On May 20, French President Emmanuel Macron spoke to U.S. President Donald Trump about the Covid-19 pandemic and also about Libya. Macron had concerns about “worsening foreign intervention” in Libya. He was asking the U.S. to dissuade Turkey from giving military support to the Libyan government. Because thanks to the Turkish military consultants and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) two days ago, on May 18, Libyan government forces took back the Al-Watiyah airport form under the control of the rebel Haftar forces.
We will come back to this topic. But the on same day of May 20, where Macron complained to Trump about Turkey’s military aid to the Libyan government, 6 Russian jets were reportedly sent from the Hmeymin military base in Syria to the Al-Juffra military base in Libya in support of Khalifa Haftar forces fighting against the UN-recognized government of Libya. According to aviation sources, the planes had landed in Syria after refueling at Iran’s Hamadan airport last week. They then flew to Libya, escorted by two Su-35 jets. Libyan Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha announced the type of jets as four Mig-29 fighters and two Su-24 bombers.
It is not yet known whether these jets were rented with United Arab Emirates (UAE) money like the previous Russian weapons, ammunition, and Wagner mercenaries. But like French President Macron, it seems that Russian President Vladimir Putin is also concerned about the losses of the Khalifa Haftar forces.
The development that changed the balances
Balances in Libya had already started to change when Turkey decided to send troops. On May 20, National Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said in Ankara that the balances in Libya had started to “change significantly” after the support of the Turkish Armed Forces. It was important that two days before Akar’s statement, on May 18, Libya forces loyal to Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj had taken over the Watiyah airbase, 140 kilometers southwest of the capital, Tripoli, near the Tunisian border.
The Watiyah airbase was under the control of the Haftar forces since 2014, before the National Unity Agreement was signed in 2015, and before Haftar scrapped the agreement in 2016. It was the major bridge-head of the rebels in the West of Libya for the air support and supply link necessary to keep the Libyan capital Tripoli under siege. After the government forces took back the base, Haftar had to lift the siege of Tripoli that has been continuing since April 2019 and started to withdraw. Haftar’s withdrawal from Wathiyah and Tripoli was after Turkish UAVs hitting one of the two Russian made Pantsir-1 air defense batteries protecting the base, on May 17. Sarraj forces had seized the second battery after they took control of the airbase the next day. After the arrival of the new party of Russian jets Haftar threatened to hit Turkish targets, only to be responded by the Turkish Foreign Ministry that if he damages Turkish interests, that would make him a “legitimate target”.
Turkish military presence in Libya
According to Turkish security sources talking to YetkinReport on condition of anonymity, the Watiyah base was also used in the attack on Tripoli port on February 18, 2020 during which two Turkish security officers were also killed. While the Sudanese Janjavid militia in the ranks of Haftar attacked the port, the air support was provided by the Watiyah, according to the same sources.
The most mentioned weapons support from Turkey to the Libyan government were reportedly the Turkish-made UAVs. As far as it is publicly known, there are two types in use by Libya Air Forces. The “ANKA-S” developed by Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) and “TB-2” developed by Baykar Aerospace Company. It is reported in the Turkish media that the Russian Pantsir-1 air defense battery was destroyed by a TB-2 designed and built by the team of Selçuk Bayraktar, the co-founder of Baykar and President Tayyip Erdogan’s son-in-law. There is also the anti-UAV radar system “IHTAR”, developed by Turkey’s state-owned military electronics company ASELSAN, which have reportedly hunted Chinese-made Wing Loong-2 UAVs used by Haftar forces.
Along with those there are artillery units reportedly shipped from Turkey which seemingly played an important role in defense of Tripoli. According to the security sources speaking to YetkinReport, the military educators, special operations units and intelligence experts in Libya have been involved in the training of the Libyan military and also the militia from Syria. (Syrians are fighting in the ranks of both Haftar and Sarraj.)
It is also reported in the Turkish media that the planning and implementation of the Turkish joint operation with the Libyan army is under the coordination of the Deputy Chief of Staff of the Turkish military, Lt. Gen. Metin Gürak.
The situation: early to claim victory
According to a May 21 commentary in the Israeli media, the main reason why Turkey is seemingly “winning” in Libya despite being confronted by Russia, Egypt, and the UAE was “limiting” its target to the “defense of Tripoli” instead of larger scale targets. (Meanwhile, the change in Israel’s attitude is remarkable. On May 20, Israel’s Permanent Representative in the UN, Danny Danon, complained about Iran’s shipment of weapons to the Haftar forces, including armor-piercing missiles, presumably via Syria.)
Diplomatic sources speaking to YetkinReport on condition of anonymity also focus on one target only. One source said that Turkey’s “main goal was to prevent Tripoli from falling. Therefore, it is an important step that Haftar has to remove the siege.”
After the Libya Government of National Accord (GNA) forces seized the Al Watiyah airbase, some of the tribes that form the basis of the social structure in the country have abandoned Haftar and changed sides. The same diplomatic source said that being able to control the Tunisian border was a relief for Sarraj and meant “finding a foothold to lean on”.
