Peace Storm: Turkey tries to turn the tables in Libya

As conflict flares up once again in Libya, Turkey is again trying to shape the outcome through its military intervention. However, it is unclear whether either side in the Libyan civil war can break the present stalemate.

It has been a year since General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) began its siege of Tripoli to remove the Government of National Accord (GNA) there and conflict is still raging in Libya. Haftar has failed to capture Tripoli. The GNA, which Turkey backs, last month launched a new offensive against the LNA named Operation Peace Storm.

It is unclear if Peace Storm will successfully push the LNA away from the Libyan capital or how many more resources Turkey will ultimately commit to the war-torn country while it battles a domestic economic crisis worsened by the coronavirus pandemic.

“It is a significant uptick in fighting now that the pro-GNA and anti-Haftar militias have seen an increase in material support from Turkey, but the story of the fight over Tripolitania and Tripoli since last April has been one of slow successive offensives that struggle to make headway,” said Matthew Bey, a Senior Global analyst with Stratfor.

“There is little reason to expect this one to have more success than previous offensives launched by the GNA,” he said.

This is primarily because neither side in the Libyan conflict presently has the capability to win the battle for Tripoli anytime soon.

While the Peace Storm operation may allow the GNA to seize territory around the principal urban areas it presently controls, namely Tripoli and Misrata, and successfully disrupt LNA supply chains it still would not likely prove capable of turning the tide of the conflict against the LNA. 

“The GNA simply does not have the capability to push the LNA out of forward operating bases,” Bey said.

Haftar’s backers – the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and France among others – have invested much in him and are unlikely to reduce their support, even as the Tripoli offensive enters its second year. If Turkey increases its support for the GNA, Haftar’s backers are likely to do likewise.

Turkey may soon find itself needing to increase its support for the GNA further.

“The risk of mission creep is real for Turkey,” said Bey.

While we are not likely to see Turkish troops actively engaged in combat in a large ground deployment, he said special operations forces could nevertheless become increasingly involved.

Oliver Imhof, a Libya researcher for the Britain-based non-profit monitoring group Airwars, said the GNA and Turkey appeared to have been making advances in key areas in Tripolitania.

“The number of air and artillery strikes Airwars has recorded in Libya has significantly increased since mid-March compared to previous months,” he said. “And according to reports, both Turkey and the UAE are sending more and more weapons into the country.”

Both sides in the conflict are using armed drones. The LNA relies on Chinese-built UAE Wing Loong II drones and Turkey has deployed its domestically-built Bayraktar TB2 drones and is reported to have also recently began deploying its more lethal Anka-S drones too.

But the LNA is facing a serious challenge, with experts concluding that Haftar may not be able to win this war because of Turkey’s backing of the GNA.

“This is partly due to the Turkish drones, but also because of the Korkut anti-aircraft guns,” Imhof said. The Turkish-built self-propelled Korkut’s, he said, meant the LNA no longer controlled Libyan airspace.

Recent losses of Turkish Bayraktar drones pointed to the increasing sophistication of LNA’s air defences, but the big advantage of such drones is to minimise the loss of pilots.

“I think Turkish drones in the hands of GNA are as effective as their operators,” said Samuel Bendett, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based think tank. “In Libya, most of the fighting and combat progress is done on the ground, and drones still play a limited, if visible, role.”

The introduction of the more powerful Anka drones will only be effective if Turkey and the GNA learn how to avoid LNA air defences.

“Both Anka and Bayraktar have analogous characteristics, so if GNA or the Turkish military learn from their earlier drone losses, then these drones can be proven effective,” Bendett said.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.