News & Investigations

News & Investigations

Published

March 18, 2021

Written by

Oliver Imhof

Assisted by

Anna Zahn, Ayana Enomoto-Hurst, Clive Vella, Duncan Salkovskis, Imogen Piper, Mai Fareed, Mohammed al Jumaily, Osama Mansour, Peixian Wang, Shihab Halep and Mohamed ben Halim

NATO members still refuse to discuss potential civilian harm from their strikes a decade after intervening against Gaddafi.

Ten years ago, French President Nicholas Sarkozy welcomed British Prime Minister David Cameron and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the Elysee Palace with a shock announcement. “He surprised us both when he said that he had already issued orders for French jets to take off,” Cameron later recalled. The first airstrikes of the international intervention against Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s forces hit their targets less than an hour later.

The 2011 Libyan civil war had begun on February 17th as an Arab Spring uprising, with tens of thousands taking to the streets. Within weeks Gaddafi’s forces had brutally crushed most of the protests, and were closing in on the last major rebel stronghold of Benghazi. With fears of a Srebrenica-style massacre, the United Nations passed a resolution demanding the protection of civilians, upon which the NATO intervention was then justified. The war officially ended in October as Gaddafi, whose forces had been routed, was captured and killed by NATO-backed rebels.

Neither during nor after the war has there been a thorough analysis of the number of civilians likely killed by all sides. For the tenth anniversary of the conflict, Airwars has conducted the first comprehensive overview of civilian harm from all belligerents, based on the available public materials.

Over six months Airwars reviewed thousands of media and social media posts, and post-conflict investigations; as well as conducting interviews with survivors and officials.

The result is a detailed look at a brief but violent conflict that killed at least 1,142 civilians and injured at least one thousand more in 212 incidents of concern that Airwars researched. By the highest estimate, as many as 3,400 civilians were killed in those events.

The new archive offers a detailed insight into gruesome air and artillery strikes, as well as shocking ground massacres that occurred during the civil war. The tally of civilian deaths during the uprising was almost certainly significantly higher than the Airwars study indicates. In 2011 for example, social media use by Libyans was still relatively limited, and independent media in the country was not yet established. Based on Airwars’ experience of other conflicts such as Syria, a significant number of local claims of civilian harm made online at the time may also since have been lost, as a result of sites being closed or accounts being shut down.

Many small scale ground actions are additionally not reflected at present in the Airwars database – though likely constituted a key element of the civilian toll. Most estimates of Libya 2011 casualties to date have included both fighters and civilians – with a Libyan government study from 2013 likely being the most accurate, with its estimate of 4,700 fighter and civilian deaths on the rebel side alone, as well as at least 2,100 people listed at the time as missing.

Armed men at the edge of Fashlum Al-Dhahra neighbourhood in Tripoli on February 20th 2011, where up to 700 civilians were alleged killed by Gaddafi forces while taking part in mass demonstrations, Image via Taha Krewi

Most deaths from Gaddafi forces

The tragedy of Libya’s 2011 war was not just of those who were killed, injured and displaced – but of the new world it ushered in. Following a couple of years of uneasy calm, by 2014 the country had split in two and reverted to civil war. Only in October 2020 was a United Nations-brokered deal seemingly able to bring a decade of violence to an end, though the rifts remain.

Hala Bugaighis, a Libyan lawyer and founder of the Jusoor Libya think tank, said the 2011 war has had two long-lasting effects that have deeply impacted Libyan society.

“The first is the impact on the social fabric that emerged from armed conflicts between cities,” she told Airwars. During the war some neighbouring towns found themselves on either side of the conflict, with one broadly loyal to Gaddafi’s forces and the other supporting the rebellion.

“The second is the long term effect of the conflict on the mental wellbeing of civilians, including PTSD, stress and depression,” Bugaighis added.

The majority of civilian harm identified in the events reviewed by Airwars was reportedly caused by forces of the Gaddafi regime – with between 869 and 1,999 likely deaths and as many as 1,100 injuries identified from 105 assessed actions. Overall, as many as 2,300 civilian deaths were locally alleged from these same Gaddafi actions. Many more small-scale killings have yet to be fully documented.

At the beginning of the uprising, Gaddafi forces were reported to have deliberately targeted protesters with both heavy weaponry and small arms fire, causing high numbers of casualties.

Later on, several massacres and indiscriminate shelling of urban areas by the regime were documented in both local and international media.

“In the first days of the uprising, I was so scared,” said Bugaighis, who lived in Tripoli at the time. “Growing up in Libya we were raised to fear the regime, so at first, I thought nothing would take down the regime. I started to realise that it is more serious when the state of emergency was declared in Tripoli and foreigners were evacuated.”

Many Gaddafi forces incidents had previously gone unreported to an international audience, given the tendency of international media to focus only on larger scale events. On June 29th for example, a review of local sources found that a 13-year old boy named Moftah Muhammad Jalwal was killed and six more civilians injured by Gaddafi forces shelling on the Doufan neighbourhood of Misurata. Gruesome videos showed bloodstains at the site and injured children in the local hospital.

Moftah Muhammad Jalwal, reportedly killed by Gaddafi forces on June 29th 2011 in Misurata (Screengrab via a video by Ali Al Dadi)

NATO: lower civilian harm but lack of accountability

A decade on from NATO’s intervention, neither it nor any individual member has ever publicly admitted to a single civilian death. Libyans themselves tell a very different story.

Airwars reviewed claims of thousands of airstrikes reportedly conducted by NATO and its allies during Libya 2011, which between them resulted in 223 to 403 likely civilian deaths and 215 to 357 injuries in 84 events of concern, according to our assessment. NATO itself declared having conducted 7,600 strikes. Overall, Airwars identified as many as 800 civilians locally alleged killed by NATO forces – though those higher claims appear to have been significantly exaggerated by pro-Gaddafi sources at the time.

United Nations investigators after the war accused both Gaddafi and rebel forces of indiscriminate killings, but concluded that NATO had conducted a “highly precise campaign with a demonstrable determination to avoid civilian casualties.” They noted that the international alliance had used precision-guided munitions and carried out extensive pre-strike assessments to try and avoid killing civilians.

Frederic Wehrey, Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment, said NATO planners were supported by Western special forces marking targets on the ground, which had contributed to the accuracy of bombing and helped avoid civilian harm.

Both rebels and NATO were “very active in liaison, coordinating various operation centres even though NATO commandos made clear they were not acting as the rebels’ air force,” he says.

But while NATO itself insisted it was purely focused on protecting civilians, key members of the alliance were accused of supporting regime change. An Airwars investigation has found that a Norwegian effort to negotiate Gaddafi’s stepping down in April 2011 was seemingly undermined by France and the UK. As the former Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Store now notes, “Had there been in the international community a willingness to pursue this track with some authority and dedication, I believe there could have been an opening to achieve a less dramatic outcome and avoid the collapse of the Libyan state.”

Even though the number of reported civilian casualties from NATO actions is far lower when compared to Gaddafi forces, Airwars’ findings indicate that likely fatalities were still significantly higher than the estimated 60 deaths that the United Nations documented at the time, in its review of 20 events of concern.

By contrast and based on local reporting from the time across Libya, as well as major investigations by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the New York Times, Airwars has identified at least 223 likely civilian deaths.

