Libya’s Islamist Rebels Have Their Own Air Forces
Air power is rare in civil wars, but both Tripoli and Tobruk field jets
Civil wars are usually asymmetric affairs — the government has large numbers and modern weapons while the opposition has what it can capture on the battlefield or buy on the black market.
In most cases, rebels don’t find or buy supersonic fighter jets.
Libya is different. The country’s complex civil war is a direct result of the 2011 revolution against Muammar Gaddafi. Rebels, aided by NATO aerial support, killed the dictator on Oct. 20, 2011.
After his death, both rebel and loyalist forces fractured. Gaddafi’s vast and modern weapon stockpiles were suddenly available to anyone. Soldiers from all sides of the conflict scooped up the remains of the Libyan air force.
Libya has two rival governments, each supported by a loose coalition of militias. The New General National Congress is based in the traditional capital Tripoli and relies on Islamist militias who claim to be the defenders of the 2011 revolution. These militias have founded the “Libya Dawn” coalition, but many remain operationally independent.
The Council of Deputies — based in the eastern city of Tobruk — has greater international support. Many of its soldiers fought for Gaddafi. Now they are under the command of Gen. Haftar, a controversial figure with possible ties to the CIA.
The Islamists of Libya Dawn are diverse and mostly stand for a moderate interpretation of political Islam. But a third faction brings together groups such as Ansar Al Sharia and the Islamic State in Libya — two militant Islamist groups known for the brutal beheading of Egyptian Coptic Christians and African migrants.
This breakaway faction is hostile to both Libya Dawn and Haftar’s forces but controls little territory.
Both Libya Dawn and Haftar have military attack aircraft. Under Gaddafi, Libya received hundreds of planes from the Soviet Union and France. The Libyan air force used the planes a lot in the ’80s during a war with neighboring Chad. Surprise attacks from Chad on Libyan air force bases thinned the number of jets.
After the fall of the Soviet Union and a series of embargoes against Libya in the ’90s, Gaddafi’s collection of planes fell into serious disrepair. As the West continued to pressure Gaddafi in the early 2000s, the dictator tried to restore his fleet.
Then came the Libyan civil war and NATO air strikes in 2011. The bombing runs decimated the jets and only a few dozen aircraft survived the fall of Gaddafi. Few of those could fly.
Fighting between Haftar and Libya Dawn has intensified in recent months, and both parties have made efforts to deploy and extend their air forces. What’s left of Libya’s formal air force supports Haftar, and his pilots flew attack aircraft during an offensive in Benghazi in 2014.
But Libya Dawn also has aircraft in service. Satellite pictures obtained from Google Earth show militants moving three MiG-25 interceptors to Misurata airport. The airport is under rebel control.
It’s unclear if the MiG-25s are airworthy. But their appearance at Misurata indicates that Libya Dawn wants to put at least one of them into action, possibly by cannibalizing other aircraft for parts.
While it’s possible for pilots to use MiG-25s for bombing runs in its RBK reconnaissance configuration, it’s best as an air-to-air interceptor. But Libya Dawn lacks the radar and other critical infrastructure to support such a role. This makes it impossible for the Islamists to use the MiG-25s for more than basic air strikes.
Both sides also seem to have MiG-23s. The Soviet Union developed this fighter-bomber in the ’70s. It has visual-range bombing capabilities, but pilots more often used it for ground attacks during the 2011 civil war. Both sides have reportedly shot down several of these planes.
The two warring sides have more than just jets. Both sides of Libya’s civil war have large amounts of artillery, armored vehicles, tanks and other sophisticated weaponry.
Worse, both the General National Congress and the Council of Deputies continue to receive outside support. Qatar supplies the Islamists and Egypt supplies the CoD, disregarding a United Nations arms embargo.
The U.N. is attempting to negotiate a political settlement. It isn’t working. U.N. Special Representative Bernardino Léon this week proposed a peace plan based on negotiations in Geneva, Switzerland. The General National Congress rejected the plan, arguing that the deal gives preference to the Council of Deputies.
The CoD is aggressively lobbying the international community to lift the arms embargo and support it in its fight against both the moderate Islamists of the General National Congress and more extreme militias such as the Islamic State and Ansar Al Sharia.
Support in this case means the provision of more and better weapons to ensure its military superiority.
The fact that both sides in a civil war have combat aircraft is extremely rare.
There are only a few examples of this in history. During the Nigerian civil war in the late 1960s, Biafran forces hired a handful of Swedish and British mercenaries to fly attacks on government airfields and humanitarian supply runs.
In 1999, the Angolan rebel group UNITA took delivery of six MiG-23s, probably flown by Ukrainian mercenaries to support its fight against the Angolan government.
But it’s unlikely the Libyan fighter jets will have much of an effect on the overall direction of the war. As the Crisis Group noted in a recent briefing, it’s questionable if a military solution to the conflict is even possible.
Both sides are heavily armed — and won’t give up fighting easily.