The stalemate on Libya’s frontline near the port city of Sirte, did not stop Turkey from sending new weapons and equipment to the frontline, especially reinforcing the Al-Watiya Air Base which earlier this year was captured by GNA and became a strongpoint of Turkish forces. Nevertheless, the recent bombing of the Air base exposed major weaknesses in Ankara’s military capabilities…
Anastassios Tsiplacos - Managing Editor
In Libya, Turkey has deployed a formidable array of air defense systems in the country’s West and has also made significant headway in establishing an “air defense bubble” around Tripoli. The combination of medium-range U.S.-made MIM-23 Hawk missile systems, Hisar short-range SAMs, and Korkut antiaircraft guns created a layered defense over critical infrastructure and reduced the threat to GNA drone ground stations and launch operations.
This protection, combined with an increase in Turkish operators and equipment, allowed GNA forces to increase the number and effectiveness of their drone operations. Turkey also deployed two MIM-23 Hawk batteries at Al-Watiya airbase in early July.
On July 5, aircrafts of “unknown origin” conducted nine pinpoint airstrikes on the Turkish-operated Al-Watiya Air Base in western Libya. According to the LNA, the strikes destroyed a Hawk air-defense system, several radars and a KORAL electronic warfare system. Turkish state media “Anadolu” confirmed the incident saying that the strikes “targeted some of the base’s equipment, which was recently brought in to reinforce the base, including an air-defense system.”
The “unknown jets” may have originated from Russia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, or France, which are either known to provide direct military support to Haftar, or are strongly opposed to Turkey’s military and economic encroachment on the country, according to analysts and columnists.
There are four different scenarios as to how the attack took place: The attack might have been carried out by Russian MIG-29 or Su-24 jets that departed from Al-Jufra air base some 550 kilometers (342 miles) north of the region. Yet this is highly unlikely as Russia would avoid directly confronting Turkey given its ongoing cooperation with Ankara in Syria and in other fields. Another possibility is that Mirage, Rafale or F-16 jet fighters from Egypt or the UAE carried out the attack, taking off from Egypt’s Sidi Barrani base that is located in the west of Egypt, some 1,350 kilometers (839 miles) from the area. Although this may seem a feasible scenario considering Cairo’s increasingly aggressive attitude towards Ankara, it is hard to believe that Egypt would dare to take such an action that could lead to a direct confrontation between the two countries. The attack could also have been carried out by French Mirages taking off from Faya-Largeau air base in Chad, some 1,780 kilometers (1,106 miles) south of the area. Yet this scenario is very unlikely, yet not unthinkable, not just because of the distance between Faya-Largeau and al-Watiya, but also because France would want to avoid an open conflict with Ankara over Libya, at least for now. The most likely scenario is that the attack was carried out by Emirati Mirage fighter jets that departed from al-Khadim air base some 880 kilometers (547 miles) from Al-Watiya.
Although the UAE has not claimed the attack, the Ankara administration and pro-Turkish sources, though, claimed that the airstrikes were carried out not by the LNA, but rather by the Egyptian or UAE Air Force. Pro-Erdogan “Daily Sabbah” wrote “Turkey knows that the UAE and other war contractors in Libya are trying to play with Turkey’s nerves.“ The “Arab Weekly”, citing unidentified sources with knowledge of the matter, wrote that the jets which carried out the raid were French-built Rafale jets, meaning they belonged to either the Egyptian or French air forces. Nevertheless, according to the LNA, the strikes were delivered by its aircrafts, pointing to the MiG-29 and Su-24 warplanes allegedly delivered by Russia in May. The timing of the attack, which came immediately after Turkey’s defense minister visited Libya, is also considered a message warning Turkey.
The bombing of the Al-Watiyah airbase exposed major weaknesses in Ankara’s military capabilities in the war-torn country. Regardless of who supplied the planes, the attack illuminates the limitations of Turkey’s military and strategic capabilities in Libya, as it seeks to support the government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj in scoring decisive victories against Haftar, including securing massive hydrocarbon resources and the key Mediterranean city of Sirte.
Providing close air support to ground forces with combat planes, attack helicopters and armed drones is essential for military success, something the Turkish army has relearned the hard way in the 72-day siege of al-Bab during Operation “Euphrates Shield” in northern Syria in 2017 or, as a matter of fact, in Tripoli at present. Bereft of close air support, Ankara will have to make the most of indirect fire support from the Storm howitzers and multiple rocket launchers it has deployed to Libya and armed drone fleet of armed Bayraktar TB2 and Akinci drones. Obviously, indirect fire support and drone attacks cannot substitute for close air support as Turkey’s drone capability falls short of decisively deterring its adversaries, no matter how much it has grown in recent years.
