Profiteers, Vultures, and the Defeat of the U.N. Embargo on Libya
There is a U.N. embargo prohibiting arms shipments to Libya, but it is an abject failure. Its decade-long prohibitions have been openly flouted by various countries, to include states who are members in good standing of the so-called “international community” and the U.N. Security Council itself. They are joined by an assembly of foreign commercial profiteers exploiting Libya’s carnage for their own gain. Much of the furor around this failure is rightly focused on the Security Council’s conspicuous failure to publicly identify — and assign culpability — to individual member state violators. Yet this surrender runs deeper. It is embedded in the embargo’s authorizing language, and in the textual exemptions that allow the uneven (and seemingly preferential) policing of the various weapons supply chains (and the foreign state actors) that equip Libya’s rival warring factions. Nowhere have these textual handicaps been more exploited than in the aerial ecosystem developed by the Russian and Gulf-based supporters of renegade Gen. Khalifa Haftar in his bid to unseat the internationally recognized Government of National Accord.
Back in June 2016, the Security Council passed Resolution 2292, which authorized member states to inspect suspected weapons shipments entering Libya, but only through the high seas. This provision left open the aerial supply routes used by Russia and its Middle Eastern partners — principally the United Arab Emirates — to supply Haftar and his Libyan National Army. Resolution 2292 — in its singular focus on deterring maritime weapons flows — appeared to target the predominantly sea-borne weapons supplies provided to the Government of National Accord by its principal foreign sponsor: Turkey.
This resolution — in its selective exclusion of air and ground-based supply routes — seemed to empower Haftar’s Russian and Gulf-state sponsors. These countries have used both military and commercial aerial providers, some of which are implicated in previous embargo violations outside Libya, including in conflicts in Somalia and South Sudan. By failing to uniformly enforce embargo restrictions across all trafficking mediums — land, air, and sea — the council effectively allowed Haftar to maintain illicit access to Russian and Emirati weapons supplies — an action that has contributed to the defeat of the embargo regime in Libya.
How Did We Get Here?
During the early days of the 2011 revolution, regional rivals Qatar and the United Arab Emirates entered the fray on the back of the American-led intervention to depose long-term dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The two joined the United States, the United Kingdom, and France in the deployment of special operations forces in a bid to mold and direct the character of the post-Gaddafi state. The conflict soon fractured into hyper-local contests for resources, territorial control, and patronage as Libyan elites scrambled to secure foreign sponsorship for weapons, training, refuge, and financial largesse. But as the United States, the United Kingdom and France prioritized counterterrorism interventions over post-conflict governance, Russia saw an opportunity to influence battlefield outcomes and cement its expanding continental foothold.
Russia’s rivals accommodated — and, in the case of France, tacitly abetted — the hegemonic and anti-Islamist ambitions of the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, all of whom opposed the sway of pro-Islamist forces in a post-conflict Libya. This alliance had long backed Haftar and was opposed by Turkey and Qatar — the regional standard bearers for pro-Islamist political groups and militant forces across the region. Russia, on the other hand, covertly supported Haftar through mercenaries and aerial support — encouraged by American ambivalence and European accommodation for Haftar and his Gulf-based allies.
This dizzying array of competing interventions transformed once-localized conflicts into international contests. States poured in military equipment, trainers, and foreign fighters using a combination of military and commercial assets alike. Some, like Qatar, deployed military cargo planes and fighter jets as fault lines between Islamist and anti-Islamist forces crystalized into outright civil war in 2014. The United Arab Emirates, Russia, and Egypt followed suit, surging weapons deliveries to Haftar using both military and commercial aircraft. And as the tide of conflict shifted in Haftar’s favor in early 2019, Turkey shed the covert trappings of its military support to the Government of National Accord. It instead escalated maritime-based shipments of weapons, armored personnel carriers, drones, and Syrian mercenaries, backed by the deployment of Turkish military and intelligence personnel.
The Security Council’s Lackluster Response
At the outset of the initial U.N. embargo on Libya in 2011, the Security Council authorized inspections of weapons shipments transiting through member state territories, and called upon all member states to cooperate. As post-revolution violence evolved into outright civil war in 2014, the council, through Resolution 2174, barred all arms shipments entering Libya without advance approval. This requirement, however, failed to curb the continuous trafficking of illicit weapons on both land and sea as documented in annual U.N. embargo inspection reports that date back to 2012.
The Security Council responded in 2016 with Resolution 2292, which authorized maritime inspections on the high seas off the coast of Libya. This resolution did not include similar provisions for air and ground-based trafficking. It all but ignored the aerial routes predominantly used by the United Arab Emirates and Russia. Resolution 2292 — due to its singular maritime focus — had the effect of selectively targeting weapons flows from Turkey to the Government of National Accord as a result of their dominant transit by sea. By the time the European Union launched Operation IRINI under the auspices of Resolution 2292 in early 2020, its maritime focus was roundly criticized as selectively focused on Turkey’s materiel transfers to the Government of National Accord.
