Libya: Ottoman Revival

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August 21, 2019: Turkey has quietly intervened in Libya, in support of the GNA (UN backed but largely powerless Government of National Accord) and is building a base in Misrata, one of the two cities where Islamic militias are still in charge. Misrata is where most of the Islamic (not Islamic terrorist) militias came from. These Islamic militias dominate Misrata and the traditional capital Tripoli 200 kilometers to the west, near the Tunisian border. The Libyan intervention is yet another effort by the current Islamic government of Turkey to revive Turkish influence in the Arab world. This new policy began about two decades ago and has not been received well by Arabs, who still regard Turks as former imperial overlords trying to make an imperial comeback. The Turkish Ottoman Empire fell apart a century ago and most Arabs and Turks are not eager for a revival.

Historically the Turks and Arabs don’t like each other much. The Turks consider Arabs nothing but trouble and in 1918 many Turks saw the bright side of losing their empire; no more Arab subjects to worry about. Because of centuries of Turkish rule Arabs see the Turks are arrogant and brutal overlords. Modern Turkey is still an empire as far as population goes. Only about two-thirds of the population are ethnic Turks. The rest are over a dozen minorities, with Arabs (before 2011) comprising about two percent of the population and largely assimilated and accepted by the ethnic Turks. The large influx of Arab (mainly Syrian but including some Libyans) refugees increased, to about five percent, the percentage of Arabs in Turkey. Many of these refugees from current Arab wars have been competing with Turks for business and jobs. As the Turkish economy stopped growing over the last few years this Arab competition for business and jobs became personal for a lot of Turks. In response, the Turkish government recently banned the use of Arabic shop signs. This was unwelcome by Turkish Arabs who have long run shops catering to Arab tourists and commercial travelers. Aside from that, the Turkish Arabs would also prefer that the Arab refugees went home, especially back to Syria. That will be difficult to make happen because Syria is much less attractive than Turkey because of the wrecked economy and hostility towards Syrians who fled.

The Turks also tried to get involved with rebuilding Somalia by providing economic and military aid. That ran into competition with UAE (United Arab Emirates) efforts. The Turks have also been accused of using some Islamic terror groups as allies. Arabs have done that as well but this Turkish effort is seen as part of a cynical Turkish ploy to exploit an Arab weakness. Arabs note that the Turkish invasion of northwest Syria employs a lot of Syrian Arab rebels to handle the ground combat. Turkish troops getting killed in Arab wars is still very unpopular with most Turks so the current Turkish government keeps the number of Turkish troops used in their foreign adventures down to a minimum. Such is the case in Libya, where the number of Turks involved is kept small and the Turks are depending on their superior technology to do the job.

The Turks were expanding their defense industries even before the Islamic parties gained control of the government. But while gaining that control the new Turkish rulers purged the military leadership. This was partly a defensive measure, as the Turkish military was always the most secular institution in Turkey and often installed temporary military rule when the elected government was deemed “too corrupt” to function. As a result of all this, the Turkish military tech is still pretty good but the quality of military leadership and technical skills has declined a lot because of the purges. Arabs see that as a plus because otherwise the revived Turkish imperialism would be a lot more militarily effective.

Ottoman rule in Libya is a historical memory now because it lasted from 1551 to 1864. During that time the Ottomans developed local rulers and administrators, as they did throughout their empire, which led to Libya becoming largely independent of the Ottomans in the late 19th century. The Turks were still useful because Libya was still technically under Ottoman protection but that was not sufficient when Italy decided to get back into the empire business and invaded in 1911. A year later the Ottomans gave up the North African provinces that now comprise Libya. That Italian rule lasted until World War II, where Italy was on the losing side and Libya became an independent monarchy by 1951. Britain and the U.S. helped with economic and military aid as well as developing the oil industry. In 1969 an army takeover replaced the monarchy with what became the Kaddafi dictatorship, which lasted until 2011. Civil war has raged since then and now the Turks are back.

