When we last visited Libya, we saw the demise of Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi at the hands of various Libyan rebel forces. Those videos are now tagged with a graphic content warning on YouTube. His gruesome death with a knife up his arse, a bullet in his head and his carcass on display in a Misrata grocer’s freezer should have been a warning of what was to come. Even Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, on the day of his capture issued a strong warning to his captors about Libya’s new radical leaders and the risk of internal divisions. Of course he was only talking about particular Islamist leaders among the rebels. Even he didn’t foresee the danger of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Those jihadists had their moment, but neither of the current warring factions in Libya have any use for them. At least there’s that.
Ah yes. How could I forget Benghazi. We all remember the killing of Ambassador Stevens in Benghazi on 11 September 2012 and the ensuing four years of Congressional investigations. But that’s another story.
Some time after the killing of Ambassador Stevens, the USG started developing plans to begin rebuilding a new Libyan Army starting in 2015. It definitely would have been a much tougher mission than rebuilding the Lebanese Army in 1983. It would have taken an entire SF Group and various supporting elements fully deployed for several years. Given our existing deployments at the time, I doubt this mission ever got past the initial planning stage… if that far. If we were at all serious about this endeavor, we should have started planning before the first American bomb fell on Qadaffi’s forces.
Now back to reality. In Oct 2013 Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, the first post Qadaffi prime minister, was kidnapped for a few hours by a militia thus proving the inability of the Tripoli government to control the militias and rule Libya. In June 2013 the Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG), another militia, declared the eastern Libyan province of Barqa’s independence from Tripoli. The PFG, a former government security force, had 17,000 fighters, most of the oil and the oil terminal facilities. This was a significant development to say the least. In March 2014 the PFG sold it’s first shipment of oil to North Korea, Prime Minister Ali Zeidan was voted out of office over his failure to control rebel militias across the country and in particular over the moves of the PFG. The chaos deepened.
The Government of National Accord (GNA) was formed under Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj as a result of a UN backed agreement signed in Skhirat, Morroco in December 2015 in the midst of what we now call the Second Libyan Civil War. Kalifa Haftar was made commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) in March 2015. By the end of that year, shortly after the establishment of the al-Sarraj government, Haftar openly split from the GNA and bombed the Mitiga Airport in Tripoli. In response, the GNA issued a warrant for the arrest of Haftar. This was not a hasty decision by Haftar. He began the process of secretly building his army in early 2014 through a series of “town hall” meetings throughout Libya. Thus began the current phase of the Second Libyan Civil War. Now there were two distinct warring sides rather than an infinite number of militias fighting with each other.
But what of the Islamicists, the truly hard core jihadis aligning themselves with al-Qaeda and ISIL? Libya’s chaos was certainly fertile ground for their blossoming. They were blossoming. However, they had their detractors. Haftar is an avowed anti-Islamicist. He hates them and vows to rid Libya of all of them including the Muslim Brotherhood. The toleration of some Islamicists in the GNA was one of his reasons for setting off on his own. Well, that and his own strong desire to rule Libya. He sought to overthrow Qadaffi long before the 2011 civil war, usually under CIA auspices. He is a dual US-Libyan citizen. He may be still eligible to vote in Virginia. Nevertheless, he does tolerate the support of a few Islamicist militias in the ranks of the LNA. Hey, a gun’s a gun.
Despite Haftar’s protestations, the GNA is not a haven for the Islamicists. From May to Dec 2016 the GNA battled and defeated ISIL in and around Sirte, even while battling Haftar’s LNA. AFRICOM provided the GNA with substantial air support from August to December from the 22nd MEU aboard the USS Wasp and USS San Antonio. Close to 500 airstrikes from Harriers, attack helicopters and drones killed an estimated 800 to 900 ISIL jihadis. Two B-2 bombers struck ISIL camps south of Sirte in Jan 2017 killing another 90 ISIL militants. I don't remember hearing about this in 2016. Must have been something else going on here dominating the news.
With material support from the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Haftar’s LNA enjoyed increasing military success. The PFG began their off and on alignment with Haftar giving him control over eastern Libya and the oil. The LNA extended its control to the Tunisian border and appeared ready to march on Tripoli. In December 2017, Kalifa Haftar declared the Shkirat Agreement null and void. His dream of ruling Libya seemed within his grasp.
