By Joost Oliemans & Stijn Mitzer
A comprehensive catalogue of weaponry and equipment supplied to the LNA can be found further down in this article.
Since the renewal of a civil war in Libya in 2014 a slow-burning yet at times surprisingly intense conflict has left its future in doubt, with multiple parties vying for control and their international backers not shying away from investing large sums of money to see a favourable result come about.
Although a UN-imposed arms embargo (in place since February 2011) is meant to stop both sides from obtaining weapons and equipment, it has since been blatantly and consistently ignored by their foreign backers.
A recently released UN panel of experts report aimed to document transgressions of this embargo since its instatement, primarily focusing on analysis of international shipments of arms and equipment by means of air transport.
The resulting body of work although painstakingly detailed in some aspects is a testament to shortcomings of this method, and is wholely lacking in competent imagery analysis, failing to note the delivery of a myriad of weapons systems and munitions, while misidentifying others.
Its conclusions therefore are far off the mark – essentially throwing Turkey as a foreign power in the region under the bus, while categorically ignoring serial offenders such as the UAE, Russia, Jordan and Egypt.
This article aims to function as a counterpoint to UNSC’s report not by refuting its contents, but by providing an actually comprehensive overview of arms transfers by the aforementioned parties to Libya’s LNA since 2014.
But before addressing recent developments, it is insightful to consider the background of the conflict. Following a bout of political infighting that ensued the results of the 2014 Libyan parliamentary elections (which had a voter turnout of only 18%), Libya was effectively split in two separate zones.
In Eastern Libya, the House of Representatives (HoR) took office in Tobruk, appointing General Haftar as the commander of the Libyan National Army loyal to the HoR. The LNA would receive significant military support from the UAE, Russia, Jordan and Egypt (and to a lesser degree France).
Meanwhile in Western Libya, members of the General National Congress formed their own government in the capital Tripoli, becoming what was known as the National Salvation Government. Commonly referred to as Libya Dawn, the National Salvation Government eventually handed power to the GNA interim unity government established in January 2016, which took office in Tripoli in March 2016.
While the UN-recognised GNA led by President Fayez al-Sarraj was supposed to act as Libya’s new governing body, the HoR withdrew its recognition of the GNA in March 2017, pledging to defeat the GNA and establish itself as the sole legimate government of Libya.
Unlike the LNA, Libya Dawn and later the GNA had to make do with little more than political support from across the globe, until Turkey intervened militarily on behalf of the GNA in the summer of 2019.
Already soon after the split of Libya into two warring sides, the UAE, Egypt and Jordan quietly began supplying the LNA with large amounts of weaponry, vehicles and even some aircraft.
More advanced equipment secretely began entering the country too, including Chinese Wing Loong unmanned aerial combat vehicles (UCAVs) operated by the UAE on behalf of the LNA.
For this purpose the al-Khadim airbase in Eastern Libya was extensively overhauled and refurbished, receiving new aircraft shelters and tarmac, munitions depots and personnel housing as well as the benefit of air defence coverage by MIM-23 Hawk SAM emplacements.
Nevertheless, this strategy of equipping the LNA with large amounts of equipment rather than actually training a capable ground force has translated into little results on the ground.
Although there was ample opportunity to ratchet up pressure on the GNA, which received no serious military support from any country whatsoever until 2019, this opportunity was essentially wasted, with the balance of power mostly remaining static while both parties focused on engaging extremist factions.
That is not to say that there were no efforts at forcing a breakthrough, but despite escalating involvement, which as the conflict evolved began including even deployment of the infamous Russian Wagner PMC, no such breakthrough was ever effected.
Instead, the UAE got for its investments the usual web of controversies that envelop combatants, which has included its implication in a deadly strike on a migrant detention centre as well as a drone strike which killed 26 unarmed cadets.
The UAE’s and Russia’s combined efforts ultimately failed to deliver the right amount and type of support that was required to enable a hodgepodge of militias united under the banner of the LNA to secure a victory in Tripoli.
While a force of Russian-delivered tanks supported by Emirati-operated drones further backed by Russian artillery fire whilst under the cover of sophisticated Russian air defence systems, all operated by the UAE and Russia are an impressive force on paper, it is in fact only as effective as the soldiers that it supports.
