News & Investigations

News & Investigations

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

Published

September 14, 2020

Written by

Oliver Imhof

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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)

Published

April 6, 2020

Written by

Oliver Imhof

First year of renewed civil war sees at least 324 civilians reportedly killed, as first cases of coronavirus now emerge

Tripoli, the capital of Libya, has entered its second year of being under siege, part of the most significant upsurge in violence in the country’s intermittent civil war since 2012. Hundreds of civilians have so far died – with little effort either domestically or internationally to bring the fighting to an end.

While most of the world is currently seeking refuge from the COVID-19 virus in their homes, many Libyans in the nation’s capital face a dilemma: stay in their houses and possibly fall victim to indiscriminate shelling – or leave their homes, and risk getting infected in the ongoing pandemic.

As crude as it may sound, the worldwide corona crisis had initially raised hopes among Libyans that the Libyan National Army (LNA) and the Government of National Accord (GNA) might agree to a humanitarian ceasefire. After years of destruction and mismanagement, the country’s health system is likely incapable of handling both a pandemic and civil war at the same time. An oil blockade in Libya coupled with a global collapse in oil prices is also likely to lead to a severe financial crisis.

“My most recent visit to Tripoli was in early December and it was clear at that point that the population was suffering greatly from the war, with hundreds of thousands displaced from their homes, the only operating airport in the city repeatedly shut down as a result of attacks, and concerns that the fighting would soon enter the city centre,” says Mary Fitzgerald, a well respected Libya analyst.

She adds: “Now four months on – following some of the bloodiest weeks of the war, a damaging oil blockade, and the spectre of the Coronavirus pandemic – Tripoli residents I speak to are even more fearful of the future. The fact that the war continues with no end in sight shows where the belligerents’ priorities lie.”

The impact of COVID-19 on this precarious nation has been further amplified by the recent death from the virus of former Libyan Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril. OCHA has so far confirmed 18 cases and one death in Libya, with over 300 people so far in quarantine.

On this day a year ago, Mr. Haftar began his #Tripoli offensive and promised to take the capital within 2 weeks. Thousands became victims of the ongoing clashes. The NPO @airwars has monitored reports of civilian casualties on both sides. I've collected them in this chart. #Libya pic.twitter.com/CyGAKBwhvX

— Dzsihad Hadelli (@dhadelli) April 4, 2020

Over half of all civilian harm in Libya since end of civil war occurred in the last year

Libya’s population has indeed been suffering greatly from the war. According to Airwars data, between 324 and 458 civilians have been killed nationally by 2,034 air and artillery strikes since April 4th 2019, and another 576 to 850 injured. This means that 52% of civilians killed since the end of the civil war in 2011 have been reportedly slain within the last twelve months.

Foreign meddling has exacerbated the impact on the civilian population. The LNA receives support from the United Arab Emirates, Russia, Jordan and Egypt. The GNA, on the other hand, is publicly backed by Turkey and Qatar.

“The international backers have played a crucial role. The offensive of April 4th, 2019, was immediately met with tremendous resistance, and eastern Libyan fighters did not want to risk their lives for Haftar 600 miles away from home,” explains Jalel Harchaoui, Libya Research Fellow at Clingendael in The Hague.

“The reason the offensive managed to continue is because the UAE intervened militarily. Eager to offset the LNA’s weaknesses on the ground, the UAE carried out more than 900 air strikes in the greater Tripoli area last year using Chinese combat drones and, occasionally, French-made fighter jets,” Harchaoui asserts.

Airwars has recorded local reports of 1,113 LNA or Emirati strikes over the last year, whose air forces have become so intertwined that it’s often impossible to distinguish who bombed. These allegedly led to between 209 and 308 civilian deaths, making the LNA and UAE likely responsible for the majority of civilian harm in Libya since April last year.

Both air forces were also accused of conducting those individual strikes which resulted in the greatest civilian harm over the last 12 months. On July 3rd 2019, an airstrike hit a migrant detention centre in Tajoura, most likely conducted by an Emirati fighter jet, according to the BBC. The number of reported deaths has varied between 37 and 80 civilians, with OCHA and UNSMIL estimates at 44 and 53 deaths respectively. In December, a UN Panel of Experts report raised concerns about the thoroughness of the post-strike investigation at Tajoura, and suggested that deaths had been exaggerated. Conversely, interviews with some eyewitnesses indicate the death toll might actually be higher than 53.

