Fall of al-Watiya base ushers in era of permanent Turkish presence in western Libya

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Militias loyal to Libya’s Turkish-backed and U.N.-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) captured the strategic al-Watiya military airbase from the rival Libyan National Army (LNA) on Monday, according to press reports.

The fight for the airbase, which is located around 25 km from the border with Tunisia, had raged since April. Its capture is seen by analysts as a key strategic victory that will allow the Tripoli-based GNA to turn its attention to clearing LNA forces from areas south of the capital.

But the Arab Weekly quoted regional experts as saying the repercussions of the GNA victory could go far beyond Libya as it advances Turkey's strategy of building a network of strategic military bases around the Middle East and North Africa.

Turkey has already built up an overseas presence in the Persian Gulf, Red Sea and Horn of Africa with its overseas bases in countries including Qatar, Somalia and Sudan.

The GNA's Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj could hand over control of the al-Watiya base to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose involvement in Libya is part of a drive to expand Turkey's influence in North Africa, the Arab Weekly said.

General Khalifa Haftar’s LNA launched an operation to capture Tripoli in April 2019 after seizing the majority of the country over years since the House of Representatives broke away from the government in 2014.

But Turkey’s provision of military hardware and armed drones helped the Tripoli government see off Haftar’s attack, and in November Turkey and the GNA signed a new military memorandum that has seen Turkish troops deployed as advisers. Media reports say they have been joined by thousands of fighters from Turkish-backed Syrian rebel factions.

A retired Libyan military officer told the Arab Weekly that, contrary to the GNA's statements, it was Turkish forces that arrived first at the al-Watiya base after repeatedly attacking LNA forces stationed there with drone strikes and naval artillery bombardment.

The LNA retreat followed weeks of strikes that culminated in the destruction of its Russian-built Pantsir air defence system over the weekend.

The loss of the airbase, which Haftar’s forces had controlled since 2014, will force the LNA’s foreign backers, which include Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to reconsider whether the eastern-based rebels are capable of taking full control of the country, the Guardian said.

France and the UAE also maintain concerns that the al-Watiya airfield will become a strategic asset for Turkey, it said, particularly if Ankara shows interest in the war-torn country’s southern oilfields.

Turkey’s state-run oil firm Turkish Petroleum has already submitted an application to start drilling in parts of the eastern Mediterranean outlined a contested maritime borders agreement with the GNA, Turkish Energy Minister Fatih Dönmez said on Thursday.

Despite the blow dealt to Haftar by GNA’s recent capture, the LNA commander continues to control oil terminals in the east, blocking the export of Libyan oil, the lifeline of the war-torn country’s economy.

Still, the capturing of the al-Watiya airbase is the GNA’s greatest victory since the Tripoli offensive that began a year ago, Amsterdam-based activist Thomas van Linge said.

The move has effectively “cleared the entire western flank of #LNA forces,’’ van Linge wrote on Twitter.

GNA forces lost parts of Zaltan, al-Jameel, al-Assa and Raqdalin near the coastal northwestern town of Zuwara in an LNA attack in March, but took control of the western city of Sabratha in April.

Meanwhile, the GNA and Turkey have come out in criticism of a naval blockade of the Mediterranean, dubbed Operation Irini, as part of an effort by the bloc to enforce a UN arms embargo.

The GNA says that the focus on enforcing the arms embargo by sea turns a blind eye to Haftar’s supply of arms, which is coming by air and land routes.

“There is no legal basis for this operation without an official request from the [Libyan] government. Therefore, this only supports Haftar,” Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said on Sunday about Operation Irini.

While developments in the North African continue to unfold, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) on Monday reported that a new contingent of Turkish-dispatched mercenaries had arrived in Libya.

“One-hundred-twenty fighters of Turkish-backed factions have arrived at training camps in southern Turkey” from the Afrin region “after undergoing training courses in camps in Turkish territory,” the watch group said.