The Libyans Strike Back

During the last week, the LNA (anti-Islamic radical Libyan National Army) has used its fighter-bombers and armed UAVs to attack the Turkish base that is under construction near the old Air Force Academy outside Misrata. The LNA also points out that the Turks are a foreign invader and former imperial ruler of Libya and will not be tolerated by the LNA or most Libyans. Turkey says it is only in Libya to encourage a political settlement between the LNA and GNA. Working out such a settlement has been underway for years and is always frustrated by the disunity of the GNA and all its militias. The militias don’t run the GNA but they do prevent the GNA from accomplishing anything other than maintaining some control over Tripoli. Even that was often interrupted by militia disputes getting so violent that the airport was shut down. The only time the GNA militias united was to stop ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) from establishing itself. This effort was aided by American air support and as a result, ISIL lost control of the Libyan coastal city of Sirte in late 2016 and many of the ISIL men originally in Sirte left and headed for ISIL bases in southern Libya. Sirte is a coastal city 500 kilometers east of Tripoli and 560 kilometers west of Benghazi (where the LNA began) and the main ISIL base in Libya since early 2015. ISIL first showed up in late 2014 and recruited many of the most radical men from existing Islamic terrorist militias and sought to establish a permanent presence along the Libyan coast. That provoked a response from the LNA in the east and various powerful (usually pro-GNA) militias in the west. ISIL strength in Libya dropped drastically because of that. As happened in Syria, Iraq Afghanistan and elsewhere harsh ISIL rule enraged many of the locals. In Sirte, ISIL punished or executed people for minor infractions of what ISIL considers proper Islamic lifestyle. ISIL definitely believes that if you can’t be loved by your subjects than fear is an acceptable substitute. That approach works both ways and ISIL lost. By 2017 the GNA militias were back to fighting each other.

Turkey is alone in providing military support for the GNA while Egypt, the UAE (United Arab Emirates), Russia (and many others) support the opposition, whose LNA has pacified most of the country since 2014. The Turkish support violates the UN arms sanctions as well as creating tension with Russia and the many Arab states that support the LNA. There are few other foreign supporters of the GNA militias and especially the many Islamic militias from Misrata. Sudan used to be a source of support but that has ended because of a recent uprising that replaced the pro-GNA Sudan government. Two major Turkish allies, Iran and Russia, are no help in Libya. Iran is preoccupied with its own economic and political problems. Russia has long backed the LNA as have Egypt and the UAE. Egypt and the UAE also supply weapons and air support. The U.S. recently declared its support for the LNA and a growing number of European nations are openly or covertly supporting the LNA. France and several other NATO countries have maintained small forces of special operations troops in Libya to give advice (mainly to the LNA) and keep an eye on a complex and constantly evolving situation.

Turkey, despite its closer ties with Russia, is still a member of NATO. The intervention in Libya may be one of the issues that gets Turkey thrown out of NATO and openly acknowledged as hostile to the West. This prospect motivates more Turks to openly and actively oppose the Turkish leader Erdogan, who has established something of a pro-Islamic police state to deal with local opposition. The extent of Turkish support for the GNA could be limited by other NATO nations enforcing the ban on importing weapons to Libya by sea.