The second biggest reported event was an airstrike on Murzuq on August 4th 2019, allegedly leading to between 42 and 45 civilian deaths, after a town hall meeting was reportedly hit. Again, the LNA or the Emirates were accused.

Turkey responded to the UAE by deploying Bayraktar TB2 drones and military advisers. In December, the two boosted their military cooperation by formalising a deal.

According to Airwars monitoring of local reports, the internationally recognised GNA government and its close ally Turkey conducted 402 air and artillery strikes over the last year, leading to between 55 and 75 civilian deaths.

Al Safwa hospital in Tripoli, allegedly damaged by LNA shelling on March 26th, 2020 (via Seraj)

Modern Turkish weaponry as a game changer

Despite an initially slow performance on the battlefield, the LNA was looking at potential victory towards the end of 2019, when its Chinese-made Wing Loong drones managed to take out several smaller Turkish drones over Tripoli. Haftar now ruled the skies – but was interrupted by the Berlin process and a ceasefire deal between Russia and Turkey. The agreement struck on January 18th brought a brief period of relative peace to the Libyan capital. Meanwhile, international backers used this period to smuggle even more weapons into the country, despite supposed commitments to respect the ongoing UN arms embargo.

The most important introduction was the Turkish Korkut, a state-of-the-art anti-aircraft gun. A UN source, who asked not to be named for this article, told Airwars: “If you fly within 4km of a Korkut you’re toast.” The source added that this strike range can potentially be extended to 11 km, using ATOM munition. However this is reportedly harder to deliver according to the source, making it unclear whether they are currently being used in Libya.

“The Korkuts are currently protecting Mitiga and Misurata airports and they’re easily hidden in a bush or something similar,” the source says. Turkey has supposedly deployed six of these anti-aircraft guns and by doing so “made it clear that Haftar cannot win the war. If the LNA wants to win now, they have to do something unusual on the frontline.”

In addition, Turkey provided T155 howitzers as well as armoured vehicles, the BBC uncovered recently. Mercenaries from Syria have also added manpower to weakened GNA forces.

The UAE seem to have reacted to the beefing up of its opponent’s forces by flying extra military materiel into Libya, sometimes through convoluted routes via Eritrea. What these deliveries contain is opaque: “As they fly it in via plane, it is harder to determine what the LNA received,” the UN source explains.

One interesting recent addition to the LNA’s arsenal is the Chinese-made DHI-UAV-D-1000JHV2 UAV counter-drone gun. Fighters have been spotted with the eye-catching device that takes down drones by jamming their signal on several occasions. However, who delivered the guns to the LNA is unclear according to the UN source.

a much clearer picture 🙂 pic.twitter.com/301Ygmyo4F

— Alhasairi (@Alhasairi1) March 22, 2020

The Berlin process – a failure

The weapon and mercenary influx on both sides is part of the reason why Libya’s hopes for a ceasefire – and any long-term success for the Berlin peace process – have proved disappointing. Instead of concentrating on assisting relief efforts for any local coronavirus outbreaks, Libyan forces and their international backers are instead exploiting distractions among the international community to resume fighting.

“The Berlin process has achieved little more than words on paper. Violations of the arms embargo have actually increased since the Berlin declaration,” Mary Fitzgerald says. “While it remains to be seen what the EU naval operation Irini achieves – though many are sceptical given its limited mandate – the crux of the matter is that no one is willing to name and shame the most egregious violators of the arms embargo, let alone sanction them.”

“I still do not think the LNA will be able to win. But it may enter the downtown area of Tripoli and do tremendous amounts of damage while doing so. One also has to highlight the very possible scenario where the Government of National Accord’s forces and the Turkish mission succeed in expelling the LAAF [Libyan Arab Armed Forces] from Tripolitania altogether,” Jalel Harchaoui concludes.

As the siege of Tripoli enters its second year, all Libyans face a bleak potential future – with worries over an escalating conflict; the COVID-19 pandemic; and financial uncertainties resulting from the collapse in oil prices. However this civil war may end, it will likely have grim consequences for Libya’s long suffering civilians.

▲ A fighter wears a facemask to protect from coronavirus (COVID-19), while taking part in operations in support of Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) against the forces of warlord Khalifa Haftar in Tripoli, Libya on March 25, 2020. (Amru Salahuddien/ Anadolu Agency)

Published

October 18, 2019

Written by

Oliver Imhof

Dozens of non combatants killed during latest Turkish attack on Kurdish regions of northern Syria.