The LNA began the offensive to take Tripoli in April 2019 heavily supported and supplied by the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Those Pantsir S1 air defense systems recently being taken out by Turkish drones were supplied by the UAE beginning in June 2019. The UAE also supplied Chinese drones. Oddly enough the GNA also received support from both Israel and, to a much lesser extent, Iran. Both France and Israel have technical experts supporting the GNA on the ground.
Russia didn’t come in until after Haftar visited Moscow in June 2019 and agreed to host two Russian military bases in Libya. What would these bases mean to Moscow? Moscow may be looking for permanent access to a North African port or base, with influence over Mediterranean sea routes and to the entrance to the Suez. Moscow does appear to be getting much closer to Egypt. Perhaps more importantly, Haftar promised oil and reconstruction contracts to Moscow in exchange for support. Moscow doesn’t need Haftar to retake Tripoli and the rest of Libya. Their goal may be to get international sanctions against Haftar’s LNA lifted with a defacto or official recognition of a partitioning of Libya. They must also convince or coerce Haftar into accepting this outcome.
On the other hand, Russia’s attitude towards both the GNA and LNA may be purely transactional. It matters not who rules Libya as long as someone rules it and everyone, including Russia, can get back to business. Lavrov’s statement after a 3 June 2020 meeting in Moscow with the GNA’s Foreign Minister Mohammed Sayala and member of the Presidential Council Ahmed Mitig to discuss recent developments in the country, including the return of Russian companies "once the situation stabilized" reinforces this transactional policy. Haftar hoped Russia would actively intervene on his behalf as they did for Assad in Syria. I wonder if Haftar has now realized that Moscow doesn’t give a rat’s ass wheter he ends up as Libya’s new strongman or in retirement back in Virginia.
This Russian support to Haftar has been indirect and primarily through the Wagner Group. A substantial part of this “Wagnerian” support has been Russian technical and maintenance personnel along with a smaller number of fighters. Wagner began supporting Haftar’s LNA in 2017. An interesting and more recent part of Wagner’s support to the LNA has been the recruitment and training of former Syrian jihadis/rebels who have reconciled with Damascus. According to a recent Moscow Times report, these fighters reached Libya via at least 33 flights operated by Damascus-based private Syrian company Cham Wings Airlines since the start of this year. They numbered less than 2,000. Russia supports this ongoing and expanding Wagner program in Syria.
On 26 May 2020, AFRICOM made an unusually public announcement of the arrival of fourteen Russian MIG-29 fighters and SU-24 fighter-bombers at Libya’s al-Jufra airbase. These unmarked aircraft flew from Russia over Iran to Syria and on to Libya. Russia publicly denied they were Russian. AFRICOM’s concern was that Russia was aiming to establish a military presence on Europe’s southern flank. It’s my opinion that AFRICOM just doesn’t want any competitors on the continent. In response to this Russian move, AFRICOM is seriously considering sending the 2nd Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB) to Tunisia. I was wondering what those new brigades were going to do. We’ve already spent over a billion dollars on the Tunisian military since 2011.
Turkey began supplying the GNA with weapons, supplies and fighters in January 2020. The pace has increased in recent months. Most notable was the influx of up to 13,000 repurposed Syrian jihadis to the Tripoli government by Erdogan. Erdogan is paying a premium salary to these jihadis to encourage them to fight for the GNA. In the last few months, Turkey has shipped loads of heavy weapons to GNA forces. The weapons included US-made M60 battle tanks, BMC Kirpi mine-resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicles, ACV-15 armored personnel carriers and even T-122 Sakarya multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS). This is a self-propelled 122mm, 40 barrel MLRS with a 40 km range. Undoubtedly there are Turkish trainers in this mix. On 9 June Turkey sent a frigate to the waters off Sirte in support of the current GNA military offensive. This frigate is an updated version of the U.S. Navy’s Oliver Hazard Perry Class 1 guided missile frigates, and is primarily designed for air defense.
Turkey is also supplying a large number of drones, both reconnaissance and strike, to the GNA. These drones have been particularly effective, taking out several LNA (or Wagner) manned Pantsir S1 systems in recent weeks. I would argue that the drones were more important to the GNA military that all those battle hardened Syrian jihadis now fighting for the Tripoli government. Turkey have developed a robust drone capability as a centerpiece of their growing military equipment sector. These drones are especially effective in Libya due to the wide open geography of the land. You just can’t hide and if your air defense capability is not up to snuff, your forces are toast against these drones. That’s the predicament Haftar’s forces now find themselves in.
