The Libyan Civil War Is About to Get Worse
None of the parties involved is serious about reaching a political settlement, meaning the conflict could kill many more this year.
Libya has been in the grips of an internationalized civil conflict for more than half a decade, involving the same foreign countries throughout the ordeal. But recently, persistent U.S. apathy toward the region and a growing sense of impunity have emboldened some of those actors.
The most assertive one is the United Arab Emirates, followed closely behind by its regional opponent, Turkey. Both are U.S. allies but stand on opposite sides of the conflict. Last year, they began engaging in more direct military intervention, in addition to supporting their usual proxies. Yet another clash between the two main Libya camps is now brewing, and events in recent weeks suggest that the fighting will be more devastating than at any time before—and still may not produce a definitive victory for either side.
The current bout of civil war began a year ago when eastern-based Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar attacked the capital, Tripoli, one of the last remaining strongholds of the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA). Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) has so far not been able to achieve its objective of capturing the prized urban area of 1.2 million people and overthrowing the GNA.
Facing stiff resistance from disparate militias nominally aligned with the government, the LNA has failed to breach downtown Tripoli. On top of this, the marshal’s campaign, while destructive, has been hampered by gross strategic and tactical inefficiency. The resulting war of attrition and slower pace of combat revealed yet another flaw in his coalition: Few eastern Libyan fighters wish to risk their lives for Haftar 600 miles away from home.
Eager to offset the LNA’s weaknesses on the ground, the UAE carried out more than 900 air strikes in the greater Tripoli area last year using Chinese combat drones and, occasionally, French-made fighter jets. The Emirati military intervention helped contain the GNA’s forces but did not push Haftar’s objectives forward. Instead, it had an adverse effect by provoking other regional powers. Turkey responded to the UAE by deploying Bayraktar TB2 drones and several dozen Turkish officers to carry out roughly 250 strikes in an effort to help the GNA resist Haftar’s onslaught. The stalemate also inspired Russia to increase its own involvement in Libya.
In September 2019, a few hundred Russian mercenaries joined the front-line effort near Tripoli in support of Haftar’s forces. Their lethal toughness, sophisticated equipment, and coordination enabled the LNA to slowly grab parts of the city’s outskirts. Around the same time, various technical factors brought Turkey’s clandestine assistance to a halt.
The interruption forced a desperate GNA to sign a controversial maritime accord that granted Ankara notional gas-drilling rights in the eastern Mediterranean in return for Turkey launching a full-blown military intervention in support of the anti-Haftar camp.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s audacious push caused the Emiratis to lose the initiative in Libya, which Abu Dhabi blamed on an insufficient amount of firepower and mercenaries mobilized in 2019. Now, it seems determined to stage a comeback by crushing Erdogan’s resolve.
According to open-source data analyzed by aircraft-tracking specialist Gerjon, the Emiratis, since mid-January, have flown more than 100 cargo planes to Libya (or western Egypt, near the Libyan border). These planes likely carried with them thousands of tons of military hardware. Other clues suggest that the number of Emirati personnel on Libyan soil has also increased. All of this indicates that Haftar’s coalition and its allies are going to try, once again, to achieve total victory by force.
In the diplomatic realm, since the ineffectual Berlin summit took place in January, no authentic effort at dialogue has been made toward a political compromise. Few international actors are willing to contradict the UAE, and while the GNA’s isolation grows, no Western government wants to exert any meaningful pressure on Haftar. For that reason, his new offensive will probably meet even less resistance from the international community—but it will face a tough adversary in Turkey.
During January and February, at least three cargo ships from Turkey delivered about 3,500 tons’ worth of equipment and ammunition each. The Turkish presence on Libyan soil currently comprises several hundred men. They train Libyan fighters on urban warfare with an emphasis on tactics to fend off armored vehicles. Against attacks from the sky, Ankara relies on electronic-warfare technology and a combination of U.S.– and indigenously developed air defense systems. Similar protection has been set up at the air base of Misrata, a powerful anti-Haftar city to the west of Sirte, which the LNA took on Jan. 6.