August 20, 2019: In the southwest (Fezzan region bordering Niger and Chad) air attacks on the town of Murzuq and continued ground fighting between LNA and GNA forces continue. In the last few days pro-GNA tribesmen took control of Murzuq and the LNA is now counterattacking. In the last few weeks the fighting has left several hundred dead, about a third of them civilians. About 10,000 civilians have fled their homes to escape the violence. Since 2015 the LNA has been trying to maintain some degree of law and order in this area where fighting between Tuareg and Tebu tribesmen has been flaring up regularly since the 2011 revolution. Much of the violence is over control of the main road going to the Niger border. The fighting is a continuation of ancient animosities between tribes divided by ethnicity as well as loyalty to the former dictator Kaddafi, who used tribal loyalties to maintain power and favored certain tribes. Some of the pro-Kaddafi Tuareg tribes kept fighting after Kaddafi died in 2011. The violence was not so much about putting Kaddafi followers back into power, but holding on to Kaddafi-era privileges and avoiding punishment for crimes committed to support Kaddafi’s rule. In this case, violence continued on the southern border in part because the pro-rebel Tabu (or “Tebu”) tribesmen were put in charge of the border (with Sudan, Chad and Niger) security after Kaddafi fell. There they constantly skirmished with the Tuareg tribes over control of the smuggling business. Another element of this rivalry was that the Tabu are black African while the pro-Kaddafi tribes are Arab and Taureg. Kaddafi tended to support Arab domination over black Africans, something many Arabs still support. However, in some cases, Kaddafi favored black tribes in the north and used them to keep the population in line. By 2015 the Tabu were still technically in charge of the border but mostly concerned with their control over smuggling (of fuel, drugs and people). The Tabu and Tuareg leaders worked out agreements on dividing smuggling business but discipline in the tribes is not all that tight and fights keep breaking out. The main cause of renewed fighting in 2019 is the GNA sending militiamen south to aid the Tabu in pushing LNA forces out of the area. The GNA effort in the south is not so much about ancient tribal rivalries but about gaining control of oil fields and pipelines in this part of the country. About a quarter of Libyan oil comes from this area and it was only in the past year that the LNA pacified all the armed groups that were disrupting production. In 2019 LNA has managed to maintain oil production at about a million BPD (barrels per day). For the first seven months of 2019 Libyan oil revenues have grown to over $12 billion.

August 17, 2019: The LNA launched 13 separate airstrikes, using manned and unmanned aircraft, against Turkish targets in Misrata. The Turks claim to have shot down one the missile carrying Chinese UAVs with a laser weapon. That has yet to be verified. The Turks apparently see this as a setback rather than a defeat. The LNA continues to push back the defenders of Tripoli and once that city is taken Misrata would be next.

August 14, 2019: In the west (Tripoli), rocket fire temporarily closed the Mitiga military airport outside the city. This is the last functioning airport near Tripoli as the LNA has captured the civilian airport.

August 13, 2019: In the west (Tripoli), fighting for the city resumed after a two day Eid truce. Eid is the religious holiday at the end of the month-long Ramadan fast.

August 11, 2019: In the west (Tripoli), rocket fire temporarily closed the Mitiga military airport outside the city.

August 10, 2019: In the east (Benghazi), a car bomb outside a shopping center killed five UN personnel.

In the west (Tripoli), the UN-brokered a three day Eid truce between LNA and GNA forces.

August 6, 2019: The LNA believes that Turkish intelligence personnel, as well as military advisors, are now running the GNA defense of Tripoli. Turkey is also supplying weapons and military equipment and trying to keep its activities quiet because it is violating UN sanctions.

August 4, 2019: In the southwest (Fezzan region bordering Niger and Chad), an LNA UAV attacked hostile Tebu militiamen from Chad. The GNA claimed the victims were civilians. Take away their guns and most of them usually are.

August 3, 2019: In the west (between Tripoli and Misrata), GNA forces shot down an armed UAV headed for Misarta (200 kilometers east of Tripoli) to make an attack. LNA is using the Chinese UAVs supplied by the UAE. The UAE has operated Chinese Wing Loong UAVs in Libya since 2016. Each of these can be equipped to carry two BA-7 laser-guided missiles (similar to the Hellfire). Development on Wing Loong began in 2005, first flight was in 2007 and Chinese troops got the first ones in 2008 for further testing. While Wing Loong is similar in shape to the larger American MQ-9 Reaper, in size it's almost identical to the 1.2 ton Predator. The UAE originally operated these UAVs (and other aircraft) from an airbase 100 kilometers northeast of Benghazi. Since 2017 the Chinese UAVs have operated from different bases as LNA forces advanced south and west.

