A Syria-style proxy war is being fought in Libya. Although on a smaller scale and with reduced intensity, just a few thousand men on the ground, the amount of foreign aid involved is significant, in defiance of the United Nation’s ban which has become something of a joke, by United Nations envoy Ghassan Salamé‘s own admission. The conflict was sparked by General Khalifa Haftar, Cyrenaica’s strong man who aimed to conquer Tripoli in two days but found himself bogged down in a bitter war of position which has dragged on for over five months. The US-passport holding “Field Marshal” is being supported primarily by the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, two countries which would like to use Haftar as a “policeman” against the advance of the Muslim Brotherhood in North Africa. Experts, equipment, military vehicles and above all money, have flooded in from Cairo and Abu Dhabi. According to a confidential document published by the website Daily Beast, in collaboration with the independent Russian website Portal, the commander of the Libyan National Army can count on a 150-million dollar fund made available by the UAE to help Haftar buy the clans who control the different regions.
The United Arab Emirates’ match
The investment is turning out to be more expensive than envisaged and Libya is not the only open front the ambitious Emirs of the Al Nahyan family are dealing with. Since 2015 Abu Dhabi, alongside Saudi Arabia, has been fighting a bloody war in Yemen, causing approximately 100,000 deaths. On Friday September 13 the General Command of the United Arab Emirates Army, in a note published by press agency Wam, referred that six Emirati soldiers, including one captain, were killed in a mysterious “vehicle collision” which took place on a “field of operations.” The source is official, but the information is incomplete. When did the accident happen and what field of operations is the UAE government referring to? There are two possibilities: Yemen or Libya. Yemen security sources reported to the Associated Press that the Emirati troops died in a road accident in the southern province of Shabwa, an area of Yemen teeming with Al Qaeda militants. The paradox is that the “accident” is said to have taken place after the partial retreat of the UAE from the Arab military coalition which intervened in Yemen in 2015. And, above all, after accusations of supporting the coup in Aden – the country’s major port – attempted (successfully it would seem) by separatists within the Southern Transitional Council to overthrow president Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, currently in opulent exile in Riyadh.
The UAE has many enemies in Yemen, as it does in Libya. Military sources in Tripoli referred to the website of the Libya Observer, a news outlet close to the Government of national Accord (GNA) and to the Muslim Brotherhood, that the six soldiers were killed in an airstrike against the al Jufra base, the most important airbase used by Khalifa Haftar’s Libya National Army (LNA) to bomb Tripoli. The spokesman for the GNA forces, Mohammed al Qanunu, confirmed that Tripoli’s air force “destroyed the operations command of the al Jufra air base” also killing “six foreign officers,” without however specifying their nationality. “It’s the second time in a week, ” added Qanunu, who was quoted by Agenzia Nova – “that we hit foreign forces after having bombed the operations command of the Qasr Bin Ghashir area, where seven mercenaries died. The mercenaries were assisting the Haftar forces launch missiles onto the capital’s neighbourhoods”.
Are Haftar’s vehicles being repaired by Russian mercenaries?
Haftar is not being backed only by the UAE; he also has the support of Russia and France, albeit in a more subtle and ambiguous way. According to Daily Beast documents, Russia dispatched the Wagner, a squadron of Russian mercenaries owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a shady businessman known for his close ties with President Vladimir Putin. It is said they are “technicians” commissioned to repair Soviet-manufactured vehicles and artillery: the great majority of LNA armaments date back to the period of the Soviet Union and the military doctrine itself practiced by Haftar’s army follows Moscow’s dictates. Haftar’s older officers trained at Soviet military academies and in 2008 the Russian federation signed an agreement for the supply of armaments and surveillance systems for a total value of four billion dollars. Libya’s media outlets close to government forces assert that the agreement is back in force, yet this seems impossible given that Russia has no intention of blatantly violating UN sanctions. What is more likely is that Haftar attempted to spread the word that Russia was on their side which might well have had some truth in it initially. However, now that the lightning attack to seize Tripoli has failed, relations with Moscow appear to have become decidedly a lot more detached.
France plays both sides
While mere suspicions hang over Russia, France has actually been caught red handed, and on more than one occasion. The first time in July 2016 when three members of France’s special forces were killed near Agedabia in the downing of a helicopter supplied by Haftar forces. The attack was claimed by the Islamic militia known as the Bhengazi Defense Brigade. At the time General Haftar was still fighting “against terrorism” in the countryside in Bhengazi and Derna, which finally fell under control of the Army of Cyrenaica. Today the forces of operation Karama (“Dignity” in Arabic) are operating in Tripoli, an urban area which is clearly too vast for a lightning conquest. Shortly after the launch of the 4th of April attack, when it was clear that the assault on the UN government would not take place, a group of French diplomats on a return journey to Tripoli (where France does not physically have an embassy), which was later defined as routine and furthermore under an armed escort, was stopped at customs on the border with Tunisia. The guards refused to hand over their guns, thereby triggering the standard procedure which allows vehicles bearing a diplomatic number plate to be searched. Inside, Tunisian guards found hidden weapons, an extremely unusual circumstance. Even the bodyguards of Ministers and the President are required to declare any weapons. Was it possible that the convoy (what’s more not carrying an ambassador) had forgotten such an elementary rule? The suspicion is that “hidden” amongst the French diplomats were military experts entering illegally in order to support General Haftar.