Airwars monitors locally reported civilian harm from all Turkish air and artillery strikes in Iraq and Syria, as well as from Kurdish counterfire actions. Our database can be found here.

More than 120 civilian deaths have been locally alleged in eight days of fighting in northern Syria to October 16th, following a Turkish-led offensive, ‘Operation Peace Spring’, which began on October 9th.

In total Airwars researchers have tracked  between 102 and 126 reported civilian deaths resulting from air and artillery strikes by both sides. Between 71 and 85 fatalities were attributed to Turkish strikes by local sources in 64 incidents, while 31 to 41 non combatants were alleged killed by the People’s Protection Units (YPG) conducting counterfire strikes on Turkish and Syrian towns in 26 incidents.

Around 160,000 people have reportedly been displaced due to the fighting so far.

In the worst reported event to date, between 11 and 19 civilians were reported killed by a Turkish airstrike on a convoy heading from al-Jazira to Ras al-Ain. Four journalists were reportedly among those killed, and the strike supposedly injured up to 74 more people.

In addition, reports of executions of civilians have raised fears of more severe war crimes in the Kurdish-controlled parts of Northern Syria. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), of which the YPG is the backbone, had controlled the territory after defeating ISIS, with the loss of more than 12,000 Kurdish fighters. Observers fear that the jihadi organisation could resurface should the SDF lose control over ISIS prisons due to the Turkish offensive.

Both pictures are from Serêkaniyê after Turkish airstrikes on the city #TwitterKurds pic.twitter.com/bmLUdEf5dS

— Cahîda Dêrsim (@dersi4m) October 9, 2019

Historical data heightens worries for civilians

Casualty data from the latest Turkish incursion is included in a major online Airwars database, which maps all reported civilian harm in Iraq and Syria from alleged Turkish strikes since 2015. As many as 1,650 civilian deaths have been locally alleged in more than 360 incidents.

According to the Airwars grading system, between 433 and 763 civilians had already likely fallen victim to air and artillery strikes across three countries during two previous waves of Turkish attacks on Kurdish-controlled territories from 2015 until October 8th 2019.

Hostilities between the Turks and Kurds flared up shortly after Turkey briefly became involved in the anti-ISIS Coalition led by the US in Iraq and Syria in 2015. Ankara used the opportunity of intervention against ISIS to also attack the Kurds – who make up a large part of the population in the north of both countries. With Kurdish forces gaining strength over the course of the war, fears were sparked in Ankara of an independent Kurdistan which might pose a threat to Turkey’s ambition as a major regional power.

Turkish strikes also heavily targeted ISIS, in particular during the Battle for Al Bab at the end of 2016. That city was almost entirely destroyed in the fighting and between 308 and 585 civilians reportedly killed by Turkish actions, according to Airwars data. In parallel, Turkey has occasionally targeted Kurdish forces in northern Iraq where it also maintains a permanent military presence. The number of civilians killed there has been comparatively low, with Airwars research indicating between 24 and 29 fatalities to date.

Fighting between Turkish and Kurdish forces once again escalated during Turkey’s ‘Operation Olive Branch’ in early 2018. That campaign, launched on January 20th by the Turkish military in cooperation with the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), targeted the canton of Afrin in northwest Syria near the Turkish border. The invasion targeted Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), mostly made up of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). The SDF until then had controlled the Afrin canton, a de facto autonomous region in the mountainous border area. Ankara considers the YPG to be the Syrian arm of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) which it deems a terrorist organisation.

Frontlines during the 2018 Afrin campaign (via Wikimedia)

With Turkish and FSA forces progressing quickly through Afrin, the alliance took full control of the canton on March 24th 2018 after eight weeks of fighting. The operation drew heavy criticism at the time from various governments, which insisted that Turkey’s security concerns did not justify an invasion of neighbouring territory. Following the capture of the regional capital of Afrin city by Turkish forces, the SDF began an insurgency.

Over the past 18 months, Turkish military action had mostly involved sporadic clashes in Afrin and occasional airstrikes in the Kurdish regions of Syria and Iraq, allegedly causing occasional civilian casualties. After the Kurds invited Syrian regime troops into parts of their remaining territory, a Turkish invasion had appeared less likely, given that Ankara does not want a confrontation with the two battle-hardened forces. US and Russian forces had also acted as buffers.

