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Libyan Civil War - 2020

Various states in Europe and North Africa launched a diplomatic offensive to try to prevent Libya, with the increased involvement of international players in its conflict, from turning into a "second Syria." European governments are concerned that Islamist militants and migrant smugglers, already highly active in Libya, will take further advantage of the chaos.

The oil-rich North African country was plunged into chaos after the 2011 NATO-backed uprising that killed longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi. By 2020 it was divided between the UN-recognised GNA [Government of National Accord] based in the capital Tripoli and Khalifa Haftar's Libyan National Army in the east and which also controlled most of the country's south. The GNA is backed by Turkey and Qatar, Haftar has the support of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia. Tensions escalated in 2019 when Haftar launched an operation in January to "purge" southern Libya "of terrorist groups and criminals" and seized several towns with support from some local tribes. Haftar then set his eyes on Tripoli, launching an offensive on the capital in April 2019 to unseat the GNA.

Air power played an increasingly important role in the Libyan conflict. The relatively flat featureless desert terrain of the north and coast meant that ground units were easily spotted, with few places to hide. The air forces of both the United Nations-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) and eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar and his self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) used French and Soviet-era fighter jets, antiquated and poorly maintained.

for the most part the air war has been fought by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones. With nearly 1,000 air strikes conducted by UAVs, UN Special Representative to Libya Ghassan Salame called the conflict "the largest drone war in the world". UAVs are useful for several reasons. Not only do they provide valuable information about the enemy that can be spotted a long way off, but they are able to attack any targets immediately with a far higher rate of success. In the event the drone is shot down and destroyed, the pilot is safe, back at base and able to pilot the next drone that takes off.

In December 2019 Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirmed Turkey would sharply increase its military support for al-Serraj and the GNA. Along with troops, Erdogan sent Turkish-made armed drones, namely the Bayraktar TB2. Smaller and with a much shorter range than the Wing Loong, the Bayraktar was still able to engage and destroy the LNA's ground targets, harass its supply lines, and attack forward air bases that were once considered safe. Pro-government ground troops could now advance with air cover, the enemy's positions known to their commanders.

This, combined with the timely arrival of Hawk missiles, among other air defence systems, meant the main GNA airbase at Tripoli's Mitiga airport could now operate without fear of attack. The effect was dramatic as the GNA launched a counteroffensive and in a lightning strike seized the coastal towns of Surman, Sabratah and Al-Ajaylat along with the border town of Al-Assah. This was followed up by repeated attacks on the Al-Watiya airbase, which Haftar's forces were using as their main point of operations.

On 04 January 2020, a military college in the capital was hit, killing at least 30 people, a day after the only functioning airport in Tripoli faced its latest closure due to shelling and rocket fire.

The GNA sought help from Turkey, whose parliament passed a bill allowing the government to send troops to Libya to shore up the Tripoli government. On 05 January 2020, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that Turkish soldiers had begun deploying in Libya. "Our soldiers' duty there is coordination. They will develop the operation centre there. Our soldiers are gradually going right now," he said in a television interview. He said Saudi Arabia's condemnations on the issue does not disturb Turkey. The deployment followed deals that Libya and Turkey struck in November 2019 on maritime boundaries in the eastern Mediterranean, and on military co-operation.

Sirte, some 450 kilometers east of the capital Tripoli, had been held since 2016 by forces allied with the Government of National Accord. The city is very strategic because it is very close to the oil fields and oil ports in central Libya and the coast. Haftar's militia on 06 January 2020 seized the coastal city of Sirte from the UN-backed government, raising tensions as Turkey said it was deploying troops in the North African country. "Sirte has been totally liberated," Haftar's spokesperson Ahmad al Mesmari announced on television. "The operation was quick and lasted only three hours," Mesmari said, although preparations had started months earlier with air strikes on positions of pro-GNA forces. He said Haftar loyalists struck from five land and sea positions and had air cover. He did not give further details. LNA sources said the takeover came after forces from the city of Misrata, a key source of military power for GNA, retreated from Sirte.

Both sides in Libya's conflict agreed to a cease-fire that started 12 January 2020 following weeks of international diplomacy and calls for a truce by power brokers Russia and Turkey. The oil-rich African country had been wracked by bloody turmoil since a NATO-backed uprising killed longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Since April 2019, the Tripoli-based, UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) has been under attack from forces loyal to eastern-based strongman Khalifa Haftar, which days ago advanced to take the strategic coastal city of Sirte.

