Turkey's intervention in Tripoli battle widens scope of conflict

The LNA ordered all-out war on the Turkish presence in Libya, including business interests, prompting Ankara to warn it would "retaliate in the most effective and strong way."
Friday 05/07/2019
Armoured personnel vehicles, shipped to Libya's Government of National Accord, arrive at Tripoli port. (AFP)
With foreign help. Armoured personnel vehicles, shipped to Libya's Government of National Accord, arrive at Tripoli port. (AFP)

TUNIS - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is the only world leader to talk openly about tipping the scales in the battle for Tripoli in favour of the Muslim Brotherhood and their Islamist militias.

Analysts warned that Turkey would ratchet up the destructive potential of Libya's conflict because it could lead to Arab powers stepping in to defend their interests in Libya.

Libyan National Army (LNA) forces, led by Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, intensified their air offensive against Islamist militias in Tripoli after losing a key support base and the direct military involvement of Turkey played a role, LNA officials said.

Turkey has business deals worth $15 billion in Libya. The contracts stem from times when Erdogan enjoyed good ties with Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi, who had derided Muslim Brotherhood members and other Islamists as "heretics."

With the deal, Erdogan clinched the "Qaddafi International Prize for Human Rights" in December 2010, less than a year before NATO-backed Islamist insurgents overthrew Qaddafi.

Erdogan on June 27 became the first head of state to confirm that Turkey sold weapons and equipment to the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), supporting the government's militias fighting the LNA.

"We have a military cooperation agreement with Libya. We will come through if they come up with a request and if they pay for it. They really had a problem in terms of defence needs, equipment," Erdogan said.

Libya has been under a UN Security Council arms embargo since 2011. Erdogan said the UN-backed government had not been able to find military support from any other country.

"Egypt and the UAE's [Crown Prince] Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nayhan are supporting Haftar's forces. They were very strong in terms of equipment and drones. Now, there is a balance after the latest reprisals. We will update the security agreement we have with Libya," he said.

Turkey's military and intelligence operations have experience of helping Islamist insurgents battle conventional army tactics after eight years of involvement in Syria and Iraq.

Analysts said Turkey's involvement in the conflict in Libya shifted the momentum of the offensive that LNA's forces began in April to clear Tripoli of Islamist militias and other armed groups, including criminal gangs.

"Turkey has been extending logistics support to the Islamist terrorists in Libya for several years. That support has evolved in the recent days into a direct military intervention through military jets, transport of mercenaries, sending ships carrying tanks and ammunition to back terrorism in Libya," the LNA said in a statement.

"Turkey is now present in the battlefields," added the statement after the LNA lost control of the Gharyan support base June 26.

The LNA ordered all-out war on the Turkish presence in Libya, including business interests, prompting Ankara to warn it would "retaliate in the most effective and strong way" to LNA threats.

Turkish Defence Minister Huluski Akar said LNA forces would pay a "very heavy price" for any attack on Turkish interests.

Western powers, including France and Italy, which have huge stakes in Libya, have stayed away from Turkey's aggressive approach in which state interests were influenced by Erdogan's ties with the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya and elsewhere in the region.

Analysts said Turkey's military support to the Islamist militias was crucial in their taking of Gharyan, 100km from Tripoli. Control of Gharyan is significant because it served as a key supply route for LNA forces.

Osama Juweili, a native of the nearby mountain city of Zintan and a militia commander, claimed "full control" of the town, though LNA's forces said they had only secured partial control as part of a "tactical withdrawal."

"The loss of Gharyan base led to a change in the military configuration for the battle of Tripoli," said Emad Badi, an analyst at the Middle East Institute. He said the LNA supplied its positions around Tripoli with manpower, weapons and ammunition from Gharyan.

After the loss of Gharyan, the LNA stepped up its air strikes.

"The LNA's forces are preserving their gains in the capital and keeping control of all their positions in Tripoli. The air force will have a significant role in winning Tripoli's battle," said LNA commander Omar Marajaa.

"We received reinforcement of the air force to free Tripoli. F-16 jet fighters were added to the air force recently."

It would be the first time that the LNA used the US-manufactured F-16s. LNA's ageing fleet has been composed essentially of Soviet-era warplanes.

"The role of the unmanned Turkish warplanes represented a real turning point in the war in Tripoli," said analyst Jallal Harchaoui. "That does not mean a defeat for the LNA at this stage but the loss of Gharyan is weakening the forces."

LNA's air force attacked Tripoli's only functioning airport July 3, closing it temporarily to civilian traffic. LNA spokesman Colonel Ahmed Mismari said the strike destroyed a "drone control room" at the airport.

An air strike July 2 hit a migrant detention centre in Tajoura, a suburb of Tripoli, killing at least 50 people and wounding more than 130, the United Nations said.

The Associated Press quoted migrants saying that, for months, they were forced by a Tripoli-based militia to help with arms maintenance in the centre. "We clean the anti-aircraft guns. I saw a large amount of rockets and missiles, too," said a migrant who said he had been held at Tajoura for nearly two years.

The UN Security Council met regarding Libya behind closed doors but diplomats said the United States prevented the 15-member body from issuing a statement condemning the incident and calling for a ceasefire.

It was a diplomatic blow to the GNA and its Islamist allies who sought to place blame for the attack on the LNA.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees in May said the Tajoura centre, which holds 600 migrants, should be evacuated after a projectile landed less than 100 metres away, injuring two migrants.

The hangar-type detention centre is next to a militia camp, one of several east of central Tripoli and which have been targeted by air strikes for weeks.

Analysts said the attack on the migrant centre could be the beginning of a wider regional confrontation involving more Arab powers, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, if Turkey continues its intervention.

"Turkey appears to be committed to frustrating its regional competitors in Libya by arming the anti-Haftar camp," said Tarek Megerisi, a policy fellow with the Middle East and North Africa programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

"If its current efforts to upgrade Tripoli's capacity to defend against Haftar's relatively advanced weaponry prove insufficient, Ankara could soon supply offensive military capabilities that prompt further escalation.

"In this environment, regional rivalry drastically increases the risk of escalation," warned Megerisi.