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 GNA’s and LNA’s International Patrons
For a range of reasons, among them the distraction of their leaders by domestic crises, as well as prior scandals about who they had armed in Libya, the GNA’s traditional top international allies (Italy, the U.S., and the U.K.) did not respond to Hifter’s assault on Tripoli by dispatching advanced kit and top advisors to Tripoli.
Any of the three powers had the requisite capacities to tip the scales against the LNA immediately, if they were willing to commit sufficient political, and military will.
Among the reasons for the reticence of the GNA’s Western supporters to deploy armaments and trainers was both the seriousness with which their foreign ministries and armies take U.N. resolutions and the fears by the political class of domestic blowback for calling attention to previous bungled military actions in Libya.
Hence, the only major military consequence of the U.N. embargo on the trajectory of the fighting of the War for Tripoli was to give non-Western powers near total dominance in provisioning of arms, trainers, and advisors to the two fighting coalitions.
Furthermore, Brexit, Donald Trump’s unique relationship to Russia, and Italy’s complex relationship with France likely also contributed to inhibiting decisive multilateral action as well.
Due to a range of diplomatic factors and the aforementioned optics surrounding the “unenforced” U.N. arms embargo, the role of supplying the GNA fell to its two main non-Western allies: Turkey and Qatar.
This report will not discuss Qatari actions as they seem to have consisted of financial, diplomatic, and logistical support for Turkish actions, rather than constituting their own separate military engagement in the Libyan theater, except for the deployment of a limited number of special forces.
As such, the Qataris can be considered as junior partners in all that Turkey has engaged in and achieved in Libya in 2020.
Turkey has long been a military supporter of the GNA as well as certain Misratan militias and the Benghazi Revolutionary Shura Council.
It provided the GNA with Bayraktar TB2 combat drones a month into the Tripoli War, but these were unable to compete with the LNA’s capabilities.
Compounding this, the UAE-provisioned Russian Pantsir-S1 surface-to-air systems gave the LNA superior air defense capabilities when compared to the GNA’s limited modern anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) and man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS).
In short, from the start of the Tripoli War, the LNA could fly largely unopposed and also shoot down many GNA drones or aerial sorties.
The UAE’s support of the LNA had been assisted by the latter’s long-term ally, Egypt. Egypt allowed the UAE to utilize its airspace and have access to its Sidi Barrani airbase to establish an “air-bridge” to transport military equipment to the LNA and launch occasionally airstrikes.
Egypt also supported the LNA more directly, continuing its history of training Hifter’s forces while also providing the LNA with military equipment.
As the conflict continued into September 2019, Turkey’s initial fleet of drones had been virtually eradicated from the aerial battlefield. It was around this time that the pendulum decidedly swung in the LNA’s favor as Russia’s direct support for Hifter on the ground became increasingly apparent.
After the LNA forces became bogged down on the southern outskirts of Tripoli, Wagner Group, the world’s most famous PMC with close links to the Kremlin, increased its technical assistance and maintenance relationship with the LNA from August 2019, especially in the realms of tactical assistance and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) for artillery and aerial strikes.
With the notable exception of some snipers and targeting experts, Wagner’s troops did not fight in ground engagements and there were only a few Russian casualties over the entire duration of the war.
Despite (in part intentionally) exaggerated media reports, there were never more than 350-400 Russians directly engaged in the battle for Tripoli, most of whom were not involved in frontline duties.
Their most important contribution was aircraft maintenance, specifically of helicopters close to the frontline. Wagner’s activities were simply incapable of swinging the flow of battle one way or another.
Operating out of its strategically located military airports, as of late 2019, the LNA dominated Libya’s skies. Furthermore, it controlled 90+ percent of its oil installations and was receiving the vast majority of foreign inflows of technical assistance and military technology.
It struck some analysts who were discounting domestic opposition to Hifter in Tripoli and Misrata that despite the LNA’s mismanagement of the optics of the assault, a military success for the LNA seemed only to be a matter of practicing sustained attrition.
In fact, many Tripolitanian and Misratan military commanders that the authors spoke to at the time feared that they were on the verge of losing their grip on the entrances to the capital.
However, unbeknownst to most militia commanders as well as most journalistic and foreign military commentators, behind the scenes the LNA’s days of domination over Tripoli’s skies were numbered.
As soon as the GNA signed a controversial maritime deal with Turkey containing separate military provisions in November 2019, which were subsequently voted into law by the Turkish Parliament in January 2020, it became clear that a massive increase in Turkish technology transfers would be forthcoming.
Yet, it remained to be seen how effective the new equipment would prove or how exactly it would affect the overall battle dynamics.
