News & Investigations

News & Investigations

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

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.”

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.

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.

“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.”

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