The fall of al-Watiya base ushers an era of permanent Turkish presence in western Libya

Sarraj could now hand over control of the base to Erdogan.
Tuesday 19/05/2020
Vehicles outside a hangar at Al-Watiya airbase, which was seized by forces loyal to Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA), southwest of the capital Tripoli, on May 18, 2020. (AFP)
Vehicles outside a hangar at Al-Watiya airbase, which was seized by forces loyal to Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA), southwest of the capital Tripoli, on May 18, 2020. (AFP)

TUNIS - The fall of Libya's al-Watiya military base to pro-Muslim Brotherhood Libyan militias and allied Syrian mercenaries lays the foundation for a permanent Turkish military presence in the country.

Turkey is now expected to take direct control of the base, which it has done in other western bases, such as Mitiga and Misrata, in addition to Zwara airport.

The development will change the balance of power in western Libya, where pro-Turkish, government-backed militias will be able to attack Libyan National Army (LNA) forces in all of western Libya, especially south of Tripoli and Tarhouna.

Experts say the stakes are high, not just in western Libya, but for the whole region given the strategic value of the captured base.

They believe that what happened in western Libya falls into Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s plans to establish military bases across the region. He has spoken about this plan during visits to Tunisia, Algeria and Chad.

Most concerning, the fall of al-Watiya will make it possible for Turkey to tighten its hold over the entire Libyan-Tunisian-Algerian border triangle, as the base is strategically located to cover most of the area of that triangle.

The timing of the attack amplifies concerns from Libya's neighbours. It followed a phone call by Erdogan to Fayez al-Sarraj, president of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), on Sunday night in which the Turkish president invited him to Ankara to discuss steps to implement the memorandum of understanding on security and military cooperation signed between them last November.

Some believe Sarraj could eventually hand over al-Watiya base to Erdogan, as the latter hopes to expand his country’s influence throughout the Maghreb region. Erdogan has indicated he will do whatever he needs to make Sarraj comply.

“The fall of the al-Watiya base is an unexpected military surprise, at least for this week, given the resistance shown by the Libyan army units stationed at the base in the face of repeated attacks led by Turkish officers stationed in their headquarters at the town of Al-Ajailat,” said a retired Libyan Army officer residing in the Zintan area near al-Watiya.

The officer revealed that, contrary to statements by Osama Al-Juwaili, who heads the GNA's joint operations, and Sarraj, the Turks were the first to enter the base. A convoy of six black four-wheel-drive cars that appeared to be bulletproof was seen entering the base in the early hours of Monday morning. They were likely to belong to Turkish military intelligence officers. The base was deserted at the time, because LNA forces had withdrawn towards Zintan.

While some said the withdrawal of LNA forces from the base raised many questions about the military tactics of the army leadership, Libyan media outlets quoted a military source as saying that “elements from al-Zawiya, Misrata and Zuwara militias, loyal to the Al-Sarraj government, had entered the al-Watiya military base under Turkish air cover.”

The source pointed out that over the past few days, al-Watiya base “was targeted by more than 100 air raids by Turkish drones, in addition to fierce shelling by the Turkish warships located off the coast of the town of Al-Zawiya, which had facilitated the seizure of the base by the militias, after the withdrawal of the Libyan army units with all their equipment and personnel at the early morning hours of Monday."

Sarraj announced that his Turkish-backed militia managed at dawn on Monday to take control of the strategic military air base, located in south-western Libya not far from the Tunisian border.

The opposite camp, led by Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, was largely silent over the base's fall.

Al-Watiya air base was built by the Americans during World War II and is located in south-western Libya, about 160 km south-west of the capital, Tripoli. It is one of the largest military air bases in Libya and is distinct for its large fortifications. It includes weapons depots, a fuel station, more than one military airstrip and a residential city. It is capable of accommodating over 7,000 soldiers. For the past 6 years, the base was under the control of the LNA and was the headquarters of the Western Operations Command.