News & Investigations

News & Investigations

Smoke rises up after an airstrike (via Libya Observer)

Published

April 15, 2019

Written by

Oliver Imhof and Osama Mansour

Dozens of civilians reported killed in first few days of fighting - as thousands more flee

A major offensive on the Libyan capital Tripoli by Marshal Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) has already seen dozens of civilians locally reported killed – with the United Nations warning that “Civilian casualties and displacement are expected to increase further given the continued use of air strikes and heavy artillery.”

Haftar’s assault on Tripoli – an apparent attempt to circumvent UN-brokered ceasefire talks between the LNA and the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) – risks plunging Libya into its worst violence since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

The first ten days of fighting have seen dozens of airstrikes by both the LNA and GNA, with multiple Tripoli neighbourhoods caught in the battle. According to the UN’s OCHA agency, more than 18,000 civilians have so far been displaced by the fighting – with many thousands more at risk.

Airwars researchers have so far monitored twelve locally reported civilian harm events blamed on air or artillery strikes, in which up to 37 civilians were alleged killed. Among the dead were two doctors, a pregnant woman and a young child.

Possible stalemate

Marshal Haftar’s offensive on the capital Tripoli has been stalled by unexpected resistance from local militias, and similar matched military capabilities between the GNA and LNA make a stalemate possible.

Until recently Libya’s capital had been spared larger destruction despite eight years of on and off warfare. Unlike cities such as Sirte, Derna or Benghazi that suffered severe damage from two civil wars, Tripoli witnessed only occasional flare ups of violence that left most parts of the city intact. But with the Libyan National Army (LNA) moving towards the country’s biggest city it might now face a dire future.

Only weeks ago, hopes were high for a peaceful settlement of hostilities at the planned National Conference in Ghadames scheduled for April 14th-16th. After years of division, plans for a new constitution and elections were in turn meant to unite the country. Instead, Khalifa Haftar’s decision to move his self-styled army on Tripoli has foiled those efforts – with the conference now postponed indefinitely.

With the reported backing of foreign powers including the United Arab Emirates and France, Haftar’s aim appears to have been to take the capital quickly in a power grab which would put the entire country under his control.

Yet his forces have faced more resistance than expected. Tripoli’s UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), which currently only has territorial control over small parts of Libya’s western territories, received help from militia forces from Misurata. Haftar’s move also united militias that were previously fighting each other, meaning that the country could now face a military standoff or even a third civil war.

This would mean yet more suffering for Libya’s civilian population, who have already faced much hardship since the 2011 revolution.

Competing air forces

Both sides have air forces and artillery which were deployed in various battles over the past years. The LNA currently controls three Su-22s, two Mirage F1s, three operational MiG-23s and a few MiG-21s – one of which was reportedly shot down over Tripoli on April 14th.

The LNA’s planes were previously stationed at Jufra air base south of Sirte, though some were moved to the Al Watyah facility near the Tunisian border. From the former Gaddafi base, protected by Zintani forces, the LNA can easily fly sorties against Tripoli. Before moving on Tripoli, the LNA had conducted 1,405 airstrikes in Libya since 2012 according to an Airwars/ New America assessment, resulting in 115 to 187 civilians killed according to local sources.

The GNA in turn operates one Mirage F1ED, two MiG-23 MLDs as well as approximately a dozen L-39 and G-2 light-attack aircraft. They are currently based both at Mitiga airport in Tripoli, and at Misurata. Mitiga airport is also used as a civilian airport but has been bombed by the LNA in order to degrade its rival’s capabilities.

GNA-aligned aircraft have been considerably less active over the past years, only conducting around 38 strikes according to local reports, which have led to between 10 to 17 civilian fatalities.

In addition, both sides control a few Mi-35 attack helicopters, and artillery brigades.

In terms of ground troops, numbers on both sides are believed to be more or less even. The LNA consists of roughly 25,000 men but can hardly be called an army in the classical sense. Around 7,000 men form the regular core of the army, while the rest are made up from tribal militias, mercenaries and Salafist fighters.

The same goes for GNA forces, which are mostly made up from local militias with very different backgrounds. The Tripoli-based militias comprise around 5,000 fighters, while forces from Misurata could contribute up to 18,000 additional men if they fully join the fight. However, alliances in Libya have proven to be fluid and could shift rapidly in one party’s favour.

International actors

Defence and security analyst Arnaud Delalande describes the volume of forces as “unfavorable to Haftar. Regarding air power, Haftar must deploy the greater part of his aircraft in the west with the risk of leaving some areas of Libya without air cover. In addition, range is also important. Mitiga and Misurata are close to the clash zones. The LNA Air Force must therefore both support its forces around Tripoli, and also protect its supply lines between Jufra and the West. These lines are permanently threatened by the strikes of the Misurata air force.”

An offensive on Tripoli is also particularly problematic at the moment as the city hosts many people who fled from fighting in other parts of the country, as well as refugees and migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa. With a regular population of around 2 million people, continued shelling could have devastating consequences for the civilian population in a densely populated urban environment.

Both sides have international backers, with Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Russia openly supporting the LNA, while the GNA has support from the US, the UK, Italy, Qatar and Turkey. France has an ambivalent role, keeping ties to both factions. Most important international players, Egypt excluded, have urged all parties to stop fighting and de-escalate tensions. Though a foreign military intervention seems unlikely at present, both Egypt and the UAE have come to Haftar’s help in the past and could do so again.

The UN has unsuccessfully tried to broker a ceasefire, reminding parties that attacks on civilians could constitute war crimes. Yet conflicts of the past have shown that consideration for innocent lives diminish when everything is at stake. With more troops mobilising from each faction, Libyans risk witnessing a third civil war within a decade. After eight years of violence and instability, a peaceful solution would certainly be a relief for the people of Libya.

▲ Smoke rises up after an airstrike (via Libya Observer)