Reported victims of NATO airstrikes on Majer on August 8th 2011 (via Majer Zletin Massacre)

Those seeking clarity about individual incidents remain sadly disappointed. Inquiries to NATO about civilian harm from its actions in Libya are routinely referred to member states, which in turn then refer back to NATO. All recent Freedom of Information requests from Airwars to individual member states about their potential role in civilian harm during 2011 have been denied.

Only on one known occasion, on June 19th 2011, did NATO acknowledge that a malfunction of a munition in an attack on Tripoli’s Souk al Joumaa neighbourhood had potentially resulted in civilian casualties.

Mohammed Al Gharari, who lost five family members in the strike, told Airwars he had the following questions for NATO: “You struck people and admitted that it was by mistake. Why did you never care about us? If you had any humanity and you believe in human rights, you would have at least cared.”

“Even after ten years, no phone call or even any official has contacted us.”

Aftermath of the incident in Souq Al Joumaa on June 19th, 2011

Little reporting on civilian harm from rebels

Among the three parties to Libya’s 2011 war, the lowest documented number of civilian casualties was reported from rebel actions – with 57 incidents of concern reviewed by Airwars containing allegations of between 50 and 113 likely deaths.

That relatively low estimate of civilian harm from rebel actions can be explained by the lack of an air force and access to heavy weapons, particularly early on. It may also reflect a lack of media interest at the time.

The largest known loss of civilian life from rebel actions was reported on August 10th in the remote southern city of Tawergha, when between 24 and 74 inhabitants, including whole families and an imam of the town, were claimed killed by artillery fire. Tawergha was considered loyal to Gaddafi, with its more than 40,000 residents forced to flee by rebels. The majority of residents have still not been able to return a decade on.

“130 men from Tawergha are missing ever since, and no one knows anything about them. They were taken by the rebels. My brother is one of them,” Gabriel Farag, who also had to flee Tawergha, told Airwars. “These 130 men were arrested just for the mere fact that they are from Tawergha.”

“The war has impacted Libyan society in many ways, especially in social relationships among tribes. Libyan society is a tribal society, and the war has broken the connections between tribes across the country,” says Mustafa Al Fetouri, a Libyan journalist who covered the civil war back in 2011.

Mabrouk Elyan, reportedly among those killed by rebel forces on August 10th 2011 in Tawergha, via Tawergha Martyrs

Ten years of anarchy

What followed after the 2011 defeat of Gaddafi was a decade of chaos and on-and-off civil war that turned Libya into a failed state. Many hopes were betrayed and opportunities missed in a country that had once been described as Africa’s most developed.

“The notion of justice was completely absent after the revolution,” says Bughaigis. “Instead of avoiding a repetition of the injustice that occurred in the past, such as the Abu Salim prison incident or the killing of students, all we saw was the repetition of these mistakes over and over again.”

Airwars found that some victims had been paid compensation by one of Libya’s post-revolution governments, but only for damage done to property. Efforts to create proper mechanisms for restitution were abandoned when the country slipped into civil war again in 2014.

“Justice was one of the principles of the Libyan uprising. However, all those in power have failed to do so, and it may be in a systematic way to entrench chaos and hate,” explained Bughaigis.

Former US President Barack Obama once described the failure to plan for what came after NATO’s intervention in Libya as a “shit show”, and as his biggest foreign policy mistake. “We averted large-scale civilian casualties, we prevented what almost surely would have been a prolonged and bloody civil conflict. And despite all that, Libya is a mess,” he told The Atlantic in 2016.

However, better times could now be ahead for Libyans, with the country recently selecting a unified transitional government which has committed to working on a reconciliation process for those affected by the civil wars. Those in the international community who have become embroiled in Libya’s violence since 2011 could now too – it might be hoped – finally acknowledge the civilian harm they themselves have caused.

Out with the old, in with the new.

Family photo of Libya’s outgoing Presidency Council today after they handed over power to new unity government represented here by prime minister Dabaiba & new Presidency Council president Mnefi (front right and left) pic.twitter.com/Zgq36LCFde

— Mary Fitzgerald (@MaryFitzger) March 16, 2021

▲ Vehicles belonging to Gaddafi forces explode after a NATO air strike between Benghazi and Ajdabiyah, March 20th 2011 (REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic)

Published

February 5, 2021

Written by

Oliver Imhof

Abdul Hamid Dbeibah and Mohammad Menfi will lead country blighted by years of conflict into elections

Libya’s rival political factions agreed to form a transitional government on February 5th, further cementing a June ceasefire meant to end the country’s civil war.

After a lengthy UN-mediated process, the 73 delegates of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) voted for Mohammad Menfi as head of the Presidency Council; Abdul Hamid Dbeibah as Prime Minister; and Mossa Al-Koni and Abdullah Hussein Al-Lafi as members of the Presidency Council. They will lead the country until full elections, scheduled for December.

The list had support from across the divided nation. Menfi, a former General National Congress member, enjoys support in the country’s East while Dbeibah, a powerful businessman from Misrata – as well as Al-Lafi – represent Libya’s West. Al-Koni comes from the sparsely populated South.

During the talks in Geneva, Menfi’s list surprised many observers by beating an alternative list – headed by current Minister of Interior Fathi Bashaga and Head of the House of Representatives Aqila Saleh – by 39 to 34 votes. The two lists had won most votes in the first round among an initial four slates.

#Libya’ new Presidential Council and Prime Minister pic.twitter.com/fxAvMhm2dO

— The Libya Observer (@Lyobserver) February 5, 2021

Little known about new government’s plans

Libya has seen 10 years of on-and-off civil war since the overthrow of longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. In June 2020, all sides agreed a ceasefire deal after years of fighting, and the new administration will be tasked with implementing it.

However little is known about the new interim government’s policy plans as no concrete proposals have so far been presented, analysts said.

Among many challenges are the disarmament of militias, and the withdrawal of foreign fighters from Libya. Foreign support played a significant role in recent stages of the civil war, with the United Arab Emirates backing general Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army, and Turkey supporting the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord.

Besides the political dialogue continuing in Libya, a new constitution has to be drafted and common financial and economic institutions built. The process is supposed to end with fresh general elections on December 24th this year.

The LPDF marks a return to negotiations between parties, many of whom had been only recently been locked in bitter conflict.

“For the first time in years we are witnessing a (commitment) to political progress by all parties instead of moving to an armed conflict,” a UN source familiar with the dialogue told Airwars. “This is the first fruitful outcome from the whole process.”

General Haftar, head of the Libyan National Army which tried to seize control of Tripoli in 2019, had unsuccessfully sought to block the process, the UN source said.

Muslim Brotherhood-backed militias also opposed the dialogue and tried to disrupt it at various points, the source claimed.

Another issue of concern is appeasing international sponsors of a conflict in which at least 788 civilians have been killed since 2012 through air and artillery strikes, according to Airwars data.

“Turkey wants something out of that deal – the gas agreement, a joint venture for the Mediterranean,” the UN source says. Other foreign players are likely to block any such deal, which would give Turkey extensive drilling rights in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Alleged corruption and limited influence

Commentators said massive challenges remain – and questioned the potential effectiveness of the new government.

Tarek Megerisi, Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the dialogue was designed to bring all parties together, and to do so had helped to avoid confrontation.

