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Vol 60 No 16

Published 9th August 2019


Proxies battle over Tripoli

There's a stalemate on the ground while each side's foreign supporters use high-tech weaponry to try to change the strategic balance

As the campaign of Benghazi-based strongman Khalifa Haftar to take Tripoli slows down, foreign powers are putting more and more resources into the fight, including armed drones and psychological warfare tactics in social and mass media (AC Vol 60 No 8, Haftar stakes it all). There's been a let-up in the overall level of casualties, but about 1,100 people, over 100 of them civilians, have been killed and around 120,000 people displaced, many of them to Tunisia.

Impasse on the ground and pleas for a ceasefire from UN special envoy Ghassan Salamé and numerous regional and international governments have failed to budge either Haftar or the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Faiez el Serraj (AC Vol 59 No 7, Doubts about unity deal). In his bi-monthly briefing to the UN Security Council on 29 July, Salamé blamed both men. Despite their promised commitment to a political solution and elections, neither had taken any practical steps to stop the fighting, he said. 'The parties still believe they can achieve their objectives through military means,' he complained.  

In the meantime, misinformation and disinformation have become as much weapons in the conflict as aircraft, tanks and missiles. Leading officials in Haftar's Libyan National Army regularly announce a fresh push which they insist will result in imminent victory, while the GNA declares that it will force the LNA to retreat (AC Vol 60 No 14, Air strikes risk escalation). The LNA's last 'fresh push' was supposed to start on 1 August with Tripoli in its hands by the Muslim festival of Eid al Adhah, which is expected on 11 August.  

Media sites linked to one side or the other promote the claims, rarely bothering to check their facts. Salamé has noted the role of 'intentionally false news' in the struggle. That was on show at the beginning of August when photos of a crashed drone appeared on both pro-LNA and pro-GNA media sites, each side claiming that it belonged to the other and that their forces had shot it down.

Good publicity
But it is not just Haftar and Serraj that appear to have little incentive to return to the table. Turkey has supplied the GNA with several of its domestically manufactured Bayraktar TB2 combat drones, while the LNA has acquired the technically similar, Chinese-made Wing Loong II drones allegedly from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), but possibly Egypt. It was a Wing Loong II that featured in the recently published photos of a crashed drone, which would mean that the GNA shot it down, not the LNA. Nonetheless, the LNA have destroyed a number of Turkish drones, and more have been delivered. The war is good publicity for Turkey's growing drone industry.  

Both sides rely heavily on the drones, as was seen on 26 July, when the GNA attacked Haftar's key supply airbase at Jufra in central Libya, destroying two Ukrainian Il-76 heavy-lift military transport aircraft and, reportedly, killing a Ukrainian pilot. According to several sources, the attack was carried out by drones with the assistance of Turkish military 'advisors'. The GNA claimed it also destroyed a hangar for Haftar's drones and a munitions store.  

Furious, Haftar launched revenge airstrikes the following day against Misurata Air Academy, part of the city's shared civil and military airport. It was the LNA's first attack on Misurata, although it appears to have done little damage. LNA forces also attacked and occupied a military camp in southern Tripoli and the town of Qarabulli on the coast road between the capital and Misurata but were quickly forced to withdraw when GNA forces counter-attacked. Militarily, nothing was achieved but it did not stop the LNA again claiming that the battle for Tripoli was in its final stage.  

Whether the LNA has the resources to achieve this is questionable, although there are Sudanese reports claiming that 1,000 fighters from Sudan's controversial Rapid Support Forces militia arrived in Libya at the end of July to take over protection of LNA-controlled oil fields and terminals and so free up LNA fighters to join the battle for Tripoli. They are supposed to be the first batch of 4,000 RSF soldiers being provided to Haftar by Sudan's generals and paid for by the UAE.

Darfuri discord
This, however, could cause problems for Haftar. The RSF was a development of the Janjaweed militias that the former Sudanese government used against rebels in Darfur. But Haftar has been using Darfuri mercenaries, who have been based in Libya for some time. The two groups are hardly likely to fight side by side. The situation could be further complicated by reports of discontent among the Darfuris who say they have not been paid. Whether they stay with the LNA or switch sides remains to be seen.  

These are not the only foreign fighters involved in the Libyan chaos. Chadian Tebus and other Chadian opposition groups are still in the south, allegedly backing the GNA but generally pursuing their own interests. Over the weekend of 3-4 August, about 42 people were reported killed in the southern town of Murzuq when what a GNA spokesperson described as a meeting of 200 dignitaries to 'settle social differences' was attacked from the air, according to AFP news agency. 