Haftar forces announced a cease-fire starting at the stroke of midnight (Sunday 00:00 local time, Saturday 22:00 GMT) in line with a joint call by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. The head of the GNA, Fayez al-Sarraj, also announced an agreement to the cease-fire, saying it had taken effect. Sarraj stressed the GNA's "legitimate right ... to respond to any attack or aggression" that may come from the other side - just as Haftar forces had warned of a "severe" response to any violation by the "opposing camp."

Haftar hist Tripoli portOn 18 February 2020 eastern-based forces stepped up their assault on the capital, Tripoli, hitting its port. The targeting of the strategic facility appeared to be the first such attack since the forces of military commander Khalifa Haftar launched an offensive in April 2019 to seize the city. Footage shared online showed thick black smoke rising from the dock areas of Tripoli, which is controlled by the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA). Ghassan Salame, head of the UN Libya mission, called the port attack a "big breach" of the fragile - and repeatedly violated - ceasefire that was brokered by Russia and Turkey on January 12 as part of efforts to de-escalate the battle for the capital. The GNA accused Haftar's forces of committing war crimes by targeting civilian facilities. The government says that Haftar's forces have only been targeting other civilian facilities, including Mitiga, the only operational airport in the capital.

Countries including the United Arab Emirates and Egypt back Haftar, while the GNA is supported by Turkey. Jason Pack, founder of Libya Analysis LLC, a political affairs think-tank, said the ceasefire talks have so far been aimed to establish "diplomatic momentum" - rather than stop fighting on the ground. "You could say that [the ceasefire talks] are too early because until there's a blanket arms embargo that's actually enforced and sanctions on violaters, all of what's coming out of these talks is going to be just hot air," Pack told Al Jazeera.

Sixteen members of the Turkish armed forces and more than 100 Syrian mercenaries died fighting in the Libyan capital of Tripoli, the Sky News Arabia TV channel reported on 23 February 2020, citing sources in the Libyan National Army (LNA). According to the channel’s Twitter, 16 Turkish soldiers and over 100 Syrian mercenaries have died in Tripoli clashes. Earlier in the week, the LNA commander Khalifa Haftar said that the rival Government of National Accord (GNA) had used the current ceasefire to deploy Syrian mercenaries to Libya. Meanwhile, the Turkish forces arrived in Libya earlier this year under an agreement between the GNA and Ankara.

Al-Watiya airbase Al-Watiya airbase

A Libyan military airstrike 16 May 2020 destroyed the air defense system of warlord Khalifa Haftar on the Al-Watiya airbase southwest of the capital. The strike destroyed the Russian-made Pantsir type system that was recently supplied by the United Arab Emirates, according to the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) spokesman Mohammed Qanunu. Al-Watiya is regarded as a key airbase and is second only to Mitiga Airport. It was captured in August 2014 by Haftar, the leader of illegally armed forces in eastern Libya, who used it as his headquarters for western operations. The airstrike came as a part of operations to cut supplies to Haftar's militias. Haftar intensified attacks on civilians since the beginning of May 2020 as the Libyan army recently gained the advantage and inflicted severe losses on his militants. The government had been under attack by Haftar's forces since April 2019, with more than 1,000 killed in the violence. It launched Operation Peace Storm on 26 March 2020 to counter attacks on the capital.

Libya's internationally-recognised government said 18 May 2020 it had captured the strategic al-Watiya airbase from fighters loyal to renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar. Military spokesman Mohamed Gnunu said the forces of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) had taken over the entirety of the base near the Tunisian border.

Eastern Libyan forces pulled out of parts of Tripoli after losing one of their main strongholds in western Libya on 19 May 2020, in a major blow to their year-long campaign to seize the capital. Libyan National Army (LNA) spokesman Ahmed al-Mismari said the force had carried out a "redistribution and repositioning in the battle fronts, disengaging from some crowded residential areas". The pro-GNA forces took the Watiya airbase west of the capital after weeks of attempts, their biggest advance in a year that deprives the LNA of its only airfield near Tripoli. Russian private military contractor Wagner Group has up to 1,200 people deployed in Libya to strengthen Haftar's forces.

US intelligence community reportedly believed Russian PMCs (Wagner?) operated Pantsirs in Libya. the GNA Army struck the air defense system of the Libyan National Army. A spokesman for the GNA command said that three Russian-made Pantsir air defense systems were destroyed in just one day using artillery and combat drones, two near the city of Tarhunah, one south of Sirte.