Additionally, since late December, more than 4,000 Turkish-backed Syrian mercenaries have arrived in Tripoli and its surrounding area. Most of them are battle-hardened Islamist fighters who belong to three large anti-government militias. Turkey is also busy upgrading its fleet of combat drones scattered across northwest Libya.
To counter Turkey’s new intervention, the pro-Haftar government in eastern Libya formalized its alignment with the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, allowing the LNA to purchase technical advice from Damascus using material and diplomatic rewards. A few hundred Syrian contractors hired from pro-Assad militias are now reportedly in Libya, on Haftar’s side. And Egypt has been under pressure to provide even greater help to the LNA.
Encouraged by this, the LNA is now implementing a new, multilayered offensive whose overriding logic consists in strangling and devaluing Tripoli until Erdogan gives up and leaves Libya. Because Turkey’s presence and its arsenal have made it difficult for the UAE to fly its combat drones anymore, the LNA and its allies have begun a relentless shelling campaign using Grad rockets and other projectiles. Such salvos on Tripoli don’t just hit legitimate military targets—they also hit civilians. Unguided rockets are inherently indiscriminate, and the pro-GNA camp can do almost nothing to prevent this kind of attack.
This is part of a philosophy of collective punishment, and, in keeping with that line of thinking, the pro-Haftar camp has been imposing a $1.5 billion-a-month oil blockade on Libya since mid-January. Fuel shortages may soon become more widespread as a result. Suppression of the nation’s only dollar-generating activity is also a means of cutting off the internationally recognized Central Bank in Tripoli and potentially supplanting it with an LNA-friendly alternative where all oil-export proceeds would be captured going forward.
Lastly, in the way of ground operations, the LNA has become active again in its attempts to seize new territories on the peripheries of Tripoli. These intensive assaults will continue and grow in the coming days and weeks, thanks to resources recently provided by the UAE.
In contrast to that of Abu Dhabi, Moscow’s intervention in Libya is far more mercurial. In the last three months of 2019, Kremlin-linked paramilitary company Wagner shifted the balance of the conflict by joining the fight alongside Haftar. Then, in early January, several days before President Vladimir Putin took part in a request for a Libyan ceasefire, the Russian contingent on the Tripoli front line suddenly became less active.
Later, going along with the much larger UAE-driven buildup, the frequency of Russian flights picked up, a sign that additional equipment has been brought in and the number of contractors, advisers, and regulars on Libyan soil has gone up from about 2,000 late last year. The Russian forces near Tripoli are no longer complying with the truce, but, for the time being, they are merely a supporting actor. Putin has not yet made the strategic decision to engage head-on in a long urban war and ensure that Haftar emerges as the ultimate victor, despite having the capacity to do so.
Russia may well choose to stay its current course and use the cynical partnership it has so far preserved with Turkey. The dynamic between Ankara and Moscow is as much rooted in their common disdain for Europe as it is in mutual animosity. That means Russia could tolerate Turkey a while longer if it feels its interests would be better served by doing so. Such an ebb-and-flow approach amplifies Moscow’s influence and could eventually push the Europeans out of the Libyan theater altogether. Russia may just as easily change its mind and invest into helping the LNA deliver a resounding defeat to Erdogan.
Despite fissures that are certain to widen within the GNA coalition, the entrenchment and sheer size of the Turkish mission in Libya makes it hard to uproot. Notwithstanding its attempt to tap underwater hydrocarbons in the Mediterranean, Ankara has no intention of renouncing its commercial interests in Libya or its wider geopolitical aspirations in the rest of Africa.
On the other hand, the UAE has sought to bring about the emergence in Tripoli of a government that is void of any influence from political Islam writ large. Because of this, Abu Dhabi will not accept a negotiated settlement with Erdogan’s Islamist government. Making matters worse, neither the United States nor any EU country is willing to use its own regional clout to stand in the Emiratis’ way. Therefore, regardless of whether that endangers a great number of civilian lives, the Libyan war is likely to continue escalating before any political resolution is seriously explored.