Instead the Turkish military increasingly made use of targeted killings to impair the Kurds, some of which were conducted by the newly designed Bayraktar TB2 drone that is also being heavily used in Libya.

This standoff between the two foes came to an end following President Donald Trump’s abrupt recent decision to abandon the Kurds and withdraw US troops from Syria This led directly to the latest Turkish offensive – which has the stated goal of creating a buffer zone between the two countries.

We defeated 100% of the ISIS Caliphate and no longer have any troops in the area under attack by Turkey, in Syria. We did our job perfectly! Now Turkey is attacking the Kurds, who have been fighting each other for 200 years….

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 10, 2019

Third escalation

In response to the Turkish invasion, Kurdish forces struck a Russian-brokered deal with the Assad regime to help protect their Syrian territory – where they have enjoyed de-facto autonomy for several years. That agreement has raised fears of an open confrontation between Damascus and Ankara at their border. However, the Russian government seems intent on avoiding that scenario so far.

However, a Kurdish withdrawal as in Afrin seems unlikely on this occasion. Greater involvement by the Assad regime and Russia, both accused of deliberately targeting civilian neighbourhoods and institutions throughout the Syrian civil war, could mean new horrors for local populations.

In the most recent development, US Vice President Pence struck a reported ceasefire deal with Turkish President Erdogan on October 17th. That agreement pauses fighting for 120 hours – during which the Kurds are required to withdraw from a 32 km ‘safe zone’ between the two countries. With the Kurds rejecting any occupation by Turkey – while Syrian regime and Russian troops flow into the area – it is presently unclear how likely any such deal is to hold.

US and Turkey reach an agreement to suspend military operation in Syria against the Kurds.-YPG leaving heavy weapons and withdraw its troops from the "safe zone",444km wide,32km deep.-Turkish side will pause 120 hours to allow Kurdish fighters to withdraw from the safe-zone. pic.twitter.com/eVnhZPtuC0

— Military Advisor (@miladvisor) October 17, 2019

▲ Destruction after alleged Turkish shelling on Ayn Diwar on October 11 (via ANF)

Published

September 25, 2019

Written by

Oliver Imhof

Civilian casualties are sharply up - with UAE and Turkey often to blame, say experts

Foreign powers are increasingly being drawn into Libya’s civil war – with lethal air strikes reportedly carried out by at least two other nations, and with Libya’s two rival governments both hiring foreign mercenary pilots, and receiving shipments of weapons from abroad. Experts are warning that an internationalising of the conflict may further destabilize the already-fragmented North African nation.

Two nations in particular are now involved in a proxy war – with Turkey and the United Arab Emirates each targeting the other’s air assets in a battle for control of Libya’s skies.

Until fairly recently, the Libyan city of Misurata had been off limits despite armed clashes between the two rival governments for control of the nation’s capital – and likely the whole country. Even though the western coastal city of Misurata is supporting the Tripoli-based and UN-supported Government of National Accord (GNA) with ground troops and air power, Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar’s rebel Libyan National Army (LNA) had refrained from attacking it. The powerful Misuratans could potentially tip the military scales against him by getting more involved, and Haftar reportedly wanted to keep a door open for negotiations.

But on July 26th, everything changed. The GNA dealt a heavy blow to Haftar’s forces that day by targeting its Jufra airbase, reportedly destroying two large cargo planes and killing a Ukrainian mercenary pilot. It is not clear whether that strike was conducted by Misuratan planes, or by Turkish armed drones.

The LNA retaliated the next day by hitting the alleged control room for Turkish armed Bayraktar TB2 drones in Misurata. Either the LNA itself or allied Emirati drones struck the city’s Air College, highlighting the increasing internationalisation of this bitter civil war.

Destroyed aircraft at Jufra airbase following a GNA airstrike on July 26th (via European Space Imaging)

Blame game

Both the LNA and GNA now openly blame foreign forces for major attacks. The catastrophic airstrike on a migrant detention on July 3rd which killed at least 53 civilians was the work of a United Arab Emirates (UAE) aircraft, insisted the GNA. The Emirates was also blamed by some for an August 4th-5th strike on the city of Murzuq in which at least 42 civilians died.

