By Nebahat Tanriverdi Yasar
Air superiority remains most important factor to determine how war for capital will continue.
It has been a year on April 4 since the war started in Libya to capture the capital Tripoli and it continues despite the coronavirus pandemic and the ceasefire attempts.
The intense cargo flights of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Russia to the east of Libya since January 2020 hinted that a great war was just around the corner despite the ongoing negotiations regarding the political solutions and ceasefire.
In conclusion, the Libyan National Army (LNA) loyal to the putschist General Khalifa Haftar started attacking Tripoli again on February 28 following the intensive replenishment of their military supplies.
The forces of the Government of National Accord (GNA), fighting for the Operation Volcano of Rage, on the other hand, launched Operation Peace Storm in the morning of March 25 against the Tripoli blockade on all fronts.
Thus, the GNA shifted to attacking instead of defending for the second time after Gharyan.
Several questions arise on the ongoing process of the escalating war based on the observation that the war has been stuck on the same fronts for a very long time.
What happens on the ground, whether there will be a major change or not and what the potential scenarios are based on new developments are among the questions that are at the forefront.
Led by the series of diplomatic initiatives taken, Libya essentially entered 2020 with hopes for a political solution.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who signed two delimitation agreements with the GNA in November, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had been directly involved with the war through the Wagner Group since September 2019, brought together the sides on Jan. 12 in Moscow for a political solution.
While the GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj signed the cease-fire, Haftar left Moscow without signing the text.
Shortly after the negotiations in Moscow, German Chancellor Angela Merkel held the Berlin Conference on Jan. 19 in Berlin with the participation of the main international actors to determine the roadmap of the political solution and meetings started in Geneva within the framework of a 55-article communique.
For the realization of these meetings, three separate meeting tables — military, economic and political — were set up under the leadership of the United Nations.
To establish a permanent cease-fire in Libya, negotiations started with joint military committee meetings in a 5+5 format.
The meetings of political table, which were planned to start on Feb. 26, failed.
In those days, the GNA announced that the UAE had been sending weapons to Libya since mid-January and it carried out approximately 100 flights to support the Haftar-led LNA, sending them an estimated 6,200 tons of arms and military ammunition.
The flights are known to have departed from the Sweihan Air Base in the UAE and an air base in Assab, Eritrea.
Feb. 28 was the date that the already-violated cease-fire had practically ended and that Hafter’s LNA began mounting their attacks on Tripoli.
Likewise, Ghassan Salame, special representative of the UN secretary general and head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, also stated that there were violations of the cease-fire in Libya and warned that the cease-fire could be broken entirely.
Following the attacks on Tripoli and the Geneva talks losing their value, Salame — who had been in office for over two years — announced his resignation in March, stating that he is no longer able to maintain his health due to the stressors of his job.
However, Salame’s resignation was not enough to encourage an international initiative to be taken to stop the attacks on Tripoli either.
Similarly, a humanitarian call for a cease-fire supported by the U.S., many European countries, Turkey and the UAE due to the COVID-19 pandemic was made.
Though the call was initially accepted, this cease-fire was immediately violated.
Just last week, the LNA bombed a hospital aiming to treat COVID-19 patients twice.
The ongoing missile attacks combined with the water and power outages in the capital make it impossible for the people of Tripoli to fight the coronavirus.
What is happening on the ground?
We have stated that the LNA has resumed its attacks on Tripoli as of Feb. 28.
While these attacks continue on many fronts, especially in Ain Zara, one of the main aims of the LNA’s attacks was to test the GNA forces on the Gharyan, Zuwarah, Zawiya and other fronts with missile and cannon shots — especially to figure out the weaknesses of its defense.
Also, the attacks which targeted the military capacity obtained by the military aid provided by Turkey since January focused on Mitiga and Tripoli airports and ports.
Grad rocket attacks targeting the Mitiga airport on Jan. 22 continued in the following months as well.
Similarly, the Port of Tripoli was exposed to missile attacks to prevent incoming aid.