“The process was engineered to ensure it produced something, rather than try to solve any of the underlying drivers of fragmentation and conflict,” he said. “So I don’t expect this government to be unifying, pacifying or very interested in repairing the various failures of the state over the last 10 years.”

Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah has faced questions over his suitability for the role, with some critics highlighting allegations of corruption against him during his time leading a construction unit in the former Gaddafi government.

“The figures [in the new government] are perhaps less controversial than the alternative ones were – except for (Dbeibah) who is a bit more polarising,” said Emadeddin Badi, Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council.

There are also questions over the limited territorial influence of the new government due to Libya’s highly localised politics. Even though the new leaders enjoy social ties and patronage networks in Libya, they may be comparatively little known among the wider population.

So far the new administration has not presented any concrete plans about what to do with local militias and foreign fighters.

“Quick calls of support from the Ministers of Defence and Interior suggest that there is an expectation that the work done with Turkey to reconstruct western Libya’s security services will continue. Although the question of what to do with Tripoli’s militias and how Haftar will react hangs ominously over this,” Megerisi said.

The election is only an initial step that will hopefully lead to a more peaceful future for a nation exhausted by years of fighting. The United Nations Security Council has now  requested ceasefire monitors, but it remains to be seen if the ongoing ceasefire can be transformed into effective political dialogue.

“We’ll be watching those you have selected to make sure they truly go back to the Libyan people on December 24 of this year to democratically elect Libya’s representatives and political leadership,” UN acting special representative Stephanie Williams said.

▲ The Libyan Political Dialogue Forum convened in Geneva to elect a transitional government on February 5th, 2021 (via UNSMIL

Published

January 15, 2021

Written by

Oliver Imhof

New graphics also compare airstrikes and reported civilian harm by recent US presidents in Iraq, Syria, Somalia.

In it latest data project, Airwars has published comprehensive mapping of more than 5,400 air and artillery strikes in Libya since 2012. The new data covers all known locally-reported strikes to date, conducted by all parties to an on-and-off civil war that is currently on pause, after last year’s UN-brokered ceasefire deal.

A team of researchers, geolocators and specialist volunteers for several months meticulously researched the location of every claimed strike event in as much detail as possible, placing the majority at least to neighbourhood level, and with many civilian harm events now including more exact locations. The new strike data joins more than 230 reported civilian harm events in Libya since 2012 which are already published by Airwars.

The new data and mapping has been visualised by Glasgow-based design studio Rectangle, an innovator when it comes to visualising conflict data. Daniel Powers and Lizzie Malcolm of Rectangle say about the project: “The new maps visualise these incidents by civilian fatalities, militant fatalities, and strikes carried out by each belligerent. The maps are navigable by a histogram of the map data over time, to try to provide an overview of a particularly complex conflict.”

The new interactive map enables users to explore the conflict in Libya and its impact on different regions of the country. Filters make it possible to see which faction bombed how much in which region; and who caused the most reported harm to civilians – revealing a clear correlation between the use of explosive weapons in urban areas and non-combatant deaths. According to Airwars modelling of local claims, the Libya conflict from 2012 to date has claimed the lives of up to 1,100 civilians through air and artillery strikes. Additionally the map also depicts claimed deaths among militant groups.

Claudia Gazzini, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, says of the new mapping: “This is a great instrument that visualises extremely clearly how airstrikes have affected Libya throughout its ten-year transition. In a glance we see with extreme clarity where airstrikes have occurred, how many civilian casualties there have been as a result, and the presumed belligerent.”

Overview of Airwars’ Libya mapping showing the whole range of the conflict

As a timeline above the mapping shows, Libya has witnessed intense periods of fighting since 2012 – with the LNA’s offensive on Tripoli between April 2019 and June 2020 by far the heaviest. Inga Kristina Trauthig, Libya Research Fellow at the ICSR think tank, recalls some of the shocking attacks that occurred during the war. “Buried in this quantitative data are infamous examples, such as the airstrike at a military school in the capital, Tripoli which killed over 30 people in January 2020; as well as numerous strikes against medical facilities, also in Tripoli, in late July 2019 conducted by the Libyan National Army in violation of international humanitarian law.”

Gazzini adds: “What emerges extremely clearly is also how damaging the 14 months war on Tripoli was – the majority of strikes and civilian casualties occurred within that time frame, in many cases by unknown actors.”

Violence towards civilians in Tripoli during the recent siege had also been visualised in detail for Airwars by Rectangle in innovative mapping.

Detailed view of the Battle of Tripoli between April 2019 and June 2020

“What the data really shows us is the overall consistency and ubiquitousness (of the conflict). The data visualisation powerfully brings across how heavily Libya is affected by airstrikes,” says Trauthig.

She pointed out the tool enabled macro analysis of Libya’s war but would also help identify trends during specific time periods of intense conflict “such as the correlation between increased US airstrikes in Sirte with the fight against Islamic State.”

Clicking on the map reveals more detail about individual events, such as the suspected or known belligerent and any associated deaths. Civilian casualty incidents are also linked to the Airwars database, where more granular analysis can be found.

Arabic language researchers on the project included – among others – Osama Mansour, Shihab Halep and Mohammed al-Jumaily. Volunteers included Samuel Brownsword, Eleftheria Kousta, Douglas Statt, Vasiliki Touhouliotis and Anna Zahn. Clive Vella, Giacomo Nanni and Riley Mellen worked on the geolocation team.

New graphs compare strikes, civilian harm from Trump, Obama and Bush

Also being introduced by Airwars are new graphics comparing airstrike and reported civilian harm numbers grouped by US president – initially for the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, and in Somalia.

The US-led war against so-called Islamic State has seen more than 34,000 declared international air and artillery strikes since 2014. Using official Coalition data, Airwars modelling now shows that a slim majority of those strikes took place during Barack Obama’s second term. However more than twice the level of civilian harm was reported under Trump than Obama – partly a reflection of the intensity of the latter stages of the war, though also raising questions about possible relaxation of standards to protect non combatants.

In Somalia too, new graphics show that US actions against Al Shabaab under Donald Trump surged to their highest levels since counterterrorism actions began in 2007. Alleged civilian harm under Trump was more than double that of George W Bush and Barack Obama’s presidencies combined.

Despite a slim majority of declared strikes against ISIS taking place under Barack Obama, more than twice the level of civilian harm in Iraq and Syria was alleged from actions under Donald Trump.

▲ New Airwars mapping reveals thousands of locally reported air and artillery strikes in Libya by belligerents since 2012.

Published

October 23, 2020

Written by

Oliver Imhof

Header Image

Libyan delegates shake hands after signing a ceasefire deal in Geneva on October 23rd 2020 (via UNSMIL)

Agreement could end civil war that has ravaged the country for almost a decade. But questions remain over concrete implementation and foreign involvement.

The two most important parties to the conflict in Libya, the Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libyan National Army (LNA), agreed on October 23rd to an immediate and permanent ceasefire in Geneva under the auspices of the United Nations. The landmark deal – which took many Libya analysts by surprise – could possibly cement the already peaceful situation of a de facto ceasefire in place since June, when the LNA withdrew its forces from Tripoli.

Besides a freeze on all military agreements with foreign forces operating in Libya in general, the deal also implements various confidence-building measures such as the reopening of airports, seaports and roads between west and east Libya.

