By Dan Sabbagh, Jason Burke and Bethan McKerna
Civilian casualties are mounting as opposing sides deploy cheap Turkish and Chinese-made aircraft.
The use of lethal drones was once an area dominated by the US, but has spread rapidly, drawing in new conflicts and causing more civilian casualties as warfare is revolutionised.
The principal battleground is Libya, where both sides in the ongoing civil war are trying to gain air superiority with cheap Chinese-made craft run by the United Arab Emirates on one side, and equally inexpensive Turkish-made drones on the other.
“Libya is ground zero for drone wars,” said Chris Cole, who runs the Drone Wars research group. “A complex network of countries a
The conflict pits the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) of Khalifa Haftar, the 76-year-old military strongman who controls Benghazi and much of the east of the country, against the forces of the rival Government of National Accord (GNA), which holds the capital, Tripoli.
More than 1,000 people have already been killed in the fighting with 120,000 displaced, according to UN estimates. In April, Haftar launched a new offensive, attacking Tripoli and advancing into the south-west of the country. Since, there have been more than 900 drone missions, the UN estimates.
The use of drones intensified when, after rapid early gains, Haftar’s forces were stalled by resistance from a coalition of militias fighting for the GNA. This led to an increasing reliance on air power to gain a tactical advantage in what had become a stalemate and to avoid further military casualties, experts say.
Haftar is supported by Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The UAE operates a handful of Chinese-made Wing Loong drones, with an estimated cost of $1m-$2m (£800,000-£1.5m), a fraction of the price of a US-made Reaper, where the entry level price is about $15m.
The GNA, recognised by the UN as the legitimate government of Libya, is backed by Qatar and the fast-emerging drone power Turkey, which has supplied its Bayraktar TB2 drones in at least three waves this year.
In August, UAE-operated Chinese drones fighting for Haftar were blamed for a double strike targeting a town hall meeting in south-western Libya that killed at least 45 people.
Using a controversial “double tap” technique pioneered by the US, the second strike came a few minutes later to target first responders, in the belief they would be connected to the original targets. Guests at a nearby wedding who had come to help were among those killed.
The death toll, which included many children, represents one of the largest single loss of civilian life since conflict began in 2011 after the fall of Gaddafi the dictator.
Jalel Harchaoui, an expert at the Clingendael Institute in The Hague, said that in recent months Haftar had switched to using cheaper drones after he had abandoned hope of a successful conventional military attack on Tripoli – they were the ideal weapons for a drawn-out campaign aimed at undermining the morale of opponents.
“Air power is playing a bigger role and drones are very useful. We have seen a greater tendency to go after soft targets. Slowly but surely there is a higher tolerance for civilian casualties and there has been no real international condemnation,” Harchaoui said.
There have been dozens of smaller-scale strikes in recent months, including one that hit a riding club close to the UN compound in Tripoli in early October, injuring several children. Most have been blamed on Haftar’s forces, who have been using drones to destroy the GNA’s Turkish-made aerial vehicles on the ground.
Complicating the picture further, the US periodically conducts its own drone strikes aimed at Isis-affiliated groups in the south of the country. Four recently disclosed strikes were claimed to have killed 43 militants in late September, launched from bases in Italy and Niger.
In November last year, Tuareg people living in the south of the country claimed a US drone strike had killed 11 civilians. But Washington said terrorists had been targeted and it believed no civilians were killed.
The military effectiveness of the GNA’s Bayraktur TB2 drones has been proven in Ankara’s long-running battle with the separatist PKK in the south-east of Turkey, which has spilled over into Kurdish areas of Iraq and Syria, where they have been involved in lethal strikes.
Such is Turkey’s success that it has rapidly become a major exporter of medium-range drones, meeting a demand because the US remains unwilling to allow countries in the conflict-torn Middle East to buy its Reaper drones.
The GNA bought 20 TB2 drones from Turkey in the summer, although some replaced drones knocked out by the LNA. Ankara also struck a deal to sell six TB2s to Qatar in 2018 and this year 12 were sold to Ukraine.
Analysts say that in Libya, the deadly air war has been prolonged by the use of the relatively inexpensive drones. Jennifer Gibson, from the human rights charity Reprieve, adds that a long history of secrecy around drone use by the US and its allies has created an increasingly amoral environment around their use.
“New users of drones do not feel any great obligation to admit what they have done, because a precedent for non-disclosure has already been set,” she said.
Dan Sabbagh is the Guardian’s defence and security editor.
Jason Burke is the Africa correspondent of the Guardian, based in Johannesburg, and reporting from across the continent.
Bethan McKernan is the Turkey and Middle East correspondent for the Guardian.