In contrast, the GNA was also trying to strengthen the fronts to break the blockade it was in, and especially sending military support to Jadu region in the Nafusa Mountains to eliminate the threat on south-east Tripoli.
The military capacity of GNA, especially in the fields of air defense and air attack, was increased with the newly obtained military aid, in addition to the intensification of military coordination and supply to strengthen the fronts.
Making progress within the country since 2014, the LNA held the air superiority thanks to the drone fleet and air support with fighter jets provided by the UAE via the al-Khadim air base as well as the air defense systems provided by Russia.
Since April 2019, the LNA had been in a very advantageous position on land as well, thanks to the Sudanese, Chadian and Russian mercenaries, in addition to the weapons provided by their allies, the UAE and Russia.
The UAE had built the al-Khadim air base, situated 170 kilometers (105 miles) east of Benghazi, which supported Hafter’s forces since 2016.
It was previously confirmed that Hawk air defense systems, as well as Russian- and French-made fighter jets were installed at the air base. The UAE had also supplied the Chinese-made Wing Loong II SIHA fleet to the LNA.
These Wing Loongs were used in night raids which resulted in major civilian casualties in Tripoli.
The LNA maintained its air superiority over the GNA forces with the air support provided by the UAE.
However, the military support provided to the GNA by Turkey, following the signing of the security accord between Turkey and Libya in November 2019, increased the military capacity of the GNA, and, more importantly, allowed it to gain the air superiority.
Especially the radar and air defense systems, frequency/signal mixing devices and night vision devices given to Tripoli following January 2020 blinded the air forces of the LNA and the UAE and made it difficult for the UAE to perform air operations with warplanes.
For this reason, the attacks have been carried out in the form of bombardments with Grad rockets and other land shots since January.
However, these changes in the field bring with themselves the consequence of the LNA not being able to prevent the missiles sent through the land, which aim at the central Tripoli.
These attacks cause civilian casualties to increase.
In addition to this, the progress made by the LNA on the Ain Zara front, even if it is small, has nonetheless increased the pressure on the GNA.
The GNA forces launched counter-attack with Operation Peace Storm on Jan. 25 to break the blockade of Tripoli, and carried out an operation against the LNA-controlled al-Watiya air base.
Situated 60 km (37 mi) south of Jadu in the Nafusa Mountains — where the GNA has been using intensively to take on military supplies, the al-Watiya air base has been under the control of the LNA forces since August 2014.
The control of the air base was gained by the the GNA forces briefly in April 2019 but they lost shortly after.
The al-Watiya air base, located in the southwest of the capital Tripoli and being the second most strategic base, is seen as a priority target by the GNA.
This is because it is the replenishment center for the LNA facades in the west wing of Tarhuna and Tripoli.
In return, the LNA carried out air operations to the military targets in the Nalut region, located on the west end of the Nafusa Mountains, to prevent the GNA support to Jadu.
Built on a flat area, the al-Watiya air base is a difficult target to defend rather than capture.
The LNA succeeded in defending al-Watiya post-2014, thanks to its foreign alliances, especially the UAE.
However, the GNA seeks to take control of the Al-Watiya air base with the air superiority it now has, and to cut the connection between the southern and western fronts, making progress on both fronts.
The GNA captured the al-Watiya air base in a short amount of time on Jan. 25 but lost control of the airbase on the same day due to the insufficient number of troops advancing by land, despite the air support.
It seems that the main reason for this retreat was that the forces which were expected to participate in the attack coming from the different fronts backed down at the last minute.
The LNA, which regained the control of the al-Watiya, made rapid progress at the western gate of Tripoli with a counter-attack and also captured Riqdalin, al-Isa, al-Ajaylat, Zliten, Sabratah and Surman.
Proceeding to the Tunisian border gate in the westernmost part, the LNA blockaded the GNA forces in Ra’s Ajdir, where the border gate is located, but is currently continuing the blockade without armed conflict to avoid any possible tension with Tunisia.
