Libya: Turkey Tries Harder

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January 27, 2020: In early December 2019 the LNA (Libyan National Army) predicted that they would take control of Tripoli by the end of the year and then hold national elections in mid-2020. That did not happen, mainly because Turkey had openly pledged to protect Tripoli, Turkey also realized that an LNA victory would be an embarrassing defeat. More than that it would eliminate another recent agreement with the GNA (the weaker UN backed Government of National Accord) , which granted Turkey the right to explore for natural gas in Libyan offshore waters. Most nations in the region consider this agreement illegal and a blatant attempt to block Greek and Israeli access to key portions of the eastern Mediterranean.

In response to the LNA prediction, Turkey has increased its material and personnel support for the GNA, which is in direct violation of the UN embargo on weapons shipments. Egypt and the UAE are also flying in military equipment, and Egypt can ship it overland across their border with Libya. The Turkish intervention has saved the GNA, which otherwise probably would have been out of business by the end of 2019. The ten month battle for Tripoli has not produced massive casualties. So far about 2,500 people have died, nearly 20 percent of them civilians caught in the crossfire. Nearly 200,000 civilians have been displaced by the fighting, although many of those return to their homes after the fighting moves on.

Foreign Assistance

Currently, the Turkish contribution has been over 2,000 Syrian mercenaries and a few hundred Turkish troops serving in non-combat jobs. Turkey has also provided dozens of missile-armed UAVs that provide air support for the GNA forces. The LNA has access to missile-armed Chinese UAVs supplied by the UAE (United Arab Republic). The LNA has long been supported by the UAE. Russia and a few other Arab nations. The UAE has put troops on the ground, mainly to operate airbases the UAVs operate from. The UAVs have largely replaced manned warplanes as they are cheaper, have longer endurance and you don’t need pilots. Training UAV controllers is a lot easier than aircraft pilots. The UAVs are not used a lot, averaging 4-5 sorties a day total (for both sides) during eight months of fighting. Some days are only one or two UAV sorties and then there are days where there are over a dozen, carrying out major attacks on base areas or in efforts to turn the tide in a battle.

France has had some special operations troops with the LNA forces, mainly to monitor the situation. The U.S. also actively intervenes with air power against Islamic terrorist targets. Turkey does not consider that direct support for the LNA.

The foreign military support for the UN backed GNA and the eastern (HoR or House of representatives) forces does not get much publicity from the participants. That’s because UN sanctions prohibit such outside support but the UN backed GNA is being kept alive by the Turkish forces and the weapons the Turks bring in. Overall there are as many as 5,000 foreign personnel providing this vital support for both sides.

There are hundreds of Russian combat advisors and trainers in Libya and most of them have been there since 2018. These troops are civilian contractors working for the Wagner Group, which also has several hundred Russian technical advisors in Libya to keep LNA heavy weapons operational. Earlier in 2019 Russia revealed that it had increased its logistic and maintenance support for LNA forces. This support had been going on since late 2018 and has returned hundreds of Cold War era Russian armored vehicles and artillery to working order. This work was done with the battle for the Libyan capital Tripoli in mind. The LNA expected to begin this campaign in early 2019. 

While Russia has been backing the LNA since 2016, the Turks only recently (mid-2019) came to the rescue of the GNA, which is trying to defend the city of Tripoli, its last stronghold. The Turks favor he GNA because the GNA is largely a collection of militias, several of them described as “Islamic” although not Islamic terrorist. Turkey is apparently also receiving financial backing from Qatar for this Libyan effort.

The Turkish intervention is part of a larger conflict. Turkey is allied with Iran and Qatar against the rest of the Moslem world, especially Egypt and the Gulf Arab oil states. That is a major incentive for the Turks to get involved in Libya. One reason for Russia not publicizing their Libyan efforts is because Russia and Turkey are allies in Syria. Turks don’t have any military or contractor personnel at the front lines but some have been killed or wounded by LNA airstrikes.

The Russians are seen as reliable allies of Libya, even though it was Russia which supplied Libya with most of its weapons throughout the Kaddafi era (1960s to 2011) and is now delivering fewer, but more modern ones, like ATGMs (anti-tank guided missiles) and portable anti-aircraft missiles to bring down UAVs. The Turks are seen as a former imperial overlord trying to make a comeback. The Turks also ignore the fact that most Libyans oppose the Islamic conservative militias that the Turks support and see the Turks as more of a threat than the Russians or Arabs who are backing the LNA.

