Airbase attack exposes Turkey’s military frailties in Libya

An attack on a key airbase held by the Turkey-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) near Tripoli at the weekend has exposed a major weakness in Ankara’s military capabilities in the war-torn country.

The bombing of the Al-Watiyah airbase was carried out by aircraft with “advanced weapons systems” in support of opposition forces led by General Khalifa Haftar, Libyan deputy defence minister Salah Al-Namroush said on Tuesday, according to Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency.

The 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.

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.

Turkish air defences – Hawk anti-aircraft batteries and radar systems - were reportedly taken out or damaged during the attack and Ankara is reinforcing them with Ukrainian hardware, according to Turkish media.

While Russia stations military planes in Libya to back Haftar – it bolstered the arsenal in May by sending MiG-29s and Su-24s, according to the U.S. military - Turkey has no fighter jets in the country supplied to the GNA and no attack helicopters. The country also does not own aircraft carriers or the requisite planes with which to fly sorties from them over Libyan territory.

The aircraft that carried out the raid on Al-Watiyah were French-built Rafale jets, meaning they belonged to either the Egyptian or French air forces, the Arab Weekly reported on Tuesday citing unidentified sources with knowledge of the matter.

The attack was likely by Dassault Mirage fighter planes of the United Arab Emirates, the Middle East Eye news website cited a Turkish official as saying, who vowed “retribution” for the assault.

Egypt has amassed military hardware on its western border with Libya and President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’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, which protects Libya’s so-called “oil crescent”.

The assault on Al-Watiyah has shown that “the red lines in airspace differ from the red lines on land drawn by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi,” Arab Weekly columnist Jemai Guesmi said in the report.

Instead of planes, Turkey has relied on a fleet of armed drones to inflict casualties on Haftar’s forces, helping the GNA to send his army into retreat from the outskirts of Tripoli in late May. But drones are one thing, advanced, heavy-hitting aircraft are another.

Turkey’s ability to support Libya with fighter jets, attack helicopters and support systems is constrained by pledges Ankara has made as a NATO member under ceasefire negotiations for Libya, and its relations with Russia – Moscow has supplied it with S-400 air defence missiles and the two are cooperating closely in Syria. An arms embargo on Libya is also being policed by French and Greek warships, among others, in the Mediterranean.

French President Emmanuel Macron said late last month that Turkey’s activities in Libya were “criminal”, pointing to its “massive” import of Islamist mercenaries to Libya from Syria that he said were unbefitting of a NATO member. Turkey strongly criticised the comments.

Turkey’s alleged targeting of a French frigate with naval radars in mid-June as it sought to inspect a Turkish cargo ship suspected of smuggling weapons to Libya has also intensified tensions with France. Ankara denied such an incident took place.

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. Erdoğan purged many of them following a 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 Gülen movement, which the government blamed for orchestrating the coup attempt, may in fact come back to haunt Erdoğan as he faces intensifying opposition to asserting Turkish control in Libya.

The ousting of hundreds of the pilots has critically damaged Turkey’s military capabilities, defence analyst Michael Peck wrote in the National Interest on Monday.

The United States has refused to send over flight instructors and attempts to seek Pakistani assistance – the country also has a large fleet of F-16s – did not work, Peck said.