How Turkey's drone war saved Libyan government in Tripoli – Al Jazeera

Turkey has saved the Libyan government in Tripoli from falling to a rebel army by waging a huge drone war on its behalf, Al Jazeera said on Thursday.

The air war in Libya has mostly been fought by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones. United Nations Special Representative to Libya Ghassan Salame has called the conflict "the largest drone war in the world" – with nearly 1,000 air strikes conducted by UAVs. 

Turkey is backing the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj in its fight against rebel General Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), which is supported by Russia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt, among others.

Before Turkey stepped up its military intervention in Libya in December 2019, Haftar’s LNA had been gaining the upper hand in its bid to capture Tripoli, which he launched in April 2019. The arrival of Chinese-made Wing Loong drones in 2016 had made a significant difference to the LNA's military capabilities, and these drones were being used effectively in the battle for Tripoli. 

As well as launching air strikes, UAVs can provide valuable intelligence – and northern Libya’s relatively flat featureless desert terrain means that ground units are easily spotted from the air. In the event that drones are shot down, the pilot back at base can launch another drone. 

But the LNA's goal of seizing the capital abruptly ended after Turkey's intervention with its supply of armed Bayraktar drones, Al Jazeera said. 

In December 2019, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan confirmed Turkey would sharply increase its military support for the GNA, he sent Turkish-made armed drones, namely the Bayraktar TB2, along with troops.

This drone could engage and destroy the LNA's ground targets, harass its supply lines, and attack forward air bases that were once considered safe, Al Jazeera said. 

It also enabled GNA forces to advance with air cover on LNA positions that were now identified, and – with the arrival of Turkish air defence systems – it meant the main GNA airbase at Tripoli's Mitiga airport could now operate without fear of attack.

The GNA was able to then able to launch counter-attacks and seize key towns and, on May 18, to capture the Al-Watiya airbase, which Haftar's forces had been using as their main point of operations, forcing them into retreat.   

Last week it was reported that several Russian-made fighter jets had been spotted at LNA air bases, raising the prospect of an escalation in the conflict – or perhaps signalling to Turkish-backed forces that they had advanced far enough. 

“While airpower can at times turn the tide in a military conflict, it has also been used in Libya as a threat-level indicator, a diplomatic tool, and a warning of potential escalation if events are left unchecked,” Al Jazeera said.