The French embassy in Libya (but with offices in Tunis) obviously denied, nonetheless the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Tripoli decided to suspend all cooperation agreements concerning security after the events. Then, in June, Minister Fathi Bashagha, the Misrata-born statesman who is considered the true “political leader” of the UN backed government, resumed ties with Paris. However, only shortly afterwards an unpleasant incident occurred: GNA fighters found four Javelin anti-tank missiles “made in the USA” in General Khalifa Haftar’s compound south of Tripoli. A New York Times scoop revealed that the missiles, worth approximately $170,000 each, had been purchased by France in 2010. Explanations given by the French Ministry for the Defense were somewhat embarrassing: they initially declared that the Javelin had been “temporarily stocked at a depot ahead of their destruction” and “that there had never been any question of transferring these munitions to anybody in Libya.” Subsequently they admitted that the missiles were intended “for the protection of the French military unit,” but that they were “damaged and unusable”. More recently, the channels Al Jazeera and Libya al Ahrar (a network close to the Muslim Brotherhood with headquarters in Doha, Qatar) accused France of controlling a base from which drones took off to carry out an airstrike on Misrata, the Libyan city state allied with Tripoli and also the site of an Italian field hospital housing approximately 300 militaries. The information contained in the broadcast was hard to verify, however it was extremely detailed and has as yet to be denied.
Turkey’s support to Misrata and Tripoli
Haftar is not the only one receiving external support. GNA forces can count on military aid from Turkey. In May a shipment of weapons and armed vehicles from the Bosphorus was openly photographed in the port of Tripoli, while in June Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan candidly admitted to supplying weapons to the forces of Tripoli in order to “rebalance” the situation, given that Haftar’s forces had in turn received aid from the UAE and Egypt. And indeed, the power balance on land has changed, especially after the introduction of the Bayraktar TB2Turkish drones. Erdogan basically sees it as a “family matter,” given that the company producing the TB2 drones has ties with his son-in-law Selcuk Bayraktar, husband of the president’s youngest daughter. Further, Turkey can boast a large community of “Koroglu” (Libyans of Turkish descent), some 1.4 million people residing mainly in Misrata, the “city-state” located approximately 180 kilometers east of Tripoli: in practice at least one out of every four Libyans is of Turkish origins.
Keeping an eye on militias in the south
We should also not overlook what is happening in Fezzan, Libya’s forgotten south-western region, where vital infrastructures are located such as the Great man-made river (a colossal aqueduct providing Tripoli with water) and the Greenstream gas pipeline which supplies Italy with gas. Since 2011 southern Libya has been the arena of fighting between the Tebu (a tribe of Ethiopian origins living on the borders of Libya, Chad and Niger) and a number of Arab tribes over the control of legal cross-border routes (goods, livestock) and illegal cross-routes (migrants, cigarettes, drugs and weapons). In this extremely vast desert area bordering with Algeria, Niger and Chad, rebel forces from Chad have been accused of operating in turn on Libya’s and on Bhengazi’s side. Meanwhile, in Murzuq, a strategic town where Libya’s largest oil field, Sharara, is located over 2200 Arab families have been displaced, to the point that some local activists have denounced it as outright ethnic cleansing. According to Daily Beast documents, the infamous Sudanese janjaweed militia – known for the Darfur massacre – have also been recruited to carry out attacks against Haftar’s forces and to slow them down.
What about Italy?
Italy is not participating in the current conflict. However it has deployed some 400 soldiers as part of the bilateral mission MIASIT providing assistance and support to the unit led by Alessio Cavicchioli, (Ranger of the of 4th Alpine and Paratroopers Regiment) who took over on July 31 from Colonel Domenico Ciotti. The majority of staff and forces have been assigned to Misrata, where the Task force “Hippocrates” is stationed and where there is a hospital for medical assistance. It is here that the fighters wounded in the conflict to free Sirte from Islamic State domination were treated. Command headquarters are however located in the port of Tripoli in order to support, upon request of local authorities, the Coast Guard and Libyan Navy’s activities (especially rescue operations of migrants at sea).
A Mobile training team is also stationed in Tripoli to train, instruct and provide technical and infrastructure assistance to Libyan security forces. The Italian embassy in Tripoli, the only operational western representative office in the capital, is garrisoned by the Carabinieri forces and men of the Italian intelligence service and is without doubt the most competent in Libya.