Zuwarah, an important Amazigh city on the western coastline of the country, is also under blockade, similar to Ra’s Ajdir.
On April 13, the GNA forces launched an attack to seize Sabratah and Surman after the LNA, which was advancing on the west wing, started to build a military heap on this front, although it was in the region with a limited military presence.
The operation started with airstrikes.
Riqdalin, al-Isa, al-Ajaylat, Zliten, Sabratah and Surman were recaptured after being lost in the first two days of the operation.
The land connection was reestablished with Ra’s Ajdir where the border gate is located. The attacks targeting the al-Watiya airbase are continuing.
Clashes are continuing intensely on the southwestern front.
The Abu Salim neighborhood, located on the axis of Ain Zara, is one of the regions that are heavily targeted by the LNA attacks since the start of the war in April 2019.
It has seen that the LNA has failed to make any progress in their quest to capture central Tripolis for over a year, while the GNA caused major losses to the LNA via air operations.
However, the GNA still has to regain the control of Terhune for the elimination of this threat on this front.
Another critical front is the eastern wing which is directly affecting the security of Misrata.
While the GNA aims to recapture the city of Sirte, which has fallen under the control of the LNA as a result of tribes and the militia switching sides, the LNA is looking to enter Misrata through Zamzam Valley and the Abu Qurayn region.
On the other hand, developments on this front stand out in terms of GNA’s air superiority.
On March 27, the LNA forces marching through the land were repelled by the GNA.
Following that, Sirte Operations Room was shot on March 28 in an air attack targeting the strategic units west of Sirte and high-level names from the LNA were killed.
The LNA took a big hit with this attack which killed Sirte Operations Room Commander Major-General Salem Driaq, his assistant Gaddafi al-Sadai, Rabea el-Fercani, Salim el-Tavergi, and Hamid el-Shaeri.
Besides, on April 12, the GNA military spokesman Col. Tayyar Muhammad Qanunu announced that one MI-35 helicopter and two LNA-owned Wing Loong II SIHAs were downed during the operations carried out in the Abu Qurayn region.
The battle for superiority on air
Air superiority remains the most important factor in determining how the war will continue.
The GNA increasing its military capacity following the signing of the security accord between Libya and Turkey, and especially having access to airstrike and defense systems now, seems to have made it even less feasible for the LNA to reach their goal since Hafter’s forces haven’t been able to conquer Tripolis in over a year.
Operation Peace Storm, initiated by the GNA under the command of Mj. Gen. Osama al-Juwaili, aims to progress on all fronts, west, south, and east, thereby breaking the blockade of Tripoli.
The GNA is seeking to carry out operations on the LNA-controlled air bases and wear down the military forces there.
As part of these goals, the GNA’s short term military goals are observed to be: seizing the al-Watiya air base and breaking the supply line between Terhune and the western fronts, moving towards Terhune and eliminating the LNA threat on the southern front, making progress in Sirte on the western front and ensuring the security of Misrata.
On the other hand, it is important whether the UAE warplanes, especially the Mirages at the al-Khadim air base, will participate in air operations or not.
Also, there are rumors that the LNA bought the French-made air defense missiles Mistral MANPADS to destroy the air superiority achieved by the GNA.
While it is yet to be known whether these rumors are true or not, the LNA will likely take steps toward destroying the air superiority of the GNA.
The struggle for air superiority also contributes to the crystallization of the multidimensional structure of the international struggle that continues in Libya.
Although the support provided by the UAE, Egypt, and Russia to Haftar and the LNA is more prominent, the military supplies gathered through the advancements in the western front by the GNA has brought the Israeli connection in the Libyan war to the agenda during the “superiority in the air” battle.
Allegations that the UAE sent the LNA advanced air defense systems produced by an Israeli company through Egypt suggests that the tension will not be decreasing in Libya anytime soon.
Nebahat Tanriverdi Yasar, an independent researcher on Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, is a Ph.D. candidate in the International Relations Department of the Middle East Technical University.
Translated by Can Atalay in Ankara