If Ankara decides to send its F-16 jets -its only tactical assets in terms of air supremacy- due to their limited combat radius, multiple air refueling to fly to Libya is essential. Forward basing could have been an option, but both Algeria and Tunisia have been reluctant to offer such assistance. GNA-controlled air bases are incapable of supporting intensive operations by NATO-standard aircraft. Also, Turkey lacks heavy bombers that could deliver overwhelming firepower in Libya. How the Turkish air force would secure its area of operation against possible interventions by Egyptian or Emirati planes is another problem that Turkish military planners should consider, even though Ankara tends to believe that neither Egypt nor the UAE would brave such action.
To make up for the air force’s logistical limitations, Ankara could have considered the alternative of naval aviation. Yet Turkey’s first amphibious assault ship, the TCG “Anadolu”, is not expected to become fully operational until late 2020. Moreover, Turkey has been ousted from the F-35 program. Without the F-35B jets, the Anadolu’s naval aviation capabilities are reduced to helicopters and Akinci armed drones. In other words, the Turkish navy could hardly compensate for the air force, even though the “Anadolu” -designed to accommodate 1,450 people and sail for 50 days without resupply at 22 knot speed- promises to be a game changer for Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The air capabilities of Turkey are further constrained by the military operations it is conducting in Iraq against Kurdish militants and in Syria, where jets support Turkish troops and allied fighters to battle Kurdish forces and to protect the Islamist opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Furthermore, Turkey has a shortage of qualified pilots to fly its fleet of more than 200 F-16 fighter jets. President Erdogan purged many of them following the failed military coup in the summer of 2016 and Turkey has had difficulty training up replacements or giving them required combat experience. The purge of the pilots, accused of supporting the Fethullah Gulen movement, which the government blamed for orchestrating the coup attempt, may in fact come back to haunt mr. Erdogan as he faces intensifying opposition to asserting Turkish control in Libya.
Another potential constraint stems from GNA’s deficiencies in terms of an effective high command and staff officers. Libyan soldiers have begun their military training in Turkey, the Turkish Foreign Ministry announced on Thursday. The ministry said 192 Libyan cadets were admitted to a military compound in Turkey’s southern province of Isparta. Turkey provides military training to the Libyan soldiers as part of a military cooperation deal reached between Turkey and Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) in November 2019. Turkish support has been vital to the GNA’s recent military successes in and around the capital Tripoli. Furthermore, the deployment of Turkish generals and staff personnel to Libya appears to have largely filled the vacuum, however an offensive to capture Sirte and Al-Jufra would require closer coordination between drones and ground elements, increased capabilities in intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, reconnaissance and command and a precision strike capability.
Last but not least, many in Ankara have come to question to what extent the ailing Turkish economy can continue to sustain costly military ventures abroad.
TURKEY VS ALL ?
Following the Al-Watiya airstrikes, the GNA said that it would respond at the “right place and at the right time.” While the GNA in fact has no resources to conduct extensive airstrikes deep inside the territory controlled by the LNA, Ankara will have to respond to this attack in some way, if it really wants to demonstrate that Turkey is committed to achieving a military victory, or at least a partial military victory, in the conflict in Libya.
Turkish forces are reportedly deploying new military equipment at Al-Watiya Air Base in western Libya, immediately after the recent airstrikes. On July 9, Libyan activists shared a video showing a Turkish military convoy heading towards the air base. The convoy was moving military equipment, which was shipped to Mitiga International Airport earlier. The activists provided no information about the nature of the new equipment being deployed in Al-Watiya. Turkish sources are reporting that a new air-defense system will be installed. The system may be one of the upgraded S-125 Pechora, which Turkey bought from Ukraine earlier this year.
Libya lifts Force Majeure on all Oil Exports
After six months of port blockades and no exports, Libya’s National Oil Corporation (NOC) said on Friday that it lifted force majeure on all oil exports from Libya.
The first vessel to load crude oil from Libya is the “Kriti Bastion” from Es Sider oil port, NOC said, but noted that the oil production increase in the country “will take a long time due to the significant damage to reservoirs and infrastructure caused by the illegal blockade imposed on January 17.”