France too has been implicated in the violence, with Javelin anti-tank missiles, originally obtained by the French military, finding their way into the hands of the rebel LNA. Italy’s foreign minister openly condemned Paris for, in his words, choosing to side against the UN-supported Government of National Accord.

Haftar’s forces have in turn captured Turkish citizens, and threatened to attack Turkish targets following a spate of precision strikes, reportedly by Turkish drones. Turkey, has a robust domestic armed drone programme, and its Bayraktar TB2 drones appear to have been deployed to Libya in some numbers. Despite their limited munitions payload (45kg) and range (requiring nearby ground control centres) the Bayraktars initially had some effect on Haftar’s forces. However, increasingly the TB2s are being hunted down and destroyed – almost certainly by the UAE’s own more powerful Wing Loong armed drones.

The control room for Turkey’s TB2s had reportedly been moved several times after the previous one at Mitiga airport in Tripoli was destroyed by continuous airstrikes, according to defence and security analyst Arnaud Delalande.

“Turkey initially delivered four drones to the GNA, though three were destroyed in an LNA strike,“ he says, citing as his source Misurata Air Academy airmen. “Another five drones were ordered then, and following two more deliveries currently between six and eight are operational.”

After heavy hits to the Misurata airbase there were said to be plans to move the Turkish drones either to Zuwara in Libya’s far east, or to Ghardabiya airbase south of Sirte. With its drones re-stationed, the GNA would have the capability of striking targets deeper into Libya’s Haftar-occupied east, including the Oil Crescent. Delalande says that the LNA has preemptively been striking Zuwara and Ghardabiya to prevent any military use. By doing so, Haftar’s forces have again widened the fronts of the ongoing civil war as they struck those forces around Sirte who ousted ISIS from the city in 2016. Fighting jihadists used to be a goal that GNA and LNA were once committed to before their hostilities began.

Most of the TB2s were later destroyed, likely while landing after conducting missions. Six more drones were delivered at the end of August to the GNA, according to a source. But these too are at risk. Haftar’s forces claim to have destroyed or disabled 14 Turkish drones to date, according to an official with an international monitoring agency who asked not to be named for this report.

A GNA government source disclosed to Airwars that these drones are now constantly being moved in vehicles for the moment, instead of being housed at an airport. The Tripoli-based Rada Special Deterrence Force is they said helping Turkish personnel operate them, while Libyan militiamen are being trained in Misurata to fly drones. By doing so, the Turks and their allies are mimicking a Cold War strategy whereby the US and Soviets kept small arsenals of nuclear weapons on the move in case their ground bases were disabled.

Responding to a request for comment, the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed that it had “no information” on drone strikes or weapon deliveries to Libya, though said it “continues to support the GNA.”

five new aircraft shelters were set up at Misrata airport in June 2019 https://t.co/cEQfUdVtYy wide enough to house a Bayraktar UAV pic.twitter.com/HsgL9MFqv3

— Samir (@obretix) July 29, 2019

Emirati assets

While the GNA relies heavily on Turkish support, Haftar’s forces are increasingly dependent on Chinese-made armed Wing Loong drones being operated by the UAE.

“Only 30% of the LNA air fleet are operational and need to be overhauled,” explains Delalande. The emergency landing on July 22nd of an armed LNA L-39 in Tunisia, normally used as a trainer aircraft, highlighted a reliance upon inferior aircraft. An official with an international agency, who asked not to be named, claimed that manned aircraft strikes in Libya had now virtually ended – making this one of the world’s first drone versus drone conflicts. However reports persist elsewhere of some ongoing strikes by manned aircraft, most likely those of a foreign power.

Since Jun, recurring testimonies have pointed to foreign fighter jets carrying out strikes in W #Libya

That is v plausible.

Some investigative journalism would be worthwhile here

Eg, Possibility that above are #Emirati Mirage 2000-5s taking off from W #Egypt should be examined https://t.co/iVrI8xpZTk

— Jalel Harchaoui (@JMJalel_H) September 21, 2019

Despite some gains on the ground for the GNA, the situation looks bleak in the air for the UN-backed government and its ally Turkey. The Chinese Wing Loong II used by the Emiratis is superior in terms of range and capacity to the Bayraktar TB2. “The Bayraktar drones are limited to 150km which can be extended with relay units, while the Wing Loongs can strike anywhere in Libya,” a technical assessor with an international agency disclosed to Airwars. “The Wing Loong can also carry more than eight times the weight of the Bayraktar with 400kg of missiles compared to 45kg,” the source adds. Local reports of heavy bombing over the past week by LNA and Emirati planes seem to confirm their air superiority.