Yet the main drivers of the Libyan conflict are now Turkey and Qatar, backing the GNA, and the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt behind the LNA. It is not just a drone war but arguably the world's number one proxy war. Without Turkish military supplies, equipment, and, it's said, military advisors – all funded by Qatar – it is highly doubtful that the GNA could withstand the LNA offensive against Tripoli, let alone launch its own, such as the Jufra attack on 26 July. Equally, without equipment and, allegedly, F16 fighter-bomber support from Egypt and the UAE, it is doubtful whether the LNA could sustain its offensive.  

As Salamé noted in his Security Council briefing, the two sides 'are now fighting the wars of others and in so doing destroying their country'.  

Not that other countries are disinterested. The LNA has drawn comfort from perceived support from France, Russia and now from United States President Donald Trump, while Italy and the United Kingdom firmly back the GNA. 

Having effectively created the GNA, the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) headed by Salamé has also been a firm supporter. This has brought him into bitter conflict not just with the LNA and the associated political establishment in eastern Libya but also with hardliners and various Islamists in the west of the country who, until April, wanted to bring down the GNA. Haftar's offensive prompted them to switch sides, the ideological struggle against him being more important for them. But they are no less opposed to Salamé. At the end of July, the man whom the hardliners still regard as Libya's grand mufti, Sheikh Sadik al Ghariani, again demanded that Salamé leave.  

Ironically, the UN envoy has now been accused of bias by the GNA too, over his briefing to the Security Council on 29 July in which he criticised both the LNA and the GNA for continuing the conflict. Salamé's strong criticism infuriated the GNA while LNA supporters – incorrectly – thought he was switching sides.  

The GNA took particular exception to his demand that it stop using Mitiga, Tripoli's only functioning airport, for military purposes and his suggestion that it had allowed militants and terrorists to fight on its behalf against the LNA. It furiously denied both charges, despite photos of destroyed Turkish drones at Mitiga and of evidence that internationally sanctioned militants were fighting in southern Tripoli. Serraj formally protested to Salamé at what he said was misrepresentation to the Security Council, and called on UNSMIL to name any such militants.  

The row has not yet abated despite attempts by Salamé to mend fences – he condemned another missile attack on Mitiga airport on 3 August which was widely alleged to have been by the LNA. The same day, in a political snub, the GNA's transport ministry closed Zuwara airport near the Tunisian border, which was being quietly used by Salamé and UNSMIL staff, who were told they now had to use Mitiga like everyone else.

Daily struggle
In Tripoli, though, at least for the moment, most people are little interested in the war, Salamé or the GNA's relations with him. They have been more concerned with the power cuts (day long in some cases and which in the soaring summer temperatures has meant no air-conditioning) and, in the run-up to Eid, the lack of money in the banks and the high price of sheep to sacrifice. Many have had to accept that there will be no Eid sacrifice. 

They have also been much pre-occupied with the announcement in Tripoli that applications for the $500 foreign-exchange allowance for 2019 can be made at banks as of 20 August. It is a major handout, though too late for Eid. The dollars are bought at the official rate of around US$1 to 1.4 Libyan dinars, costing LD700. They can then be sold through black market dealers for around LD2,000, minus commission. That can be over 10%, but the profit is more than an average monthly salary and because the allowance is available to everyone, including children, it can triple or quadruple the average monthly household income.  

Needless to say, supporters of the LNA have called it a bribe aimed at diverting attention from the current crisis and reducing public discontent. They have urged people not to accept it, though there is little chance of that. 

Meanwhile, with the focus on Eid, the question now being raised by some analysts and observers, including some who support the LNA, is whether the LNA can continue the offensive afterwards or whether it will be forced by its foreign supporters to adopt a different strategy, possibly even a ceasefire. Salamé will be banking on it. The larger the foreign supporters loom in the conflict, the greater the pressure on them to make peace. 

In his Security Council briefing, Salamé presented a three-point plan to enable Libya to exit the civil war: an Eid truce, and an international summit to devise an end to hostilities, followed by a meeting of leading Libyans to agree on the way forward (AC Vol 59 No 23, Posturing in Palermo). He will be hoping the foreign players opt for a ceasefire, accepting that a clear-cut military victory is unlikely in the foreseeable future. But given their rivalries and the fact the war is costing them very little apart from cash and, in some cases, not much of that either, it could be a hope too far. 

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