Coronavirus having a mixed impact on Turkey’s military operations

The COVID-19 pandemic will likely limit Turkish military operations in Syria, but Ankara has no such constraints in Libya, said Soner Çağaptay and Deniz Yüksel, analysts at the Washington Institute.

Turkey and Russia signed a ceasefire on March 5 to end the fighting in the northwest Syrian Idlib province between Turkish-backed forces and the Syrian military, which is backed by Russia. The ceasefire has largely held, and Turkey announced on April 5 that it would limit its cross-border military operations in order to help contain the coronavirus pandemic.

But while the prospect of imminent fighting in Syria recedes, the opposite could happen in Libya where Turkey has intervened to support the U.N.-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in its fight against the forces of Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army, which is backed by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, the analysts said.

“One factor behind this difference is that Syria lies next door to Turkey, raising fears about potential contagion effects on the thousands of ground troops Ankara has massed near the border,” they said. 

“This is not the case in Libya,” they continued, “which lies across the Mediterranean Sea and requires a relatively small number of Turkish advisors and weapons to make a difference, minimising pandemic-related worries.”

The fighting in Libya has escalated recently, with the GNA retaking six towns near Tripoli, which would not have been possible without Turkish air support, said the analysts. Haftar has launched rocket and artillery attacks against civilian targets in and around Tripoli after Turkish air defence systems began limiting the effectiveness of the UAE-led drone campaign against the capital. 

On Friday, the Turkish military reportedly began intensive aerial activity over the East Mediterranean, including the use of three tanker planes. 

“These developments, coupled with the relatively limited military risk of coronavirus complications in Libya, indicate that further Turkish escalation is inevitable—and may already be underway,” said the analysts.