Libya’s strife escalates and widens in scope, so does Turkey’s involvement

Leaving aside its ideological support for the Muslim Brotherhood, Turkey has major economic interests in Libya.
Saturday 06/07/2019
Sitting on a powder keg. Smoke plumes rise in Tajoura, south of Tripoli, June 29.  (AFP)
Sitting on a powder keg. Smoke plumes rise in Tajoura, south of Tripoli, June 29. (AFP)

TUNIS - For five years, the international community has avoided using the term “civil war” when referring to the situation in Libya. The talk has been of “clashes, “the conflict” or “the divide,” as if such language made the situation easier to deal with.

Since the start of the Libyan National Army’s (LNA) offensive April 4 against Tripoli, this has no longer been sustainable. The fighting south of Tripoli is an unmistakable civil war.

It is also an escalating war, both in terms of military activity and violence and the way it is drawing in outside involvement.

The escalation became glaringly visible June 26, when, after 12 weeks of military stalemate, the forces of the Presidential Council’s Government of National Accord (GNA) captured the strategic mountain town of Gharyan.

On July 2, an air strike destroyed an ammunitions store at a militia camp in the eastern Tripoli suburb of Tajoura and 53 people were killed in an attack on a nearby migrant detention centre housing more than 600 people a few minutes later.

The detention centre attack and the international outcry it provoked resulted in both sides of the Libyan divide blaming each other.

Presidential Council Chairman Fayez al-Sarraj accused the LNA of a deliberate strike on the camp. LNA officials said the LNA had carried out a successful air strike on the militia camp but GNA forces had targeted the detention centre, aiming to blame the attack on the LNA.

A pro-LNA media outlet claimed the attack aircraft had had a technical problem. The person in charge of the LNA air operations around Tripoli denied that any of his planes had been involved in either attack, suggesting that the GNA was entirely responsible.

UN Special Envoy to Libya Ghassan Salame denounced the “odious bloody carnage” as a potential “war crime” and demanded that the international community act against the perpetrators but did not name anyone. He promised an inquiry but few say the investigation is likely to place definitive blame on either side.

“Neither side cares about the migrants,” said one aid agency staff member, suggesting that they were using the tragedy to blame each other.

The scale of the attack may end the use of the detention centres. Tripoli’s Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha said the GNA was considering closing them and releasing the detainees because the government cannot protect them from attacks, he said.

The United Nations said approximately 3,800 migrants and refugees are being held in camps, and in appalling conditions.

There have also been reports by camp inhabitants claiming they were forced by a local militia to work in a nearby weapons workshop.

The militia was unnamed but next to the detention centre is the Dhaman militia camp, the main target in the July 2 attack. The camp is under the control of militant Islamist commander Bashir Khalfallah. He has mounted several attacks over the past year-and-a-half against the nearby Mitiga airbase to free Islamic State and other militant prisoners.

Like several other Islamic militants previously opposed to the GNA, he now supports the Sarraj government against the LNA.

International outrage was focused on the Tajoura tragedy, leaving little attention paid to what are developments that have more significance militarily.

The first was followed by reports that GNA gunmen executed some 70 wounded LNA fighters in Gharyan’s hospital after the capture of the town. The allegations, along with photos of dead LNA soldiers said to have been shot in the head, triggered a deep sense of anger and betrayal in the LNA.

The result has been an air offensive named “End of Treachery” against the GNA. Coming after a period of relatively limited LNA air activity, the offensive, in its first days, rolled back some earlier losses and boosted LNA morale.

LNA aircraft reportedly killed 30 GNA fighters in Wadi Rabie, east of Tripoli’s disused international airport, destroyed a Turkish drone at Tripoli’s Mitiga airbase and, on July 2, forced GNA fighters out of the area around Kassarat, halfway between Tripoli and Gharyan, allowing LNA ground forces to retake it.

The successes have raised questions about where the LNA’s new air capacity has come from. Significantly, after the attacks on the militia camp and the detention centre, there were widespread claims that an F-16 fighter jet was involved.

No one is saying where the US-made plane came from. There are allegations that two of the aircraft had been “loaned” by the Egyptians to help with the air offensive and are based at Jufra airbase in central Libya.

Turkey’s suspected intervention in support of the GNA had been growing in scope, provoking concern over wider regional involvement. Ankara previously granted arms and equipment to the GNA in violation of the international arms embargo. The weaponry included unmanned combat aerial vehicles, which enabled the GNA to block the southern Tripoli offensive of the better-equipped and better-organised LNA and created the 12-week stalemate that ended with the seizure of Gharyan.

Leaving aside its ideological support for the Muslim Brotherhood, Turkey has major economic interests in Libya. It is owed $23 billion in debts and unfinished contracts and is facing being excluded from future Libyan business. Turkey cannot afford to be barred from a future Libyan market if LNA Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar wins. It will do everything to prevent that from happening.

The fear is that Turkey will significantly increase its military backing for the GNA, possibly even providing more air cover, which would push the Egyptians to make a next move. Military escalation appears inevitable.