It took just three hours for Sirte to fall. The city’s garrison, pummelled into submission by enemy airstrikes, largely melted away as rebel fighters moved in. For the UN-backed Tripoli government, it was a bitter blow – one that could mark the start of a bloody climax to Libya’s catastrophic civil war.
But Fayez al-Sarraj, the nation’s prime minister, is not alone. Turkey resolved last year to assist its stricken Libyan ally, committing drones, armoured vehicles, and – in recent days – ground support. For Ankara, it’s a bold move to re-balance the battle against breakaway general Khalifa Haftar. But with his own array of formidable foreign backers, there are doubts whether Turkish involvement can truly turn the tide.
Since Muammar Gaddafi’s toppling almost a decade ago, Libya has been a roiling cauldron of unrest. With the emergence of Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) in 2016, extended periods of civil strife crystallised into all-out war. Tripoli’s internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), who Haftar seeks to oust, have been on the back-foot from the start.
The renegade general’s success stems largely from his access to foreign support. Resource rich and strategically important, Libya’s fate matters hugely to outsiders, both near and far. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have all thrown their support behind Haftar. Russia is also allegedly aiding the general through a mercenary outfit with close links to Vladimir Putin – something the Kremlin denies.
Hoping to offset the LNA’s superior foreign support, President Erdogan has authorised the deployment of drones and other Turkish assets to take on Haftar’s forces. And now, having won parliamentary assent, Ankara’s strongman is set to send ground personnel into the fray. They will initially fulfil a “training and advisory” role, says the Turkish premier, though there’s scope for more direct involvement moving forward. In the meantime, Syria-based militias aligned with Ankara are said to be headed to Libya’s front line.
But the sheer scale of Haftar’s ally-supplied armoury will be hard to overcome. From the UAE, he has received a consignment of Chinese-made Wing Loong 2 attack drones. Sophisticated as they are deadly, they have helped ensure LNA air superiority – often with devastating consequences. On January 4, dozens of young, unarmed military cadets were killed when missiles struck their academy.
The arrival of Turkish unmanned aircraft should, in theory, bring balance to the skies. But equipped with cutting edge land-to-air rocket batteries – another product of outside help – and laser-guided Russian artillery shells, the GNA’s drone fleet is being systematically eliminated. Choked of air support and at the mercy of LNA aerial raids, the GNA’s prospects for victory seem slim.
For Haftar’s Arab and Egyptian allies – who share the general’s totemic opposition to political Islam – it marks a tangible return on their investment. The Russians, too, will feel their strategic objectives are being met – namely the solidification of their presence in the Muslim word, filling the void of an increasingly isolationist United States.
But ultimately, Turkey’s inability to decisively alter the outcome in Libya will matter little to Erdogan. While he would celebrate any misfortune that befalls Haftar’s regional supporters – which Ankara regard as rivals – the president will wish not to worsen relations with Russia, which have been improving of late. A stalemate, however protracted, is likely Turkey’s principle objective.
A simmering conflict drawn out over a number of years will keep the GNA dependent on Turkish aid, allowing Ankara to exert ever greater leverage. In turn, Erdogan can expect an increasingly lucrative return on a deal signed with al-Sarraj to carve up Libya’s off-shore oil drilling rights.
However cynical, it is something of a realpolitik masterstroke – though not all are convinced.
“Whatever the merits of the maritime jurisdiction agreement signed with the Sarraj government, Turkey getting more deeply involved in the Libyan war… would only lead to another foreign and security policy problem,” says Ali Tuygan of the Istanbul-based EDAM think tank. “We already face one [on] our southern borders and it is more than enough,” he adds, referring to Turkish involvement in Syria.
Regardless, with the region’s historic power brokers – the United States and Europe – absent, there’s little to prevent Libya’s power vacuum from growing ever stronger.