The recent support provided by Turkey to the GNA has proven far more effective and far less ambivalent than Russia’s support to the LNA. This became evident when GNA forces retook the al-Watiya airbase west of Tripoli and near the Tunisian border earlier this year. Haftar’s forces held this base since 2015. The GNA forces then launched a counteroffensive on 3 June 2020 against the LNA forces south of Tripoli retaking Tripoli Airport and Tarhuna by 5 June. GNA forces were also fighting in Sirte by 5 June although an LNA counteroffensive has stalled the GNA here.
So what’s in this for Erdogan? Certainly the GNA’s political and religious predilections are more in line with Ankara than Haftar’s. I’m also pretty sure Erdogan sees Haftar as nothing more than a CIA asset. Erdogan also wants to have a say in what happens to Libyan oil and any deposits in Libyan waters. More importantly, as I see it, Erdogan's intervention harks back to his dream of a new Ottoman Empire of which Libya was once part. That ring still calls out to him.
So where do we Americans stand on Libya today? The unpredictable Trump administration has certainly been fickle in Libya, backing al-Sarraj’s government but also expressing support for Haftar’s campaign against Tripoli. In April the US joined Russia in blocking a United Kingdom-backed resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire, soon after Haftar began his offensive to take Tripoli. Is this our version of Russia’s transactional approach? Perhaps. Trump’s change in position came after a 15 April 2020 phone call he made to Haftar. I’m comfortable with saying oil figured into that conversation. So our policy is disjointed with State and Defense still supporting the UN-backed GNA and the Trump administration now tilted toward’s Haftar’s LNA.
Trump’s part in this is curious. Back in 2011, he declared that he was “only interested in Libya if we get the oil.” He told the Wall Street Journal, “Without the oil, I have no interest and we shouldn’t be there.” That statement is remarkably consistent with his stance on staying in Syria. In April 2016 he declared ISIS was smuggling Libyan oil. He continued, “ISIS is making millions and millions of dollars a week, selling Libya oil and you know what? We don’t blockade, we don’t bomb, we don’t do anything about it. It’s almost as if our country doesn’t even know what’s happening, which could be a fact and could be true.” All the experts dismissed Trump’s statement saying there’s no evidence that this was happening. Well Trump was absolutely right. We learned this in late 2017. How was Trump so prescient? It may have been through his old business partner Pavel Fuchs. Fuchs is a Ukrainian oligarch whose son-in-law is Ma’sud Abdelhafid, the grandson of Muammar Qaddafi’s henchman who bore the same name. Fuchs and Abdelhafid were smuggling Libyan oil on behalf of ISIS. It’s no wonder Trump thinks he knows more than the IC. He certainly did in this case.
Today the military situation is far different than it was a few months ago when it appeared Haftar was about to take Tripoli, but for now it remains a military stalemate. What may change this is Putin’s recent pulling back of its support to Haftar and Erdogan’s increasingly robust support to the GNA’s military forces. Haftar is now calling for a ceasefire. He went to Egypt to seek Sisi’s help in this endeavor. He knows his shit’s weak. How Haftar is spinning his current situation is good for a laugh. This is how Al Masdar News reported the announcement. “The spokesperson for the Libyan Army, Major General Ahmed Al-Mismari, said in a press statement today: “Based on the approval of the General Command of the Libyan Arab Armed Forces to resume its participation in the Ceasefire 5 + 5 committee supervised by the United Nations Support Mission in Libya … the General Command declares that it is relocating its units outside Tripoli with the condition that the other side commit to stopping the violence.” He continued: “In case of non-compliance with this, the General Command will resume operations and suspend its participation in the 5 + 5 ceasefire committee.” Sounds like the tale of the fox and the grapes to me.
But both the GNA and Erdogan aren’t buying Hafter’s sudden change of heart. They will accept a ceasefire only if Haftar is gone. Without him a negotiated settlement under UN auspices is a real possibility. Without him, more of the militias will seek reconciliation with Tripoli. If Haftar is smart and cares more for Libya than for his dreams of leading her, he will retire back to his northern Virginia home. I’m sure he could find a job at a think tank or maybe open a good restaurant. Time will tell.
Note: This is not the whole story, just an overview. I spent several weeks reading and watching to get this far. There’s plenty more story there. I didn’t even mention the Tuaregs in the south. They still control the borderlands down there. I have no idea if they have a place in the negotiations for the future of Libya. They should.