Without the Emirati aircraft, believed to be based at Al Khadim in eastern Libya, the LNA would not be capable of conducting night-time strikes such as the one on July 3rd in Tajoura which hit a migrant detention centre, killing at least 53 civilians, alleges Oded Berkowitz, an analyst at MAX-Security.

That incident marked the biggest civilian harm event harm in Libya since 2011. Most sources accused the LNA of conducting the strike, though with the GNA itself insisting it had been conducted by an Emirati F-16. This seems unlikely, with no other claims of UAE F-16s being used in Libya. The UAE Foreign Ministry did not respond to an Airwars request for information on Emirati involvement in Libya.

In another major incident, at least 42 civilians were reportedly killed at Murzuq when an airstrike hit a town hall meeting in early August. Again, local sources accused the LNA and the UAE of conducting the strike. Murzuq, in the far south of the country, is another frontline for Haftar’s forces which are engaged in fighting with local tribesmen from the Tebu minority. At least 90 civilians have been killed in those clashes so far, according to OCHA.

In a later development, the US itself declared an airstrike near Murzuq on September 19th, claiming it killed eight ISIS members. That marked the first officially declared US strike in Libya since November 2018. Another US strike was then conducted five days later, again near Murzuq, supposedly killing eleven terrorists.

Jordan, Russia and France also involved

In addition to the United Arab Emirates, the LNA receives backing from several other foreign powers. Egypt has reportedly scaled back its own support, with no strikes publicly reported so far, though it is said to be training pilots. Jordan, however, is increasing its involvement by training LNA officers, and supplying armoured vehicles to Haftar’s ground forces – which have been widely pictured operating in Libya.

Jordanian Al-Mared personnel carriers recently photographed in Libya (via Defence Web)

Saudi Arabia and Russia presently take minor roles through offers of financial aid, or by delivering spare parts. However, there remains a risk of greater Russian involvement, as happened with Syria in 2015. A US State Department official, speaking on terms of anonymity, claimed to Airwars that Russia has previously carried out at least one demonstration airstrike in Libya for the LNA, which was launched from an Egyptian airbase near Siwa. There were also recent claims of Russian mercenaries with Wagner now assisting the LNA on the ground.

France’s part in the conflict remains ambivalent. Officially, the GNA is supported by the United Nations – with France itself a permanent member of the UN Security Council. However there have been reports for some years of French forces supporting the rebel LNA in its fight against jihadists – with three French Special Forces soldiers killed in 2016 near Benghazi, for example.

US-made Javelin missiles were also found by GNA forces after they captured the strategically important mountain city of Gheryan from the LNA at the end of June 2019. A New York Times investigation found the missiles had originally been delivered to France, which admitted to being the owner but denied they were operational: “Damaged and out of use, these weapons were being temporarily stocked in a warehouse ahead of their destruction,” the French Ministry of Defence insisted. “They were not transferred to local forces.”

“The French explanation is insufficient, it doesn’t make sense for them to be in Gheryan for so long as there was no fighting for years,” Oded Berkowitz says. “It is more likely that there were French soldiers and the missiles somehow ended up in Gheryan.”

All such weapon deliveries not only constitute blatant violations of the UN arms embargo to Libya, but also appear to fuel the conflict. July witnessed by far the highest death toll since the beginning of the LNA’s advance on Tripoli in April. Between 75 and 114 civilians were reportedly killed, with 142 air and artillery strikes monitored. August has seen another 62 to 71 locally reported civilian deaths.

Destruction after an alleged LNA airstrike on Ain Zara near Tripoli on August 17 (via Hona Souq Al-Khmies)

Civilians at risk

The targeting of civilian infrastructure such as the Tajoura detention centre and hospitals raise concerns that an all-out war could be near. Recent military advances by the GNA have been pushed back; the war has now spread far beyond Tripoli; and yet there seems to be no solution to a military stalemate where neither side is actually capable of controlling the entire country, let alone Tripoli.

Following a brief ceasefire around the Eid al-Adha holidays on August 10th-12th, fighting resumed at its previous intensity, and Haftar recently vowed to press on with his offensive. However his LNA seems to be facing internal tensions in its stronghold of Benghazi, with infighting reported between secularist and Islamist forces in Haftar’s self-styled army.

