By Jason Pack & Wolfgang Pusztai
The War for Tripoli, launched by Gen. Khalifa Hifter in April 2019, came to an abrupt end in June 2020 after extensive Turkish military capabilities were introduced to the theater at the beginning of the year.
This research paper seeks to drill down into the military, logistical, and technological aspects of the war, highlighting the unique role of drones, soft-kill and hard-kill air defense technologies, private military contractors, and extraterritorial military professionals in determining its final outcome.
The latest phase of Libya’s ongoing rounds of civil conflict, known as the War for Tripoli (April 2019-June 2020), came to an abrupt end after extensive Turkish military capabilities were introduced to the theater beginning in January 2020.
Looking back with the benefit of hindsight to analyze what happened in Libya and compare it to similar civil wars, it is clear that the determinative factors that swayed the course of the War for Tripoli were novel military, technological, and diplomatic phenomena.
This research paper seeks to drill down into the military, logistical, and technological aspects of the war, highlighting the unique role of drones, soft-kill and hard-kill air defense technologies, private military contractors (PMCs, aka mercenaries), and extraterritorial military professionals (i.e. members of foreign armies) in determining the final outcome.
Most of these arms and personnel were provisioned into Libya in violation of the U.N. arms embargo, with essentially no penalties for repeat violators.
(We will not analyze or discuss the legal technicalities of the U.N. arms embargo in any depth as they were not really instrumental in shaping the trajectory of the fighting — other than possibly to inhibit Western countries from introducing yet more armaments or personnel into the theater, in the way that certain regional powers have done.)
Based on our research, we conclude that the definitive engagements of the War for Tripoli were fought aerially and masterminded by non-Libyan actors using exclusively non-Libyan-owned, non-Libyan-operated technologies.
Conversely, the military importance of foreign mercenaries (Syrians, Sudanese, Chadians, and Russians) fighting in ground engagements has been largely overstated. All meaningful ground engagements in which territory was lost or gained were fought by Libyans. Yet, the war was contested by foreigners and essentially won by the Turks.
For the first nine months of the conflict, the Libyan National Army (LNA) coalition enjoyed the upper hand as a result of its aerial dominance, due mainly to Emirati and other parties’ technology transfers, vintage ex-Soviet former Gadhafi air force fighter jets and attack helicopters, and skilled personnel.
Then from January 2020 onward, Turkey’s abrupt introduction of new technologies, armaments, skills, and strategic planning capacities decisively tipped the scales, giving the Government of National Accord (GNA) coalition the ability to suddenly dominate Tripolitania’s skies.
This paper shows how and why Turkey’s aerial support was: 1.) so different from aerial assistance offered by patrons to their proxies in other civil wars; 2.) decisive for the GNA coalition’s fighting fortunes; and 3.) what lessons can be learned for other military theaters, as well as for other low-intensity conflicts around the globe in the 2020s.
During the spring of 2019, Libya’s Wars of Post-Gadhafi Succession entered a new phase.
Marshall Khalifa Hifter’s LNA launched a surprise offensive to take Tripoli, the residence of Libya’s internationally-recognized GNA, as well as the headquarters of the country’s most important economic institutions like the Central Bank of Libya, the Libyan Investment Authority, and the National Oil Corporation.
The surprise LNA offensive was met with outrage in many corners while enjoying support in others.
Although they had been sporadically fighting each other for years, with LNA-aligned groups incrementally expanding their territories from 2014 to 2019, the sudden threat to Tripoli incentivized the development of a coordination mechanism for the pro-GNA military and militia coalition: Operation Volcano of Rage (VoR).
This is an umbrella grouping for inter-militia coordination, which functioned more effectively than anything that had come before it.
It is largely led by the powerful military forces and skilled political figures of Misrata, a port city 210 km east of Tripoli that since Moammar Gadhafi’s ouster has rivaled Tripoli as western Libya’s financial, diplomatic, and military center.
The LNA’s Battle for Benghazi from 2014 to 2017 was a drawn-out war of attrition lasting more than three years that was finally won via a bloody street-by-street battle replete with civilian casualties and catalogued human rights violations on both sides.
After the LNA wrapped up its subsequent Derna operations by early 2019 (also replete with human rights violations on all sides), it began an offensive in southern Libya that saw it first take over the country’s largest oil field and then establish the critical logistical lines that would later facilitate and maintain its assault on Tripoli.