Turkey is threatening war with its neighbor Greece because of overlapping claims to offshore waters that might contain lucrative natural gas deposits. Turkey is also at odds with the United States in Syria. All these foreign adventures are an effort to distract Turkish voters from the current economic recession they are suffering from as well as their government continuing suppression of internal criticism of the government.

Despite the increasing (since May) Turkish military aid for the GNA forces, the LNA still dominates the battlefield. The LNA forces are larger, better trained, equipped and led than the collection of militias the GNA depends on. The LNA has been fighting since April to take the main GNA stronghold, the national capital Tripoli (in the west, near the Tunisia border). Turkish intervention interrupted that plan but did not stop it. The LNA forces continue to advance, but more slowly. The relentless advance, even if it is slow, demoralizes the opposing militias and the LNA continues to allow militias to switch sides. This is a tactic the LNA has been using for years. One reason the LNA is so popular is that its commanders do not act recklessly and take better care of their troops. Turkish efforts to train militia fighters have had little success and it is difficult for most militia leaders to take advice from the Turks. So the LNA forces continue to advance and at this rate, Tripoli will fall in a few months, if not sooner. The LNA now believes the city will fall eventually but cannot determine exactly when because of Turkish interference and whether it will keep escalating.

The Turkish involvement stalled the LNA advance on Tripoli. The LNA adapted to the Turkish presence and resumed pushing back the militia defenders. As a result Turkey has come out in favor of a negotiated peace between the GNA and the HoR government in Tobruk. The HoR was the last elected government and helped organize the LNA. The UN organized the GNA by making deals with the militias that dominate Tripoli and Misrata to the east. Many of those militias want or will accept, a religious (Islamic) government for Libya. Currently, most of these militias are out for themselves and are basically a network of independent warlords whose only common interest is preventing the LNA from establishing a national government. The LNA has been, since it was founded in 2014, against Islamic terrorists and radicals as well as independent militias.

For all the imported weapons and more than 20,000 armed men confronting each other since April, the casualties have been low, averaging 10-20 dead and wounded a day since April. Most of the casualties are armed but because the fighting is largely in urban areas there are usually civilians present so 10-20 percent of the casualties have been civilians.

The GNA is backed by the UN bureaucracy and some European governments. The UN wants a ceasefire and enforcement of sanctions. Most Libyans see those goals as counterproductive. A ceasefire means the Tripoli militias can go back to fighting each other. As long as there are two governments there are constant disputes over how the oil income is spent. The LNA controls most of the oil production and shipping facilities but the GNA has more, but not absolute, control over the national oil company and the Central Bank. The LNA already controls most of the country and has an impeccable record of suppressing Islamic terrorism. The GNA presides over a lot of independent-minded militias in Tripoli and Misrata to the east. Many former supporters of the GNA switched sides when they realized the GNA was unable to deal with the militias it depended on to defend its last two strongholds (Tripoli and Misrata). The UN is determined to see its creation eventually rule over a united Libya, despite the fact that most Libyans, and their neighbors, disagree with that assessment.

January 26, 2020: The only airport in Tripoli came under rocket fire that wounded two civilians and damaged a building. The airport had recently resumed operations after a closure caused by LNA threats to shoot down airliners.

The recent ceasefire was broken when LNA forces advancing towards Misrata, the second largest city in Libya, encountered armed resistance 120 kilometers from the city. The LNA was advancing on Misrata in part to force Misrata militias, which form the backbone of forces available to the GNA, to withdraw from Tripoli to defend their city. The Misrata militias have always been the most Islamic and the most effective. The local militias in Tripoli are a diverse lot and many have evolved into criminal gangs that are more concerned with self-preservation than protecting the GNA.

January 25, 2020: The UN reports that at least seven nations are violating the Libyan arms embargo and supplying weapons and other military aid to either side. Currently, Russia and Turkey are the biggest offenders, along with the UAE and Egypt.

January 22, 2020: The LNA claimed to have shot down a Turkish air transport as it took off from the Tripoli airport. The next day the GNA announced that the airport was closed until further notice.