Another important feature agreed upon is the identification and categorization of all militias, with a view to reintegrating some of them into Libya’s armed forces.

The influence of militias, especially in and around Tripoli, has been a major factor in the destabilisation of post-Gaddafi Libya. The UN-recognised GNA has failed for example to demobilise its powerful forces, which had been used as justification by the LNA in its recent failed attempt to seize the capital.

Cautious optimism regarding this ceasefire agreement. Contentious issues moving forward:

– the departure of foreign forces & freeze on military agreements– operationalizing cantonment of weaponry/ceasefire– the DDR program proposed, which revives debates on who is a "militia" pic.twitter.com/MGIfxPDQIT

— Emadeddin Badi (@emad_badi) October 23, 2020

The UN-brokered ceasefire has been received positively by many commentators, in contrast with the outcome of the Berlin Conference in January 2019, after which hostilities quickly flared up again due to the lack of any concrete mechanisms and guarantees. This new agreement seems to be more robust, even though many details have yet to be figured out by the committees. Additionally, the military stalemate on the ground over the past months has helped to put a political solution back on the table.

Acting Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Libya, Stephanie Williams, said in a statement: “Today is a good day for the Libyan people.” She added: “The parties agreed that all military units and armed groups on the frontlines shall return to their camps. This shall be accompanied by the departure of all mercenaries and foreign fighters from all Libyan territories – land, air and sea – within a maximum period of three months from today.”

International meddling had been one of the main drivers of the Libyan civil war. The GNA had received extensive support from Turkey in the recent past, which also introduced Syrian mercenaries to the conflict who had previously fought for the Syrian National Army against the Assad regime. The LNA in turn, supported by the United Arab Emirates, Russia and Egypt, has also allegedly made use of Syrian fighters as well as Sudanese mercenaries. The United States had become increasingly vocal this year as Russian mercenaries on the ground and in the air began playing an increasing role in Libya’s affairs. Some of those Russians are already said to have left the oil ports in both Sidra and Ras Lanuf.

International arms shipments and the influx of mercenaries on both sides fuelled the conflict with devastating consequences for civilians. From the overall 777 minimum civilian deaths recorded by Airwars since the end of the NATO campaign in 2011, 429 fatalities (55 per cent) occurred after the beginning of the LNA’s offensive in April 2019. While the LNA and the UAE were accused of  causing 271 deaths, 85 fatalities were attributed by local sources to the GNA and its ally Turkey. The additional deaths could not clearly be attributed to any side.

Libya: Almost 300 civilians were locally reported killed during the LNA's recent failed siege of Tripoli.

Innovative interactive mapping from Airwars reveals the scale of violence experienced by local communities. https://t.co/hwFqCj093G pic.twitter.com/EgVPzfxEC5

— Airwars (@airwars) September 14, 2020

Ending international involvement in Libya will thus be crucial to finally putting an end to the civil war. However, it remains to be seen if all parties abide by the rules this time . President Erdogan of Turkey has already said that the agreement was “not reliable” as it was not made at the highest level.

Germany facilitated the difficult talks in Geneva, which included various parties to the conflict, with Foreign Minister Heiko Maas saying: “The inner-Libyan discussion formats agreed at the Berlin Conference in January culminated in a first, decisive success. Libya has not yet reached its goal, but has cleared an important hurdle towards peace.

It is clear that the people in Libya want and must shape the future of their country themselves. We therefore call on the international actors to support this path unreservedly and to refrain from any further interference.”

▲ Libyan delegates shake hands after signing a ceasefire deal in Geneva on October 23rd 2020 (via UNSMIL)

Published

September 14, 2020

Written by

Oliver Imhof

Header Image

Civilian casualty situation at the beginning of the LNA's Tripoli offensive on April 4th, 2019

At least 200 civilians died during the siege of the capital - with the future still looking uncertain for Libya

Two months after the brutal siege of Libya’s capital ended, new interactive Airwars mapping shows the impact of 14 months of fighting between two rival governments on the city’s beleaguered civilians.

Airwars has visualised every allegation of civilian harm from air and artillery strikes during the period of war in and around Tripoli between April 2019 and June 2020. Glasgow-based consultants Rectangle designed the innovative mapping, in an effort to find fresh ways of visualising civilian harm on the modern battlefield.

The new Airwars mapping uses a sliding timeline to enable an overview of often indiscriminate air and artillery strikes on Tripoli and its suburbs. A fine-detail satellite map of Tripoli and its suburbs makes it possible to see the siege evolving over the 14 months of its duration.

The map utilises a 1km radius hexagonal system, whose height represents the number of civilians reported killed in an incident. This in turn enables users to see the extent of shelling on various neighbourhoods, with casualty spikes clearly revealed in heavily hit areas such as Salaheddin, Abu Salim and Tajoura. The new mapping can also be used as a portal to access individual civilian harm assessments on the Airwars website.

Lizzie Malcolm and Daniel Powers of design consultancy Rectangle explain their rationale behind the new approach: “The challenge of mapping and visualising civilian harm is to balance the presentation of aggregated information and individual details. Maps of large areas and timelines of conflicts are useful for understanding scale. But any visualisation should be a gateway to the evidence and stories about individuals and families,” they tell Airwars.

Over the course of the siege, Airwars recorded 339 civilian harm events in Libya, 197 of which around Tripoli, nearly tripling the number of locally reported incidents since the end of the NATO campaign in 2011. At least 197 civilians were killed by the violence and another 537 were injured by the violence, as the LNA and GNA fought for control of Tripoli.

The LNA’s Tripoli offensive introduced Libyans to a degree of conflict violence not seen since NATO’s intervention almost a decade earlier. Even when the conflict was over, LNA forces and Wagner mercenaries reportedly booby-trapped houses and planted landmines, leading to gruesome additional reports of killed and injured civilians.

The siege of Tripoli has previously been visualised by other organisations, though not via an interactive map. UN agency OCHA has for example provided infographics summing up their findings. And Dzsihad Hadelli has previously visualised Airwars data on civilian casualties for the Libya Observer.

The war on Tripoli is now one year old. But already in this period, as many civilians have been killed by air raids as in all Libyan civil war conflicts since 2012 (Airwars annual report 2020).

Here's a map of all reported air strikes/shellings of the last 12 months. pic.twitter.com/tTYoEaaDSM

— Dzsihad Hadelli (@dhadelli) April 5, 2020

Is justice possible?

Mapping and recording harm in conflicts can help both with the proper investigation of civilian casualties, and of possible war crimes – potentially leading to reconciliation and justice in those parts of society affected by the fighting. “There is no way out of this without people being held accountable,“ says Elham Saudi, Director of Lawyers for Justice in Libya.

Her organisation seeks to document violations of humanitarian and human rights law in Libya, in turn hoping for accountability. “If you’re aiming for criminal responsibility, the threshold is really high. First hand accounts and witnesses are the most important thing,“ Saudi explains. Establishing the chain of command that leads to an event in question is another crucial point, she adds.

As a former resident of Tripoli suburbs, Saudi knows from friends and family what the siege did to Tripoli’s population: “The impact was felt throughout the city, the fear and anticipation of being targeted was quite overwhelming – even if you didn’t live in the areas being targeted, because of the indiscriminate nature of the attacks. You always felt like you were a target.”

