Turkish support for Tripoli heats up regional conflict - press reports

As the conflict in Libya heats up, Turkey’s increased military support to the administration controlling the capital city of Tripoli has turned the tide and upped the ante in a regional conflict that is ruffling the feathers of Riyadh and its allies, news reports have stated.

Ankara has long been accused of arming the Islamist militants fighting against the Libyan National Army led by Khalifa Haftar, a former general who served under deposed Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi.

Turkey backs the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), despite its refusal to acknowledge its election losses in 2014. A rival House of Representatives was set up in Tobruk soon afterwards, and Haftar’s LNA took shape from that second power base. 

For years, news reports of freight ships loaded with weapons heading to the war-torn country from Turkey in spite of an international arms embargo have kept the spotlight on Ankara’s involvement in the conflict.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan confirmed the suspicions in June, when he admitted his government had been supplying arms and ammunition to the militias in western Libya.

Last week, Haftar’s troops shot down a drone said to be produced by Turkey, while U.A.E.-based daily the National reported that militias loyal to the Tripoli administration have published images purported to show a new “arsenal” of weaponry supplied by Turkey’s government.

Turkish officials have told the Wall Street Journal, on condition of anonymity, that they increased their support to Tripoli with shipments of armoured vehicles and drones after Haftar’s forces threatened to capture the capital in April.

The Turkish support was vital in reinvigorating Tripoli’s forces, which went on last week to capture the strategically important town of Gharyan south of the capital, which had served as Haftar’s base. The GNA forces reported finding weapons in the town they said had been supplied to the LNA by the UAE.

Over the weekend, LNA officials announced Turkish vessels in Libyan waters would be targeted, and ordered attacks on Turkish government assets in the country. Flights connecting Turkey and Libya have also been banned.

Turkey had to flex its muscles on Sunday after six Turkish sailors were detained by Haftar’s forces. The sailors were released after Turkish presidential spokesperson İbrahim Kalın warned that Haftar’s forces would become “legitimate targets” if they were not.

The conflict in Libya has turned particularly bloody this year, with a reported 700 people killed in the past three months, and the escalation has raised fears it could boil over and draw regional powers into open conflict.

Turkey’s support for Tripoli is one of several areas that put it at odds with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, which have been firm supporters of Haftar and the LNA.

The Gulf monarchies and Egypt form an axis against Turkey, which along with Qatar is accused of backing the Muslim Brotherhood – which the Gulf axis and Egypt define as a terrorist organisation – against established governments in the Middle East and North Africa.

Turkey has become a haven for Islamist exiles from Libya, including Abdul-Hakim Belhaj, the former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group leader, according to the National.

Ankara stepped in to aid Qatar against a blockade by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt in 2017, when the Arab quartet accused the tiny Gulf state of harbouring Muslim Brotherhood figures and working with their other main regional rival, Iran.