The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic did not stop Turkey from doubling down on its engagement with Libya, both qualitatively and quantitatively. Its support has already resulted in changes in the balance of forces on the ground. It could also lead to two rival factions coming under stronger control of their most capable backers, Turkey and Russia, at the expense of other regional powers, including Europe and the Arab countries. This, in turn, increases the likelihood of a permanently divided Libya, which will give Turkey and Russia more leverage over Europe in the short run.
Ankara supplied the military forces of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) with anti-aircraft missile systems, radar jammers, and armoured vehicles. Turkish naval gunboats, on the other hand, provided support against east Libya based Libyan National Army (LNA) forces across the coastline of western Libya.
The Turkish government also continued to organise and transport Syrian mercenaries to Libya along with dozens of military officers who train and advise on planning, operations, tactics, vehicle operations, and directing GNA forces on the battlefield.
This helped to overturn the course of events in Libya, resulting in significant setbacks for the LNA. The UN-recognised GNA rolled back some of the gains of the rival LNA and is now poised to carry out offensives into Tarhuna and Mizda districts, to capture some of the last bases of the LNA forces in western Libya.
Most significantly the GNA forces took control of the strategically important Watiyye Airbase. According to pro-government sources within Turkey, the Russian elite mercenary corps, the Wagner group, evacuated the airbase before the final GNA offensive, an indication that Ankara may have informed Moscow about the impending attack on the base. What is also notable is that there are negotiations between the Turkish government and the Tripoli government for Turkish F-16 fighter jets to be located in this airbase.
Transfer of Turkish fighter jets to Watiyye airbase could be particularly significant as it will provide Turkey with a semi-permanent military base in Libya. Ankara’s support is taking place within the legal context of maritime and military accords signed between the GNA and Turkey in November of last year. Advanced fighter jets could also change the long-term balance of forces in the protracted conflict waged since 2011. This, of course, is conditional on how much the backers of the LNA will up the ante against Turkey’s moves.
How has Turkish support turned the tide in Libya?
During the last year, Ankara's influence over Libya’s UN-backed GNA has expanded as the Tripoli-based government faced an onslaught by the LNA and had no-strong backers except for Turkey to turn to for military support. Taking advantage of the situation, the Turkish government signed deals with the GNA on its own terms, for a series of reasons including, to upset rival plans for oil and gas drilling in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The United Arab Emirates and Egypt, longstanding supporters General Khalifa Hafter’s LNA, have not yet proven to be well suited to counter Turkey's support to the GNA. Russia, however, has the military technology, political will and strategic know-how to extend support to the LNA forces. That could render Moscow with special leverage over the LNA as it is the only actor able to provide them with adequate help.
Following the significant setbacks suffered by General Hafter’s forces, Russia has stepped up its support reportedly deploying MiG 29 and Sukhoi 24 fighter jets to Libya, from the Russian-controlled Hmeimim airbase in Syria.
How important is Libya for Turkey?
Libya for Turkey is a significant subcategory of several crucial foreign policy objectives. These include Turkey's controversial oil and gas exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean. The maritime deal between Ankara and the GNA enabled the Turkish government to have some legal cover for its claims for those explorations. Relations with Libya are also essential for Ankara to break its isolation from the Arab world, with the exception of Qatar, as well as isolation in Eastern Mediterranean, where Cyprus, Greece, Israel and Egypt entered into an energy partnership which receives political support from France.
Libya is also significant because it is one of the crucial fronts in the ongoing multi-layered regional rivalry between Turkey, Egypt and the UAE. The Turkish defence industry and therefore its economy also benefits from the conflict in Libya as it enables Turkey to test and sell its products in Libya's theatre of war. Another reason related to the economy: is the fact that Turkish companies are still owed billions in debts that date back to the Gaddafi era before the beginning of Libya's nine-year civil war.
Maintaining its grip in western Libya will also provide Turkey with extra leverage on Europe as it will then to control a second major refugee launchpad into Europe, in addition to Syria.
Although there are significant differences between the Syrian and Libyan theatres, what Russia and Turkey are implementing in Libya is a working model that was developed and tested in Syria. In Syria, as in Libya, Ankara and Moscow back opposing forces and have set up political platforms in which they represent the opposing groups — either independent forces or their proxies on the ground.
In Libya, however, Moscow has so far failed to push Hafter to accept Turkey as an international mediator. The military imbalance, previously, in favour of the LNA in Libya also made Hafter reluctant to accept a prolonged cease-fire.
Today, Hafter's relative decline could result in an increased Russian influence over his forces which could enable Moscow and Ankara to better shape the future of Libya at the expense of European and Arab forces. If Russia and Turkey maintain the status quo in Libya, they could coordinate a de-facto and possibly de-jure division of Libya.