Although the writing was on the wall that Turkish arms deliveries would be ramping up, a snapshot of the balance of forces and capabilities in late December 2019 indicated to some that Tripoli was still about to fall into Hifter’s hands.
This view affected Emirati, Egyptian, and Russian military planners. From a purely military point of view (not considering the diplomatic or domestic context) this was not an unreasonable analysis — several attempts to deploy sophisticated air defense systems from Turkey to Misrata to challenge LNA aerial dominance had previously failed as the equipment was destroyed by the LNA air force before it could be made operational.
The January 2020 “Cease-fire” — A Turning Point
Given the prevailing dynamics at the end of 2019, the GNA and the VoR Operations Room’s leadership realized that they urgently needed a pause in fighting to regroup.
They dispatched emissaries to major international capitals pleading for arms and military aid.
For the GNA, a cease-fire could provide a window of opportunity for the deployment of air defense systems to protect the crucial airports of debarkation (APODs) for military supplies — Misrata airport and Tripoli’s Mitiga airport — as well as the main seaport of debarkation (SPOD), Misrata.
Fortuitously, the Russians were also keen on having a cease-fire at the same moment. As a result of the media backlash against the introduction of Wagner Group personnel and the Russians’ fear of losing control of the Libya-mediation file, Vladimir Putin decided to try to achieve through diplomacy what he had thus far failed to secure via force of arms.
After several days of secret summit-level talks, Marshall Hifter supposedly verbally accepted a nominal cease-fire as of Jan. 12, under heavy pressure from Egypt and the UAE. He probably believed that Russia would make sure that Turkey would keep its “promise” and not use the cease-fire to deploy troops or weapons to Libya.
He may not have realized that due to the stalemate around Tripoli, a Sirte/Jufra demarcation line was already being discussed as the future boundary between Russian and Turkish spheres of influence.
Against this backdrop, on Jan. 13 Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj of the GNA signed the cease-fire document in Moscow that was jointly prepared by Russia and Turkey; he then left Russia without having a face-to-face meeting with Hifter, who he viewed as the aggressor and a killer of civilians.
For his part, Hifter refused to sign the original document (potentially backtracking from the previous day’s verbal assurances ) and insisted on certain changes, including his frequently voiced “non-starter” provision of “disarmament of the militias (i.e. the pro-GNA forces in Tripoli),” as well as the departure from Tripolitania of the Syrian mercenaries recruited by Turkey.
In addition to his obviously unrealistic demands, Hifter had embarrassed his patron Putin by being late to their meeting and then not signing the Russian-prepared document. On the night of Jan. 13, Hifter departed Moscow without signing, feeling abandoned by the Russians, while they also felt betrayed by him.
Subsequently, Turkey’s supposedly promised cease-fire was kept for just about 24 hours. Turkish leaders had seen their rivals undermine their interests without massive retaliation, but when the harm to their interests that a defeat of Operation VoR would entail fully dawned on them, they became willing to exponentially increase their introduction of armaments.
This realization, coupled with changes in the international system over the course of 2019 that further inhibited a unified European or American response, allowed the Turks to capitalize on the permissive diplomatic environment.
Turkish Air Force transport aircraft deployed a HAWK XXI medium-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) battery to Misrata airport, which was made operational immediately. Shortly thereafter, a second battery was deployed to Tripoli’s Mitiga airport.
The air superiority of the LNA air force was gone overnight, and the preconditions for the deployment of yet further sophisticated Turkish equipment were now established.
Furthermore, in the wake of the January 2020 Berlin Conference, which supposedly sought to finally enforce the U.N. arms embargo, both the UAE and Turkey vastly ramped up their introduction of military hardware.
The UAE, however, lacked the extensive professional staff and first-rate capabilities that a NATO country’s military with vast combat experience could deploy. It also relied on intermediaries, restraining its smaller, but quite elite, professional military from intervening directly in force, as Turkey’s did.
The nominal cease-fire that was touted by the media throughout mid-January, but never unequivocally came into force on the ground was gradually shown to be a complete fiction as the Turks continued their arms build-up through their APODs and SPODs, unhindered by the LNA air force, while Emirati arms deliveries continued to Libya’s east, but on a much lower level than the new Turkish deployments.
Therefore, the major change in the GNA’s effectiveness as a fighting force began as soon as experienced Turkish military planners more or less took over the planning of the VoR and developed it into a modern military campaign, rationally structured into discrete phases with concrete objectives.
Furthermore, Turkish logistics support ensured that the defenders of Tripoli did not run out of ammunition or other supply goods.
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,” .