Mig in Libya Mig in Libya Mig in Libya Mig in Libya Mig in Libya Mig in Libya

On 21 May 2020, Brian Castner, with Amnesty International's Crisis Team, posted on Twitter a satellite image acquired two days earlier of a MiG-29 Fulcrum on the taxiway of Jufrah air base in central Libya, which is controlled by forces aligned with Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA). The security chief of the United Nations-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) had reported that six MiG-29s, as well as two Su-24 Fencer combat jets, had recently arrived to join the LNA’s forces. GNA Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha said that the six MiG-29s and two Su-24s had flown in by way of Russia's Hmeimim Air Base in Syria, and had been escorted at least part of the way by Russian Su-35 Flankers, Bloomberg reported. According to the agency, it is unclear whether the planes were Haftar's new acquisition or whether they were already owned by him but were in Syria for repairs.

Turkey’s Foreign Ministry responded: “If Turkish interests in Libya are targeted, we will legitimately target the elements of the coup plotter Haftar." Russian-made, UAE-supplied, Pantsir S-1 air defence units were comprehensively destroyed, leaving Haftar's retreating LNA forces with little to no protection from air attacks. Media reports claimed sophisticated Turkish jamming gear was responsible for disorienting the Pantsir's radar, leaving it vulnerable to air strikes from the Bayraktar drones.

The US military accused Russia on 26 May 2020 of deploying fighter aircraft to Libya "repainted to camouflage" their origin in support of mercenaries fighting for eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar's forces. The allegation came as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told a Haftar ally that Moscow backed an immediate ceasefire and political talks that would culminate in united governing authorities.

"For too long, Russia has denied the full extent of its involvement in the ongoing Libyan conflict. Well, there is no denying it now," said US Army General Stephen Townsend in the Africom statement. "Russia is clearly trying to tip the scales in its favour in Libya," he added. "Just like I saw them doing in Syria, they are expanding their military footprint in Africa using government-supported mercenary groups like Wagner." The military fighter aircraft left Russia and first stopped in Syria where they "were repainted to camouflage their Russian origin" before arriving in Libya, said Stuttgart-based Africom. The United States' fighter jet accusation against Russia raises concerns of a new escalation in the nine-year-long conflict, despite Lavrov's call for a truce. "Russian military aircraft are likely to provide close air support and offensive fire," the US Africa Command said in a statement.

On May 27, AFRICOM added that MiG-29 and Su-24 fighters bearing Russian Federation Air Force markings departed Russia “over multiple days in May.... At that time, all the aircraft have Russian Federation Air Force markings. After they land at Khmeimin Air Base in Syria, the MiG 29s are repainted and emerge with no national markings.” To bolster the waning confidence of warlord Khalifa Haftar, Moscow's move of sending fighter jets to Libya rekindled Washington's interest in the six-year-long conflict. The foreign policies of the US and Russia were becoming increasingly competitive, with Libya becoming yet another battleground for the two states in their struggle for global supremacy. In the past decade, the two powers were at opposing ends of two different conflicts in Ukraine and Syria. Now with Libya, a strategic Mediterranean state located beneath southern Europe, the US is facing a situation where a critical NATO front is slipping towards the Russians.

Having a grasp of the Mediterranean has historically been a driving political aspiration for landlocked Russia ever since its Imperial days under Peter the Great in the early 18th century. "If Russia seizes basing on Libya's coast, the next logical step is they deploy permanent long-range anti-access area denial (A2AD) capabilities. If that day comes, it will create very real security concerns on Europe's southern flank," said Gen. Jeff Harrigian, the top commander of US Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa.

“Not only could Russian air power change the military balance in Libya itself, but this could be the first step in a gradual escalation to what eventually becomes a permanent Russian military deployment in the country,” Michael Kofman, director of the Russia program at the Center for Naval Analysis told the New York Times.

After 14 months and hundreds of lives lost, Haftar's attempt to seize Tripoli and become Libya's ruler was effectively over. On 05 Jun 2020, forces loyal to the United Nations-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) swept through the city of Tarhuna, Haftar's last stronghold in western Libya. It came a day after the GNA announced the recapturing of the Greater Tripoli area in its entirety.

Libya's internationally-recognised government has promised to retake the country's east after launching an offensive to capture the strategic city of Sirte from the eastern-based forces of Haftar. On 06 June 2020, forces allied with the Government of National Accord (GNA) launched the offensive to seize Sirte, a key gateway to the country's main oil fields in the east, from Haftar's Libyan National Army (LNA) forces which took the city in January.