By not addressing the fundamental shortcomings of the highly irregular and untrained LNA soldier, these force multipliers had not much of a force to act upon, with the mediocre results mirroring the UAE’s lack of a cohesive strategy in Yemen.
When Turkey suddenly intervened on behalf of the GNA in the summer of 2019, the situation in Tripoli and Western Libya was quickly turned around by the effects of Bayraktar Diplomacy, leading to the loss of two major strongholds of the LNA in Western Libya: al-Watiya and Tarhuna.
Faced with this new reality, the LNA’s foreign backers suddenly went from being just a handful of kilometres away from securing the seat of power in Libya to having to scramble to prevent further GNA advances into LNA-held territory.
What exactly the UAE’s next course of action would entail became evident already shortly after the LNA’s retreat from Western Libya.
Sticking to what it knows best, Abu Dhabi began to look for ways to further outsource the conflict to private military contractors (PMCs) to make up for the LNA’s inefficiency in battle.
The groundwork for increased mercenary participation in the conflict was already laid during the LNA’s failure to advance in Tripoli in 2019, when the involvement of Wagner increased markedly and the UAE began to look for other powers to achieve a breakthrough.
The UAE’s search would take it to Erik Prince, who subsequently pitched two operations via Christiaan Durrant, both of which ultimately failed to materialise.
Other mercenaries include Chadian, Syrian and Sudanese fighters, some of which were lured on the false pretences of working as security guards in the UAE, only to be shipped off to Libya against their will.
In these latter cases, mercenaries unsurprisingly proved to be ineffectual troops, merely suitable for holding defensive positions rather than enabling the offensive breakthrough the UAE was looking for.
With little other forces available to outsource the war in Libya to, the UAE then faced a choice. It could significantly increase its backing for Wagner PMC, but in doing so potentially risking its preferential position as one of the U.S.’ staunchest allies, possibly even facing the threat of sanctions.
Alternatively, the UAE could use the failure of the Tripoli offensive as an excuse to slowly wind down its involvement in Libya and reach a breakthrough not on the battlefield but on the negotiation table.
Undoubtedly bolstered by confidence in a U.S. government that was either unwilling or unable to act, Abu Dhabi boldly opted for choice number one, and doubled down on its support for the Wagner PMC.
In what constituted a drastic shift in the UAE’s foreign policy of exclusively engaging in coalitions with the US and the NATO, Abu Dhabi quietly entered into alliance with Russia.
In doing so, it essentially gave Russia free reign to establish a definite military foothold on the Southern border of NATO.
The first effects of this were almost immediately noticable on the ground, as the UAE handed over its remaining Russian-made Pantsir-S1 missile systems to the LNA and later Wagner and opened its al-Khadim airbase in Eastern Libya to Russian Su-24 fighter-bombers (Russia had previously used its own Pantsir-S1s in November 2019 to shoot down two MQ-9 Reaper UAVs – one belonging to Italy, the other to the US – flying near Tripoli).
The frequently asked question whether the UAE directly funds Wagner PMC’s deployment to Libya is thus entirely irrelevant, as it was the UAE’s interference in Libya brought them there in the first place.
Of course, the supply of advanced SAM systems to Wagner and the stationing of Su-24s on an Emirati airbase in Libya are all suggestive of some new play in the larger geopolitical game; a turning point for the UAE’s ambitions in Northern Africa.
Interestingly, this turn of events appears to have been largely ignored in Western European and U.S. circles. In fact, while Turkey was harshly punished for its decision to acquire the Russian S-400 SAM system, the funding, deployment and equipping of what is essentially the Russian military on the doorstep of the Southern border of NATO by the UAE has so far been left without consequences.
On the contrary, the UAE was green-lighted to purchase 50 F-35 stealth fighters as recently as November 2020. Of course, the lack of a clear U.S. policy on Libya during the Trump administration is hardly surprising, but the affair nevertheless raises serious questions about the consistency with which the U.S. deals with its allies.
The UAE’s confidence in a U.S. government that was either unwilling or unable to act was further highlighted by several comments made by the its ambassador to the United States Yousef Al Otaiba in December 2020.
Stijn Mitzer is an analyst and blogger based in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Working as a contributor for IHS Jane’s and Bellingcat, he is now writing a book about the Korean People’s Army.
Joost Oliemans is a specialist focused on DPRK military capabilities. He co-authors the Oryx blog.