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.
We have demonstrated that the final outcome of the War for Tripoli was not significantly shaped by Russian, Syrian, or other mercenaries. The ability of Libyan or mercenary ground forces to conquer or retake territory was only ever possible when and where aerial dominance was previously achieved.
This may be understood as partially stemming from the uniquely Libyan way of warfare, which throughout the Wars of Post-Gadhafi Succession has revealed itself to be highly casualty averse (with certain exceptions of disregard for civilian casualties) and usually involving columns of troops advancing in pickup trucks and technicals and then rapidly retreating in disarray when they are outflanked, come under fire, or potentially even before any opponent fire or ground maneuvering transpires, if they determine themselves to be outgunned or subject to enemy air superiority.
Control of key pieces of transport infrastructure — highways, airports, strategic crossroads — is essential to this form of war and those locations cannot be held against an enemy who can project air superiority over the key nodes of transport infrastructure in question and therefore put opponent ground forces to flight.
During 2019, this Libyan way of warfare enabled certain LNA gains around southern Tripoli due to its air superiority. Then from mid-January 2020 onward, the belligerent parties’ levels of military capabilities rapidly diverged.
Ever increasing levels of Turkish ISR and aerial firepower capabilities were the decisive elements in an uneven war of attrition. From March onward, it was obvious that the LNA would eventually be defeated, if it did not promptly receive significant outside support to eliminate the Turkish air defenses that had grounded its aerial capabilities.
Therefore, as Turkish aerial superiority mounted and softened up LNA positions and patronage for the LNA did not drastically increase, it was also inevitable that LNA defenders would eventually slink away back to eastern Libya.
The three potential candidates to provide the LNA with the required capabilities were Egypt, Russia, and the UAE. Yet Egypt was never pleased with Hifter’s ambition to take Tripoli by force. It was also aware that Algeria would never accept an open military engagement in Tripolitania and any attempts would likely occasion a response.
Therefore, direct Egyptian intervention did not materialize. Egypt’s vital security interests in Libya are to keep Turkish forces and rogue Libyan Islamist militias away from the Egyptian border, in specific, and unable to operate in Cyrenaica, in general.
Cairo did not need a Hifter victory in the War for Tripoli to meet these requirements. This was effectively expressed by President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s declaration of a “red line” around Sirte — that if it were transgressed by Turkey or their affiliated Libyan militias, would occasion a decisive Egyptian intervention.
Russia’s objectives in Libya have been to enhance its regional stature as a diplomatic facilitator, consolidate infrastructure contracts, collect back payments and to more broadly undermine Western and American hegemony while promoting forms of insecurity that take crude production off line.
Traditionally, Moscow has pursued this through a dual engagement strategy, primarily supporting the LNA, but partially hedging between the GNA and LNA through its Foreign and Defense Ministries respectively. However, at some point in 2019, this balancing act was temporarily abandoned, and Moscow threw its weight further behind Hifter’s offensive even though it was not consulted in the decision to launch it.
Despite this development, it is important to highlight that Russia’s support of Hifter has usually been overstated. Moscow helped him gain greater territorial control and elevated his profile only so far as the Russians thought it would provide them with enough leverage and an opportunity to arbitrate a negotiated settlement, rather than in a belief he would achieve an outright military victory.
The Russians do not support Hifter unconditionally for the sake of an alliance with Hifter per se, but out of a desire to achieve their dominance over the “Libya file,” so as to mediate a solution to their liking.
For Russia, its support of Hifter’s assault on Tripoli came at a low cost financially and politically: neither the U.S. nor the EU placed retaliatory sanctions specifically about Russian actions in Libya while the Wagner mercenaries it deployed were probably paid for by the UAE and used as a geopolitical tool that couldmaintain a modicum of Moscow’s plausible deniability.
For the Emiratis, the calculus was slightly different. They were less concerned with strategic, financial, or security outcomes than the Egyptians or Russians.
Their desire was more ideological and long term: to prevent the rise of a chaotic Libya — possibly Islamist or possibly democratic — which could have cascading effects throughout the whole region.
The UAE is fundamentally a status quo actor needing not to upend the existing order but rather to maintain its global position as a respected player bound by financial and diplomatic ties to all major world powers. An overt military escalation in Libya to counter Turkey would have cast them too much in the role of a rogue.
