On 25 May, the Tripoli-based Government of National Unity (GNU) launched an ongoing wide-scale military operation in the western region. Warplanes were deployed to launch air strikes on various locations, with reports of several sites in and around Zawiyah — Libya’s fourth largest city 50 kms west of Tripoli — being bombed by drones. This initiative followed weeks of escalating tensions and lethal clashes between its armed groups (Libya Politics & Security – 01.05.23) despite numerous meetings held by the GNU, the Presidential Council, and the Army leadership to try and contain the crisis. The military action was declared only a day after the meeting of the Security Working Group stemming from the International Follow-up Committee for the Berlin Process alongside the 5+5 Joint Military Council (JMC)) in Tripoli (See Politics).
According to the GNU’s Ministry of Defence the operation focused on air strikes against hideouts of the local fuel smuggling, drug trafficking, and human trafficking gangs. Despite some ambiguity regarding the type of aircraft used, local sources have confirmed that the airstrikes were carried out by Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones. This was described as part of a broader mission to cleanse the western coast and the rest of the country of criminal dens and illicit activities. The operation was directly supervised by Prime Minister Abdelhamid Dbeibah who is also the defence minister.
The airstrikes are publicised as an anti-smuggling and anti-criminal campaign, but they also have additional significance when viewed in the context of the ongoing political negotiations and rapprochements. They appear to have been choreographed to send precise messages with political undertones and there are several indications about why this is the case:
- Firstly, by displaying its capability of conducting strikes — whether this is Turkish backed or unilaterally commanded and operated through Dbeibah’s office — the GNU is establishing its military prowess.
- Second, the strikes, particularly those targeting Zawiyah, seem to be aimed at the premier’s opponents. They initially struck locations affiliated with the city’s Abuzriba family — including Ali Abuzriba MP’s farm — but have since extended to hit some of Mohamed Bahroun’s (a.k.a. al-Far, or the Mouse) allies and controlled areas. The latter include areas in Ajaylat affiliated with Hatem al-Fihri who, besides one of the most notorious fuel smugglers and drug dealers in western Libya, is Bahroun’s ally. The only strike in Zuwarah that seemed random, because it did not hit any target, landing by the city’s port. Some observers suggest that the GNU’s expansion of the strike zones was merely a façade to create the impression of impartiality. Dbeibah appears to be sending a clear message to various groups and notably facti9ons supporting Fathi Bashagha such as his key ally, Osama Juwaili in Zintan. This strategy underscores Dbeibah’s capability of launching drone strikes as a deterrent against any potential mobilisation by these groups, and especially those eyeing strategic locations such as the Tripoli International Airport.
- Finally, in order to effectively deter smuggling operations, it would be necessary to implement a comprehensive strategy and reasonable approaches that encompass more than just security measures. For example, despite the persistent economic challenges, successive Libyan governments since 2011 have failed to stop the fuel price subsidies which were first implemented by Muammar Qadhafi’s former regime. In western Libya, the price of Octane-95 gasoline is LD0.15 (US$0.03) per litre compared to TND2.5 (US$0.81) per litre in neighbouring Tunisia. This huge price difference makes fuel smuggling an extremely attractive business which enables criminals to generate substantial profits. In recent years, smuggling operations have expanded exponentially in Zawiyah because of the flourishing of criminal networks.
According to a leaked document, Dbeibah issued a decree on 24 May which created a new security apparatus, called the Electronic Aviation Force, to which all Ministry of Defence and Ministry of Interior’s drone assets have been assigned. This indicates Dbeibah’s increased willingness and capacity to act independently and signals a potential shift in the regional power dynamics. It is also worth noting that Dbeibah signed agreements in October 2022 to acquire Akinci drones and Hurkus C training and close-support aircraft which are likely to be delivered by Türkiye in the coming months (Libya Politics & Security – 31.10.22). The current operation and its inherent messages serve as a potent reminder of the complex interplay of politics, power, and violence in Libya’s quest for stability and unity.
Responding to these developments, the High Council of State (HCS) chairman, Khalid al-Mishri, who comes from Zawiyah, urged the Presidential Council to strip Dbeibah of the power to use drones. House speaker, Aguila Saleh, also condemned the military operation, and described it as an assault on civilians and civil facilities in Zawiyah. In typical lukewarm fashion, the UNSMIL noted that these events highlight the pressing need for: the consolidation of Libya’s security and military institutions; for their empowerment and accountability; and the ensuring of safety and stability of the Libyan people.This excerpt is taken from our Libya Politics & Security weekly intelligence report. Click here to receive a free sample copy. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for subscription details.