January 19, 2020: In Germany, an international conference assembled to deal with the stalemate in Libya. Those invited included the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, Italy, the EU, UN, AU (African Union), Arab League, Republic of Congo, Algeria, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey. GNA and HoR representatives also showed up but would not meet with each other. GNA and HoR representatives attended and agreed to discuss a peace deal, which is supposed to include the dissolution of the militias in Tripoli and Misrata that are the remaining obstacle to peace in the country. The LNA has suppressed Islamic terrorists and tribal rebels in most of the country and has been trying to take Tripoli since April.

January 18, 2020: LNA forces shut down production at most (about 79 percent) oil facilities. That means production went from most of the oil fields that cannot be exported. The National Oil Company informed foreign customers and calculated that the closure would cost Libya $55 million a day in lost revenues. In 2019 Libya generated $22.5 billion in oil revenues, which was 8.5 percent less than 2018.

Total Libya oil production was 1.25 million BPD (barrels per day). Since 2018 the LNA has controlled most of the oil production and export facilities. The oil income generated goes to the national oil company and the Central Bank which is allowed by the GNA and HoR to purchase essential imports and handle financial matters associated with the oil industry and distribution of imports. The two rival governments generally honor this agreement because either government could disrupt the system and cause widespread economic hardship throughout the country. But now the HoR believes the GNA, on the advice of Turkey, is violating this arrangement.

January 16, 2020: Turkey announced that it was sending more troops and military aid to Tripoli.

January 12, 2020: Russia and Turkey got both the GNA and HoR to agree to and implement a ceasefire. General Hiftar went to Russia to discuss the matter with his largest foreign supplier of military assistance. Hiftar agreed to the ceasefire but refused to sign the agreement. Turkey and Russia are allies, sort of, in Syria but Turkey, like the GNA, is tolerant of Islamic militias. Actually Turkey regularly supports “cooperative” Islamic terrorist groups but has not sent any of those to Libya to reinforce the defense of Tripoli. Instead, Turkey has sent about 2,000 trusted members of its FSA (Free Syrian Army) mercenary force. The FSA has been doing most of the fighting for the Turks in Syria, in return for good pay and eventual Turkish citizenship. Some of these Turkish mercenaries in Libya already received their citizenship, plus about $2,000 a month for serving in Libya plus a large payout to next of kin if they are killed.

Russia hopes to do business with Libya after the war but is also dependent on Turkey financially. Turkey has become a major customer for Russian weapons and Russia, under heavy sanctions for invading Ukraine, needs the money. At the same time, Russia recognizes that Hiftar and his LNA are the most effective military force in Libya and also the most effective at dealing with Islamic radical groups.

Senior officials from Egypt and Algeria met once more and affirmed that both nations opposed any foreign intervention in the Libyan civil war. This was directed at Turkey, which was now openly intervening in Libya.

January 7, 2020: Tunisia announced that it had refused Turkish requests to allow Turkish troops and mercenaries to fly into Tunisia and then enter Libya overland. Tunisia, like the other North African nations, is hostile to Turkish intervention in the region.

January 6, 2020: Sirte (a coastal city 500 kilometers east of Tripoli and 560 kilometers west of Benghazi) unexpectedly fell to LNA forces. The LNA has been trying to subdue Sirte for years. The LNA eliminated the Islamic terror groups that had, since 2016, operated south of the city. Until recently most of the Sirte militias are loyal to the GNA, if only because the GNA doesn’t try to control what the Sirte militias do. That includes working with people smugglers and living off the local population. Shutting down this sort of thing is why the LNA has been able to take control of most of the country. The LNA had been carrying out airstrikes on the Sirte militias and planning a ground offensive as soon as Tripoli was taken. But LNA leaders had also been negotiating with some of the larger militias in Sirte and finally got a key militia to switch sides. The other militias realized that put them at a serious disadvantage and accepted a peace deal that put the LNA in charge of the city. This was a major, and unexpected, loss for the GNA. Now the UN-backed government only controls two cities (Tripoli and Misrata) and both are under attack. The Turkish military aid is keeping the GNA alive but at the cost of long-term domination by Turkey. This is not popular with most Libyans and most Arabs in general.

The loss of Sirte gives the LNA an airport closer to Misrata and Tripoli and makes it more difficult for GNA forces to threaten LNA supply lines that come from the east. The loss of Sirte is also a psychological blow because it had come to represent a large portion of GNA's popular support.

January 2, 2020: Turkey agreed to send troops to Libya to defend the pro-Islamic government. Egypt supports a rival government that now controls most of Libya including nearly all the oil facilities. Egypt is seeking allies to hale prevent Turkish troops and allied Syrian Islamic terrorists from operating in Libya.