Haftar backed a ceasefire in Libya to take effect from 08 June 2020, Egypt's president announced after talks in Cairo. The development follows a series of military victories of Libya's UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) against Haftar's forces. "This initiative calls for respecting all international efforts and initiatives by declaring a ceasefire from 6pm [16:00 GMT] Monday, June 8, 2020," President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi told a news conference on 07 June 2020. El-Sisi added that the declaration also called for "dismantling militias and handing over their weaponry so that Libyan National Army [led by Haftar] would be able to carry out its military and security responsibilities and duties".

Rome and Ankara's shared ambition to take the lead in Libya could eventually translate into an open rivalry. A senior diplomatic source in Turkey recently told Al Jazeera that Italy is supporting Turkey's involvement in Libya only because it believes that France, which supports Haftar, may increase its influence over the country in Turkey's absence. There are, the diplomatic source said, concerns in Ankara that if Italy manages to take France out of the game, it may turn on Turkey and accuse it of allying itself with alleged Islamists in Libya.

Al-Watiya airbase Al-Watiya airbase

Russian aircraft were used to support private military companies (PMCs) sponsored by the Russian government. “We know these fighters were not already in Libya and being repaired,” Col. Chris Karns, director of public affairs, U.S. Africa Command, said 18 May 2020. “Clearly, they came from Russia. They didn’t come from any other country.” A MiG-29 was photographed operating in the vicinity of the city of Sirte, Libya. The Spoon Rest is a Russian-made, mobile early warning radar system, designed to provide tactical support to military activities. Russia uses this system when deployed to a nation in the conduct of tactical combat operations. “Russia has relentlessly stuck to a narrative of implausible denials in the media,” said Karns. “It’s difficult to deny facts. Russian interference and masking of activity in Libya is visible and delaying progress. Progress the people of Libya deserve.”

Turkey’s intervention into the conflict, at the invitation of the United Nations-backed GNA in late 2019, completely turned the tide against Haftar. Where the LNA – which has enjoyed extensive support from Russia, Egypt, France, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia – was previously able to use its air superiority to seemingly strike GNA ground forces at will, forcing them to lose ground and hole up in more defensible positions within cities, Turkey’s state-of-the-art Bayraktar drones changed the course of the war, turning Haftar’s offensive into a veritable rout. The GNA was thus able to move from purely defensive operations to a more offensive posture, reclaiming territory and key strategic assets including the Al Watiya Airbase, pushing the frontlines further eastwards towards Haftar’s Benghazi base.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi ordered his army on 20 June 2020 to be ready to carry out any mission inside or outside the country to protect its national security amid tensions over Turkey's intervention in neighbouring Libya. He also warned forces loyal to the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli not to cross the current front line with renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar's eastern-based self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA).

El-Sisi toured an airbase near Egypt's 1,200km-long (746 miles) western border with Libya, where state television showed him watching fighter jets and helicopters taking off. "Be prepared to carry out any mission, here inside our borders - or if necessary, outside our borders," he told air force pilots and special forces personnel at the base. He said the Egyptian army was "one of the strongest in the region", adding: "It is a rational army; an army that protects and does not threaten ... this is our strategy, our beliefs and our principles that we will never change." He also said Egypt did not want to intervene in Libya and generally favored a political solution, but added that "the situation now is different".

Sirte lies on the main road connecting the GNA’s Tripoli with the LNA’s Benghazi further to the east, and also sits on the nexus of roads heading further south to Jufra. Securing the city means securing the roads, and in a country as large as Libya which is mostly covered by desert, control of the road networks means having the capability to more rapidly deploy mobile military units to the frontlines. It will also facilitate a defensive posture by allowing defensive deployments to be more readily supplied with fresh reinforcements and armaments.

Egypt has also previously said that the Sirte-Jufra line is a “read line” for Cairo, which has become increasingly vocal in its support for the LNA. If captured, Sirte would open the door for the GNA to take hold of the country’s “oil crescent” and give the Tripoli government access to seize the oil ports of Sidra, Ras Lanuf, Marsa al-Brega and Zuwetina, where eleven oil pipelines and three gas storages converge in the Mediterranean. Haftar’s capture of the ‘oil crescent’ in 2019, gave him control of over 60 percent of the country's oil and gas riches and with it, undermined the GNA.

Egypt's parliament authorised the deployment of troops outside the country 20 July 2020 after the president threatened military action against Turkish-backed forces in neighbouring Libya. The parliament unanimously approved "the deployment of members of the Egyptian armed forces on combat missions outside Egypt's borders to defend Egyptian national security ... against criminal armed militias and foreign terrorist elements", it said in a statement.

