ANALYSIS - Al-Watiya defeat derailed UAE’s Libya plans
It was clear UAE wanted to finalize Libyan war with definitive victory, but now that doesn’t seem to be a choice
The legitimate and UN-recognized Libyan forces (of the Government of National Accord) captured Al-Watiya military airbase on May 18, after long-standing operations. Al-Watiya military airbase, southwest of the capital Tripoli – controlled by the putschist general Khalifa Haftar’s forces in the Eastern part of Libya since August 2014, his second-most strategic base overall – was selected as a priority target by the Libyan government, while also being one of the priority targets of the Operation Peace Storm which started on all fronts on the morning of March 25 to break the blockade of Tripoli, due to its function as a military supply center for the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Haftar in the Western wing of Tarhunah and Tripoli.
Al-Watiya had long been the main airbase used by the LNA in western Libya. This airbase was not only the main center of air operations but also the center of all land operations carried out by the LNA in western Libya. For this reason, the Libyan government controlling the airbase is a large loss for the LNA’s military presence in western Libya. In particular, following this defeat the LNA can no longer provide military supplies to certain critical fronts south of Tripoli and western Libya. For this reason, LNA spokesperson Ahmed Al-Mismari announced the evening after the defeat that they would be “tactically” retreating from some fronts in western Libya and redeploying their units. Following the announcement, retreats were made in some areas. With the government controlling Al-Watiya, Al-Jufrah airbase stands out as the airbase that could be used in the subsequent air operations by the LNA.
In addition to the damage done to the LNA’s military capabilities in the field, the Libyan government has gained another advantage that might alter the course of the war to a major degree. Following this development it now can focus its military power on the southern and eastern fronts, which means that they have secured to a large degree the western front in the Tripoli blockade. We can foresee the war shifting to the Bani Walid region in the southeast, where the LNA military supply line is situated, and other active conflict zones.
UAE role in Libyan civil war
Russia stepping into the field of the Libyan civil war in 2019 through the Wagner Group met with a great amount of interest and reactions. However, the role of the United Arab Emirates in the war continued to be ignored to a large extent. While this approach did not help reach a solution, it also took the dynamics in the field to a point where other actors could take a similar position. French President Emmanuel Macron, who yesterday announced that they would be signing a security agreement with the UAE, has been criticized for aligning France’s foreign policy with the UAE. Anwar Gargash, the UAE minister of state for foreign affairs, said following the capture of Al-Watiya Airbase that his country's Libyan policy was open and determined, and that the only acceptable way was to return to political negotiations with a fast and comprehensive ceasefire.
The UAE’s statements pointing to political negotiations, made after air superiority was acquired by the legitimate government and its operations resulted in advances by its troops, are remarkable. Their decisions during the Berlin conference on Libya in January 2020 and the political meetings starting in Geneva favored military conflict, similar to previous negotiation attempts. However, the UAE had turned Libya into a massive ammunition dump and foreign fighter camp, transferring more than 5,000 tons of military supplies to Libya in the first three months of 2020 alone. According to the Libyan government, the UAE conducted approximately 100 flights to support the military forces of Khalifa Haftar and sent them approximately 6,200 tons of military supplies in the first quarter of 2020. The flights are known to have departed from the Sweihan Airbase in the UAE and Assab Airbase in Eritrea. According to a report by Bloomberg, the UN Research Council investigated 37 of these flights in January 2020 and sent their report to the UN Security Council in May. According to the report, the UAE attempted to conceal these military supply shipments over a complex network of numerous companies registered in Kazakhstan and the British Virgin Islands. The UN report, which also reported a rising number of secret flights made from the UAE military base in Eritrea to military facilities controlled by Haftar’s forces, confirms that a large number of weapons and warriors were transported to Libya through these flights.
On the other hand, the military support given to Haftar by the UAE is not a recent political development. The UAE’s military operations in Libya were confirmed for the first time in 2017 when Al-Khadim Airbase was included in the UN report. The UAE built Al-Khadim Airbase, located about 170 kilometers east of Benghazi, and has supported the forces of Haftar since 2016, and the air support provided by fighter aircraft from Al-Khadim Airbase and the drone fleet provided played a major role in the military progress made by Haftar’s forces in the country. It’s known that Hawk air systems are set up, as well as Russian- and French-made fighter aircraft at the airbase. It’s also confirmed that Mirage 2000 fighters were actively used in the Tripoli assault, from these airbases. A UN commission report following an airstrike on the refugee camp in the Tacura region near Tripoli reported that the attack was carried out by a Mirage 2000-9 fighter jet belonging to a foreign state. While the UN does not want to record the UAE involvement, it had to mention this in its latest report. After ignoring the activities of the UAE in Libya for a long time, the UN openly talked about the UAE presence in Libya in an 86-page report last November.
Besides, the UAE also supplied a Chinese-made Wing Loong II fleet to Haftar’s forces. The UAVs were used in night raids targeting Tripoli, which resulted in many civilians losing their lives until the Libyan government increased its military capacity and acquired air superiority with support from Turkey after this January. The 2019 UN report which determined that part of the Wing Loong attacks targeting Tripoli were made through Al-Jufrah also includes the information that this fleet belongs to the UAE. Also, the Gulf press reported last year that six UAE military personnel lost their lives at Al-Jufrah Airbase.
