July 9, 2019

IntelBrief: Libya: Spiraling Further Downward 

Debris covers the ground after an airstrike at a detention center in Tajoura, east of Tripoli in Libya, Wednesday, July 3, 2019. An airstrike hit the detention center for migrants early Wednesday, killing several. (AP Photo/Hazem Ahmed).
  • On July 5, the U.N. Security Council issued a statement condemning an airstrike on a migrant detention camp in Libya that killed 53 people.
  • Despite the 2011 U.N. arms embargo in Libya, countries like the UAE and Turkey continue to provide heavy weapons to the two rival Libyan forces.
  • The UAE denies it was the source of four Javelin anti-tank missiles that were found in a camp abandoned by the forces of Libyan strongman, Khalifa Haftar.
  • Once heavily involved in attempting to shape a path forward in Libya, Washington now appears to have less influence, as other countries in the region play a more prominent role.


The conflict in Libya reached a nadir of human misery last week when an airstrike hit a migrant detention center in the Tajoura suburb of Tripoli, killing at least 53 refugees, including six children. The civil war is intensifying between the internationally-recognized, U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libyan National Army (LNA), led by former Libyan general Khalifa Haftar; both sides denied responsibility for the strike. Refugee detention centers in the country have been a growing concern for the U.N., with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimating that 3,300 refugees and migrants are being detained in centers just around the capital of Tripoli alone. Even more troubling, there are allegations that detention centers have been used as depots for weapons and ammunition storage, making them attractive targets for the belligerents involved. As a result, an already traumatized population is made more vulnerable.

As the fighting in Libya rages, adding to the complexity of the conflict are the desperate refugees that continue to stream toward the Libyan coast, which has become a launching point for hordes of asylum seekers hoping to reach Europe. For those that survive the misery of transiting the Sahel, the journey across the Mediterranean is often perilous. On July 1, an estimated 80 people drowned when their overloaded makeshift vessel capsized near the Libyan port of Zwara. Meanwhile, the conflict in Libya shows no signs of abating—Haftar’s Tripoli offensive, launched in April, has bogged down and his forces have lost momentum. Despite a U.N. arms embargo in place since 2011, Libya remains awash with weapons. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has openly supported Haftar for years and has been accused by the U.N. of providing the LNA with attack helicopters, armored personnel carriers (APC) and drones.

The UAE has denied involvement in supplying Haftar’s forces with heavy weapons. Those denials took on a new sense of urgency when 4 American-made Javelin anti-tank missiles were found among the weapons left behind by retreating LNA forces in Gheryan, south of Tripoli. The markings on the missiles show that they were part of a 2008 shipment from the U.S. to the UAE. U.S. law prohibits the transfer of such advanced weaponry to another third party. U.S. Senator Menendez wrote a letter to Secretary of State Pompeo that if these allegations proved true, the U.S. 'may be obligated by law to terminate all arms sales to the United Arab Emirates.’ Still, it remains to be seen if the U.S. will take meaningful action along these lines, since the Trump administration has thus far offered the Saudis and Emiratis a 'blank check' in terms of pursuing regional conflicts, from Yemen to Sudan to Libya. 

In recent weeks, and despite an arms embargo, Ankara has stepped up its military support for the GNA. Turkish President Erdogan labeled Haftar' nothing but a pirate,’ and Ankara has reportedly been sending armed drones to the GNA, among other weapons systems. The Turkish support for the GNA places Ankara squarely at odds with the Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Cairo, a trio that maintains a preference for strongmen that depend on external support to survive, making them malleable and easier to control. The Turks also find themselves on opposite sides from the Saudis and Emiratis in other countries, including Somalia, where a struggle for control of maritime routes and key ports has developed and intensified over the past year. Once heavily involved in attempting to shape a path forward in Libya, Washington now appears marginalized. While other countries have assumed a more aggressive posture as the U.S. steps back, a demonstrable lack of U.S. influence is becoming more pervasive, stemming in part from an inchoate strategic approach to dealing with the Middle East. 


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