Libya: The Phantom Stalemate


November 13, 2019: The war has been extended by the Turkish intervention. The main Turkish contribution has been dozens of missile armed UAVs that provide air support for the GNA (the weaker UN backed Government of National Accord) forces. The LNA (Libyan National Army) has access to missile armed Chinese UAVs supplied by the UAE (United Arab Republic). The LNA has long been supported by the UAE. Russia and Egypt. Saudi Arabia also backs the LNA but it has been the UAE that has put troops on the ground, mainly to operate airbases the UAVs operate from. The UAVs have largely replaced manned warplanes as they are cheaper, have longer endurance and you don’t need pilots. Training UAV controllers is a lot easier than aircraft pilots. The UAVs are not used a lot, averaging 4-5 sorties a day total (for both sides) during seven months of fighting. Some days are only one or two UAV sorties and then there are days where there are over a dozen, carrying out major attacks on base areas or in efforts to turn the tide in a battle.

The foreign military support for the UN backed GNA and the eastern (HoR or House of representatives) forces does not get much publicity from the participants. That’s because UN sanctions prohibit such outside support but the UN basked GNA is being kept alive by the Turkish forces and the weapons the Turks bring in. There are about a thousand or so foreign personnel providing this vital support. There hundreds, if not more, Russian combat advisors and trainers in Libya and most of them have been there for over a year. Earlier in 2019 Russia revealed that it had increased its logistic and maintenance support for LNA forces. This support had been going on since late 2018 and returned hundreds of Cold War era Russian armored vehicles and artillery to working order. This work was done with the battle for the Libyan capital Tripoli in mind. The LNA expected to begin this campaign in early 2019. The Russian techs were civilian contractors who identified themselves as working for the Wagner Group, a large Russian military contractor organization that is operating in several other African countries at the behest of the Russian government. Russia was known to be providing this sort of support for the LNA and some leaked documents detailed the extent of that effort.

Dozens of Wagner Group personnel have been killed in combat, many of them because of airstrikes by GNA warplanes or Turkish missile armed UAVs. While Russia has been backing the LNA for over three years, the Turks only recently came to the rescue of the GNA, which is trying to defend the city of Tripoli, its last stronghold. The Turks favor the GNA because it is largely a collection of militias, several of them described as “Islamic” although not Islamic terrorists. Turkey is apparently also receiving financial backing from Qatar.

Turkey is allied with Iran and Qatar against the rest of the Moslem world, especially Egypt and the Gulf Arab oil states. That is what has brought the Turks to Libya. One reason for Russia not publicizing their Libyan efforts is because Russia and Turkey are allies in Syria. Turks don’t have any military or contractor personnel at the front lines but some have been killed or wounded by LNA airstrikes.

The Russians are seen as reliable allies of Libya as it  supplied Libya with most of its weapons throughout the Kaddafi era (1960s to 2011) and is now delivering fewer, but more modern ones, like ATGMs (anti-tank guided missiles) and portable anti-aircraft missiles to bring down Turkish UAVs. The Turks are seen as a former imperial overlord trying to make a comeback. The Turks also ignore the fact that most Libyans oppose the Islamic conservative militias that the Turks support and see the Turks as more of a threat than the Russians or Arabs backing the LNA.

Despite the increasing (since May) Turkish military aid for the GNA forces, the LNA is still believed to have an edge. The LNA forces are larger, better trained, equipped and led than the collection of militias the GNA depends on. The LNA has been fighting since April to take the main GNA stronghold, the national capital Tripoli (in the west, near the Tunisia border). Turkish intervention interrupted that plan but did not stop it. The LNA forces continue to advance, but more slowly. One reason the LNA is so popular is that its commanders do not act recklessly and take better care of their troops. Turkish efforts to train militia fighters have had little success and it is difficult for most militia leaders to take advice from the Turks. So the LNA forces continue to advance and at this rate, Tripoli will fall in a few months, if not sooner.

So far Turkish military aid has prolonged the defense of Tripoli but has not reversed the course of the GNA/LNA war. The Turkish involvement stalled the LNA advance on Tripoli for a while. Then the LNA adapted to the Turkish presence and resumed pushing back the militia defenders. Now Turkey says it is in favor of a negotiated peace between the GNA and the HoR government in Tobruk. The HoR was the last elected government and helped organize the LNA. The UN organized the GNA by making deals with the militias that dominate Tripoli and Misrata 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.

For all the imported weapons and more than 20,000 armed men confronting each other since April, the casualties have been low, averaging about a dozen dead and wounded a day since April. Most of the casualties are armed but because the fighting is largely in urban areas there are usually civilians present, and at least ten percent of the casualties have been civilians.

The GNA is backed by the UN bureaucracy and some European governments. The UN wants a ceasefire and enforcement of sanctions. Most Libyans see those goals as counterproductive. A ceasefire means the Tripoli militias can go back to fighting each other. As long as there are two governments there are constant disputes over how the oil income is spent. The LNA controls most of the oil production and shipping facilities but the GNA has more, but not absolute, control over the national oil company and the Central Bank. The LNA already controls most of the country and has an impeccable record of suppressing Islamic terrorism. The GNA presides over a lot of independent-minded militias in Tripoli and Misrata to the east. Many former supporters of the GNA switched sides when they realized the GNA was unable to deal with the militias it depended on to defend its last two strongholds (Tripoli and Misrata). The UN is determined to see its creation eventually rule over a united Libya, despite the fact that most Libyans, and their neighbors, disagree with that assessment.

November 12, 2019: The National Oil Company (NOC) reported that oil and gas revenue for October ($2.2 billion) was up 21 percent over September. The LNA has maintained security in the oil fields and that has allowed for delayed maintenance to be carried out. This has led to more production.

November 11, 2019: The UN accuses Turkey, the UAE and Jordan of frequently violating the arms embargo on Libya. The UN also insists that Sudan still has troops in Libya. In July is was reported that a thousand members of the Sudan RSF (Rapid Support Force) had arrived in southern Libya to take over guarding oil facilities for the LNA. This was said to be part of a larger effort and that Sudan was sending another 3,000 RSF forces to Libya as part of an effort to support the foreign policy of Saudi Arabia. Sudan has already sent thousands of RSF forces in fight alongside Saudi troops seeking to put down a Shia rebellion in Yemen although those troops have recently been withdrawn. The Saudis are major financial and diplomatic supporters of Sudan and the new government. It is difficult to confirm what is going on in southern Libya, which is largely desert and controlled by armed tribesmen who are hostile to outsiders.

November 4, 2019: LNA UAVs attacked the Mitiga International Airport outside Tripoli. This was the last functioning airport near Tripoli as the LNA has captured the civilian airport. Mitiga has been closed since September because of repeated attacks but Turkish troops are still using Mitiga to operate their armed UAVs from. Last week the GNA declared Migita free of any military operations and open for business. Foreign airlines were not eager to return and the LNA did not believe the military operations were gone. Now Migita is again closed.

November 1, 2019: In Malta, local officials seized two cargo containers containing Libyan dinar notes printed by a Russian firm for the HoR government in Libya. Malta declared the banknote shipment illegal because of the sanctions. It is unclear why Malta acted because the GNA recognizes the Russian printed dinars just as the HoR recognizes the GNA dinars printed in Britain. Russia has been supplying HoR with banknotes for at least three years.

October 31, 2019: Tripoli residents complain that the GNA is releasing illegal migrants from detention camps and allowing them to wander the streets. Militias are seeking to recruit illegals who can speak Arabic and have any experience with weapons. Some militias have suffered heavy losses since April and are not attracting many local recruits.




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