Hifter was aware that his attack would be perceived in many quarters as violating international law and equivalent to an unprovoked military assault on an internationally-recognized government. Independent of whatever popular animosity it would create among Tripoli’s residents, he hoped for a swift occupation of the capital.
He needed it to be both quick and relatively bloodless to maintain the acquiescence of his support base among the eastern tribes and not to alienate those specific segments of the Tripoli population that would have likely accepted his rule, if it also brought an end to militia dominance.
As things played out, it was anything but short and swift; the initial surprise assault did not elicit the hoped for defections of key GNA-aligned militias like the Rada Force, the Tripoli Revolutionary Brigade (TRB), the Nawasi Brigade, or the powerful commanders in Zawiyya or Zintan who Hifter believed would join his cause.
Furthermore, the LNA assault suffered from very bad domestic and international optics due to Hifter’s strategic choice to launch it on April 4, 2019 — right before the scheduled U.N.-mediated Ghadames conference, and at a time when U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Gutierrez happened to be visiting Tripoli.
As Hifter began his War on Tripoli, the LNA was faced with a difficult operating environment, one characterized by high population density combined with relatively open urban outskirts and a chaotic inner city road network that could easily lead to street-by-street battles and heavy civilian casualties — if the fighting ever got to central Tripoli.
Furthermore, unlike the ragtag, but battle-hardened Islamist forces they had previously confronted in Benghazi or Derna the anti-LNA forces in the western region were relatively less ideological, better organized, larger in number, and much better supplied and equipped.
They possessed artillery, tanks, professional foreign advisors, and air defense systems — items that the LNA’s opponents had conspicuously lacked in Benghazi and Derna.
Hifter began his long-awaited assault to take Libya’s capital on April 4, 2019. Mindful of what had happened in Benghazi, the LNA utilized a strategy to take Tripoli that it hoped would prevent its forces from becoming bogged down, as they had in Benghazi, and capitalize on what it perceived as the GNA-aligned groups’ relative lack of cohesion and communication.
The LNA repeatedly employed what became dubbed “the Tripoli tactic” — a cat-and-mouse military maneuver that sought to draw the anti-LNA forces into the open or the outskirts of the city.
The LNA forces would briefly seize a position and soon abandon it, allowing their opponents to come in and occupy the location only to be either barraged by artillery shelling, aerial attack, or an ambush. Using this tactic, the LNA aimed to eliminate, or at least wear down, the Tripoli defenders by leveraging its key offensive capabilities and comparative advantages at the start of the fighting: artillery and aerial firepower.
The Pillars of the LNA’s Initial Aerial Dominance
The LNA’s aerial dominance, which lasted throughout all of 2019, was based on its MiG-21 and MiG-23 fighter jets, Mi-24/35 attack helicopters, and skilled UAE drone support. Of the 1,040 recorded drone strikes conducted between April to November, 800 were attributed to the LNA coalition.
The UAE had supplied, and likely controlled the operation of, the Chinese Wing Loong II combat drones used to undertake the majority of these strikes. Additionally, UAE- and Egyptian-manned Mirage 2000-9 planes have been accused of undertaking occasional operations over the capital.
On the GNA side, about 24 Turkish drones and certain anti-aircraft weapons were also promptly introduced, but during 2019 these were not sufficient to successfully challenge the LNA’s aerial superiority.
All of these flows of arms and personnel were in violation of the U.N. arms embargo. Although they were conducted largely in the open, there were essentially no consequence for the violations.
Jason Pack is a consultant, author, and commentator with over two decades of experience living in, and working on, the Middle East. In 2008, he moved to Tripoli to assist Western businesses in reentering Libya amidst the late Qadhafi-era reforms. In 2011, Jason created Libya-Analysis LLC — a consultancy organization producing evidence-based analysis, forecasting, business intelligence, and commercial research on Libya. In 2015, Jason founded Eye on ISIS in Libya — a non-profit 501c3 monitoring service detailing the group’s history, its interactions with other jihadi actors, and Western actions toward the group. Currently, he is working on a popular book exploring what Libya’s dysfunctional economic structures and its ongoing civil war tells us more broadly about globalization and the geopolitics of the 21st century.
Wolfgang Pusztai, Austria’s former defense attaché to Libya (2007-12), is a security and policy analyst with a special focus on the MENA region. He is the chairman of the advisory board of the “National Council on U.S.-Libya Relations,” .