Motives and Outcomes of the Al-Watiya Airstrike in Libya

Unidentified jet fighters delivered an air-strike to Al-Watiya air base in the west of Tripoli on July 5. The strike received significant international attention as the civil conflict in Libya is escalating, and the foreign backers of the opposing sides are consolidating their in-country presences and roles.

Akar’s Visit and the Strategic Importance of the Base

Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar, accompanied by the Chief of General Staff Yasar Guler, visited Western Libya last week. They met with key officials of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), which is being fought against by Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA). This was the second visit of high-ranking Turkish figures in a matter of weeks, since Berat Albayrak and Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, the Turkish Ministers of Finance and Foreign Affairs respectively, also went to Tripoli in mid-June. These visits are indicative of the ever-growing Turkish interests in the Libyan front; Akar’s latest visit in particular emphasizes Turkish strategic planning around bolstering its military presence — and eventually its geopolitical influence — in the country.

Shortly after the completion of the Turkish Defense Minister’s trip, reportedly in the early hours of Sunday, July 5, a sudden jet-fighter attack took place on the Al-Watiya base. Fighter planes bombarded the base, with heavy military weapons deployed at the base suffering severe damage; there have been reports around personnel casualties, but these claims have not been officially confirmed until now.

GNA Seizure of Al-Watiya

Al-Watiya has been a key position for the LNA forces and Haftar’s effort to conquer Tripoli. In late May GNA forces recaptured the base, with the vital support of the Turkish Armed Forces. Without military and logistical assistance from Ankara, it is highly dubious if the GNA forces would have been able to retake the base and tip the balance of the ongoing conflict.

After the recapture of Al-Watiya, Ankara has been building up its military strength in Libya, by reportedly deploying F-16 fighters, armed drones, and batteries of the Raytheon MIM-23 Hawk missile system. The presence of such weapons systems in Al-Watiya constitutes a considerable advantage for the GNA-affiliated forces, significantly upgrading their strategic depth and bringing closer the possibility of a major attack against the Sirte base. Capture of the Sirte base would foreshadow the end of the civil conflict in favor of the Turkish-backed GNA. The unexpected Sunday airstrike has reportedly destroyed an important part of the aforementioned deployed weaponry and reshaped the context of the conflict once again.

One Strike, Many Potential Perpetrators

The strike came at a moment when Ankara has created too many open fronts and loose ends. Turkey’s heavy involvement in the Libyan front, and its aggressive policy in the Eastern Mediterranean has fueled tension not only with some of the major LNA-backing players in Libya, namely Egypt and the UAE, but also with Russia and France.

In the aftermath of the attack, there have been many speculations around who exactly is the perpetrator of the bombing. There have been references to Dassault Mirage or Dassault Rafale, as the fighter jets that carried out the strike to Al-Watiya. These types of French combat aircraft indicate that behind the attack could be either Cairo or Abu Dhabi. Mirage fighters are also being used by both the Egyptian and Emirati Airforce, however, in case the reports about Rafale are accurate. In this case Cairo is more likely to have carried out the attack, since this specific fighter jet is deployed only by Egypt and not the UAE.

At the same time, several sources indicate that Imagery Intelligence (IMINT) which has been crucial for the successful accomplishment of the operation, was provided to the attacking forces through the involvement of France. The possibility of a coordinated effort to carry out a deep strike against Turkish interests in Libya is a highly likely scenario, considering the provocative strategy that Ankara has adopted during the last year in the region and its growing rift with France.

Turkish Reaction and UN Concerns

The Turkish reaction in the immediate aftermath of the attack highlights Ankara’s intention to be more deeply involved in the Libyan conflict and leverage its current position. The Turkish Directorate of Communications, which partially serves as the Press Office of the Turkish President, announced shortly after the strikes that the LNA-controlled bases in Al Jufra and Sirte form priority targets for Ankara and the GNA forces. This statement clarifies that Turkey will definitely seek retribution for the attack, aiming to capture the Ghardabiya Airbase in Sirte, which is probably the last LNA stronghold and is also a red line for the Egyptian President al-Sisi and Cairo. Such a move will certainly boost Egyptian interference in Libya.

At the same time, Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has charged France with militarily aiding the Libyan National Army, while the Libyan Deputy Defense Minister of the GNA Salah Al-Namroush, declared that the attack against the al-Watiya base would not go unanswered.

Amidst the growing tension from all the sides involved and the likelihood of further escalation in Libya increasing day-by-day, the Spokesperson for the United Nations Secretary-General, Stéphane Dujarric, has reportedly expressed further concern about the fragile situation, urging all sides to adhere to the international calls for peace and agreements for a lasting ceasefire.