Author: Kenan ROVSHANOGHLU
Thanks to the tangible Turkish military support of Libya over the past month, the army of General Khalifa Haftar suffered serious attacks around Tripoli, as well as along the western coast of the country and the border with Tunisia. Perhaps, the most powerful of them was the capture of the strategic military air base Al-Watiya by the Government of National Accord (GNA). That’s why the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Haftar announced a ceasefire due to the end of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan and the withdrawal of troops 1.5-2 km back from the front-line.
Certainly, this move had nothing to do with the holiday. After all, ordering to attack the GNA-controlled city of Tripoli on April 5, 2019, General Haftar did not expect the operation to last for more than a year. At that time, the main goal of the LNA, which controlled almost 90% of the country's territory, was to capture Tripoli and put an end to the GNA government. But Tripoli was able to defend itself.
Now the balance of power is not changing in favour of Haftar. In recent weeks, the LNA has lost a number of cities, as well as checkpoints on the west coast and along the border with Tunisia. The situation has reached the point when GNA officials are calling on Haftar’s supporters to surrender. At the same time, they declare that in the coming months they will release the rest of the country’s territory. The main reason for all these changes was Turkey.
On opposite sides
Divided in 2014, the North African country of Libya is actually ruled by two governments. The capital city of Tripoli and several cities on the west coast are controlled by the GNA, which is recognized by the UN as the legitimate government of Libya led by the Prime Minister and Chairman of the Presidential Council, Fayez al-Sarraj.
The head (president) of the second Libyan government, the House of Representatives in the eastern city of Tobruk, is Aguila Saleh Issa, although it is ruled by General Khalifa Haftar, who used to be the closest ally of the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. The latter turned away from his general, the then chief of the General Staff of the Libyan army and a graduate of the Soviet military academy, after Haftar was captured during the war with Chad in the early 1980s. After some time, Haftar was freed with the help of the United States, where he moved and lived until the 2011 revolution in Libya. Upon returning to the country soon after the revolution, Haftar formed his own army.
Although the Libyan House of Representatives remains an illegitimate authority internationally, it is in fact one of the Libyan governments supported by European countries, as well as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
The Government of National Accord based in Tripoli is recognized by the UN as the legitimate government of Libya. The main countries supporting the GNA are the governments of Qatar and Turkey. Key territories under the control of the al-Sarraj government are Tripoli and the Misrata region. The main military unit of the GNA consists of the local armed Islamist groups thanks to the close ties of Fayez al-Sarraj with the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as the militia units led by the former defence minister Osama al-Juwali.
Following the order of General Haftar on April 5, 2019 to finalize the attack on Tripoli, the chances of the al-Sarraj government to stand in power were extremely weak. Tripoli was close to surrender to the LNA troops several times. However, Turkey’s military assistance to the al-Sarraj government has significantly changed the military situation in the country. On November 27, 2019, the governments of Turkey and Libya (GNA) signed several agreements on security and military cooperation. One of them was the agreement on the demarcation of maritime borders in the east of the Mediterranean Sea. These legal documents actually provided Turkey with an opportunity to send troops to Libya. Immediately after the ratification of the agreement by the Turkish parliament on January 2, 2020, Turkey began the transfer of military instructors and special forces, as well as modern weapons and military equipment, to Libya.
The effect of Turkish military support for the GNA became visible soon. On March 25, 2020, the GNA army launched Operation Volcano of Wrath against the army of General Haftar, followed by the capture of a number of coastal areas and checkpoints at the border with Tunisia. Finally, on May 5, the GNA troops were able to capture the Al-Watiya military airbase two weeks after the failed attack on the military facility.
Al Watiya Air Base
The air base is located 125 km southwest of Tripoli between the cities of Zintan, Zuwarah and Assah, and is Libya's second largest military airbase after Mitiga International Airport. Al-Watiya was built by the US Army in 1942. In addition to runways, there are large depots for fuel, weapons and ammunition, as well as bunkers, which make it possible to resist the attack of invaders for quite some time without any contact with the outside world.
Under the Gaddafi government, Al-Watiya hosted a squadron of French fighters Dassault Mirage 2000, which formed the core of the Libyan Air Force. With the start of the 2011 civil war in Libya, NATO aircraft that bombed Gaddafi's positions did not seriously damage the air base - only the aircraft on the runway and aprons, as well as the military depots, while the infrastructure of the air base remained mostly intact. In August 2014-mid-May 2020, Al-Watiya was under the control of the Libyan National Army led by General Haftar. With the capture of the air base by the GNA army, it also gained control over a large number of weapons and ammunition.
According to experts, the capture of the Al-Watiya airbase will ensure a more convenient and safe delivery of weapons and equipment from Turkey and Qatar, since the Haftar forces shot down a Turkish military cargo plane delivering the same stuff last year. With the Al-Watiya airbase captured, there is no such risk for air deliveries any more.
