long supported Hiftar, who from 2014 on formed the most effective military force in Libya and took the lead in defeating or destroying Islamic terror groups. This included keeping Islamic terrorists out of Egypt and assisting Egypt in controlling their Libyan border. Other Arab states, like the UAE, also supported Hiftar although the UN considered him a potential new military dictator. The United States has concluded that is not the case, in part because Hiftar is a naturalized U.S. citizen with long ties to the CIA (after Hiftar fled Libya for disagreeing with dictator Kaddafi, who was overthrown in 2011). Hiftar also has the support of Russia but Egypt and the UAE are the most important allies. The Americans and French have also supplied some special operations forces to help Hiftar (and keep an eye on his activities).




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