However, her organisation does not focus only upon recent events around Tripoli but investigates violations committed in the civil war across the country. The highly polarised political landscape poses an additional challenge, as activists and media in Libya are often affiliated with one of the parties to the conflict: “The hyper-politicisation of everything makes it very difficult to keep the distance from what’s being said in the media. I don’t disregard anything just because it belongs to a certain party.”

“Things get lost if you don’t preserve evidence in a conflict. Preserving evidence is absolutely vital, it’s not just about the present but also about the future for civil society,“ the lawyer elaborates. Social media plays an increasing role there as “Perpetrators help you because they incriminate themselves.“

Mahmoud Werfalli’s arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court, for example, was based on social media accounts of extrajudicial killings. The former LNA commander is accused of executing ten prisoners in Benghazi in 2018, a case that was widely documented on social networks – as are many cases of potential war crimes in Libya.

At this point it remains difficult to predict which alleged incidents might potentially bear fruit in court. War crimes were alleged on both sides of the conflict. “The US is promising because Haftar, as a US citizen, is subject to its jurisdiction; it also allows for individuals to pursue civil responsibility,” Saudi says. Three civil lawsuits attempting to do that have been filed in the US for example, whereby affected families are suing the General for compensation for his alleged responsibility in the deaths of family members as a result of the indiscriminate shelling of Tripoli neighbourhoods by his forces.

Links to individual case assessments that occurred in the Salaheddin neighbourhood of Tripoli

Bringing Libyans back to the negotiations table

Even as the search for accountability continues, rifts remain deep within Libyan society after so many years of civil war. The big question is: how might Libya finally find a way towards a peaceful future?

A pause in fighting between Libya’s rival camps might be expected to generate optimism in a country riven by intermittent civil war since 2011. But instead of improving the livelihoods of the population, both seem keen to return to the status quo that partly led to the siege of Tripoli in the first place. Infighting within both the Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libyan National Army (LNA); profound economic problems; and deep distrust between all the main political actors, make a peaceful future more uncertain.

Recently popular protests erupted in both GNA- and LNA-controlled territories, that were in turn met with violence by both governments. At the same time, a new military build-up around Sirte has raised fears of another escalation in violence – while a dire economic situation exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic has pushed the population into ever deeper poverty.

Virginie Collombier, Professor of Social and Political Dynamics in Libya at the European University Institute of Florence, has been working on grassroots mediation processes led by Libyans for many years. She sees the first step to a lasting ceasefire taking place at the international level – getting countries now meddling in Libya to respect the commitments they made during the Berlin peace conference: “The aim of the mediation process is to find someone who has the capacities to provide guarantees and enforce things. The UN can’t do anything alone as we see; and the EU doesn’t have the capacities or willingness.“

“Who has the capacities to influence things on the ground: Russia? Turkey?“ Collombier asks.  Neither seems a likely candidate given the ongoing geopolitical struggle between these two states: “Most importantly [there is] the US, but will they work as a guarantor on broader issues related to the economy, and the political framework?“

The current stalemate may however make things easier, Professor Collombier believes: “There is clearly a sense of exhaustion, the meaning of the war is lost, which is something we can see on both sides of the divide.“ She adds: “There is not much we can achieve through violence and weapons, the situation has stabilised around two camps that can block each other.“

However, internal divisions in both the GNA and in Haftar’s camp show that the situation could turn violent again if issues are not resolved. Collombier stresses the need for a dialogue that includes all Libyans, beyond the GNA and LNA: “Voices of Libyans can be heard and put pressure on politics; and diversifying the political sphere is absolutely crucial. There is a need for alternative voices and leaders. There is deep distrust in the current political elite.”

Whatever the result of both reconciliation and accountability processes in Libya, there is a long way ahead for the country to finally find peace. Documenting and archiving the crimes committed during the civil war is only an initial step towards accountability that can then lead to reconciliation between former enemies.

▲ Civilian casualty situation at the beginning of the LNA's Tripoli offensive on April 4th, 2019

Published

June 22, 2020

Written by

Laurie Treffers, Mohammed al Jumaily and Oliver Imhof

Foreign power involvement risks linking Syria and Libya wars, experts warn.

Civilians are continuing to benefit from a months-long ceasefire in northern Syria, which has seen casualty numbers sharply fall to levels last seen in the early months of the civil war. Experts remain divided however, on how long this pause in fighting will last – and what it means for Syria and its divided people.

April and May 2020 marked the first complete months since the beginning of the Russian campaign in Syria in September 2015, in which Airwars did not monitor any civilian casualty allegations against Moscow. A ceasefire beginning in early March – and international pressure in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis – brought an end to months of violent air raids on Idlib governorate, which had killed up to 556 civilians.

On March 5th, 2020, Russia and Turkey reached agreement on a ceasefire in Idlib governorate, after recent escalations had led to the deaths of 36 Turkish soldiers. Terms included the provision of a 12 kilometre long safety corridor alongside the M4 highway, which connects Aleppo with Latakia; and joint patrols by Russian and Turkish forces.

“The reason why Russia signed the ceasefire is because it got what it wanted. Their endgame has always been to secure the integrity of the Syrian regime,” argues Alexey Khlebnikov, a Middle East expert and Russian foreign policy analyst with the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC). “The priority in Idlib was never to take it over in its entirety. The campaign was not targeted at getting every centimetre. There were and there are two major goals: securing the M5, which connects Aleppo and Damascus, and the M4 highway, connecting Aleppo with Latakia.”

According to some experts, Turkey did less well out of that agreement. Gerhard Mangott, a professor at the University of Innsbruck specialising in international relations and security in the post-Soviet region, notes: “The ceasefire is a compromise between Russian and Turkish interests, with poor results for Turkey and good results for Russia. Turkey had set an ultimatum to the Syrian government to withdraw to the front line of April 2019, when Syrian and allied forces started their offensive in Idlib. Due to Russian pressure, Turkey had to accept the actual front line.”

Idlib offensive: at least 423 civilian deaths

As the last remaining opposition stronghold, north west Syria was targeted heavily during a three-month campaign by the Assad regime and Russia as they sought to gain control of the region. Russian-backed pro-government forces (made up of Syrian Government forces, Hezbollah, and allied armed groups) attempted to push into both Idlib and Aleppo Governorates, and defeat remaining anti-government rebels.

The beginning of the offensive saw pro-government forces make quick advances against rebel troops. By the end of December 2019, the Assad government had captured large parts of the Ma’arat Al Nu’man countryside including Jarjnaz, the largest town in the area; and had completely encircled the main Turkish observation point in Sarman.

Then, following a short-lived ceasefire between January 9th and 15th, the Syrian Government made some of its most significant advances in Idlib since the civil war began in 2011. By January 28th, pro-government forces had managed to capture Ma’arat Al Nu’man, a city of major strategic and symbolic importance due to its position on the Aleppo-Damascus Highway, which serves as one of the country’s main economic arteries to areas under government control in northwestern Syria.

Just eight days later, the town of Saraqib – another locale which had served as a bastion against the Assad Government for many years – was captured. The following weeks saw more government advances including the full capture of the province of Aleppo for the first time since the outbreak of the civil war.

