Libya “World’s Largest Theater” for Drone Warfare: UN

Libya has become the global epicenter for military drones, with foreign powers deploying ever-more stealthy killers and fueling a conflict that has already claimed thousands of lives, the United Nations warned on Monday.

Jordan Has Now Deployed Drones To Libya

Speaking recently with reporters in New York, Yacoub El Hillo, the UN’s resident and humanitarian coordinator for Libya, said that Jordan was the latest nation to deploy unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to try and break a stalemate in Libya’s grinding conflict.

As the costs of drones go down and their ranges increase, military commanders across the region have deployed ever-more UAVs in surveillance and assassination operations that are viewed as less risky than missions involving personnel.

Libya “is the world’s largest theater for the use of drones,” El Hillo told reporters in New York, via a video connection from the capital, Tripoli. “Everybody has something flying in the Libyan sky, it seems” he added.

Khalifa Haftar’s Drone Army

El Hillo cited reports about Jordan selling six, Chinese-made CH-4 drones to renegade commander Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), which dominates the east of the war-ravaged nation.

Haftar’s LNA already had access to drones, including Chinese-made Wing Loongs and other UAVs supplied by the United Arab Emirates, as well as devices from the Russian-backed mercenaries operating in Libya.

Meanwhile, the UN-backed, Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), which has been besieged by LNA forces since last April, has received Bayraktar TB2 drones alongside a recently-dispatched Turkish deployment.

“It’s clear that Turkey has moved in a very heavy way, militarily speaking, to support the GNA and to create, as they claim, a balance in power so that the capital does not fall. So Turkey is definitely supporting and Turkey has drones flying,” said El Hillo.

Libya’s Post-2011 Civil War

Since the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, two seats of power have emerged in Libya: Haftar’s LNA in the east supported by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Russia, and others and the Tripoli-based GNA, in the west, which is backed by Turkey and the UN.

Khalifa’s LNA launched an offensive to take Tripoli last April, which led to chaos and bloodshed but stalled on the outskirts of the city – meaning commanders have turned to air power to gain a tactical advantage and break the deadlock.

Drones have been used to launch assassination hits on enemy commanders, spy over large areas of territory and to spot enemy positions and guide conventional weapons, like mortars, so they can better hit their targets.

For commanders, there are few downsides to drones. UAVs expose personnel to fewer risks, and the cost of drones has fallen massively since Middle Eastern militias like Hezbollah started getting their hands on them in the early 2000s.

Last month, the GNA said it had downed a Russian-made reconnaissance drone over Tripoli as well as a UAE-owned armed UAV in the skies above Misrata, a northwestern coastal city almost 200km east of Tripoli.

Last August, UAE-operated Chinese drones fighting for Haftar’s forces were blamed for a double strike operation that devastated a town hall meeting in south-western Libya that killed at least 45 people.

UN: Foreign Powers Should Stop Contributing to the Libya Conflict with Drones

According to El Hillo, foreign powers need to make good on pledges made in Berlin last month by bolstering an often-violated ceasefire deal, abiding by a UN arms embargo and stop sending UAVs and other hardware to Libya.

Speaking at the Munich Security Conference on Sunday, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas called for a European Union mission to enforce Libya’s arms embargo, including by better monitoring shipment routes into Libya.

On February 12, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution calling for a cease-fire in Libya and tasked UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres with devising an “effective ceasefire monitoring” mechanism in what could be a precursor to a blue-helmet deployment.

According to the UN, more than 1,000 people have been killed in the clashes between Haftar’s forces and the GNA since the offensive began in April, while another 140,000 have been forced to flee their homes.

This week, El Hillo announced an appeal for $115 million to get food, medicine and other forms of support to the 900,000 Libyans who need handouts, including the 345,000 of them who are extremely vulnerable.

UN: Libyan Civilians ‘Endure Appalling Hardship and Suffering’

“We are witnessing a protracted conflict severely impacting civilians in all parts of the country on a scale that Libya has never seen before,” said El Hillo. “Tens of thousands of Libyans, in addition to an increasing number of vulnerable migrants and refugees, continue to endure appalling hardship and suffering,” he added.

As well as a large and growing number of UAVs, Libya’s armed groups also possess the “world’s largest uncontrolled ammunition stockpile ever” with between 150,000 and 200,000 tonnes of uncontrolled munitions across the country, said El Hillo.

“The increasing use of explosive weapons has resulted in unnecessary loss of life, displacement, destruction, and damage to vital civilian infrastructure, such as hospitals and schools,” said El Hillo.