Turkey doubles down in Libya, but will it be enough?

Turkey has begun overtly delivering heavily armoured vehicles to its allies in the Libyan capital Tripoli who have been under siege for two months by forces loyal to eastern leader Khalifa Haftar.

Earlier this month, militias fighting for the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) uploaded photos to their Facebook page showing dozens of Turkish-made Kirpi mine-resistant vehicles at Tripoli port.

While Ankara had previously sent several shipments of arms and ammunition to the GNA and its militias in recent years, this is the first known delivery of large military hardware to anti-Haftar forces.

The Kirpi can carry 13 men – 10 troops in the back, along with a driver, commander and gunner – and can be fitted with a heavy machine gun. These large armoured vehicles would likely hold their ground against the Toyota technicals Haftar’s forces use but would be less likely to hold out against his T-54/55 tanks.  

Turkey’s involvement is about keeping its rivals from prevailing in the conflict. Turkey and Qatar support the GNA, while a plethora of countries – including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, France and Russia – support Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA).

“Turkey has decided that it cannot stand on the sidelines while its regional rival the UAE actively stacks the battle in favour of Haftar,” said Nicholas Heras, fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “Ankara is sending a loud and clear signal to Abu Dhabi that it will not allow the UAE to dictate the outcome of every conflict throughout the greater Middle East.”

Heras said the heavily armoured vehicles were not game-changers, but were “meant to reassure the GNA, and by extension to announce to external actors whether in Europe or the Middle East, that Turkey is a Mediterranean power that is willing to flex its muscles in Libya”.

“Neither side, the GNA or Haftar's forces, has a clear advantage now in the battle for Tripoli, and the outcome of that battle will be determined by the perseverance of external backers,” he said.

For Turkey to prove itself as a formidable backer of the GNA, Heras said, its next move “would need to be to deploy Turkish forces to Libya, to support the GNA, if Ankara is dead-set on out-competing Abu Dhabi.”

“Emiratis are already there on the ground in Libya, they have a strong regional partner in Egypt, and Turkey will need to escalate its efforts if it hopes to be a big player in Libya's future,” he said.

Arnaud Delalande, a freelance defence and security analyst who wrote a recent comprehensive overview of the forces and equipment currently being fielded by Haftar, said Turkey had delivered fewer vehicles than had been sent to the LNA by its backers.

“Above all, it is a question of raising the morale of the anti-Haftar forces that were less well equipped than the LNA, and all this communication on both sides shows that neither side is considering giving way,” he said.

It is unclear if Turkey will seek to bolster the GNA’s arsenal with more sophisticated military hardware, but while the Turkish military has made substantial headway in producing indigenous weapons systems, most of its arsenal consists of Western-made hardware that it does not have permission to sell or give to third parties. For example, when Turkey made a deal to sell 30 attack helicopters to Pakistan for $1.5 billion it needed U.S. approval since some engine parts of the T129 are American made.

Turkey might instead seek to supply the GNA with some of the armed drones it has domestically produced over the years, which do not require any foreign export licenses or, more likely, fly drone strikes on the GNA’s behalf. The UAE is believed to have already carried out drone strikes on Tripoli in support of Haftar’s forces.

This would mark another major escalation in the increasingly dangerous conflict.

Mustafa Gürbüz, a non-resident fellow at the Arab Center in Washington, said for Turkey the Libyan conflict was not an isolated issue. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government sees developments in Sudan, Algeria and Libya as closely linked. 

“Turkey does not want Libya to turn another Syria, and thus, aims to forcefully indicate its willingness to support the Tripoli government, hoping to convince Russia as well as to deter Haftar's backers in the region,” Gürbüz said.

“Such arms shipments could backfire and lead to unintended consequences for Turkey,” he added. “Given the geostrategic rivalry across the region, Haftar's LNA may double down the assault with further support from the UAE and Egypt.”

Turkey and its close ally Qatar may ultimately be willing to take the risks involved in supplying the GNA with more arms in order to avoid losing more ground to their regional rivals.

Analysts have noted that Ankara and Doha are losing influence in North Africa due to the April overthrow of their ally, Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir. The head of the new military council in Khartoum, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, is close to the UAE and Egypt.

These developments, coupled with Haftar’s ongoing assault on Tripoli, will likely spur continued aggression from Ankara and Doha to avoid watching another ally come under the control of forces aligned with their Gulf rivals.

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