The Significance of Al-Watiya Base and Turkey’s Role in Libya

The recapture of Al-Watiya on May 18 by Government of National Accord forces during Operation Peace Storm indicates that nothing has been fully determined in the Libyan front yet. Despite the fact that the aligned forces under Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar control the largest part of Libyan territory, the conflict is far from over.

The unreliable coalition under the Libyan National Army umbrella cannot be seen as a robust force with a strategic plan. It is formed by numerous subgroups, usually with conflicting interests, and the core LNA could be fragmented unexpectedly. On the other hand, Turkey has remained one of the key players in the field and its support to GNA has proved to be critical to the developments on the ground as the fight keeps escalating.

Al-Watiya Base

Al-Watiya Airbase is located approximately 25 kilometres east from the Tunisia border and 140 kilometres southwest of Tripoli. One of the major bases in the wider area, al-Watiya has been controlled by forces aligned to the LNA since 2014. General Haftar has been using the base to launch airstrikes against Tripoli and put pressure in the stronghold of the UN-backed Government of National Accord. The base has been playing a crucial role in the accomplishment of the LNA Operation Flood of Dignity, a wide-scale counter-offensive in Western Libya, which started almost a year ago, in April 2019. The ultimate goal of this operation has been capturing Tripoli and actually ending the conflict by establishing Haftar’s dominance across the country.

The latest developments are expected to have a significant impact on the course of the conflict; besides the effect on the morale of the Libyan Natioanl Army Forces, Haftar will also see his tactical and operational capabilities being constrained. The loss of al-Watiya will not only limit Haftar’s capabilities for air strikes and supporting operations across Western Libya and Tripoli, but also will cause a severe disruption in LNA supply of chain, creating an unprecedented burden in terms of logistics.  At the same time GNA progress, would allow the UN-backed government troops to re-orientate their strategy and move towards the strategic city of Tarhuna, in the south of Tripoli, one of Haftar’s key strongholds. A potential capturing of Tarhuna could be a game-changer in favour of GNA.

Pantsir-S1 and the Supply Curveball

Among the equipment captured by the GNA forces after the successful raid on al-Watiya base was a Pantsir-S1 SAM (Surface-to-Air Missile) system. The Russian-designed and made Pantsir-S1 can engage several individual targets — from ballistic missiles to tactical aircrafts- at a range of 7 to 20 km, depending on the nature and speed of the incoming target. The anti-missile system has been a significant asset of LNA Air Defence in al-Watiya base; two days before the final GNA offensive, the Pantsir-S1 batteries have been reportedly hit by a drone strike, a development that seriously limited the defence capabilities of the base and facilitated the progress of the GNA forces.

The Pantsir-S1 has been previously deployed to theatres, where Moscow’s interests were involved, such as Ukraine and Syria. Shortly after the conclusion of the attack, reports stated, that the supply of the Pantsir-S1 systems should not be attributed to Moscow though, but to UAE. The scenario has been in play since June 2019, when footage from LNA-owned Pantsir-S1 systems became public. The footage, allegedly from a base in Central Libya, depicted the SAM systems been fitted to MAN SX 45 8×8 trucks, which are only in service in the UAE; it has also been confirmed that Abu Dhabi owns approximately 50 Pantsir-S1 systems. After the al-Watiya capture, the reports around the UAE-Haftar exchange with regards to LNA air defense, seem more accurate and purposeful than ever.

Ankara’s Role

President Erdogan has been boosting Turkey’s involvement in the Libyan front since the autumn of 2019. The main drivers for these moves have been the expansion of Ankara’s geopolitical influence, the upgrade of the regional status quo of the country, and certainly the establishment and elevation of the Turkish position in the great energy game of the Mediterranean Sea. Since the very first moment of its engagement, Ankara has been openly supporting Fayez al-Sarraj, claiming that he is representing is the only legitimate authority in the country and pointing to the fact that he is recognized internationally.

On the other hand, Haftar’s army is nothing more than a rebel force trying to achieve a coup against the legal government, according to Turkey. Ankara has been accusing — through official channels — not only the LNA, but also other regional players, that are believed to be supporting Haftar, like Egypt, Cyprus, Greece and the UAE of worsening the country’s situation. Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu, in his latest statement, has directly blamed Abu Dhabi for the chaotic situation in Libya. Moreover, in early May, following an artillery attack close to the Turkish Embassy in Tripoli, Ankara has warned that the Turkish Airforce would be deployed targeting Haftar forces if Turkish sources in Libya are put at risk.

Turkey’s Libya Intervention

The Turkish intervention in Libya so far, has been moving across several different, but also interdependent, axes. During April, Turkish Special Forces teams have been reportedly deployed in the country, probably in the Mitiga airbase, approximately 10 kilometres to the east of Tripoli, supported by intelligence cells. Hakan Fidan, the Head of MIT  — the Turkish Intelligence Organization — has visited Libya in May to coordinate with the local forces and evaluate the in-country progress.

But the most critical aspects of the Turkish footprint in Libya, probably the game-changers in the course of the conflict, are the massive deployment of Bayraktar TB2 drones and of mercenaries that have previously formed militia groups in the Syrian Civil War. The strategic impact of the wide-scale drone use has drastically upgraded the capabilities of the GNA forces, with most recent and indicative example, the role of the drones in the capture of al-Watiya. With regards to the presence of foreign mercenary militias in Libya, the number of Turkish-trained foreign fighters from several different ethnic backgrounds could surpass 10,000 in the coming months according to current estimations. Shockingly, approximately 100 minors are among the mercenaries recruited by Turkey, according to reputable reports.

Libya Sitrep: Armed and Dangerous

The facts of the last days have proven that the situation in Libya remains tense and unpredictable. Albeit a couple of months ago, the balance seemed to be shifting towards General Haftar and a decisive victory that would signal the end of the conflict seemed possible. now the tables have turned. There should be no rush to interpret the latest GNA advances as the final acts of the play; with in-country alliances changing unexpectedly within a fluid international context, there can be no safe predictions about the outcome of the fight, other than the assumption that Turkey will keep seeking to leverage its position regardless of the stance of the international community.