Russian airpower has been crucial to each pro-government advance. However, these military victories came at a catastrophic cost to civilians, in both Idlib and Aleppo. Heavily populated urban areas were pummelled before each incursion, with almost no respite for residents.

During the three months of the campaign, Russia was allegedly involved in 250 separate civilian harm incidents – averaging more than three events every day. These airstrikes led to between 423 and 556 civilian deaths and the injuring of up to 1,137 more, Airwars monitoring of local sources indicates. At least 128 children were killed during the campaign – more than a quarter of all tracked fatalities – showing that the most vulnerable often bore the brunt of a ruthless air campaign.

Additionally, crucial civilian infrastructure was hit numerous times. Schools were targeted on at least 15 occasions, while hospitals and medical centres were struck at least nine times. This targeting of civilian infrastructure by Assad and Russia was not new. According to the World Health Organisation, there have been 83 attacks on healthcare facilities in Syria since April 2019.

The Idlib campaign triggered a widespread displacement crisis in northern Syria. By the end of the assault, at least 980,000 people, most of them women and children, were forced to flee the violence. According to Mark Lowcock, UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, these displaced people were struggling to survive in what he described as “horrific conditions”.

Tank rolling through ruins in Maarat Numan (via Oleg Blokhin).

Impact of Covid-19

The fighting in Idlib eventually stopped after Turkey escalated its own operations against pro-Assad government forces, following a devastating airstrike on a Turkish infantry battalion on the road between al-Bara and Balyun, which had left 32 Turkish soldiers dead and many others wounded.

Following this event, Ankara took the bold decision to intervene directly on the side of the rebels. The ferociousness of Turkey’s intervention was unprecedented, with Turkish forces launching a barrage of attacks on pro-regime positions, destroying dozens of military vehicles, equipment and several Russian-made air defence systems. These attacks devastated the Syrian Government, with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reporting that 170 pro-regime forces died. Turkish defence minister Hulusi Akar put the toll far higher – claiming that Turkish forces had destroyed two Syrian Su-24 fighter jets, two drones, 135 tanks, and five air defence systems; and had “neutralised” more than 2,500 fighters loyal to the Syrian government.

The risk of being embroiled in an all-out confrontation with Turkey forced the hands of both the Syrian and Russian governments, and prompted a formal ceasefire agreement between Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Vladmir Putin of Russia. While the eventual ceasefire provided a much-needed respite for civilians in northwestern Syria, millions continued to suffer from the after-effects of the brutal campaign. And with the COVID-19 pandemic showing no signs of abating in the region, refugees from the violence in Syria, clustered into overcrowded camps, may remain most at risk of suffering from the virus.

Khlebnikov at RIAC says he does not, however, think the Covid-19 crisis was the main driver of the ceasefire: “I wouldn’t say it is a game-changer or a strong factor in this ceasefire. The Ukraine crisis did not impact Russia’s foreign policy, even though the economy was under great distress. So why would Covid-19? It might affect the intensity of the conflict in the long run, and it slows things down because diplomats and leaders are unable to meet in person.”

Elizabeth Tsurkov, a research fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a Syria expert, agrees: “I don’t think the Covid-19 crisis impacted the calculations of the warring parties in this conflict.”

That the ceasefire has lasted following the Covid-19 outbreak might seem paradoxical, given that both Russia and Turkey recently increased their involvement in Libya. However, those contributions are relatively small for now, compared to Syria. That said, the conflict in Libya has become both interlinked with Syria – with Russia and Turkey again on opposite sides – and also a continuation of the civil war on different soil, as Syrian mercenaries recruited by both Turkey and Russia now fight each other in the Maghreb. Talks between Moscow and Ankara to explore a deal that might see the fates of Syria and Libya connected have been put off for now.

Disinfectant teams battling Covid-19 working in Northern and Eastern Syria (via Rojava Information Center).

“Costs of violating the ceasefire are much higher now”

Previous Syria ceasefires have been fairly short-lived. So why is the Idlib pause still holding more than three months on? “The situation on the ground is different from two years ago. Idlib is now the only lasting stronghold of opposition armed groups and terrorists. And a ceasefire during a civil war, it is not a literal thing. There are certain violations,” asserts Khlebnikov.

According to his own estimates, there were 80 violations of the ceasefire in the first half of May. Even so, Khlebnikov sees the ceasefire as quite successful: “Since March 5th, the violence fell significantly. The first [joint Russian and Turkish] patrols were 5 or 7 kilometres long, now they are 45 kilometres long. This builds trust; and the Russian and Turkish militaries are getting used to interacting with each other on hostile ground. That creates a certain restraint for [other] armed groups to escalate.”

Mangott also views the results of the ceasefire as so far positive: “I think it will last. Russia is in a difficult economic and financial situation, the GDP will drop by 10% this year. There will probably be a drop in military spending. The current spending priority is on social causes [at home] to take care of the economic crisis, so there is no money for an escalation in Syria.”

In mid June there were some reports of violations of the ceasefire, with Russian airstrikes on Idlib and reports of civilian casualties. These appeared to be in retaliation for attempts by the HTS to seize several villages, and attack Russian targets, however. Dr Elizabeth Tsurkov remains positive: “This is the first time in the history of ceasefires in Syria when Russia and the regime will be punished for violating it. Turkish drones will be up the skies, killing soldiers. The costs will be much higher for them. It is difficult to make predictions, because there are too many uncertain factors right now, also looking at the elections in the US coming up. But I think the ceasefire will last for the rest of 2020.”

Tsurkov adds: “The area north of the M4 highway will remain out of regime hands for the foreseeable future. Until a deal is reached, the area will essentially be annexed into Turkey. We are already seeing the dynamics of that in northern Aleppo.”

Amplifying fears in Damascus of a de facto annexation, in mid June Turkish-backed opposition groups introduced the Turkish Lira and the US dollar as local currencies in cities and towns across Idlib governorate in an effort, they claimed, to stabilise the local economy after the ongoing depreciation of the Syrian pound.

Russia’s endgame in Syria 

Whenever it might end, Khlebnikov sees the ongoing ceasefire between Russia, the regime and Turkey in northern Syria as a temporary solution: “It is definitely not a final solution. There are two options with the ceasefire: it will be cancelled, or updated. I don’t think there will be any major breaches.”

“On the other hand, there is a certain risk of escalation, because if Turkey won’t be able to deliver on its promises to clear the buffer zone, that may become a legitimate reason for Russia and the Syrian army to launch operations.” But, warns Khlebnikov: “In the last four months, Turkey allocated about 15.000 troops and upped military equipment. It is amassing its forces in Idlib. Any fight with Turkey will be a disaster for Russia.”

With a mass outbreak of the Covid-19 virus still threatening Syria – with its heavily weakened health care system after nearly a decade of war – a fight between Russia and Turkey on Syrian territory would not only carry great risk for Moscow. It is likely that Syrian civilians would bear the greatest losses, once again.

▲ Russia patrol in northern Syria (via Rojava News Network).

Published

June 8, 2020

Written by

Oliver Imhof

Civilians return to shattered homes littered with IEDs and unexploded ordnance

In an extraordinary reversal, the opposition Libyan National Army (LNA) – believed until recently to be the dominant military power in Libya today – has been routed from much of its western territory in just a few weeks. Retreating LNA forces abandoned tanks, attack helicopters and other advanced weaponry as they fled the Government of National Accord (GNA) and its Turkish backers.