This uneven policing of maritime trafficking routes ostensibly left air- and ground-based movements unchecked. And while land-based smuggling is more easily hidden from public view, recent advances in open data research have simplified the detection of illicit aerial activity through open source techniques that are increasingly available to the broader public. In Libya, these techniques have exposed the role of commercial and military aircraft in embargo breaches that further reveal the inherent flaws of Security Council Resolution 2292.
Inside Libya’s Illicit Aerial Cavalries
Despite the assertive use of military aircraft in the trafficking of weapons into Libya, commercial aircraft are similarly implicated. But, unlike their military counterparts, commercial aircraft are more vulnerable to public scrutiny due to domicile requirements that compel owners to register aircraft in publicly accessible national registries. Some of these aircraft are hidden behind opaque ownership structures, but must expose vital identifying information while in flight. These safety-based requirements create digital trails that reveal an aircraft’s pattern of life, especially when implicated in potentially illicit activity.
These vulnerabilities have helped to expose aerial transfers from the Gulf to Haftar as documented by U.N. embargo monitors from 2011 through 2019. Some of the aircraft implicated were involved in other embargo violations during conflicts in Somalia and South Sudan. In at least two cases, one in 2011 and another in 2013, aircraft operated by a Libyan and Armenian airline transferred hundreds of thousands of ammunition rounds f into Benghazi reportedly on behalf of the United Arab Emirates. Once details of this transfer leaked to the public, the aircraft were promptly re-registered to a different United Arab Emirates-based commercial entity. In 2016, the same United Arab Emirates-based company appeared in a separate weapons trafficking incident in South Sudan, this time in violation of a separate U.N. embargo.
These aircraft cycled through different corporate owners, transiting through secrecy jurisdictions with lax scrutiny of prior illicit activity. In at least one case in 2015, U.N. investigators identified an aerial transfer of several million rounds of ammunition from Belarus to Tripoli brokered by Slobodan Tešić, a weapons trafficker previously sanctioned by the United Nations for embargo breaches that date back to the Liberian civil war. The reappearance of these prior offenders in Libya underscores the folly in the Security Council’s errant exclusion of aerial supply routes from its enforcement mechanism — a decision that has decisively benefited Haftar and his Gulf-based sponsors based on their dominant use of aerial trafficking routes and networks.
Rebalancing the Scales
The failures of the U.N. embargo in Libya are in many ways self-inflicted. By leaving aerial trafficking outside the embargo monitoring mechanism, the council all but ensured that some foreign state actors would maintain unfettered aerial access to domestic combatants. The council’s singular focus on maritime trafficking routes also undermined its legitimacy as an impartial mediator by seemingly targeting Turkish supply lines, while allowing Gulf-based aerial flows to continue unimpeded.
The Security Council has so far avoided public condemnation of individual member states and their embargo-related violations — a reticence likely designed to preserve their diplomatic participation in the current peace process. This guarded approach does little to repair the council’s eroded credibility and that of its embargo. To arrest this decline, the council can endorse several technical interventions that empower member states, either individually, or as part of regional organizations — like the European Union — to more stringently police aerial trafficking corridors.
The European Union has so far taken the lead in sanctioning commercial airlines for breaching the Libyan embargo. On Sept. 21, 2020, the European Union sanctioned Sigma Airlines, a Kazakhstan-based airline linked to the United Arab Emirates and implicated in prior material breaches of the Libyan weapons embargo. Kazakh authorities subsequently suspended its operating license alongside two additional airlines found in similar breach. These enforcement actions deprived each operator of critical financial and logistics facilities. Yet more such measures — including airspace denial — are urgently needed.
The threat of airspace denial compels commercial airlines to choose between access or exclusion from transit corridors that save both time and money in flight time. Airspace denial when backed by aggressive suspension of operational licenses and financial sanctions can impede, though not entirely disrupt, the ability for blacklisted aircraft to transit in and out of destinations in Libya. These actions do not obviate the urgent need for council resolutions that authorize the even policing of all trafficking mediums — air, land, and sea. They do, however, provide practical enforcement pathways for a critical weapons supply pipeline utilized not just in Libya but in other regional conflicts.
The Libyan conflict has exposed dire deficiencies in the Security Council’s approach to embargo enforcement. These flaws are the result of uneven treatment of the different weapons supply chains arming domestic combatants (and the foreign state actors that make use of them). These defects are not limited to the Libyan context but extend to other regional conflicts. They expose the peril of preferential approaches to embargo enforcement and the damage inflicted on the Security Council’s own credibility. Some of these defects can be rectified through technical interventions but an enduring correction begins with the admission that in Libya, the Security Council is the author of its worst enforcement failures.
Peter Kirechu is the former program director of the Conflict Finance and Irregular Threats Program at the Center for Advanced and Defense Studies. He is a specialist on illicit transnational networks in the Middle East and Africa.