NOC placed the oil terminals at Hariga, Brega, Zueitina, Es Sider, and Ras Lanuf under force majeure at the beginning of this year, after forces affiliated with the Libyan National Army (LNA) of eastern Libyan strongman General Khalifa Haftar occupied Libya’s oil export terminals and oilfields.
The blockade at the ports lasted for more than six months, but parties were negotiating -and apparently reached- an agreement, for the re-opening of the oil terminals and the restart of oil production, which had plummeted to just 100,000 barrels per day (bpd) compared to 1.2 million bpd before the blockade.
Nowadays, the bone of contention is the port city of Sirte and Al-Jufra airbase in the central region and the GNA and Turkey intend to gain control over them. Sirte is the key for controlling Libya’s “oil crescent” region, comprising Libya’s key oil terminals which contributes 60% of Libya’s oil exports. It’s port, which has crucial oilfields and tanker-loading facilities, is of military significance as well, being a garrison city that allows control of the Libyan coastline between Tripoli to the West and Benghazi to the East.
Al-Jufra, for its part, is home to an airbase that allows domination of the entire Libyan airspace, in addition to being a key route linking the country’s South to the coastline. It is also a major train-and-equip base. African mercenaries from countries such as Sudan and Chad, recruited by Haftar’s forces, undergo brief trainings at the base before heading to front lines in the West to fight the GNA forces. Also deployed at the base are Russian-made Pantsir air defense systems and mercenaries of the Russian Wagner group. In sum, having a say over Al-Jufra means having a say over the whole of Libya.
Therefore, Ankara is apparently set to continue its offensive operations, by the hands of the GNA and Syrian groups in the countryside of Sirte. President Erdogan’s military moves in Libya, aiming to not only open up Africa’s largest oil reserves to Turkish companies but also to expand its sphere of influence in the East Med, have put a confrontation with Egypt and possibly France, or even Russia, on the table. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on July 8, that the Libyan National Army (LNA) is prepared to lay down its arms, but that the UN-recognized and Turkish-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) wants to continue fighting. Could Turkey brave a conventional military power struggle against Russia in Libya, without fueling military tensions between them in northern Syria?
Turkey and Egypt are flexing their military muscles off the Libyan shores as chances of a potential war in the eastern Mediterranean continue growing. Egypt has amassed military hardware on its western border with Libya and President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s sworn regional foe, has told his military to be prepared for a direct intervention should the GNA begin an attack on Sirte or the strategic Al-Jufra airbase in the North of the country. The Egyptian Minister of Defence, Lieutenant General Mohamed Zaki, had been present on the western border for about a month now to ensure the readiness of the forces for any possible military action outside the border, after receiving appeals from the Libyan army, the elected parliament, and various Libyan tribes for direct Egyptian military support.
Moreover, if Turkey continues escalating the conflict, it may force Egypt and the UAE, the main backers of the LNA, to provide it with direct military support and/or directly intervene in the conflict. In this case, the Libyan proxy war will officially turn into an all-out war between Turkey and the UAE-Egypt bloc. The prevailing thinking in Ankara, however, is that Egypt could conduct some token military exercises and border patrols at its Libyan frontier, but could never brave a conventional military intervention.
Nevertheless, on July 9, the Egyptian Armed Forces started military drills near the Libyan border. The land part of the drills, codenamed “Hasm 2020”, took place in the northwestern district of Qabr Gabis. By this move, Egypt sent Turkey and its proxies a signal that an attempt by Turkish forces to capture Sirte is a red line and if crossed, they will face a Egyptian military response. The Egyptian military exercise followed the announcement of the Turkish Ministry of National Defense that soon it will hold large-scale naval exercises off the Libyan coast. The official statement said that the drills, called “Naftex”, will take place in three different regions: Barbaros, Turgutreis and Chaka Bey. Turkey says that the exercises will involve 17 warplanes and 8 ships proving “Turkey’s ability to control the region by air and sea”. However, other egyptian military experts deny that the exercises were in response to Turkey’s intention to carry out the above manoeuvres, saying that “the Egyptian army is moving according to its goals and plans that it sets to deal with any threat.”
Meanwhile, ISIS have been trying to exploit the escalation for their own cause. According to reports, ISIS cells that still hide in the desert area in central Libya have recently increased their activity and resumed attacks on civilian targets mostly looting small villages and robbing civilian convoys. ISIS’ self-proclaimed Caliphate deteriorated into just a loud brand used by various gangs to justify their criminal behavior. Despite this, even such gangs will become a serious security issue if the conflict in Libya enters a new hot phase.