In mid-January things had looked very bleak indeed for Tripoli’s GNA. General Khalifa Haftar’s forces had just seized Sirte, the city the GNA had symbolically taken from ISIS with US support back in 2016. Haftar’s opposition Libyan National Army was slowly tightening its grip on Tripoli’s suburbs; and it looked like an equally bloody and destructive battle for Benghazi could be looming.

However a ceasefire deal between Turkey and Russia came to the rescue of the GNA alliance – still more resembling a loose coalition of militias than a national government.

Turkey used that ceasefire to smuggle drones and advanced air defences into the country, as well as Syrian mercenaries, in blatant violation of the UN arms embargo. These turned out to be a game changer, given that the United Arab Emirates and Russia, the LNA’s strongest backers, were either unwilling or incapable of matching Turkey’s support. The LNA quickly lost its air superiority in early February and later also its air defences, as Turkish drones took out several state-of-the-art Russian Pantsir anti-air systems.

How was the LNA’s previous air superiority so quickly dismantled? “First, the Pantsirs being – at least in part – handed over to LNA crews who were under-trained and ineffective. And strong electronic warfare, most likely with a KORAL system, by the Turkish,” explains Oded Berkowitz, an analyst at MAX Security.

 

#Libya– and another video via @libyaalahrartv showing 2 Pantsir S-1/SA-22 Greyhound destroyed in #Tarhuna.

Note how at the start of the video they're just sitting ideally by each other with the radar on… pic.twitter.com/pZAVEVePGr

— Oded Berkowitz (@Oded121351) May 20, 2020

Despite repeated reports of the UAE flying in supplies to Benghazi, the LNA quickly found itself on the ropes. Its most significant loss was that of the Al Watiyah air base close to the Tunisian border on May 18th. Al Watiyah is not only a proper military air base, as opposed to Mitiga airport which is also used for civilian purposes – it also gives Turkey a potential foothold in northern Africa, enabling it to station aircraft there.

After the loss of Al Watiyah in late May, events moved quickly. In the first week of June the GNA completed their rout of Haftar’s forces with the capture of Tripoli International Airport and Qasr Bin Gashir – finally breaking a fifteen month siege of the capital. Meanwhile, Russian mercenaries with the Wagner Group were reported to have abandoned Haftar’s forces, allegedly leaving booby traps and mines in their wake. According to the GNA Ministry of Interior, 25 members of its demining teams had been killed between May 21st and June 4th.

An alleged Teddy Bear IED left behind by LNA/#Wagner in #Tripoli.

As horrible as this is, several points about this of note: Serbian M62P10 HE 120mm mortar bomb (Lot 01 of 2019, clear export violation), Russian MUV-4 fuze & a Russian semtex block initiator.

Just screams Wagner. pic.twitter.com/a61g724w4y

— Cᴀʟɪʙʀᴇ Oʙsᴄᴜʀᴀ (@CalibreObscura) June 4, 2020

Surprisingly, despite the withdrawal of the Wagner mercenaries, Haftar’s forces had received up to 14 Russian fighter jets as reported by US Africa Command in a bellicose public statement. A UN source told Airwars that some of these planes were supplied from Belarus via Russia and on to Syria, where with the addition of some old Syrian air force jets they were transited to Libya – by now shadowed by the US military.

The intervention by Russia so far has been limited and less overt compared to Syria, and may have been intended as a show of strength to keep the GNA from moving into the southwestern Fezzan and Cyrenaica in the East. Russia’s decision to supply attack aircraft to the LNA may also have tipped the United States into overtly backing the UN-backed GNA for the first time in several years.

Haftar’s last bastion near Tripoli was Tarhuna, some 65km southeast of the capital. GNA forces had repeatedly shelled the city in recent weeks and many expected a bloodbath as Tarhuna – historically loyal to the Gaddafi regime – had sided with Haftar through its local Kaniyat Brigade. However instead of fighting, LNA forces chaotically withdrew. Images circulating on social media show the full extent of arms embargo breaches in Libya in recent years, with Russian helicopters and tanks, Chinese MANPADS and anti-UAV guns as well as Serbian mortar shells among the discoveries, earning the nickname of “biggest arms convention in the world.”

#Tripoli: last one for the day, GNA-aligned forces towing an #LAAF helicopter (Mi35) captured near Fom Melgha, at the outskirts of #Tarhuna

Pretty sure no driving test prepares you for this… pic.twitter.com/ywVPxDcWgo

— Emadeddin Badi (@emad_badi) June 4, 2020

Civilians suffer once again

The impact on civilians of the LNA’s fourteen month failed Tripoli offensive can only be described as devastating. Airwars has found that 60% of all reported civilian harm from air and artillery strikes since 2012 occurred since April 4th 2019.

Prior to the siege, Airwars had recorded a minimum of 298 civilian deaths, while another 439 have been reported over the past 14 months. Some 276 of those deaths have either been attributed to the LNA or to its allies, while 87 civilian deaths were allegedly caused by the GNA and Turkey. The latter number is on the rise, with civilian harm from GNA and Turkish actions now escalating as they gain the upper hand.

But it is not only airstrikes that pose a grave threat to civilians. The LNA and its Wagner allies left behind a substantial amount of mines, IEDs and unexploded ordnance. One of the many civilian victims is Saleh, brother of former Airwars Libya Researcher Osama Mansour, who was injured when checking on the family home in the south of Tripoli.

“My brother got there by car, when he wanted to go to our house the neighbour removed a branch of a tree and a mine went off. My brother was hit in the neck and the teeth, lost a lot of blood as well and was unconscious for a couple of minutes,” Osama tells us. “The neighbour lost more blood and has been in surgery twice already, and they still need to remove two pieces of shrapnel from his liver,” he adds. The event is one of many in south Tripoli, with civilians killed or badly injured. “It gives us a very insecure feeling to go back after all the incidents,” Osama says.

The only thing they didn't steal, or burn is my books.#Libya #Tripoli_war pic.twitter.com/O6cNnbfvPa

— Jalal Othman (@jalalothman) June 7, 2020

Besides military mistakes, old grievances and retaliation may soon play a role as well: “There are legitimate concerns about abuses by GNA forces against civilians in newly captured territory. However, GNA officials are mindful of these concerns and they’ll be working to avoid such abuses,” claims Mohamed Eljarh, a well-connected Libya independent analyst. So far, it seems the UN-backed government is struggling to keep the situation under control, with reports of looting and damage to properties emerging over the weekend.

When GNA forces took Tarhuna from the LNA they also uncovered 106 dead bodies, including children and women, in a hospital morgue. Some had allegedly been executed with shots to the head, though so far the exact circumstances of the deaths are unclear.

Future prospects

Although the routing of the LNA marks Libya’s biggest military turning point in several years, the future remains unclear. While the GNA presently has the upper hand, it remains a coalition of necessity – made up of ideologically diverse militias united by a common enemy and now strengthened by Turkey’s intervention. Tensions are likely to arise within the GNA as the shaky coalition adapts to holding more power and territory.