July 29, 2019: In the west (outside Tripoli), two Israeli Orbiter UAVs were shot down by LNA forces. Israel was accused of breaking the arms embargo against Libya until the serial numbers of the Orbiter UAVs were obtained and these particular UAVs were traced back to Turkey, which had received the Orbiters with the understanding that they would not be transferred to another nation. Turkey is alone in providing military support for the GNA while Russia (and many others) support the opposition, the last elected government of Libya and its LNA has pacified most of the country since 2014. The Turkish support violates the UN arms sanctions as well as creating tension with Russia and the many Arab states that support the LNA. There are few other foreign supporters of the GNA militias and especially the many Islamic militias. Sudan used to be a source of support but that has ended because of a recent uprising that replaced the pro-GNA Sudan government. Two major Turkish allies, Iran and Russia, are no help in Libya. Iran is preoccupied with its own economic and political problems. Russia has long backed the LNA as have Egypt and the UAE (United Arab Emirates). Egypt and the UAE also supply weapons and air support. The U.S. recently declared its support for the LNA and a growing number of European nations are openly or covertly supporting the LNA. The extent of Turkish support for the GNA could be limited by other NATO nations enforcing the ban on importing weapons by sea.

July 27, 2019: Several GNA officials confirmed that the GNA had received Bayraktar UAVs from Turkey. This UAV entered service with the Turkish Air Force in 2014. The Bayraktar Tactical UAV is a 650 kg (1,433 pound) aircraft with a 40 kg (88 pound) payload and an endurance of 24 hours. The Bayraktar UAV uses older, cheaper and more reliable technology than more ambitious Turkish UAV designs and were delivered on time. The Turkish armed forces have about three dozen Bayraktar Tactical UAV and the military has ordered a total of 151 and about half have been delivered. Some have been sold to export customers Qatar and Ukraine. The Turkish government violated the UN arms embargo by transferring several Bayraktar Tactical UAVs and laser-guided missiles to the GNA. Turkey has also supplied personnel to operate and maintain these UAVs.

July 26, 2019: In south-central Libya, (Jufra, 650 kilometers southeast of Tripoli) GNA warplanes attacked the LNA airbase there and damaged two Ukrainian Il-76 transports that had been hired to move weapons from Ukraine to Libya. One of the Ukrainian pilots was killed. Over the next few days, LNA warplanes (manned and unmanned) attacked about ten GNA targets. One of these was the GNA airport outside Misrata (east of Tripoli) where another Ukrainian Il-76 was destroyed. This air transport had flown in weapons for the GNA. Ukrainian Il-76s and other Cold War era transports have been active in weapons smuggling since the 1990s. Most of the weapons come from the enormous Soviet weapons storage sites in Ukraine. These stockpiles were established during the Cold War because Ukraine was the main staging area for the possible war with NATO (which never took place). Other East European countries that, until 1989-1990, were run by pro-Soviet communist governments, had similar but smaller stockpiles of weapons that became Cold War surplus in the 1990s. Some of the weapons were recycled, some are still in use by the armed forces of the now democratic East European nations but a lot of these weapons ended up on the black market. Ukraine became the center of smuggling operations; usually by ship or air. The LNA airstrikes also attacked the Turkish UAVs based outside Misrata.

July 25, 2019: In southern Libya, a thousand members of the Sudan RSF (Rapid Support Force) arrived to take over guarding oil facilities for the LNA (Libyan National Army). Apparently, Sudan is sending another 3,000 RSF forces to Libya as part of an effort to support the foreign policy of Saudi Arabia. Sudan has already sent thousands of RSF forces to fight alongside Saudi troops seeking to put down a Shia rebellion in Yemen. The Saudis are major financial and diplomatic supporters of Sudan and the new government.

July 23, 2019: In the West (outside Tripoli), GNA police raided a house and arrested several al Qaeda members. The prisoners were accused of being responsible for recent terror attacks against GNA facilities in Tripoli. Many of the GNA militias are “Islamic” but not Islamic enough for groups like al Qaeda and ISIL who continue to attack GNA and LNA targets.

July 22, 2019: An LNA warplane made an emergency landing in neighboring Tunisia. The Russian made aircraft is being held at a Tunisian airbase.

 

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