Russian trace in the Libyan sky
Until recently, Haftar’s army had a military advantage in Libyan air space thanks to a large fleet of military aircraft mostly operated by the hired professional pilots, including Russian pilots from the Russian PMC Wagner. According to some reports, there are 1,400 Wagner fighters in Libya.
Shortly after the start of military cooperation between the Libyan GNA and Turkey, Ankara began to transfer weapons and military equipment to the country, the most notable being the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) Bayraktar - new addition to the arsenal of the Turkish army. Over the past few weeks, the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 UAVs have destroyed eight Russian air defence systems Pantsir, three of them at the Al-Watiya military airbase. There are both armed and unarmed versions of these UAVs for reconnaissance purposes. According to the Russian media, over the past year alone, the Turkish government sold Libya UAVs and other similar military equipment worth $1 billion.
The al-Sarraj government should be thankful to Turkish UAV Bayraktar for ensuring its tangible air superiority over the Haftar army. The situation seems indeed serious for General Haftar as the Chief of Staff of the LNA Air Force, Major General Saqr al-Jarushi, declared all Turkish forces in Libyan territory as legitimate targets for the Libyan National Army. Immediately after the capture of the Al-Watiya air base by al-Sarraj’s forces, international media reported that Russia provided air support to the LNA troops. The GNA stated that six MiG-29 fighters and two Su-24 fighters were deployed to Libya from the Russian air base in Khmeimim, Syria. Although some websites report that the aircraft belong to the UAE, which bought them from Belarus. Either way, Haftar’s latest purchase adds a considerable power to the Libyan National Army, while the form of the Russian involvement in the Libyan conflict remains a matter of serious debate.
Many experts believe that Russia has been supporting Khalifa Haftar since 2018 mainly to warrant its specific interests in Libya: to sell more weapons, strengthen Russian position in the Mediterranean and receive certain benefits from the future Libyan government. However, the support of General Haftar does not prevent Russia from continuing negotiations with Turkey. It is likely that in the event of the inevitable defeat of Haftar, Russia might withdraw from Libya to obtain concessions in Syria. So far, however, the Kremlin remains active in Libya.
Apparently, General Haftar is very concerned about the current situation, knowing that his allies can turn away from the old and sick commander after a series of consecutive military defeats. It is reported that Haftar has been treated for cancer in Germany and France for several years. Equally important is the factor of regional competition, because the future of the balance of regional powers directly depends on who wins in Libya, given the large hydrocarbon reserves discovered in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.
The agreement on the demarcation of maritime borders between Turkey and the government of al-Sarraj in November 2019 was a serious blow to the joint export energy project of Greece, Southern Cyprus, Egypt and Israel. In other words, al-Sarraj’s success in unifying Libya under a single government can jeopardize the Eastern Mediterranean energy project. Thus, last week Egypt, the UAE, Greece and France made a joint statement condemning the actions of Turkey in Libya. However, this statement has no legal ground, and if al-Sarraj wins, the situation may change in favour of Turkey.
Therefore, should Haftar continue to fail on the front-line, the alliance of states still supporting the general can replace the loser with new forces. At the moment, there are two serious alternatives. One of them is the political successor of Muammar Gaddafi, his son Saif al-Islam Gaddafi. The other one is Mohammed Hassan al-Senussi, the grandson of the ousted King of Libya, Idris al-Senussi. After the revolution, Gaddafi’s son was sentenced to life imprisonment. However, thanks to the amnesty of 2017, he met with influential leaders of the Libyan tribes immediately after his release from the prison. If it weren’t for the aggravation of the military situation in Libya, Saif al-Islam would take part in the elections initiated by the UN. Some experts believe that, thanks to his foreign financial resources, as well as popular sympathy, Gaddafi Jr. could reunite the country and gain the support of large Libyan tribes. In addition, Saif al-Islam is a descendant of the Qadhadhfa tribe, which is the second largest and powerful tribe in Libya.
The second pretender is the grandson of King Idris, who came forward recently. Therefore, information about the magnitude of forces under his control in Libya is quite limited. It is possible though that he will be supported by the royalists, his native tribe and the Senussites - adherents of the main Sunni religious movement of Libya. Remarkably, in his recent interview with the Saudi media, Mohammed Hassan al-Senussi hinted at the possibility of establishing a monarchy in Libya as one of the options for the future of the country. Apparently, there are forces that consider the royal grandson an alternative.
This is quite possible if Haftar fails to defeat the Islamist government of al-Sarraj, given that none of the regional powers wants to lose such a sweet spot as Libya. With so many visible and invisible participants and interested parties, this also means that the Libyan conflict will only intensify.