Wagner Group Wagner Group

US Africa Command released overhead imagery 24 July 2020 showing Wagner forces and equipment on the front lines of the Libyan conflict in Sirte. Russia, through the Wagner Group, continued to position military equipment in Libya capable of conducting kinetic operations. US assessed that Russia supplied Wagner forces operating in Libya with fighter aircraft, military armored vehicles, air defense systems, and supplies, further complicating the situation and increasing the risk for miscalculation leading to continued and needless violence in Libya. The latest imagery details the extent of equipment being supplied to Wagner. Russian military cargo aircraft, including IL-76s, continue to supply Wagner fighters. Russian air defense equipment, including SA-22s, are present in Libya and operated by Russia, the Wagner Group or their proxies. Photos also show Wagner utility trucks and Russian mine-resistant, ambush­protected armored vehicles are also present in Libya.

In September 2020, the two sides reached preliminary agreements to exchange prisoners and open transit across the country’s divided territory. This breakthrough also accompanied the resumption of oil production after a months-long blockade by powerful tribes allied with Khalifa Haftar, commander of the east-based Libyan National Army (LNA).

Libya's warring sides signed an agreement for "a permanent ceasefire in all areas of Libya", the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) said 23 October 2020. After mediation led by UN envoy Stephanie Turco Williams this week, the 5+5 Joint Military Commission reached what the United Nations called an “important turning point towards peace and stability in Libya”. Further details were not immediately available, but live video of the signing ceremony in Geneva was streamed on Facebook.

Libya is split between a UN-supported government in the capital, Tripoli, and rival authorities based in the east. The two sides are backed by an array of local militias as well as regional and foreign powers. The country was plunged into chaos after the 2011 NATO-backed uprising that toppled and killed longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi. “The road to a permanent ceasefire deal was often long and difficult,” Williams said on Friday, noting that there’s a “great deal of work” to do in the coming weeks to implement the commitments. She expressed hope the agreement will succeed “in ending the suffering of Libyans and allowing those displaced by the conflict to return to their homes”.

On 02 December 2020, the acting envoy of the United Nations for Libya said that there are more than 20,000 foreign fighters and mercenaries in Libya, warning of a “serious crisis” as weapons continue pouring into the country. During an online meeting of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, Williams said; “That is a shocking violation of Libyan sovereignty ... a blatant violation of the arms embargo.” Her remarks also reflected disappointment over the lack of progress on the departure of foreign fighters and mercenaries from Libya as it was a part of the ceasefire deal signed in October. According to that pact, foreign forces and mercenaries had three months to leave the war-torn North African country. United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, was to make recommendations to the UN Security Council by the end of November on proposals for ceasefire monitoring in Libya. However, he has delayed this until the end of December because of the ongoing negotiations between warring sides as per the letter sent by the Secretary-General to the council.

By mid 2021 the ceasefire continued to hold. The security situation has significantly improved, although clashes between armed militia groups competing for influence, access to and control of territory and resources do occur from time to time. Confidence-building between the two sides continues. In the past period, hundreds of prisoners and detainees were released by both sides, with releases taking place almost weekly in different parts of the country, particularly during the month of Ramadan.

Yet, progress on key issues such as the reopening of the coastal road between Sirte and Misrata and the start of the withdrawal of foreign mercenaries, fighters and foreign forces has stalled. Further delays in reopening the road work against efforts to build trust between the two sides and could undermine efforts to advance the implementation of the ceasefire agreement, to advance the political transition.

UNSMIL continues to receive reports of setting up of fortifications and defensive positions along the Sirte-Jufra axis and South Libya, air force training activities, cargoes of arms and military supplies into West, East, and South Libyan military bases; as well as the continuing presence of foreign elements, mercenaries and assets, thus entrenching the division of Libya.

The continued use, presence, and activities of thousands of mercenaries, foreign fighters, and armed groups is a significant threat not just to Libya’s security but to the region as a whole. The recent disturbing events in Chad again remind us of the interrelated nature and links between the security situation in Libya and the security and stability of the region. The high mobility of armed groups and terrorists but also economic migrants and refugees, often through channels operated by organized criminal networks and other local players across uncontrolled borders only enhances risks of furthering instability and insecurity in Libya and the region. It is therefore critical to plan and ensure an orderly departure of foreign fighters, mercenaries, and armed groups together with their disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration in the countries of origin.

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Page last modified: 06-06-2021 18:21:02 ZULU