Rival factions in Libya’s civil war both claim that Russia has transferred six MiG-29 fighters and two Su-24 attack jets to Al Jufra airbase in central Libya to support the Benghazi-based Libyan National Army (LNA) faction led by General Khalifa Haftar. Since 2014, the LNA has been locked in a civil war with the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord faction, which is militarily supported by Turkey.
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The alleged transfer, first reported by Bloomberg News, hasn’t been confirmed by Moscow, but a satellite photo appears to show at least one MiG-29 deployed at al-Jufra. Russian military transports also appear to have been active in Libya recently.
The aircraft reportedly departed from Hmeimim Airbase in Syria and were escorted at least part of the way to Libya by two Russian Su-35 jet fighters.
The LNA’s airforce chief Saqr al-Jaroushi boasted to Bloomberg that the jets will be used in the “largest aerial campaign in Libyan history in the coming hours,” and added, “All the objects and interests of Turkey in all occupied cities are a legitimate target.”
Ankara in turn has warned that it drones, air defense batteries and warships are ready to retaliate against any attacks on its forces in Libya.
Civil War and Proxy War in Libya
Since Haftar led his revolt against the UN-backed government in Tripoli in 2014, the western and eastern halves of Libya have been divided in what has increasingly become proxy conflict for rival powers in the Middle East/North Africa region.
Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia have provided direct military support to the LNA, which controls most of Libya’s lucrative oil fields, with more indirect support given by Israel and Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, Qatar and most prominently Turkey have backed the GNA, which controls the most populous areas of Libya. Even NATO allies Italy and France are opposed in their support for the GNA and LNA respectively.
Haftar claims the GNA maintains ties to extremist organizations, including the Muslim Brotherhood, which is vigorously opposed by Egypt and Saudi Arabia. However, the LNA, built around the remnants of the Libyan Army, is increasingly allied with radical Salafist militias (Madkhalists) as well.
In the spring of 2019 the LNA launched a failed offensive to seize Tripoli. Since then both sides have reigned in risky ground operations in favor of blasting each other with drones and (to a lesser extent) manned aircraft, a campaign which has caused hundreds of civilian casualties.
After refusing to sign onto an internationally-brokered truce, the LNA recently suffered a major setback on May 18 when it withdrew from al-Watiyah airbase, reportedly because Turkish drones knocked out its Pantsir-S1 short-range air defense system.
The United Arab Emirates has operated Chinese-built Wing Loong II UCAV drones on behalf of the LNA from Watiya for strikes on GNA forces in Tripoli (just 90 miles away) using laser-guided Blue Arrow missiles. Though the Wing Loong II theoretically has an operational radius of 932 miles, its direct-command link is limited to 124 miles.
This may affect the LNA’s ability to leverage the drones, as al-Jufrah is around 300 miles away from Tripoli. However, the Wing Loong II also can be controlled over longer distances using a satellite link.
Photos suggest the LNA abandoned significant quantities of munitions and military equipment at al-Watiyah. Pro-LNA media insists these were inoperable aircraft, including long-abandoned Su-22 attack jets and Mirage fighters. However, the photos also reveal abandoned Mi-24A Hind helicopter gunships and a Pantsir-S1 system that could have been of some use.
Moscow to the LNA’s Rescue?
The arrival of new Russian-built warplanes may be intended to militarily and symbolically buttress the LNA after this setback. The MiG-29 Fulcrum is an agile short-range tactical fighter. The Su-24 Fencer is a two-seat bomber that can carry heavier bomb loads out to longer ranges.
Both types are faster, and carry more weapons than the L-39 trainers/attack jets most extensively used by the GNA and LNA air forces. The MiGs could help shoot down enemy drones, but both types would remain vulnerable to Russian and Chinese-built ground-based air-defense missiles which have already shot down several manned aircraft in the conflict.
The provenance and operators of the alleged new jets remains disputed. Some sources characterize the jets as being refurbished warplanes donated by Syria, while others claim they originate from Belarus. Egypt, an ally of Haftar’s, also operates late-model MiG-29M2s.
However, military aviation expert Tom Cooper wrote on a Facebook post that this is unlikely: “…these are more likely to be VKS (Russian Air Force) MiG-29s known to have been transferred to Syria via a refueling stop at Hamedan, in Iran, the last week.”
Furthermore, the satellite photo appears to show an older model MiG-29S, not a MiG-29M2.
Seeing as the LNA likely lacks the trained personnel, equipment, and finances to effectively maintain and operate modern combat aircraft, there is a significant chance any such aircraft would be crewed and maintained by Russian military or mercenary pilots. If so, the fiction that they are local pilots may be maintained to contain the risk of escalation with Turkey.
While Turkey seemed poised to chart an independent, Russia-friendly foreign policy with its purchase of advanced S-400 air defense missiles (to the outrage of Washington), deadly clashes in Syria in 2020 have re-emphasized how Moscow and Ankara’s regional objectives remain fundamentally opposed in many places.
The Libyan Civil War is another front in which both countries are engaged in an expeditionary military campaigns with starkly opposing aims.
Despite al-Jaroushi’s bravado, its possible that the Russian jets (if their presence is confirmed) are there more to buttress the LNA’s standing than for direct military effect given the real risks of escalation with Turkey, perhaps with the hopes of creating the conditions for a ceasefire.
Otherwise, Haftar’s recent defeat in western Libya may have led several of his international supporters to conclude the general is “on his way out” according to Middle East Eye.
This story has been updated with reference to a satellite photo appearing to confirm the presence of at least one MiG-29 at Al-Jufra, additional context on the LNA and GNA, and a clarification that the Wing Loong drones are operated by the UAE.