By contrast, Turkish interests in western Libya were of a far more existential nature than Russian, Egyptian, or even Emirati interests.
Increasingly isolated in the eastern Mediterranean and with an economy in freefall, the Libyan theater offered Turkish strategists an ability to single-handedly resuscitate their entire geostrategic positioning, while potentially offering significant medium-term economic advantages in the form of back payments on tens of billions of dollars of construction contracts, potential eastern Mediterranean gas discoveries, and the preservation of a long-standing unique relationship with Libya’s Central Bank, which makes Istanbul the key center for a whole range of licit and illicit financial services connected to the Libyan economy.
Due to their asymmetrical interests in western Libya, the Turks decided to asymmetrically introduce military capabilities. As a NATO country with years of experience training and organizing Syrian militias and provisioning air defenses against a Russian-supported Assad regime, they possessed both the required technical and strategic capacities.
Viewed in its totality, Turkey’s successful degradation of the LNA’s prior aerial superiority offers a few stark lessons for other global conflicts in the 2020s:
1. International norms and even U.N. resolutions are no longer capable of preventing the unbridled introduction of sophisticated weapon systems and operatives into previously low-intensity and low-tech civil wars.
2. Especially when adversaries suffer from casualty-aversion or are fighting in the largely open spaces of desert-like terrain, aerial supremacy can offer the decisive factor in contemporary low-intensity civil wars.
3. Mercenary ground troops are unlikely to win civil wars in situations where the local populations lack the requisite will and casualty thresholds, or lack the ability to fight effectively. Mercenary forces are likely to suffer from casualty-aversion and to outrage local populations by their excesses. Furthermore, any mercenary successes in ground fighting can become propaganda successes for their opponents.
4. In Libya-like scenarios with a battle theater spread out along a vast coastline, air defense frigates can easily provide flexible early warning and area air defense without a real risk to the ships.
5. The War for Tripoli demonstrated that the outcome of a conflict can become inevitable as soon as one side’s patrons are willing to contemplate a greater escalation than its opponents are comfortable with and the international community prevaricates or lacks the resolve to punish escalations.
In the Libyan case, although the LNA and its patrons, Egypt, UAE, France, and Russia, have been viewed by some as the aggressors of the conflict, they later showed a clear lack of willingness for indefinite escalation.
Turkey possessed the required military capabilities to prevail and then became willing to employ them as a result of geopolitical calculations that came into play from late 2019 onward. All of these acts — from the initial aggression to the subsequent escalations — occurred at the same time as all the patrons claimed to outwardly be respecting the arms embargo.
6. If a major global stakeholder, like the EU, keeps out of a conflict in its neighborhood — whether for legal or moral reasons — it must later learn to live with whatever outcome emerges.
Although many European countries were partially militarily and diplomatically involved in Libya’s civil war, particularly France, Italy, and Greece, the EU as an institution did not find a coherent or an effective way to put its thumb on the scale of the crisis in Libya.
In fact, given the profound nature of EU interests at stake and the proximity to Europe, the EU was remarkably passive throughout the War for Tripoli. Now the EU is faced with the challenge of finding a way to mitigate the negative impact of a sustained Turkish and Russian presence in Libya.
All of which is to say that due to an initial lack of decisive decisionmaking, EU decisionmakers will now have much tougher choices forced upon them.
In summation, the recently concluded War for Tripoli was the first of a new kind of military conflict. The way in which drones and counter anti-aircraft capabilities were decisively deployed by Turkey is surely to be studied and likely imitated in other theaters.
Nonetheless, the Turks’ successful defense of Tripoli never meant that they could conquer the LNA’s heartland in eastern Libya or would want to face the ensuing global political backlash, even if they could.
Over the last months the KORAL EWS, TB2s, Anka-S, and mini-UAVs have left their imprint on Libya’s future and shown new aspects of how airpower will likely be used in non-state and extraterritorial warfare in the mid-2020s.
Now it is time for the international community, especially the U.N., EU, and U.S., to begin addressing the real underlying causes of conflict in Libya, especially the oft-neglected dysfunctional economic system.
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,” .