Precisely what role foreign powers will play in the weeks ahead is unclear. Both Turkey, financially invested in Libya, and the UAE – obsessed with containing the Muslim Brotherhood with its reported ties to both Turkey and Qatar – certainly have the capabilities to step up their involvement and turn Libya into a full-fledged proxy war. Foreign sponsors backing out could also mean victory for one side – or a return to the negotiation table for both. Germany currently aims to sponsor a conference on Libya, potentially involving foreign belligerents, by the end of the year.

“More than ever, Libyans are now fighting the wars of other countries who appear content to fight to the last Libyan and to see the country entirely destroyed.”

This line from UN envoy Salame to the Security Council struck a chord, it’s been popping up across Libyan social media

— Mary Fitzgerald (@MaryFitzger) July 31, 2019

“One can make a strong, compelling case that the current situation in Tripolitania [western Libya] wouldn’t have existed at all if foreign states had refrained from interfering in Libya so doggedly throughout the recent year,” says Jalel Harchaoui, Libya scholar at the Netherlands-based Clingendael Institute. “For instance, the Haftar coalition’s offensive on Tripoli has been struggling. It has been mediocre and it is impossible to call it successful by any stretch of the imagination,” he adds.

However, “the field marshal’s certainty that he can rely upon backing from the UAE and others, in contravention of the UN’s arms embargo, has disincentivized him from pursuing any path but a military solution. He hopes for even greater backing than whatever he has been receiving thus far,” Harchaoui claims.

According to Airwars data, the conflict has already taken the lives of between 210 and 297 civilians through air and artillery strikes since April 4th. OCHA says that overall 1,093 people have been killed, including fighters on both sides. Predictions on where the troubled nation is heading remain difficult at present due to the erratic nature of many of the actors involved. As Harchaoui says, “in general, the Libya conflict stands at a place of very profound uncertainty. Several scenarios are equally plausible from here. Most of them involve thousands of additional deaths.”

The violence in #Tripoli has killed 1093 people, including 106 civilians, and injured 5752 people, including 294 civilians. More than 100 000 people are displaced.

WHO is training #Libya's doctors to serve both the physical and mental health needs of the injured and displaced.

— World Health Organization in Libya (@WHOLIBYA) July 15, 2019

▲ Aftermath of the devastating airstrike on the Tajoura Detention Centre on July 3rd (via IOM Libya)

Published

August 7, 2019

Written by

Alex Hopkins and Oliver Imhof

The fifth anniversary of the international war against so-called Islamic State has seen the total defeat of the terrorist group as a territorial entity in both Iraq and Syria. Now degraded to insurgency, the US and its allies try to contain the jihadist organisation. However, after five years of fighting the cost to civilians on the ground has been high.

In total, since the US-led Coalition conducted its first airstrike on August 8th 2014, there have been 34,402 air and artillery strikes in Iraq and Syria, by Airwars’ count. In a conflict that has now lasted longer than the First World War, 117,677 munitions have been dropped on ISIS from air – almost seven times more than in Afghanistan during the same period.

The present best estimate by Airwars is that between 8,106 and 12,980 civilians have likely been killed in Coalition actions in four years of fighting – with the alliance itself presently conceding only 1,321 non-combatants deaths from its air and artillery strikes.

On March 23rd, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) forces declared victory over the caliphate established by the so-called Islamic State. While around 40,000 fighters from 80 countries had travelled to Iraq and Syria to join the caliphate, the US estimates that between 70,000 and 100,000 ISIS fighters have been killed – many in airstrikes – since Coalition actions began in August 2014.

Despite declarations of victory, strikes against ISIS remnants have continued into 2019 – though at a very low rate – amid fears of the group rising again. Territory formerly seized by ISIS is now controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces – who are in constant struggle with Turkey. This is due to Turkey’s contention that the SDF is controlled by the YPG/PKK, which Ankara deems a terror organisation. In addition, the SDF is backed by the US – normally a NATO ally to Turkey. The YPG has also called upon the Assad regime, currently bombarding Idlib, for help in the past.

US-President Donald Trump has said that he wants US troops out of Syria as quickly as possible, asking France, the UK and Germany to share more responsibility in Syria. However, uncertainty about what would happen to the US’ Kurdish allies, crucial in defeating and containing ISIS, has kept the US in Syria so far.