December 21, 2019: In Libya, the Turkey-backed GNA is accusing the rival Russian-backed HoR (House of Representatives) government of using Russian mercenaries to lead the attack on the GNA (and Libyan) capital Tripoli. This city, and nearby Misrata, are the last two strongholds of the UN created GNA. But the HoR is the last elected government in Libya and controls most of the country. The GNA failed because it is dominated by Islamic militias in Tripoli and Misrata and was never able to create an effective military force. The HoR has the LNA (Libyan National Army) led by Khalifa Hiftar, an elderly former Kaddafi officer who fled Libya in the 1980s because he opposed Kaddafi. Hiftar has made one official and several unofficial visits to Russia in the last few years, where he met with diplomats and the Ministry of Defense officials to discuss the situation in Libya and arrange for illegal (because of the arms embargo) shipments of Russian weapons to the LNA. Hiftar has the support of most Libyans along with Russia, most Arab states, especially Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE and now the United States as well. The UN opposes Hiftar, as does ISIL, the Moslem Brotherhood and pro-brotherhood nations like Turkey, Qatar and Iran. The main argument against Hiftar is that he could turn into another dictator like Kaddafi, who was overthrown in 2011. Hiftar had been an early supporter of Kaddafi and was a colonel in the Libyan army when, in the late 1980s, he and Kaddafi became enemies and Hiftar was declared a traitor. Hiftar got support from the CIA to form an opposition force (the first LNA) but no African nations were willing to host it for long and by 1990 Hiftar was living in the U.S. and seeking citizenship. Hiftar became a U.S. citizen and spent 20 years living in the West before returning to Libya after Kaddafi was overthrown. By 2014 he realized that Islamic terror groups and independent militias were preventing the formation of a new government. His solution was to form the LNA in the east (Benghazi) and take on all the warring factions, especially the Islamic terror groups. Five years later the LNA, the only organized military force in Libya, is closing in on the last concentrations of militias in Tripoli and Misrata. At that point, the GNA found Turkey was willing to provide military aid and now the GNA and Turkey have a military alliance which includes the possibility of Turkey sending troops to prevent the LNA from taking Tripoli and ending GNA operations in Libya.

President Vladimir Putin already has nearly a thousand Russian PMCs (Private Military Company) into Libya. The PMC force is supplied by the Russian Wagner Group which has, since 2014, become Putin’s private army in Libya, Syria, Ukraine and elsewhere in Africa. Ukrainians identified Russian Special Operations colonel Dmytro Utkin as the founder of Wagner. The name “Wager” was originally the radio call sign for Utkin. The Ukrainians have a lot of experience with the Wagner Group, which was used to restore discipline in rebel-controlled areas of Donbas by kidnapping or assassinating rebel leaders who were not following orders from Russia. Wagner is believed to have over 5,000 highly skilled (and paid) personnel on the payroll. Ukraine and foreign analysts documented that the Wagner firm is a major Russian military contractor with thousands of personnel overseas. What little is known about Wagner is collected from Internet posts (usually in social media) about the death of Wagner employees in Libya, Ukraine or Syria. There is so much data like that freely available that it is possible to get a good idea about the size and activities of Warner and other military contractors Russia uses.

Turkey says it might send troops to Libya but has not done so yet. The Wagner Group personnel are former Russian military, often experienced special operations or airborne veterans led by equally experienced former officers. The Turks could send some of their own special operations troops, but these are needed for current operations in Syria and against separatist PKK Kurds in eastern Turkey and northern Iraq. Moreover, Turkish and Russian forces fighting each other in Libya would be embarrassing because Russia and Turkey are supposed to be allies, especially in Syria.

December 14, 2019: The Libyan embassy in Egypt announced that it was closing indefinitely. The official reason was “security problems”. The reality was that most of the embassy staff had turned against the UN backed GNA Libyan government and now backed the rival HoR. Egypt has long backed the HoR because the LNA had taken control of the Egyptian border and helped keep Islamic terrorists out of Egypt. By 2018 Egypt was certain that the LNA had pacified eastern Libya up to and including the Egyptian border. That was always the main Egyptian concern. Egypt worked with the UAE to support the LNA and while Egypt is less active the UAE is still a major supporter of the LNA as is Russia.

 

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