The current target of Sarraj forces is the town Tarhuna, about 100 kilometers southeast of Tripoli. This town is important regarding the control over the state road between Tripoli and the Misrata ports and relatively close to some oil fields. Anadolu Agency reported that the Turkish
UAVs and artillery forces took down two other Panstir batteries near Tarhuna on 20 May; a very interesting day, it was, as understood. (The UAE, has signed a deal with Russia in 2019 to buy $ 800 million worth Pantsir launchers and SA-19 missiles; some of them are now in Libya, according to Turkish security sources.) Haftar’s rebellious Libyan National Army (LNA) also said it dropped a Turkish UAV around Tarhuna recently as another indication of intensified clashes around the town.
The pro-government media in Turkey has been employing “victory” language for the last few days but both security and diplomacy sources are cautious. They believe that it was an important step to relieve Tripoli from the siege, as a sign of shifting balances in the field. But it would be too early to talk about a “victory” when the situation is still fluid.
Political balances are also changing
Following Macron’s complaint to Trump about Turkey, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that there is “no military solution in Libya but political”. That means France could not get what it wanted. Because Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has been repeating the same thing with the same words for more than a year now. It seems that the same issue came to the fore during the telephone conversation between İbrahim Kalın, the Chief Security and Foreign Policy Advisor (and also Spokesman) of Erdogan and Patrick O’Brian, Trump’s National Security Adviser, on 22 May. The purpose of almost everyone looks the same, except for the UAE, Egypt, and to some extent Saudi Arabia: pulling Haftar back at the peace negotiations.
First of all, the USA does not want to support any project in which Russia will gain an advantage in Libya after Syria. Russia already has a desire for a rematch. Putin could not forgive Russia’s removal from the Libyan equation through a NATO operation in 2011. Moscow wants to re-establish a military base in Libya, in the immediate south of Europe. For this reason, NATO, for example, has been backing the Sarraj as the UN-recognized government, especially since the 2015 Accord. Interestingly, NATO, with its unanimous vote-rule does so despite the presence of members like France and Greece who are in favor of Haftar. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg recently reaffirmed his support for the Sarraj government on May 16. Of course, not militarily, but politically.
But there are other contradictions in the picture. Because Russia (and its strategic partner, China) are two of the five Security Council members of the UN with veto rights, who recognized Sarraj as the legitimate power in Libya. So is France.
Turkey’s and Italy’s Libya policies get closer. TCG Salih Reis and Italian ITS Virginio Fasan frigates are seen in the joint NATO exercise in the Mediterranean on May 17, 2020.
Photo: Navy Command
Meanwhile, the coastal neighbor of the European Union (EU) has a shattered image on Libya, too. Italy and Turkey, who had a war over Libya more than a hundred years ago in 1911 are supporting Sarraj. Italian and Turkish positions (like Qatar) are alike and Rome signed a cooperation deal with Tripoli in February 2020 similar to the one Ankara did in late 2019. Italian Foreign Minister Luigi De Maio announced on May 19 that project IRINI, to monitor the air and sea areas would also include the Libyan-Egyptian land border. This was the demand of Tripoli. Meanwhile, the Turkish and Italian navies have been conducting joint exercises one after the other in the Eastern Mediterranean, extending to the offshore of Libya. France is a known supporter of Haftar. Germany, on the other hand, positions itself as a mediator. Speaking of contradictions, Turkey in Syria has been supporting the Syrian National Army (formerly Free Syrian Army) forces fighting against Bashar al-Assad’s government that the UN still recognizes. But Turkey also justifies its Libya policy with the rhetoric that Sarraj is the head of the UN-recognized government. This is realpolitik. Each country ultimately acts in its interest.
Turkey wants Haftar on the table
Because even if the Haftar has backed down now, even if it needs external support like the Sarraj government, it is obvious that Haftar is powerful in Libya. This situation will not resolve in a day or two, and therefore a reconciliation is necessary. Russia, China, and France also want Haftar at the table. Putin’s attempt to convince Haftar to sign a cease-fire deal with Sarraj at the beginning of January has failed. The Libyan Conference initiated by the German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on January 19 could not bring Haftar around the peace table either.
Because the UAE and Egypt, and also Saudi Arabia want Haftar to go all the way to Libya; their aim is not a compromise but full control over Libya via Haftar. On that front, the key country is Egypt. Because, if and when Egypt changes its position, the physical contact between Haftar and his supporters will weaken. For example, UAE jets providing air support to Haftar are based in Egypt. Haftar’s land supply lines also come from Egypt.
Khalifa Haftar (R), who is leading the rebel forces in Libya, is seen here with his biggest supporter, Mohammad bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of the UAE.
Photo: The Libya Observer
For Haftar, sitting at the table with Sarraj means the end of his life-long aim to be the sole ruler of Libya.
Turkey has made a very risky move in Libya last year by deciding to intervene; the risks are still valid. But if it didn’t act then, Tripoli would probably be under Haftar’s control now. In other words, under the influence of Turkey’s rivals in the Middle East and the Mediterranean. The future is still uncertain, but as Turkish Defense Minister Akar puts it, the balance seems to have changed “significantly”.