Ferocious final assault

The final US-led assault on Baghouz, which led to the fall of the so-called Islamic State as a territorial entity, took a heavy toll on civilian life. Some 98% of the minimum 416 civilians assessed by Airwars as likely killed by the Coalition in the first six months of 2019 perished between January 1st and the final announcement of the liberation of Baghouz from ISIS on March 23rd.

Civilians in the so-called MERV (Middle Euphrates Valley) were particularly at risk due to the high intensity of the bombing campaign. An Airwars analysis indicates a sometimes higher tempo of Coalition actions in Syria in the first two months of 2019 than were recorded at Mosul during March 2017, the most intense and lethal period of the battle for Iraq’s second city.

Civilians still at risk

Following the liberation of Baghouz from ISIS, strikes in Syria all but ceased, and the Coalition has reported only one strike in Syria since May 4th. However, Airwars has continued to track civilian harm from counter-terrorism operations in the country. The Coalition carries out these sorties to support the SDF in their attempts to clear remaining hideouts of ISIS fighters, who often hide in the desert at the Syrian-Iraqi border.

The last civilian harm incident Airwars researchers tracked in Iraq was on March 24th, however, Coalition strikes have continued there, with 231 strikes publicly reported within the first six months of 2019 – a 76% rise on the number conducted in the first half of 2018. Alarmingly, the Coalition slashed transparency for its actions in December 2018, meaning that it’s now impossible to assess where or on which specific dates these strikes occurred – and for Airwars to cross-match any potential civilian harm events.

The Coalition has so far acknowledged killing 1,321 civilians in its strikes across Iraq and Syria, in what it has repeatedly called “the most precise war in history”. There is a huge disparity between the death toll given by the Coalition and Airwars. Our own estimate is that between 8,106 and 12,980 civilians have likely died in strikes by the alliance since August 8th 2014. In total, we our research team has tracked almost 2,900 civilian casualty events allegedly linked to Coalition forces, with as many as 29,400 civilians locally alleged killed in Iraq and Syria.

The house of Ali al-Muhammad al-Furaiji after it was struck by an airstrike between April 14th and 15th 2019 (via Euphrates Post)

Densely populated areas

The war has taken an increasingly deadly toll on ordinary Iraqis and Syrians on the ground as it’s progressed. Likely deaths jumped by 82% in 2016 on the following year when we saw the fighting shift to more densely populated areas. The impact on civilians trapped on the ground was dire. Of the 8,106 civilians estimated killed since 2014, almost 50% of these deaths occurred during 2017, a year marked by the increasingly ferocious battles for Mosul and Raqqa.

Overall, likely deaths fell by 80% in 2018 on the previous year, but by November 2018, with the push to eradicate ISIS from the slithers of territory it clung on to in eastern Syria, civilian harm began to spiral. This suggested that the US-led Coalition had applied few of the lessons learned during the brutal urban assaults on Mosul and Raqqa, when it came to the protection of civilians.

Stories of affected communities must be heard

As the war against ISIS moves into its sixth year, the true impact of the fighting is yet to be revealed, and there are thousands of stories needing to be heard. A major investigation by Airwars and Amnesty International has concluded that 1,600 civilians were killed by the Coalition during the Battle of Raqqa alone – ten times higher than the Coalition admits.

Five years of war against ISIS have had a devastating impact on Iraq and Syria. While rebuilding measures in some areas have been quick, only 6,000 out 24,000 properties destroyed in Nineveh, Iraq have been rebuilt, according to Sky News. As well as continuing to track all claims of civilian harm from alleged Coalition actions in Iraq and Syria – and in other conflicts – Airwars is now focusing on reconciliation and restitution for civilians affected by the military actions of the US and its allies.

While the so-called Islamic State has been defeated as a territorial power, the fight continues on different levels as calls for reconciliation and restitution become more pressing. Justice for civilians affected by the war can play a key role in rebuilding broken societies to establish peace in the crisis-torn region and stop ISIS from rising again.

What a difference rehabilitation can make! This school in west #Mosul has re-opened with support from UNDP & @DFID_UK, allowing almost 700 kids return to school?#IraqStabilization pic.twitter.com/EtRCcMhA5H

— UNDP Iraq (@undpiniraq) August 6, 2019

▲ SDF forces backed by the International Coalition attack Al Baghouz on March 3rd 2019 (via Euphrates Post)