News & Investigations

News & Investigations

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

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.

 

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.

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.”

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.

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.

“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)