Following the capturing of Al-Watiya Airbase by the Libyan government, a Russian air defense system Pantsir S-1 was acquired. During the recently intensifying air operations, Libyan government forces destroyed a large number of Pantsir-S1 air defense and Wing Loong II UAV systems used by illegitimate armed forces affiliated with putschist general Haftar. Pantsirs have been used by these forces in Libya since June 2018, according to images posted on social media accounts of people close to the Haftar militia. There is a consensus that a large number of Pantsirs have been provided to Haftar by the UAE. The 2019 UN report also confirms these claims. According to a Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) report on countries’ annual arms purchase and sales data, the UAE, now one of the world’s eighth-largest arms buyers, supplied many weapons, including helicopters, to Haftar’s forces from 2015 to 2019, along with Egypt and Jordan.
UAE’s entry on Libyan stage
The UAE’s military presence in Libya started with restricted area patrols conducted with six Mirage and six F-16 warplanes during the international military intervention which took place in March 2011. In the transition period following the end of the Gaddafi government, the UAE forged close ties with figures like Mahmoud Jibril, Abdurrahim El-Keib, and Aref Nayed and worked to boost its influence on Libyan politics by increasing financial and military support to tribes and military powers that it saw close to itself, especially in the capital Tripoli. The June 2012elections resulted in the National Forces Alliance led by Jibril winning 39 of the quota of 80 party-list seats, while also being supported by the UAE. On the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood’s branch in Libya, the Justice and Construction Party, was able to win 17 seats in the General National Congress. Following the elections, the process in Libya followed the competition between political groups, tribes, and the militia. However, this low-intensity competition transformed into a deep crisis with a series of events that took place in 2013 and led to a civil war in 2014. The Political Isolation Law which was brought to the council via the party of General National Congress head Mohammed al-Magariaf and was passed with pressure from the militia formed the basis for the civil war by banning many Libyan political figures from participating in politics, especially in the 2014 elections. The November 2013 kidnapping of Ali Zeidan, president at the time, from a hotel in Tripoli by an armed group resulted in not only the separation of the forces in Zintan from the transitional power in Tripoli but also the low-intensity political conflict in the country growing more visible.
The involvement of the UAE, allied with the wing of the political balance in Tripoli which was being eliminated, came to light with their intervention by air operation in the fight of two opposing parliamentary forces in the country in August 2014 to take control of the capital. Following the June 2014 elections, a dual-governmental structure arose, a General National Congress, and a House of Representatives. By that August, the city of Tripoli was witnessing fighting with tribes and militia forces in affiliation with these two governments to capture the capital.
The UAE was aiming to stop the march of the Misrata forces in alliance with the National General Congress, who were marching towards the center of Tripoli, with an airstrike. However, the operation was unsuccessful and the House of Representatives had to retreat from Tripoli and relocate to Tobruk, where Haftar was staying safe. Therefore, the foundations of the Haftar-House of Representatives-UAE alliance was laid. The UAE also continued to support the Tobruk House of Representatives and Haftar. The air support given by the UAE played a big role in the success of the Derna and the Benghazi operations initiated by Haftar. Following that, the UAE shaped the Libyan civil war to a large degree with military supplies, foreign fighters, and financial support provided to Haftar’s forces and the UAE’s efforts to create a wide international alliance network for him.
Potential consequences of a new balance in the field
The success achieved by the Libyan government is greater than the success achieved on the Gharyan front, and this may negatively affect Haftar in the ongoing conflict among the members of the alliance in the eastern part of the country led by Haftar while raising spirits on the government side. After 2014, Haftar gradually created a wide but loose alliance network starting in eastern Libya and increased the territory under his control with the power he acquired through these political alliances. In this context, it’s important to recognize that a large amount of this expansion in Libya happened through tribal alliances and not armed conflict. Haftar’s forces losing control of Al-Watiya Airbase carries the potential of triggering the restarting of intra-tribal meetings among these tribes.
The days to come will show how this development will be interpreted by Libyan actors and Haftar-supporting international actors and directly influence the state of the field as well as the possible political negotiation process. For instance, certain reports in Egyptian media claim that Egypt will be drawn towards Haftar-less options. In the short term, Haftar and his alliances’ interpretations of this defeat, the political position that will be taken by the Zintan forces who lost their contact with the militia led by Haftar and the reactions of the international allies who’ve been investing in Haftar will play a key role in the course of the Libyan civil war. In any case, the success of the Libyan government in Al-Watiya points to a turning point that may completely transform the dynamics of the war.
The UAE’s Libya policy, which has had the lion’s share in the advancement of the war up to the Tripoli front, has not encountered a great deal of resistance from international actors. It was clear that the UAE wanted to finalize the Libyan war with a definitive victory, but looking at the situation as today, that doesn’t seem to be a choice. Since the Libya policy of the UAE which aimed to build a regime with a strong military character led by Haftar in the country by eliminating alternative elements of power in Tripoli was not denied by international actors, the power option in Libya has been ahead of political solutions since 2014. No tangible developments were signaling a major change in the relevant policies of UN Security Council permanent members supporting the UAE: the US, France, and Russia. However, the new power balance in the field which fundamentally altered the dynamics of the war will result in many actors involved in the Libyan civil war reconsidering their political positions.
[Nebahat Tanriverdi Yasar, an independent researcher working on Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, is an IPC-Stiftung Mercator Fellow in the Turkey/CATS research division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP)]
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