Libya: The Turkish Gambit
The Turkish intervention could now include Turkish combat troops. That’s what the Turkish leader said yesterday. This is apparently in response to LNA predictions made the day before that the LNA would take control of Tripoli by the end of the year and then hold national elections in mid-2020. For Turkey, such an outcome would be an embarrassing defeat. More than that it would eliminate another recent agreement with the GNA, which granted Turkey the right to explore for natural gas in Libyan offshore waters. In response to that, the head of the Libyan Navy (a coast guard that is part of the LNA) said he has orders to sink any Turkish oil exploration ship that enters Libyan waters,
Currently, the Turkish contribution has been dozens of missile-armed UAVs that provide air support for the GNA (the weaker UN backed Government of National Accord) forces. The LNA (Libyan National Army) 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 also put troops on the ground, mainly to operate airbases the UAVs operate from. These 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. UAE and Turkish 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 about a thousand or so 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 for over a year. 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. The Russian techs were civilian contractors who identified themselves as working for the Wagner Group, a large Russian military contractor organization that is operating in several other African countries at the behest of the Russian government. Russia was known to be providing this sort of support for the LNA and some leaked documents detailed the extent of that effort.
More recently, dozens of Wagner Group personnel have been killed in combat, many of them because of airstrikes by GNA warplanes or Turkish missile armed UAVs. While Russia has been backing the LNA for over three years, the Turks only recently 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 it is largely a collection of militias, several of them described as “Islamic” although not Islamic terrorists. 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 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 are 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.
Escalating the Turkish presence in Libya is apparently not going to happen quickly. The Turkish leader also said he would discuss this matter with his Russian counterpart within a week. Closer to home 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 as well as from their own government 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 by the end of the year.
The Turkish involvement stalled the LNA advance on Tripoli for a while. Then 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 about a dozen 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, and at least ten percent of the casualties have been civilians. Overall the fighting for Tripoli appears to have killed about a thousand people so far.
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 competing 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.
December 10, 2019: Turkey announced that its security agreement with the GNA, to prevent intervention by foreign forces, currently applies because Russian Wagner Group military contractors are present in Libya and supporting the LNA. Turkey also pointed out that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and France were supporting the LNA and the HoR government it serves.
December 7, 2019: The U.S. revealed that it now believes that an American surveillance UAV that disappeared over Tripoli on November 23rd was shot down by a Russian missile. The U.S. wants to recover the wreckage of their UAV but the Russian forces that took possession are refusing to cooperate. The Americans believe that the Russians fired on the UAV believing it was Turkish. The American UAV missions are counter-terror operations that both the GNA and HoR governments approve up so it’s unclear what is behind these sudden attacks on American UAVs.
December 4, 2019: In Tripoli, a militia from Misrata (the source of many Islamic militias) fought outside the presidential palace compound it what appeared to be a dispute with the GNA leadership. The “Misrata militias” are from the coastal city of Misrata that is 210 kilometers to the east. Misrata is the third largest city in the country and also dominated by local militias. Many of the militiamen defending Tripoli are from Misrata. This is a fundamental problem for the GNA, which presides over, but does not command, a lot of independent-minded militias in Tripoli and Misrata. 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 GNA disputes with the militias have worsened since April when the LNA began its offensive to take Tripoli and eliminate the GNA.
December 2, 2019: South of Tripoli the GNA forces attacked with airstrikes and ground forces to push GNA militias back towards the city center. These well planned and violent operations occur several times a month and if they don’t force the opposing militia forces to retreat they do demoralize the militia fighters.
November 28, 2019: South of Tripoli, near the Algerian border, the LNA regained control east the El Feel oilfield. Normal production (80,000 barrels a day) will resume soon. El Feel had been shut down frequently since by local militias protesting abuses like not being paid. The militias have tended to side with the GNA. The LNA also attacked pro-GNA forces outside the nearby Sharara oil field. This is the largest source of oil and gas field in Libya and the frequent target of attacks for no other reason because it has always been a place where there was stuff to steal. Sharara is located about 700 kilometers south of Tripoli in the Murzuq Desert. Total Libya oil production is 1.25 million BPD and Sharara accounts for a quarter of that. Another major oilfield in that area, el Feel, produces 90,000 BPD and together with Sharara accounts for a third of national production. For over a year 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.
November 27, 2019: In Turkey, the GNA and Turkey signed defense and economic agreements. Apparently in return for surrendering offshore claims to Turkey in return for Turkey sending troops to help defend Tripoli from the LNA. The GNA agreements with Turkey also support overall Turkish offshore claims which overlap the Greek claims. Greece is threatening war with Turkey over this.
November 25, 2019: Libya is one of the two most dangerous areas for foreign aid workers to visit and work in. Foreign aid groups, especially those that send foreign medical specialists in to provide care for desperate locals, have organized “International SOS” to collect and compile safety data on countries where foreign medical specialists or foreign aid workers, in general, might be called on to help. This ranks potential aid destinations from safest to most dangerous. A bit less dangerous are Afghanistan and Venezuela followed by Iraq and a lot of African nations. Risks measured include general safety (infrastructure and prevalence of diseases), crime rates and the attitude of locals towards foreign aid workers. In both Libya and Somalia foreign aid workers face not one threat but dozens of gangs, militias and semi-official armed groups. The LNA controlled areas are somewhat safer but there are large rural areas in Libya where there is often no one responsible for public safety.
November 22, 2019: Over Tripoli, an Italian Reaper UAV, on a surveillance mission, was shot down by LNA forces. The next day an American reconnaissance UAV was also shot down, apparently by Russian forces.