In terms of military goals Mohammed Eljarh says he expects that “Turkey and the GNA will continue to expand their territorial control. Control of key oil facilities in the southwest in particular will be high on the agenda. The GNA is trying to restart some of the oil production from al-Sharara and al-Feel oilfields.”

How far the GNA’s territorial ambitions go also depends on the LNA’s international backers, as Wolfram Lacher from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs explains: “At a minimum, GNA-aligned forces will seek to ensure that Haftar loyalists can no longer use Bani Walid [160km south of Tripoli] as a logistics hub. But it is likely that they will now attempt an offensive on Sirte or Jufra.”

Yet initial attempts by the GNA to take Sirte have failed – met with staunch resistance and airstrikes from pro-LNA fighter jets, and suggesting the LNA and its backers may seek to draw a line at Gaddafi’s birthplace.

Following these newly established facts on the ground, both parties have now agreed to resume the stalled 5+5 talks in Geneva, UNSMIL announced on June 2nd. Haftar has reportedly lost major support from his international backers, especially Egypt. President Sisi brought Aguila Saleh, President of the House of Representatives in Tobruk, and Khalifa Haftar to the table and announced a ceasefire on June 6th. That agreement was then rejected by the GNA. “Only if Russian and Emirati intervention stops the GNA offensives could we see growing calls for negotiations within the GNA coalition,” Lacher says. Perhaps ominously, a day later Egypt was reported to have deployed M1A2 Abrams tanks to the Libyan border.

The UAE for now remains Haftar’s strongest backer, while Russia seems keen to at least hold a stake in Libya, as the recent delivery of fighter planes shows. But that move may backfire – with the US now overtly resisting Russian adventurism in north Africa, while pressuring the UAE to the negotiating table.

Had an important conversation with Emirati Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan on increasing regional stability and supporting a lasting @UN-brokered ceasefire in Libya. Grateful for our strong partnership in combatting the global COVID-19 pandemic.

— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) June 4, 2020

“Haftar’s defeat in western Libya will have wide-ranging implications for his coalition. Many who supported him because they hoped to sweep to power with him will now reconsider their allegiances,” Lacher asserts. “The same goes for his adversaries, among whom Haftar’s offensive had served as a unifying threat and kept distrust and rivalries among them in check.”

It currently seems unlikely that either side can control all of Libya. And distrust between rival leaders has been high in the past, making a ceasefire deal unlikely. The amount of weapons discovered around Tripoli also serves as an indicator that Libya’s on-and-off civil war, now in its tenth year, could still be far from over.

▲ A member of the Danish Demining Group standing in front of a destroyed building in downtown Benghazi, June 2020 (via Liam Kelly)

Published

May 26, 2020

Written by

Laurie Treffers and Oliver Imhof

Airwars and design partners Rectangle are commemorating those civilians killed and injured in conflicts, by livestreaming over 24 hours the names of 8,337 civilian casualties the international monitor has documented in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Somalia in recent years.

The digital event marks the occasion of the UN’s 2020 Protection of Civilians Week.

Every name has a story

Over twenty-four hours starting at midnight London time on May 26th/27th – the date of the UN Secretary General’s annual Protection of Civilians (PoC)  speech –  the names of just some of the many civilians reportedly killed by air and artillery strikes in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Somalia since 2007 will be livestreamed on our website and YouTube channel.

Khaled Mustafa Qurmo and Khaled Abdel Majid were about to drop off their friend Barakat Barakat at his home in October 2019. The three friends were eating pumpkin seeds while driving through Barisha in northwestern Syria when they were reportedly hit by helicopters searching for ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi.

“There were so many shells falling on us, it was like rain. My hand, the one holding up Khaled’s head, got cut off,” Barakat explained to NPR last year. “Am I Baghdadi? How is this my fault? I’m just a civilian. I didn’t have any weapons. We’re farmers. I make less than a dollar a day. Now I’m handicapped, and my two friends are in their graves.”

Barakat Barakat is just one of 8,337 civilian casualties over the past 13 years whose names Airwars has recorded while monitoring conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Somalia.

UN Protection of Civilians Week 2020

Through its daily monitoring of local news organisations, social media and official sources, as well as via sources on the ground, Airwars has in total recorded over 119,000 reported civilian deaths and injuries since we began documenting conflicts in August 2014 – of which more than eight thousand casualties attributed to specific belligerents can presently be named.

This UN PoC Week, Airwars aims to commemorate those who have lost their lives, while calling for governments to better account for their military actions.

The project Conflicting Truth is in partnership with the Scottish-American design team Rectangle, who also produce the complex mapping and data representations on the Airwars website.

This week’s live cast is based on an original installation by Rectangle with Sophie Dyer, first shown in Detroit in March 2019. It had been hoped to show Conflicting Truth in New York during this year’s UN PoC Week. Instead, due to the Covid-19 crisis, the decision was taken to livecast a digital version.

Rimas and Shahem Hamdou with their father Hamza al Haj Hamdou. The children were killed in an alleged Russian strike in Thalatheen Street in Idlib city on March 3rd 2020 (image courtesy of the Syrian Network for Human Rights)

Not just numbers

The Airwars/ Rectangle project seeks to show that those killed and injured in conflict are not mere statistics –  they are people with names, friends and families. Their loss inflicts severe pain on relatives, and the communities they belong to.

“I was washing dishes. Suddenly our house was filled with shrapnel. I went out and called Arif (my son), but I did not see him. I only saw black smoke. When the smoke faded away, I saw my son on the ground as a martyr,” said a mother whose son Arif was among eight other children reportedly killed in alleged Turkish shelling on Tal Rifaat in Syria on December 2nd, 2019.

The suffering often does not end with losing loved ones or seeing them disabled: it also heavily impacts the lives of those spared by the fighting. “All a young man like me cares about now is how he gets home safe every day. Or when you go to bed, all you’re thinking about is the possibility that a rocket falls on you,” Marwan, a resident of the southern suburbs of the Libyan capital Tripoli recently told Airwars. “I lost friends, relatives, loved ones in this war,” he elaborates. “I’m doing an MA now, and I’m afraid to lose my dream, and my future and I can’t do anything. That makes me want to run away, to live a decent life with equal opportunities.”

Airwars aims to add as many biographical details of victims as possible. On May 16th of this year for example, the 5-year-old Bangladeshi boy Wahi Zuhair Matin was killed in alleged LNA artillery strikes on Al Fornaj neighbourhood in Tripoli. The GNA-affiliated Burkan Al Ghadab Operation wrote on Facebook that the child’s “ambition was to buy a bike and play ‘like the kids’.”

Civil Society Call for Action

Airwars is also joining with other international partners and organisations in a Civil Society Call for Action to Protect Civilians during PoC week. The joint statement signed by 22 organisations calls on the UN Security Council, Member States, and the UN System to take urgent, bold and practical steps to respond to the challenges that remain in the protection of civilians in armed conflict.

The UN Security Council added the protection of civilians in armed conflict (PoC) to its agenda in 1999, recognising PoC as a matter of international peace and security. The UN PoC Week is held annually between May 27th and June 1st. The United Nations celebrates UN Peacekeeping Day on May 29th.

▲ The original physical installation Conflicting Truth was shown in Detroit in March 2019, and was developed by Rectangle with Sophie Dyer. It features the names of civilian victims preserved in the Airwars database. (Image courtesy of Rectangle)